THROUGH THE ‘EYES’ AND ‘HEART’ OF A FRIEND
Hasnul J Saidon
2. THE REVIEWS
2.1 Awakening the ‘Alter-Native’
I found that most of your earlier paintings are abstract, dominated by some kind of organic forms and inspired by the symbiosis between humans and the natural environment. I guess you were probably inspired by our trips to Sarawak in the late 80’s, initiated by our lecturer Fauzan Omar. For a city dweller, they may appear ‘primitive’ or ‘alter-native’, but yet retain the crude expressionist and surrealist undertones that you and your Matahati buddies have been known for in the 90s. Of course, you can link this interest with Azhar Manan’s early works “September 1989 – Aku Lihat Warisan Yang Hilang”(1989) and Bayu Utomo Radjikin’s “Bujang Berani”(1991).
Zanita Anuar outlines this interested as being “mindful of a local-regional perspective in the strive to understand Malaysia’s post-colonial identity…”(8) Michelle Antoinette explains it as being “attuned to a broader range of socio-cultural issues and problems”. In commenting on the “Malay-Islamic revivalist propensities in art during the late 1970s and 1980s” as allegedly propagated by the MARA Institute of Technology (UiTM), she notes that the “Matahati artists were less interested in privileging expressions of their Malay ethnicity through their art”.(9) Masnoor, perhaps you may want to relay your response to her.
I can’t relay your personal experience as a student in UiTM but from my experience of being a student at MARA for 4 years (1984-88), a part-time tutor for another year (1989) and a lecturer in 1994, I could not recall being forced to conform to a particular ‘Malay-Islamic revivalist propensities’. I guess my gurus then (yours too) such as Fauzan Omar, Ismail Zain, Ponirin Amin, Awang Damit, Amron Omar, Choong Kam Kow, Joseph Tan, Tan Tuck Kan, Ariffin Ismail, Zakaria Awang, and Ruzaika Omar Basaree were less interested in forcing down my throat such propensities. Fauzan Omar for example, was more interested in ‘expanded painting’ than the alleged propensities. Ismail Zain was more interested in the juxtaposition of cross-cultural elements brought about by the mass-media.(10)
Anyway, the mood and temperament in “From Ngsebang Pelaik to KL”(FNPKL)(1991), is indeed suggestive of an ‘alter-native’ vision as coined by Zabbas. He coined the term ‘alter-native’ in his essay in “Vision and Idea” to refer to the return to ethnic-based concerns within and beyond what has being constructed by the National Cultural Policy.(11)
Formalistically, “FNPKL” is mysterious yet dynamic, probably due to your deployment of sharp, curvy and diagonal forms. At first glance, it looks like a squeezed rectangular shape, or a convergence of two triangles (to create a third one). The use of constructivist and assemblage approaches makes it appear like a relief or wall sculpture, reminding me of Latif Mohidin’s “Langkawi” series in the 70s, and Sharmiza Abu Hassan’s wall sculptures, “Coaches” (1995).
In comparison, the use of ethnic-based motifs taken from our diverse Southeast Asian cultural traditions can also be traced in the works of many local artists from the senior generation such as Patrick Ng Kah Onn (“Spirit of Earth, Water and Air”, 1959), Anthony Lau (“Spirit of Fire”, 1960), Nik Zainal Abidin (“Wayang Kulit Kelantan”, 1961), Chuah Thean Teng (“Musim Buah”, 1967), Ahmad Khalid Yusof (“Alif, Ba, Ta”, 1972), Sulaiman Esa (“Nurani”, 1983), Fatimah Chik (“Meditation # 1”, 1986) , to the younger generation such as Mastura Abdul Rahman (“Interior No. 29”, 1987), Tengku Sabri Tengku Ibrahim (“The Warrior”, 1988), Kelvin Chap Kok Leong (Belawing, Keramen, Mamat”, 1995), Shia Yin Ying (“Penghormatan Untuk Alam Yang Kian Pupus”, 1997), Chuah Chong Yong (“Hun Li Wu Yu Series”, 2001) and Khairul Azmir Shoib (“Kala with Guard”, 2007). J.Anu has produced several important works that chronicle the Indian community such as “Running Indians and the History of the Malaysian Indians in 25 Cliches” (2001), while Niranjan Rajah produced his provocative “Telinga Keling” (2002) that touches on the delicate inter-ethnic relationship and stereotyping in Malaysia. Yee I-Lann’s large-scale collaboration with Pakard Photo Studio Melaka “Through Rose-Coloured Glasses”(2002) marks a more inclusive approach towards our rich and diverse multi-ethnic heritage. Of course, there are also numerous other artists who still paint Chinese landscapes or scenes, or infuse elements of such style including Chinese calligraphy in their contemporary works.(12)
Nevertheless Masnoor, it has to be noted also that through post-modern revaluations, many canons, monuments and meta-narratives of modern Malaysian art have been purposely and indirectly shackled or shifted. Such revaluations have instigated a return to what was previously tagged as ‘pre-modern’ or ‘primitive’ and ritualistic forms of local traditional art and cosmology.
