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Friday, 31 May 2013


4.    The Other Stories as Preludes to the 1990s

        Obscured Versions of UiTM During the Late 1980s

Despite Piyadasa’s seemingly acute elucidation (and its echoes by other writers), his narrative of the so-called UiTM-centered Malay revivalist proclivities is also not entirely correct.

For example, a survey of artworks produced by UiTM students from 1980 until 1990 according to artist Fauzan Omar (who lectured at UiTM in the 1980s), reveals a diverse range of styles and approaches, including the use of figures. Students such as Amron Omar, Rosli Mat and Samjis Mat Jan, were known and admired for their skill in rendering figure as a subject.(49)

Amron’s Pertarungan II (1980) and Potret Diri (1982), as well as Samjis’s Rendezvous (1984) are several examples of interest in the use of figures amongst UiTM students.

‘Figurative drawing’, as informed by Fauzan Omar, was not discouraged. It was even taught by artists such as Fauzan himself, Amron Omar and Hasnul J Saidon in the late 1980s. Senior or advanced drawing class ran by the late Ismail Zain for example, used live model. Even artist Ahmad Shukri Mohamed of the famous ‘Matahati’ group, who was a junior student in 1988, admitted that he had volunteered as a ‘live model’ for Ismail Zain’s drawing class.(50) There was a period in which the use of figure in drawing class was dropped, but according to Fauzan, it came out of personal interpretation, not institutional directive.

Figure was also featured in the artworks of other UiTM students during the late 1980s. Amongst them include Azimah Ahmad’s Siri ‘Kool and the Environment’ (1985), Zulkifli Mat Shariff’ Harapan (Hope) (1986), Noor Aishah Abd. Rahman’s Under One Roof (1986), Hasnul J Saidon’s Orang Ulu – Rhythm & Dance (1987), Mohd Amin Busu’s Boy From Lenggong (1988) and Blind Jennie (1989), Haron Mokhtar’s Siri Jugra (1988), Abu Sareh Haron Untitled (1989), Romli Mahmud’s Songket dan Kimono (1988), Mohd Zaki Ghazali’s Rumah Nenek Tak Ada Letrik (Grandmother’s House Has No Electricity) (1989) Raja Shahriman’s early mutant figures in early 1990s, Hamidi Basar’s Bas Mini (Mini Bus) (1991) and Hamdan Shaarani’s Pasar Tani (Farm Market) (1992).(51)

In addition, several artists in the late 1980s were already using figure in their artworks such as Raja Azhar Idris’s Momba (1980), Norma Abbas’s Something To Tell (1982), Zheng Yuan-De’s He Who Was The Hero Just Now (1984), Yusof Ghani’s Hilal (1987) and Siri Tari – Bahjat (1988), Ahmad Azhari Mohd Noor’s Potret Puan Marina Yusof (1987), Sylvia Lee Goh’s Young Family (1988), Chang Chin Huat’s Untitled (1986) and Goh Ah Ang Pergerakan (Movement) (1989).(52)  If there was a lack in the use of human figure amongst Malaysian artists then, it was probably due to the popularity and commercial appeal of international abstract style and water-color paintings more than due to the Malay-Islamic nationalistic forces. In fact, one may propose that the marginal use of human figure during the 1980s can be attributed to the forces of the market more than other factors.

The idea that ‘figurative representation in particular for artists from UiTM is a means to challenge the institution’s tenets’ is preposterous, if one refers to UiTM in the late 1980s. The discouragement (of figure) and encouragement (of Malay-Islamic decorative impulse), according to Fauzan Omar, were never the official tenets of UiTM.

Another survey of artworks produced by lecturers from UiTM during the same period reveals diversity of styles, medium and approaches as well. Artworks such as Ruzaika Omar Basaree’s Dungun Series (early 1980s), Ponirin Amin’s Alibi Catur Di Pulau Bidong (Chess Alibi in Bidong Island) (1980), Fauzan Omar’s Layer Series (1981), Awang Damit’s Harapan (Hope) (1982), the late Joseph Tan’s Dungun Memories (Hill of Thyme) (1983), Zakaria Awang’s Arrahman (1982), the late Ahmad Khalid Yusof’s Jawi and Nature 13 (1984), Ariffin Ismail’s Taming Sari III (1987), Yusof Ghani’s Siri Tari (late 1980s), Hashim Hassan’s Penceroboh (The Intruder) (1987), Raja Zahabuddin Raja Yaacob’s Indraputra (1988), Yusoff Othman’s Pulau Pangkor (1988), Kamarudzaman Md Isa’s Tribute to Bapak (1989), Ham Rabeah Kamarun’s Globe (1990) Wan Ahmad Mohamed’s Chamber of Fertility (1990), and Choong Kam Kaw’s Image 90-1 (1990), reflect diversity.

