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Tuesday, 22 November 2011


(Not) Mystical Reality (Anymore)

Last week, in between a crazy schedule, I went to the National Visual Art Gallery (NVAG) to fulfill an invitation to perform as a panel member for a forum entitled "Spirituality in the Age of Globalization". 

Mmmm....spirituality? Since when I became an 'ustaz' or spiritual leader? After all, there are already many ustaz and experts on Islam giving countless sermons on TV and everywhere. There are also many Islamic religious officers, perceived by some (who might have misread them)as ever ready to dedicate their life in judging, policing and punishing fellow Muslims' bad behaviors. Some people see religious (if not political) heroes and ethnic saviors as being ever sensitive to sniff anything that may threaten their belief and ethnic position. For me, they are playing out what they assume as their roles and duties, while the notion of spirituality get entangled along the way.

On a higher energy level, when a binary pairing of opposites (as in contesting moral judgment) engage in ideological wars, one may sense clashes of egos more than anything else. Sometimes, provided that one can elevate beyond any form of 'intellectual' or 'moral' justification, one may ironically sense similar unstable energy (such as hatred and contempt) emitted by the two opposing sides, regardless of whatever argument they may bring forth. Spirituality has no place in such argument, be it local or global, left or right.

Spirituality, especially within the context of Islam, Muslims and their 'position' in the whole spectrum of global media (and globalization or 'gobble'lization) is a highly pertinent topic these days. In Malaysia, it is entangled with the some jaded notions of race, gender and power. But having said that, I have to declare that I am far from being an expert in such topics and notions.  They are many out there who are better qualified and more willing to invest their energy in dealing with such topics and notions.

In fact, when it comes to spirituality, I have always been inclined to just 'be' (or deal with the experience of 'being') and focus on what I want/like (and can do), rather than on what I don't want/don't like (and can't do anything about). I always try my best not to allow myself to invest in energies that are unstable, unless of course, I was in a higher and more stable state of energy. I invest in what I chose to be my liking, my own brand of ideal mental and emotional landscape. I focus on my mind, and how I chose to read and respond to whatever my mind would assume as 'out there' - events, other people, objects etc. Mind and the working of it is the best given bestowed upon us. But mind and thinking are just a vehicle, a pathway, an instrument, not an end or destiny. Spirituality is therefore not anti-intellectual, anti-rationality, or anti-science. Spirituality is our nature, we are spiritual beings. I have written about mind as humanity's next frontier in my previous blogs, so no need to repeat here.

Perhaps I am growing older, but certainly I don't want to grow grumpier, developing a depressive and cynical view of life full with blames, complaints and bickerings.  

The forum was organized in conjunction with Sulaiman Esa's (or fondly known as Pak Leman) solo exhibition called "Raja'ah". Other members of the panel were my film director friend, U-Wei Shaari, and art historians Assoc. Prof. Ali Rahman and Zabbas. The forum was chaired by the curator of the exhibition, Nur Hanim Khairuddin. 

I was initially tempted to turn down the invitation. But I didn't want to let Nur Hanim down. She was probably drained out after the curatorial ordeal, and needed a friend to provide a moral support. So I obliged. I didn't even have the time to prepare anything. I accepted the invitation with the risk of making a fool out of myself. I have done that several times already, so no big deal. But then again, I left it to Allah and let the universe work within me. After all, spirituality also implies a state of no 'ego' without the presence of that illusive self. 

I went to the NVAG early with Beverly Yong and my usual team (Sham, Husni, Adi, Izrul). I had a meeting with Beverly in the morning at Bukit Tunku, before going to Chandan Gallery to see Nazli and see a show curated by Jailani Abu Hassan. Before that, I was busy supervising art direction and working like 'bangla laborer' on a set design for a local theater production called "Harga Sebuah Maruah" (The Price of Honor), produced by the Dewan Bahasa & Pustaka (DBP) and Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM). I was traveling KL-Penang back and forth. 

At the NVAG, I had a follow-up meeting with Beverly and Hanim on a book project we are working on. I also had a concurrent meeting with Andy on another up-coming project, so my mind was everywhere but no where, much like a zombie zone. U-Wei came (he flew in from Bali) and we had a pre-forum chat. This time, my mind was already in no space-no time zone, I just went with the flow. Tengku Sabri greeted me and  U-Wei as ustaz. We laughed. Tengku Sabri appeared to be anxiously ready to throw his questions. Then came Badrolhisham, who was also as excited. Rilek la brader....

