Last Sunday, I was given the privilege to give a welcoming speech for the "UTARA - After 3 Decades" exhibition, on behalf of the Penang State Museum. It was an honor to welcome such an iconic group.
I saw their young and beautiful faces on the cover of the catalog, and their even more beautiful faces today (not all of them, two passed away, one couldn't make it to the opening). Perhaps one can learn to stay young (at least in spirit) by doing what one loves, in this case, painting.
With the Utara group, we are talking about 30 years of sustaining a career, not 5 years, not 10 years, not 20. Certainly, their commitment is something that one could emulate, especially for a 'younger' person like me. The catalog and the show are good remedies for those who found themselves tempted to simply give up easily in pursuing a career.
To call these 9 still living and kicking individuals 'artists' perhaps does not do justice to their 30 years of experience. Nowadays, one may stumble upon a young and fresh graduate snob who call him/herself 'an artist', thus putting them on par with those who have been in it for more than 30 years. Normally, we use the adjective 'young' to distinguish the two different generations, but that would imply that those who are not young as 'old' (which can be taken as an insult for some).
Perhaps, we can refer to these individuals as 'master painters' or 'sifus' or 'adiguru', somewhat like the Obi-wan-knobi or Yoda of the local art scene. Of all, perhaps Sui Hoe and Hip Seng visually fit such an image.
I grew up artistically with their works, especially in the 1980s when I was a student at UiTM.
I still remember Hon Yin's 'Water Margin" series. When I looked at the paintings (now showing), they brought me back to my student days. They refreshed my memory of how I was mesmerized by Hon Yin's paintings, the 'tactile' look of the painting surface and the cool and soothing color scheme. I still remember studying his works very closely to figure out how the heck he created the tactile effect. His name became familiar to me, but not his face (probably because he was in Penang, not based in KL). Life, again has been a blessing. Today, I am working as a committee member for the Penang State Art Gallery under the Chairmanship of Tang Hon Yin (Datuk now). I have been working with him for the committee for the past 6 years already (also in the Penang Museum and Gallery Board of Directors). Still, I admire his works until today.
Together with my fellow friends in UiTM, we also used to refer to the works of Sharifah Fatimah Zubir (other than other 'colorists' such as Fauzan Omar, Sulaiman Esa, Ibrahim Hussein to name a few) in order to understand about color dynamics and relationships. Sharifah then was like a 'diva' for me. I looked at her from a distance (she used to work on the top floor of the old National Art Gallery as a curator) like some 'diva' who would grace (got down to the ground floor by using that old antic elevator) exhibition openings (together with the Director then, Datuk Syed Ahmad Jamal). Again, life is so transient and full of pleasant surprise. Today, Sharifah (now Dato') is my fb friend, and we often share notes and pictures.
Then there is this Hip Seng character. I saw his works before, but didn't really like them. But then, you know la, I was a student, who normally liked pretty paintings. When I moved to Penang, I saw this guy with Dr. Najib Dawa (my boss then), who offered me his terrace house for rent. I thought he was a contractor, if not a bouncer or Penang gangster. Only when he showed his paintings in some catalogs I knew he was Hip Seng. "Ooohhhh...u are the artist!" I said, "Why, you don't like my works aaa?" he aksed. By then of course, I was matured enough artistically to appreciate his idiosyncratic type of work. After that, I came to know him as one of the 'legends' in the art scene of the northern part of Malaysia. Now, I am proud to have him as a friend.
Askandar Unglehrt's works were extremely influential to me. For me, he was a post-modernist long before everyone else. I liked his works so much, I even copied his 'collage' approach in some of my early works. Again, life has brought me to those whose works I love most. Since I became the Director of MGTF (Muzium & Galeri Tuanku Fauziah) in 2005, Askandar used to drop by and hang out at MGTF's workshop and storage block (used to be unoccupied and for some, even haunted). He used to be our unofficial 'resident' for quite some time, helping us to restore few of Latif Mohiddin's works. We used to chat about many interesting topics too, before he had to move out to allow us to restore the block into our new office block. Now, we miss his presence.
As for our Yoda master, Khoo Sui Hoe, I only knew him from a distance before I moved to Penang. I didn't really prefer his works then and thought that they looked too much like children paintings. But his works grew on me, and now (perhaps I'm getting older), his works never fail to emit a sense of casual and simple sense of aesthetic beauty (without having to do too much). Today, I am proud to become on of the loyal visitors of his Alpha Utara Gallery in Penang. Despite his 'master' stature, Sui Hoe is extremely humble (and young at heart).
These are few personal anecdotes in regards to how important the members of the Utara group to me.
One thing that all of us may learn from them is the fact that even though an artist is normally known individually, most of time, his or her success depends on the nature of his or her relationship with network of friends.
|With Dato Seri Lim Chong Keat (2nd from left), Khoo Sui Hoe and Haryani Mohamad|
For pictures, click