With such a diverse range of strong personalities (and artistic ideologies) it is certainly too simplistic to suggest that there was a sign of ‘master narrative’ enforcing a ‘politically-defined cultural vision’, founded on ‘Malay-centered discourse and dominance’. There was indeed a sign of academic and artistic interest in researching Malay tradition and Islamic spiritual sources in UiTM, as with many other interests or proclivities, something that should be encouraged in any academic institution.

‘Underpinnings of modernist movement’, according to artist Fauzin Mustaffa (who was a student in UiTM from 1984-1988) and Raja Shahriman Raja Aziddin (who was a student from 1986 – 1990), were not rejected.(53) They were in fact taught in the liberal arts component by lecturers such as Amina Syed Mohamad, Mulyadi Mahamood, Abu Talib, Usop Kopratasa, Khalil Imran, Mohamed Ali Abdul Rahman, Jahani Ali and Dzul Haimi Md. Zin. Western-derived idea of modernity was also not rejected. It was included in the syllabus, including Western philosophies and aesthetics. Visiting and guest artists from outside, including from the ‘West’ were invited to give talks and workshops.

‘Prescriptive, abstract approach to art making, founded on Islamic religious and design principles’, as admitted by Fauzin and Raja Shahriman, was indeed exposed to students. But so did abstract and semi-abstract approach founded on Persian art, Indian portraiture, Japanese wood print, Chinese landscape painting, Southeast Asian traditional art, tribal art from Sarawak and Sabah, representing interest in studying a ‘broad-based multi-cultural’ Malaysian and Asian heritage. According to Fauzan Omar, even expeditions were organised, including to some remote areas in Sarawak and Sabah to expose students to ‘other’ cultures.

            Akif Emir’s Home To Let : Rent, Free of Charge (1987), Fauzin Mustaffa’s Alam Fana Series (late 1980s) and The Lost Horizon II (1991), Mohd Noor Mahmud’s Imej Series (late 1980s) and Cave Series (early 1990s), Hasnul J Saidon’s Orang Ulu – Rhythm & Dance (1987), Romli Mahmud’s Songket dan Kimono (1988), Azhar Manan’s Sarawak-September 1989 – Aku Lihat Warisan Yang Hilang (I saw a vanishing heritage) (1991), Ahmad Shukri’s Cabinet Series in early 1990s, Bayu Utomo Radjikin’s Bujang Berani (Brave Bachelor) (1991) and Haslinda Abdul Razak’s The Ceremony (Baba Nyonya) (1995) represent a cross-cultural approach towards ethnic subjects. The so-called ‘new notion of Malay-ness, as the defining cultural paradigm’ and ‘the emergence of a new Malay-dominated force within the Malaysian art scene’ were certainly not able to deter these UiTM’s graduates from engaging in a ‘broad-based multi-cultural’ Malaysian (or Asian) heritage.

            Unfortunately, these ‘smaller’ stories have been rather obscured in most of the major English-speaking discourses on contemporary art in Malaysia.

        Other trajectories in UiTM in late 1980s as preludes to the 1990s.

Instead of rejection as implied by Piyadasa, Western-derived idea of modernity was actually questioned and debated in UiTM, something that should be encouraged in any academic institution. The late Ismail Zain (who was a visiting lecturer) for example, according to Fauzin Mustaffa and Raja Shahriman, was persistent in encouraging students to question blind adherence to Western modernist movements, especially abstract expressionism. He was more concerned with the ‘lack of critical attitude’ and ‘intellectual discipline’ in the modern art scene of Malaysia then. Consequently, he encouraged questionings and ‘self-critical tendency’, ‘in earnest’.(54)

In addition, Ismail Zain was also more interested in globalization, semiotics, collage, cross-cultural experience, multi-culturalism, hybridity, juxtaposition, mass media, information theory, and cultural anthropology. He was in fact, already experimenting with digital collage, which can be considered as a very important prelude to the use of new media in the local contemporary art practice. Through his highly investigative and semiotic approach towards drawing, students were challenged to critically read and decode visual texts.(55)

There was a shift in UiTM in the late 1980s, but not just a shift towards a ‘new notion of Malay-ness as a defining paradigm’. Instead, the shift in UiTM was represented, amongst many, by an interest in expanding new materials, exploring new language of painting, printmaking and sculpture, as propagated by Fauzan Omar and other new lecturers who just came back from oversea education such as Zakaria Awang, Ponirin Amin, Yusof Ghani, Awang Damit, and Ariffin Ismail. In fact, according to Zulkifli Yusof, his foray into installation can be credited to Zakaria Awang’s early guidance and encouragements in the late 1980s.(56) Even expressionist impulse itself, was recharged by Yusof Ghani and several other students such as Ahmad Shukri Elias and Riaz Ahmad Jamil. Several students were also influenced by the works of Awang Damit.