I met few other friends, Mad Anuar, Mastura Abdul Rahman, Syed Alwi, Saiful Razman, Fadzil Idris and my guru, Pak Pin (Ariffin Ismail). Of course, Zabbas and Assoc. Prof. Ali were there too. AP Ali used to be my art history teacher at UiTM.
When I went into the auditorium, I was pleasantly surprised by the large turn-out. Perhaps the NVAG team should be applauded for that. Perhaps Pak Leman has a 'star power' to attract audience. Perhaps some of the audience members were dragged 'paksa-rela' style by their lecturers.

I was the first to present my case. Of course, by then, my mind was already in another 'mystical' zone. I said to myself, just BE, and let Allah decides what needed to be heard.  

What needed to be heard were more questions. Questions propel the quest and thirst for knowledge and wisdom. "Raja'ah" from Sulaiman Esa has instigated many questions, many problem statements, many issues that demand to be tackled in a civilized, academic and sober manner. It was a great opportunity for us to put forward several unsettled propositions, to engage in a discourse that hopefully may shed some lights on certain pertinent issues regarding spirituality in the age of globalization (and Pak Leman's version of responding to it).

What can we learn from Sulaiman Esa's artistic journey? What can be used as means for us to move forward, to engage with pressing contemporary problems and issues, especially those brought about by Pak Leman's artistic journey? 

What is the different between Islamic Art and modern art (a painting) that features cut and paste Islamic/Malay traditional motifs and patterns as a part of it's formalistic composition? Can such a painting be labeled as 'Islamic'? What makes a 'painting' Islamic and Malay?

What about non-Muslim artists? or non-Muslim viewers?

Is 'Islamic' in form or in spirit or in both? 

Is it wise to use what appear to be 'Islamic posturing' in bashing what is taken as 'Western'? Can the so-called West be taken, in a blanket manner, as decadent? Would it be similar to the act of demonizing Islam in a blanket manner too? Can there be a clear-cut demarcation of East and West in today's age of globalization, when many people from both the East and West are connected to each other online? Should there be a more contextualized approach in discussing about the relationship between the East and West?  

What is the different between Pak Leman's 'painting' in comparison to a 'tikar mengkuang' (with Malay-Islamic motifs) or a 'kad raya' (with Malay-Islamic motifs) or an arabesque wall pattern on a facade of a mosque made by traditional craft man and designer? Can all those be categorized as Islamic Art or Islamic artists?

What happened to the 'mysticism' of Pak Leman and Redza Piyadasa's "Mystical Reality" when it is now re-staged and perhaps re-visited and re-read as a 'form' of 'showcase', if not an exhibition? Certainly, it is not anymore a 'mystical event' that just happens without any plan. Even when it was first 'staged' in DBP, I was rather apprehensive to swallow the 'manifesto'. When we now read the 'mystical objects' as 'modern art forms' that can be 'collected' by the NVAG, where is the mysticism? What happened to the 'mystic' as we enter the re-staged "Mystical Reality" space while looking and hearing those video talking heads (including yours truly) churning out their takes on the 'event'?

What is so spiritual when one is made to be more conscious about the artist, Pak Leman, in the center stage, rather than having a 'spiritual experience'?  Paradoxically, the whole framework of having a 'solo show' runs counter-productive to the notion of spirituality.

In regards to the social role of artists, would it be better to engage with the notion of 'habluminannas' (human to human daily affairs) outside the jaded (if not elitist) and comfort zone of modern art practice? After all, contemporary art practice today has diversified in so many ways, converging with community projects, empowerment and social engagements, as well as many other disciplines of knowledge. Modern art may perhaps be a sterile space for such 'social engagements' today.   

Again, what is so spiritual (as opposed to the 'decadent' Western-derived art forms), if the whole notion of having an exhibition in an art gallery has its historical, theoretical and formalistic roots in the 'decadent' West, especially if one speaks of 'painting'? If we decided to look at the whole idea of curating and exhibiting as a form of cultural phenomena, we have to read "Raja'ah" under the framework of cultural studies, instead of mere aesthetic, not to mention an Islamic one.

Perhaps one should re-look at Islam, or any form of traditional art form from physics point of view, instead of ethnographic, anthropological and art historical perspectives. Of course, discoursing the doctrine of Tauhid (making one) and its translation into formal principles through the framework of quantum physics would require a different forum.

So many questions, so little time.  

Pak Leman, answering (or perhaps spinning) Tengku Sabri's question

I'm not going to bore you with a transcript and synopsis of what had transpired during the forum.   

The following is taken from my fb posting in respond to the forum. Some in Bahasa Melayu, some in English. It basically discusses one of the fundamental aspects of spirituality, the annihilation of ego or illusion of self.

