Ceramics, one of the oldest forms of art historically, is a mainstay of most civilizations, past and present. While popular in utilitarian trades and industry, ceramics are also fused with traditional techniques and aesthetics to create contemporary conceptual works, usually sculptural in nature, as demonstrated in the works of Malaysia’s most eminent contemporary ceramic artist, Umibaizurah Mahir Ismail, popularly known as Umi. Her dexterity with her chosen medium allows her to create enchanting pieces; minutely detailed and infused with her ironic sense of humour, as is evident in her latest work, Why is X so popular.

Why is X so popular, a series of ceramic horse busts fashioned from stoneware clay and stood on sculpted wooden stands, is an exploration of identity and personality. Interpreting the horse as generally being perceived as a symbol of strength, elegance and leadership, Umi questions what are the enigmas it hides away? The artist communicates her views that every person, particularly leaders, have both a public persona as well as a hidden identity, which houses their secret confidences and is not available for open dissection, by fashioning ceramic antlers on the horses’ heads. The hybridization of a recognizable object is a theme Umi enjoys working with, and forces her audience to question the nature and purpose of what was meant to be familiar, thus opening up new definitions in subjects previously taken for granted.

Umi roots her horse busts on tall, sculpted stands fashioned from wood. The stands are inspired by the bases on pieces from a catur (chess) game set. Perched on each head is a different headpiece, each represents a cap of power. The chess reference links to notions of power games, and hints at Umi’s open-ended question on the manner of obtaining power. The delicately finished ceramic busts, with their refined prettiness, cushion the strong work with a resolutely feminine touch. Umi creates a dynamic between the organic wooden bases and clean crafted object, causing an arresting visual juxtaposition, demonstrating her gift at engaging her audience in her art.

The delicacy of stoneware clay construes a laborious fabrication process comprised of several steps. Umi’s superior technical skills are evident in the ease with which she handles such a notoriously fragile medium. Beginning with solid clay models the artist went on to create plaster-of-paris  moulds before utilizing an industrial technique, slip casting, to fashion the finished clay heads. A notoriously lengthy and delicate process, slip casting involves firing the ceramic at 900 degrees Celsius. Umi’s signature detailed colourful finishes on her works are testament to her thorough understanding of the medium, as they involve repeated painting and firing in the kiln, and it is only after a great deal of experience that a ceramist is able to predict which dyes and decals will produce specific finishes, and possess the knowledge of the exact temperatures and times required.

Why is X so popular is a wonderful example of Umi’s ability to create art that leaves her audience spellbound by the mix of confidence and wit she instills in her perfectly pretty pieces. Her dedication and experience open up the myriad possibilities ceramic art offers, allowing her to specifically express her vision to an embracing public, as is highly evident in this latest work, which also serves to further endorse her position as one of the most respected contemporary ceramists in Asia.

written by Zena Khan 


artist             : Umibaizurah Mahir Ismail

type                : ceramic on wood stand

dimension    : 123 x 33 cm

price               : rm 15, 000 each (5 sculptures)


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