Fauzin and Raja Shahriman further added that it was during the late 1980s that non-conventional materials were explored by UiTM’s fine art students, while alternative methods of presenting artworks were employed to question the modernist conventional demarcation of fine art practice. Installation art and alternative print were also explored. Other than Ismail Zain’s foray into computer art, Kamarudzaman Md. Isa and later Ponirin Amin were also exploring the use of computer as an image-generating and editing machine.

The result of such shift can be traced in mixed-media work of Jailani Abu Hassan’s Catan Orang Kampung (Village Folks’ Painting) (1985), Nasir Baharuddin’s mixed-media entitled Dari Satu Keujudan (From One Existence) (1984), Bahaman Hashim’s emboss print Nusantara II (1984), Awang Damit Ahmad’s Trajedi (Tragedy)1 (1985), constructed painting of Romli Mahmud’s Akhirnya ke Kamar Jua (To the Bedroom at last)(1986), a modular sculpture/installation of Ramlan Abdullah entitled Bersatu Aman (Unity Peace) (1986), Tengku Sabri Tengku Ibrahim’s experimental cast prints in 1986, Akif Emir’s mixed-media House to Let, Rent Free Of Charge (1987), Zulkifli Yusof’s installation Tanpa Tajuk (Untitled) (1988), and Dari Hitam ke Putih (From Black to White) (1989), Zainon Abdullah’s installation Makanan (Food) Series I,II,III (1988), Tumian Jasman’s blown up pepsi cans installation called Kebudayaan (Culture)  XVI (1989), Che Zulkarnain Abidin’s wire mesh installation entitled Computer Brain I,II,III (1989) nasi lemak’s installation of Din Omar’s Kepelbagaian (Diversity) (1990), Juhari Said’s innovative woodcut prints Garden in The Sky (1990) and Kilimanjaro in Nagasaki (1991) and Azman Hilmi’s Simbol Ekspressi Watak (Symbol Expression Character) (1992).(57)  As affirmed by artist Sharmiza Abu Hassan (UiTM student from 1990-1994), these works are not conservative by any standard (or in comparison to Bayu Utomo Radjikin’s ‘highly charged figurative works’ as implied by Ahmad Mashadi). Some of them were even given awards.

Another example includes Hasnul J Saidon and Faizal Zulkifli’s foray into digital and video art in the 1990s, which can be traced back to Ismail Zain’s Digital Collage and Kamarudzaman Md. Isa’s experiments with his Amiga computers. Ahmad Fuad’s witty visual pun and play of semiotics in his recent Recollection of Long Lost Memories series (2008) can be traced back to Ismail Zain’s drawing class. Ahmad Shukri Mohamed’s interest in employing myriads of non-traditional media in his paintings such as Target Series Camouflage II (1994) can be traced back to Fauzan Omar’s influence. This post-formalist exploration of non-traditional media in paintings was also engaged by his students such as Fauzin Mustaffa and Mohd Noor Mahmud and later carried by younger generation of UiTM graduates such as Mohd Azhar Manan, Wan Jamarul Imran, Nur Hanim Khairuddin, Noor Azizan Rahman Paiman, Rosli Zakaria, Sharmiza Abu Hassan, Suhaimi Tohid, Sabri Idrus, Hamidi Hadi, Daud Abdul Rahim and Ahmad Zuraimi Abdul Rahim. Despite the notion that ‘art and education were petrifying under the National Cultural Policy and purist interpretations in the name of Islam’, these graduates were able to churn out (during and after UiTM) engaging and innovative works that are certainly not ‘conservative’ or ‘petrified’ at all.

Another interest in UiTM includes collaborative multi-arts projects that were organised to combine fine art, music, theatre and design into experimental performances. Exhibition openings were complimented by acoustic performances. Experimental events were presented, such as Gempita, Ledak Lintar and Kom-X where fine art students co-mingled with students from other departments to engage in cross-media or cross-discipline projects. Ahmad Shukri Elias for example, created a series of triangular sculptures that were presented in a form of installation as well as body and light performance (performed by Zainal Alam Kadir, now a popular Astro personality) in 1986.

