7. Discussions of key artworks
Neo-expressionist impulse, Malay angst and dilemma
Thematically, most of the seminal contemporary artworks produced by Malay artists such as Zulkifli Yusof, Bayu Utomo Radjikin and Raja Shahriman Raja Aziddin during the 1990s were initially placed and read within the context of ‘angst’ which according to Wong Hoy Cheong, ‘is a sensibility so much a part of modernism and an inevitable outcome of modernity’.(75) In comparison, Niranjan Rajah, in his book Bara Hati Bahang Jiwa, contextualizes the angst within the notion of semangat (life force) as well as the tension between amok (sudden burst of violent emotion) and adab (following a certain code of behavior) that typifies the works of several contemporary Malay artists in the 1990s.(76)
The early version of neo-expressionist ‘angst’ can be traced in the works of Yusof Ghani, Ahmad Shukri Elias and Riaz Ahmad Jamil. The neo-expressionist undertone of Shukri’s Larangan (Forbidden) series and Riaz’s Larangan Hilai (Forbidden to Laugh), Larangan Jerit (Forbidden to Scream) and Larangan Pandang (Forbidden to see) can be taken as early preludes to loud angst-ridden theme that has characterized the works of several other Malay artists in the 1990s such as Ahmad Fuad Osman, Hamir Shoib, and Masnoor Ramli Mahmud. These artists, together with Bayu Utomo Radjikin and Ahmad Shukri Mohamed, have been popularly known as Matahati group that emerged in the early 1990s.
Other than responding to the notion of culture and identity, future shock and post-modern raves, some of the more surreal and abstract angst-ridden works of the Matahati artists reflect a trajectory that seems to be moving away from the external cultural conundrum to an inner voyage, suggesting a more personal and idiosyncratic journey into the subconscious. They also resonate with a sense of cathartic release and usually lean towards a much darker personal sentiment. Such rendition emanates a haunting feeling of despair, hopelessness, alienation, sorrow, anguish, desolation, misery and sadness.
The Matahati group itself has been very prolific in organizing solo and group exhibitions as well as local and regional collaborative projects since its formation in 1989. The repertoire of their productive output has also been marked by social commentaries, skillfully expressed with loud and an expressive sense of angst, rage, rawness, boldness and urgency. Branding themselves almost like a group of 1980s Malay rock band, their illustrious career as a group (as well as individual artist) has been captured by a major retrospective, organised by the Petronas Gallery in 2008, which was also held concurrently in three other venues – Matahati Hom, the Annexe Gallery and 12 Art Space.(77)
J. Anu refers to Matahati’s neo-expressionist trajectory as a ‘much more confronting version of a Malay aesthetic – one that is less concerned with niceties or politeness’. While acknowledging the Matahati artists as a part of ‘key influences in the rise of figurative social commentary that has dominated Malaysian art, particularly Malaysian painting since 1990s’ he proposes that their readings of issues ‘are told from their very distinct Malay-Muslim and incidentally South East Asian point of view, symbology and visual vocabulary’.(78)
Zulkifli Yusof is another prominent Malay artist who has emerged into the contemporary Malaysian art scene during the late 1980s with a prolific series of emotionally-charged constructivist installation. Zulkifli himself has been read by several writers as an epitome of Malay angst during the late 1980s and early 1990s. Locally and internationally acclaimed, Zulkifli’s expressive impulse, urgency and boldness in responding to several pressing socio-political issues related to the emerging ‘new Malays’ have been noted by many critics. His aversion towards the abuse of power amongst Malay bureaucrats and aristocrats has been expressed through a wide range of cynically caricatured characters in his paintings and sculptures.(79)
His installation Don’t Play During Maghrib (1996) which was shown at the Venice Biennale in 1997, can be read as a visual pun and parody of a Malay folk taboo, which is captured by the title itself (children are not allowed to play outside the house at dusk when evil forces are abound). Upon closer reading, the work unveils Zulkifli’s fondness in making a mockery of moral hypocrites (who despite their pious exterior and moral sermons, posses certain bad traits, including subscribing to religiously prohibited social activities after dusk). Recently, he has shifted into a more architectonic paintings based on Malay literatures and colonial history.
Raja Shahriman is another epitome of Malay angst who emerged during the early 1990s. Shahriman’s repertoire of battling iron warriors in various mutated forms displays his impressive skill and mastery of medium, which in his case, scrap metal bits. Known for his dramatic, liveliness and energetic rendition of human forms in forceful combating postures, Shahriman’s gothic-like expression reveals an interesting counter-point to the stereotypically polite demeanor of the Malay socio-cultural nuances.(80)
The other side of angst-ridden and neo-expressionist impulse is an inclination towards comedic absurdity, ponderous literalism, schizophrenic appropriation and random deconstruction as epitomized by the works of Noor Azizan Rahman Paiman. His recent drawings and paintings (2007/08) feature random quotations and absurd characters that relate to the political economy (if not absurdity) of mass media.
