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Wednesday, 19 October 2011


National Visual Art Gallery
Kuala Lumpur

No,this has nothing to do with Raja, my old friend and the long-serving staff of the National Visual Art Gallery or NVAG (used to be National Art Gallery), Kuala Lumpur. Ya I know, a picture of him can be seen right in front of the NVAG's entrance. Too many 'chairs' all over the gallery also added to the confusion. Then there was this 'Kon...sep.....' whatever going on, to again, add to the 'con...fuse...ion' in getting to "Raja'ah."

Ok, now the real "Raja'ah". 

This is a show (long overdue) by one of the best brains in the Malaysian visual art scene. He is a rare (perhaps endangered) species in Malaysia, a visual artist with a sharp mind (that can sharpen others who are willing to poke his mind). He likes to poke others as well, with his intriguing intellectual propositions, never short of paradox, never devoid of healthy debates and possible arguments. He is an icon, a legend, an important character in the narratives of Malaysian modern and contemporary art (at least for me). In him, I sense lingering presence of very special few (Redza Piyadasa, Syed Ahmad Jamal, Ismail Zain), that had sadly left us forever.

He is a true 'guru', a walking encyclopedia, living book, an embodiment of a garden of knowledge (that sadly I suspect, not many want to enter, or endangered, like the titles of his recent works). 

He is Sulaiman Esa (fondly called Pak Leman), established visual artist, academician, scholar, educator, writer.

I was not fortunate enough to be learning under him in UiTM. He was already doing his Phd somewhere in the USA then (Temple University if I'm not mistaken). I came back in 1994 to teach at UiTM after my Masters (for only one year, because I 'tak cukup daulat' - sorry no translation here). Pak Leman was also back teaching at UiTM then. 

I was fortunate to see him in action during a series of assessment for students' projects. I enjoyed his energy and mental dexterity. His energy was infectious (except for lazy and brain dead people). The energy and excitement even bled after the assessment was over, with few students and I hanged out to continue listening to him ranting over many topics. Few students even pondered the possibility of bringing a tape recorder to tape him talking (and secretly used his sermons to defend their works). I enjoyed poking his mind.

Most of all, I liked to problematize his 'Islamic art' premise by asking him where he would want to hang his 'master piece' and how much he would price his work. My mind was naughty (if not cynical), my feeling full with angst and my behavior not short(occasionally la!) of kurang ajar by typical Malay standard then. Unfortunately, it was meant to be a short period. I threw myself to UNIMAS Sarawak after about a year at UiTM. I left Pak Leman and only heard about him from a distance. We only met few times here and there (including during the ALAMI project at the foot of Mount Kinabalu, Sabah). 

Last time I met him was during the DA-C Festival organized by his daughter Suzy, and his 'whiz-kid' son Fairuz. These two fella are really interesting and always make me swell with pride but they need another blog entry. Now is the time for big daddy to reclaim his place and humble us all with his legacy.  
Last Tuesday, I drove and traveled more than 800km return trip Penang-KL-Penang to have a quite and quality time with Pak Leman and his "Raja'ah". 

The show needs a bigger space (and better or appropriate budget). It should be 'the only' show happenings at the NVAG, with more time given to dig out and present older works, plus more spaces for new works. He deserves a special time-space, honored to him by the national body, at least as a way to say thank you for his contribution.   

Ana, with her favorite Pak Leman's recent work.

When I was watching the video interview of Pak Leman (with a bad sound quality), I saw a true scholar and intellectual and began to miss hearing his ranting. I would love to poke his mind again (and again....). Somehow, I prefer listening to him rather than looking at his works. His works could be at times, too literal for me to swallow, especially when it comes to blaming the decadent 'west' or bashing the USA. But that's me, and my bias.

Regardless of his Islamic posturing, Pak Leman is still a master colorist, an adept visual composer, a good 'painter', a fluent 'formalist', and....very, very, very....modernist. After all, by default, Pak Leman has been 'mythified' by the white wall of an 'art gallery' ok. A gallery culture (from a cultural study point of view) can be read as a signification of modernist paradigm. It's 'being' has been originated, established, constructed, erected, propagated and sustained by 'western' and 'modernist' paradigm (like it or not, despise it or not, refute it or not, dispute it or not, challenge it or not....I can go on!). 

Sedekah al-fatihah buat aruah Redza Piyadasa dan Usman Awang.
When I went into the seminal "Mystical Reality" re-construction section, I saw myself 'mengarut'(no translation for this too) on video and I wished I could just switched off the projection and just enjoy the reconstruction. The video of those talking heads (including yours truly) was a bit intrusive and imposing. Perhaps a smaller touch screen, and that also only if people want to see and listen (individually with ear phone). Too many clever-clever monologues can spoil the food.

Anyway, I had a good time playing with the paradox. I played with my shadows, post "Mystical Reality".  That empty canvas has now become iconic, and ironic too, since it was supposed to be transient and zen, remember!

I toyed with the empty bird cage, as if I was 'caged' by too many 'official' state definitions and theoretical mumbo-jumbo. I tried to re-enact Salleh Junid's pissing, but my daughters were there. Not good to show confusing example to my kids on how to react to 'a situation' ok. 

The video installation work (in collaboration with his son, Fairuz) needs a bigger (and rounded) enclosed space for itself. The finishing of the carpentry work for the base of the projection screens is bad (like doing it in a hurry). The flooring for the installation also needs better finishing. 
As I was walking out from the top floor space, I could hear Pak Leman's voice (on video). Pak Leman seems to stay young forever. My prayer for you Pak Leman (and your wife Kat, and your family).

Anyway, I have to stop nagging about the show. After all, I was already interviewed by Nur Hanim the curator.
I look forward to reading and enjoying the catalog or accompanying book. Of course, it won't be Pak Leman if his writings, his works and whatever he says didn't spark arguments, debates, discourses and discussions. I look forward to that also.

To summarize, it was a long travel, visit and time well spent.
Thank you and congrats to Pak Leman (and wife Kat), Nur Hanim the curator and all the team members from NVAG. You guys did a good job considering the time and space given.


  1. Assalammualaikum,

    I really enjoyed reading this blog.
    Yes… exactly! The flooring for the installation of the huge work with video installation called 'Panopticon' have bad finishing of the carpentry work, coz it was done by Teja Sofea, Pak Leman’s the only grand daughter. She insisted to help her Atok a few days before the opening. Sorry about the mess coz at that time she’s only 4 years old…. Oh well, can't expect much from her!

    Hailane Salam