When I initially looked at the work, I felt as if I was encountering a rudimentary or some primordial forms of nature with its complimentary pairing of order and chaos. At times, it appeared like a kind of artifact, or an amulet that carries hidden codes obscured by tribal symbolism beyond my comprehension. I guess it was meant to capture your own encounter with some forms of tribal arts in Sarawak. The title hints at the idea of a distance or a degree of separation. Indirectly, you may have implied a kind of binary pairing of two opposite values - between living or breathing art and exhibiting art (in Kuala Lumpur), between rural and urban, between belief and practice, religious ritual and commodity, between humans and the natural environment.
For new city dwellers like us who were ‘privileged’ to ‘study art’, being ‘at lost’ when we encountered the so-called ‘primitive crafts’ by ‘other natives’ might be a healthy dose of ‘rude awakening’. We are blessed with rich and diverse cultural traditions, only to unfortunately reduce and marginalize them by a highly blinkered cultural view. I guess all of us may be at some points of our lives, guilty of being chauvinistic in regards to ‘other culture’. Sometimes we did it by choice, sometimes ‘by default’. But I guess it is easy to point and allege ‘others’ as being prejudice and racist rather than pointing at ourselves.
If “FNPKL” was meant to capture a ‘rude awakening’ in regards to your cultural worldview, “The War That Never Ends” (TWTNE) (1995), seems to capture a rather dark and gloomy existentialist sentiment towards your own ‘native’ cultural setting.
“TWTNE” features a silhouette and somewhat hazy image of a keris (Malay dagger) that is enclosed by a triangular shape and rounded form. The work emits a sense of isolation, separation, detachment or even loneliness. For some, it may appear like a close-up shot from a ritualistic episode. It also emits a dreamy and haunting post-apocalypse feel that retains your penchant for a mixture of surrealistic and expressionist undertones.
The overall visual reminds me of several gothic and dark animated shorts from German that I’ve seen few years ago. Perhaps, it is due to the use of low key register in a predominantly constrained monochromatic range. The surface is occupied by clashing brush strokes that create a rough, chalky and hazy texture. The space is shallow, as if I was looking down at a ground or soil or a partially cleared land. The focus seems to be on what is contained within the triangular shape and protected by the rounded form.
I presume that this piece reflects your introspective lamentation of the state of your native cultural backdrop or setting, as implied by the ‘keris’. I suspect that it is akin to a mental or emotional index, or a visual account of your inner encounter with your own notion of being a Malay. Perhaps, it reflects your personal conundrum of being politically-constructed or ‘encircled’ as a ‘bumiputera’ (son of the land).
I can’t shake off the smell of UMNO. Like an over-concern parents, there seems to be a lingering force that is more than willing to contain, construct, position, define, protect and support me as a Malay. For these, I think you and I should be very grateful, appreciative and feel very blessed. Nevertheless, such force may also constrain, restrain, limit, separate and isolate us. But I have to say that such force has nothing to do with my keen interest in ‘keris’ as a beautiful but deadly form of traditional art. Anyway, that is my puzzle. Is it yours too?
Theoretically and thematically, both works can be placed within the framework of cultural identity. Culture and nature can be ideologically constructed and made to be taken as natural. As we are living in the age of ideological and cultural contestation, there is this lingering dichotomy between the center and periphery in regards to the notion of identity.
Perhaps, you would want to compare “TWTNE” to the recent London-inspired works of Bayu Utomo Radjikin (Solo exhibition “Mind Your Gap”, 2007), or Ahmad Fuad Osman’s paintings based on his sojourns in Vermon and South Korea (Solo exhibition “Dislocated” 2007). If you were tired of looking at their works, try pondering Mutalib Musa’s keris-laden “By Default”(2002) or Nur Hanim’s video art called “se(RANG)ga”(2005). You may also want to refer to the work of Hazrul Mazran Rosli’s “M.O.U : Takkan Melayu Hilang Di Dunia”(2004) that reverberates with Malay ‘under siege’ nationalistic sentiment so prevalent during the eighties. Our guru’s work, Ismail Zain’s “DOT : The De-tribalization of Tam Binti Che Lat”(1983) is certainly worth referring too. Certainly, I would be very honored if you would consider viewing my own archaic video pieces entitled “Return of A Native”(1991) and “Kdek-Kdek Ong!” (1994) to revisit the “Malay Dilema”.
Not all Malay artists paint ‘kerawang’ or ‘arabesque’ to affirm their root and identity, or to comment on Malay fatalism. There are many other artworks and writings that you can refer to. Sadly, such works and artists (including you) seem to be underrepresented or not prominently featured in the regional and international art scenes. This makes me curious. Aren’t you curious too?
If you want to get ‘excited’, you can read Sulaiman Esa’s writings, or as an antidote, Piya’s. Or you may want to read Vallentine Willie’s and Jolly Koh’s points of view in “Malaysia Art Now”. Of course, we can babble indefinitely on this issue. In case you are interested, I have delegated the references in my footnotes.(13)