Artists such as Tengku Sabri Tengku Ibrahim, Hasnul J Saidon, Mohd Nasir Baharuddin, Juhari Said and Suhaimi Tohid have been known for their less expressive but more cerebral, methodical and investigative approach in articulating modern and postmodern encounters.
Their works, whilst being rather less loud or attention-grabbing, are marked by a more conceptual and inter-textual semiotic approach, with a touch of humor, parody, satire and even mockery. In addition, their artworks are best read in tandem with theories related to semiotics, information system and the political economy of global media, and now, the Islamophobia of post 9-11 Islamic fundamentalism cum terrorism.
Along this line, it has to be noted that Malay-Muslim artists of today have to encounter misguided fear, resent, prejudices and stereotypical labeling of Muslims as terrorists (or potential terrorists) and Islam as a breeding ground for religious intolerance, both inside and outside Malaysia. Conversely, they also have to encounter their own misguided prejudices towards the ‘others’, and of the position of their ‘special privileges’ in an increasingly globalized and plural world. Intra-religiously, they have to confront and respond to hate-preachers, dogmatist killers and intolerant bigots within the Muslim communities.
Tengku Sabri’s installation Inside Series : Mari Kita Berperang Lagi (Lets Have Another War) (2002) reflects his cynical response to the U.S.A sponsored ‘war against terror’ by reconstructing a fake toy missile for his children to play with (whilst making a parody of associating terrorism with Muslims).(81) Hasnul J Saidon’s video installation kipASAPi (1999) on the other hand, raises the problem of ‘truth’ in today’s complex streams of broadcast and interactive media, in the context of the Malay political crisis in Malaysia.(82)
Mohd Nasir Baharuddin’s Iqra’ (1995) for example, features the use of text, photography and found objects in articulating the verse Iqra’ in the holy Quran that translates as ‘to recite’ or ‘to read’. Nasir’s deployment of conceptualist’s style indicates a shift from Malay ethnic vocabulary, geometry, calligraphy and craft tradition to a more contemporary expression of everyday reality in manifesting the spirit of Islam. Juhari Said’s Katak Nak Jadi Lembu (The Frog Wants To Become A Cow) (1998) on the other hand, features a use of bold woodblock graphic images to visually re-interpret traditional Malay proverbs with a touch of humor, parody and contemporary nuance.(83)
Suhaimi Tohid’s Journey (2001) refers to a double-edged sword and ‘devious and dubious nature of global economy most specifically in the form of foreign loans that developed countries normally offered to most developing Third world countries’.(84) Another work that reverberates with similar sentiment is M.O.U. Takkan Melayu Hilang Di Dunia (Malay Will Never Cease to Exist) (2006) by Hazrul Mazran Rosli. His sentiment reiterates an under siege fear of the ironic impact of globalization and free market capitalism towards the Malay community (and their nationally protected political, economic and cultural privileges).(85)
Multhalib Musa’s keris-laden By Default (2002), makes a parody of the over-simplistic notion of Malay communal emblem and ethnic symbolism while Sabri Idrus’s Bangau oh Bangau (2004), uses a Malay colloquial folk song or lullaby to subtly comment on an endless bureaucratic blame game that is prevalent in many public departments.(86)
Nur Hanim’s installation Laga-laga (2002) and video art called se(RANG)ga (2005) comments on the power of global media in demonizing Islam. Her works echo ‘the growing distaste for media imperialism and how the hegemony of global media capitalizes on conflicts to achieve economic and political domination. Nur Hanim’s works make a wry comment about fabricated reality, which seems to affirm the post-modernist’s proposition that we live within the sway of mythology conjured for us by the mass media, movies and advertisements.(87)
Over the past few years, other younger generation of Malay artists such as Roslisham Ismail, Khairul Azmir Shoib, Kamal Sabran, Fathullah Lokman, Rahmat Haron, Tengku Azhari Tengku Azizan, Zaslan Zeeha Zaini, Muhd Sarip Abdul Rahman, Aswad Ameir, Saiful Razman, Hazrul Mazran Rosli, Md Farid Abdul Jalil, Yusri Sulaiman, Ilham Fadhli Shaimy, and Samsuddin Abdul Wahab have been making their presence felt in the contemporary Malaysian art scene today by engaging in broader issues of concern.