"Realiti tak mistikal lagi.
Macam mana nak mistikal kalau tak 'hilang bentuk'
‎.....bentuk 'seni moden"

(Not) Mystical Reality (Anymore).
How to be mystical if there is no 'dissolution of form'
........modern 'art form'.

"I'm not an artist" is rather a bit misleading. Phrasing yang lebih tepat adalah...."Saya tidak akan mengalami sesuatu yang kerohanian sekiranya saya mentakrif diri sebagai seorang pelukis dalam kerangka bentuk seni moden". Pentakrifan istilah pelukis dalam kerangka seni moden (baca Barat) dan 'bentuk seni moden' (baca Barat) itu sendiri boleh menjadi hijab yang menutup dari disimbah cahaya kerohanian. Cahaya kerohanian tak perlu cari jauh-jauh sebab ia memang dah di 'built-in' menjadi sebahagian dari fitrah diri kita yang sebenar. Yang menutupnya adalah takrifan kerja melukis ikut kerangka (atau hijab) seni moden yang empirikal dan berpusatkan benda (terlalu 'conscious tentang ego diri, teknik, cara, gaya, bahan, kaedah, dll). Ilusi diri atau ego (contohnya, aku pelukis) perlu dikorban atau dihilangkan sekiranya sebarang kerja itu (termasuk melukis) ingin dijadikan wahana perjalanan kerohanian. Hanya setelah minda didamai dan di diamkan (dari sebarang pentakrifan benda/bentuk) barulah seorang itu jadi ringan dan boleh memulakan perjalanan kerohanian untuk merasai pengalaman yang 'transcendence'. Ciri hilang dalam sesuatu pekerjaan atau hanyut bak kata U-Wei ada kaitan dengan beberapa istilah dalam tradisi Melayu seperti 'khusyuk', 'asyik', malah 'naik syih'. Dalam tradisi sufi dipanggil 'annihilation of the illusive self' untuk bersatu dalam getaran kuantum (tenaga) seluruh alam yang lebih halus dan tinggi. Dalam kajian minda, ia dipanggil 'in synchrony' (seperti pemain jazz hilang dalam frekuensi muziknya untuk bersinkroni antara satu sama lain dan dengan seluruh alam hingga kita pun turut disedut masuk dalam frekuensi tersebut). Kalau melukis contohnya (setelah belajar mengenal sifat bentuk atau bendanya, termasuk teknik), hilangkanlah diri dalam pekerjaan itu tanpa perlu nak ingatkan diri "aku ni pelukis". Mereka yang hilang, asyik, khusyuk, masyuk, "in-synch", dan 'in the groove' dalam sesuatu kerja lebih berkemungkinan untuk merasai pengalaman kerohanian yang subliminal dan transenden. Jika tidak hilang, hanyut dan asyik, hasil kerjanya keras tidak berjiwa, malah tidak menerbitkan sebarang rasa yang sama dalam diri orang lain yang melihat. Jika ego (ilusi bentuk diri, aku seorang pelukis contohnya) itu sebesar Stadium Bukit Jalil, tidak dikorbankan, tidak dihilangkan bentuknya, tidak diselak hijabnya, macam mana makam roh nak naik (7 tingkatan)? Jadilah apa pun, buatlah apa juga, yang penting kena tahu nak buka dan pasang niat agar kita membuka dan berada dalam landasan atau frekuensi yang betul. Kita nak buka landasan atau frekuensi yang membawa kepada jalan yang benar dan lurus. Wallahualam, itulah yang boleh saya kongsi sedikit sebanyak. Sama-sama kita berdoa agar diberi Petunjuk Allah.

I'm in the 'mystical zone' while U-Wei (right) wandering and Zabbas, presenting.

Shamsul Bahari wrote in his blog "In Search of Creative Impulses"

"A close friend wrote his perceptions about art in the Facebook today ( Realiti tak Mistikal lagi- Hasnul J. Saidon)and it was about the removal of one's ego or the thought of self from the equation of the act of creativity. Not identifying with the work and enjoying the process or rather submerged into the process with no doer only the act of doing. He wrote it in Bahasa Malaysia which i am weak in but I coud understand most of it as it seems like an echo of conversations I used to have with him in the past whenever we had the opportunity to share our thoughts. These are the echoes of J.Krishnamurti's philosophy and those of the Zen tradition of Buddhism and Islamic view of void or 'Fana'. I am not the artist, I am not the brush nor am I the canvass, I am the dance of creation, the act of creativity itself or being creative and when it is all said and done I am no more!