Several UiTM graduates continued to engage in other forms of art, such as theater, music, film and video projects with Centrestage Performing Arts under the tutelage of Normah Nordin and Najib Nor. Echoes of such interest in experimental cross-disciplinary projects and narrative impulse can be traced in the profiles of artists such as Ahmad Shukri Elias, Hasnul J Saidon, Ahmad Fuad Osman, Bayu Utomo Radjikin, Hamir Shoib, Masnoor Ramli Mahmud, Nur Hanim Khairuddin, and Kamal Sabran.

Not all Malay Malaysian artists today who received their initial exposure and formal training from UiTM during the 1980s were conservatives or subscribed to the so-called ‘Malay revivalist proclivities’. Even if they did, it was geographically and culturally inherent and inscribed by their upbringing, more than ‘by politicized, ideological considerations rooted in the new post-Cultural Congress governmental policies’. Malay-ness, as with Chinese-ness or Indian-ness or Iban-ness, will persist regardless of whatever economic and socio-cultural policies a nation can come up with. In fact, the search for one’s ethnic root and spiritual anchor is a common theme amongst artists all over the world. It has to be respected, if not encouraged.

Unfortunately, such narrow framing of UiTM and its students in the late 1980s may undermine (hopefully not on purpose) their role and position in churning out new trajectories for the contemporary art practice in Malaysia after 1990. If there was a discouragement towards the use of figure, or enforcement to conform to Malay-Islamic decorative impulse in UiTM, it was probably out of individual dogmatic interpretation, jealousy and personality clashes, which were prevalent in UiTM, as in other institutions.

UiTM itself (not just the fine art department), as with other institutions, has had its own fair share of other issues and inter-personal problems in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Overt conservatism and dogmatic interpretation of Islam did appear and manifest in several forms, but certainly not to a point of generalizing ‘many artists affiliated to UiTM’ as conservatives. The notion of ‘Islamization’ in UiTM itself was not highly singular, but involved many different interpretations. In fact, hegemony of any form in the arts, will normally invite counter-reaction or rejection. Then again, even the notions of conservatism, Malay-ness and Islamization (that celebrates diversity) should not be equated with anything of less quality or negative. They should be noted and respected.  

Jailani Abu Hassan for example, states:

“That’s the most intimate thing you do, it’s not pretentious, it’s what you are, it’s what you’re made of, its where you come from, that’s the cultural, identity thing. But I’m not trying to portray the Malaysian Identity, I’m not trying to answer to the National Cultural Congress.”(58)

Jailani’s repertoire of paintings and drawings for examples, despite their cosmopolitan stance and urban feel, deeply reflect his socio-cultural and ethnic upbringing. Bomoh Hujan  (Rainmaker) (2004) and Panglima Lubalang Daik (2006) are two examples of Jailani’s penchant in expressively using his formalistic virtuosity to reflect upon his cultural upbringing.

Piyadasa’s take (and its echoes) on Malay proclivities were probably framed by events that had more bearing in the larger economic, educational, social and cultural repercussions of May 13th. 1969, rather than what had actually transpired in UiTM during the late 1980s. The scenario therefore, was painted with large and broad strokes that might have sidelined ‘other’ smaller but yet, important stories. In fact, some of them were quite instrumental in opening a path for new ways of making and looking at contemporary art practice in Malaysia after 1990.

What about the Malaysian Institute of Art (MIA)?

Along the line of providing the ‘other’ stories about UiTM during the late 1980s, it is highlypertinent to also unveil obscured narratives or stories that had transpired at another important art school in Malaysia, the Malaysian Institute of Art or MIA. MIA, in comparison to UiTM, may perhaps be taken as the ‘epicenter’ of Chinese proclivities – a kind of structuralist’s binary pairing that was instrumental in providing the basis of new impulses for contemporary art in Malaysia after 1990.

Nevertheless, it is also pertinent for any potential researcher and writer to be equipped with first hand primary data, other than being fluent in Chinese language (Cantonese, Mandarin, Hokkien), in order to make substantial claims or construct a credible narrative about MIA during the late 1980s. This essay is admittedly lacking in this aspect, which hopefully will be complimented by future research by other credible candidates.

It has to be noted that both UiTM and MIA should not just be taken as merely the epicenters of ethnic-based proclivities, but also the epicenters of other proclivities that were instrumental in driving the contemporary art practice during the early 1990s. Instead of employing a  binary pairing, both may be taken as the repositories of perhaps many more smaller but intertwined stories or narratives that may have been obscured by the dominant master narrative of Malaysian art. Other than deconstructing certain ‘myths’ and stereotypical framework, these smaller stories may provide more examples of early responses of UiTM and MIA-linked artists to the emerging postmodern conditions brought about by globalization, free market capitalism and information and communication technology.  

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