Herein is the idea that thought has no place in spontaneous action just as there is no one viewing the sunset but just the act itself and any following act of discussing, or describing or trying to capture the beauty of the sunset instantaneously ends the act, it is no more. In essence the act is corrupted by the desire to cling on to or make it last. This act of wiewing the sunset or in our desire to share it with others in the form of photography or a painting, it is no more the same sunset. The actions that follows immediately in the form of thoughts are the involvement of the ego in trying to benefit from the actual thing like a photographer who desires to be well known for taking great pictures of sunsets. It is not a matter of right or wrong for the ego to be present in these moments of creative happening but with its presence, the direct experience of what is, is gone or as my friend said in his article, it is veiled.

Creative individuals have a nack for experiencing these moments of syncronicity, moments when the person merges into the realm of being one with whatever it is that they are working with and so does the woodcutter or the cobbler. However the artist in his or her effort to create what is out of the ordinary often finds himself having to break free from the conditioned state of mind where before he finds himself in the flow of energy that is in sync with the whole. Often the process happens through long meditative working condition that allows the mind to be gradually subdued by the flow of energy from the physical into the psycho-emotional state and culminating into the 'mystical' or spiritual state of one-ness of being. This is the state often called Satori in Japanese Zen tradition or Samadhi in the Hindu tradition and Tafakur or Kushuk as in Islam and it is in this state that the mind ceases its egotistical wanderings and predilections, yearnings and cravings. It becomes still and in this stillness is silence and in this silence, creativity is born.

Most of us live our lives while being veiled from the abilty to see Truth by our own self, thought, ego, the conditioned state whereby the world is seen through preconditoned ideas and belief. However we also know that if and when these thoughts, beliefs and ideas are being challenged and found to be faulty or weak, or become threatened and defensive, we seek justifications and resort to comparisons often ending with blames and excuses for our shortcomings or worse yet we take refuge in drinking and drugs in order to silence our mind. But it is next to impossible for the mind to become silent not even for a split second. This is our lot for we have been conditoned through the thought processes since day one. All these years of our existence we have been exposed to a thought generated world of illusions which is ever dominating our own self perception. So much so that we have come to not know who we are much less what we are capable of. Our search for the essence of, the originality of our creative impulses will always be thwarted by our inability to become one with silence.

”It is only through creative understanding of ourselves that there can be a creative world, a happy world, a world in which ideas do not exist. A world in which ideas do not exist would be a happy world, because it would be a world without the powerful conditioning forces which compel men to undertake inappropriate action, a world without the hallowed dogmas in terms of which the worst crimes are justified, the greatest follies elaborately rationalized.""
Aldous Huxley

And I replied, "MasyaAllah, nicely put, thank u so much brader. You phrased it better. Was having a tough time with those who read my statement on face value (fikir selapis) during and after a recent forum in KL. I said that it would be difficult for me to have a spiritual experience if I defined myself (being too conscious) as an artist (or a musician or a singer or whatever the job title). One eventual reading was, Hasnul says, "I am not an artist". Another one was "berpijak di bumi nyata", a typical 'realist' view vieled by the ilusion if not attachment to form (mimpi benda). Allah is Great."

Adik-adik, AlQuran tidak diturunkan pada Nabi Muhammad s.a.w dalam 'bentuk' buku berjilid siap dengan 'tulisan' yang cantik. 'BACA'lah itu merujuk pada membaca apa? Tulisan dan kata-kata ke?  

Dear brothers and sisters, the Quran was not passed down to Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) in a physical book form, with beautifully written calligraphy. The term 'READ' refers to reading what? Writings and spoken words?   

It was an honor.

May Allah bestow upon us wisdom. Make peace with our mind. 

For my review of Pak Leman's "Raja'ah", click here: 


  1. Adik-adik, AlQuran tidak diturunkan pada Nabi Muhammad s.a.w dalam 'bentuk' buku berjilid siap dengan 'tulisan' yang cantik. 'BACA'lah itu merujuk pada membaca apa? Tulisan dan kata-kata ke? merujuk ini ayat pertama turun dalam gua nampak di batu batu dinding gua agak-agak macam mana rupanya?

  2. Isamudin, itu soalan susulan yang bagus tu, kalau boleh kongsi-kongsi sikit ilmu tu. Teruja juga nak tau serba sikit.

  3. AlQuran itu penutup segala ilmu! Ilmu yang di turunkan ialah ilmu akhir zaman ilmu yang mengkapankan tiap2 yang berilmu.Selagi kepercyaan wujud dalam dirimu yang 'aku berilmu' maka AlQuran perlulah bagi dirimu untuk membacanya.IQRA!

  4. Tidak dipertikaikan lagi, terima kasih Shamsul. Ayahanda saya pernah pesan, konsep 'baca' tu bukan setakat baca di mulut saja. Malah, seluruh alam ini adalah tanda-tanda yang boleh dibaca. InsyaAllah.