The following is two parts of an original essay written for the book 'Matahati' published by Petronas Art Gallery in conjunction with the groups major show in 2008. It covers a repertoire of Masnoor Ramli's works. Due to space constraint, this original essay was edited and re-edited to fit the editorial requirement of the publication. The following is a part of the original version. Other parts will be posted in sections.
THROUGH THE ‘EYES’ AND ‘HEART’ OF A FRIEND
Hasnul J Saidon
Good and beautiful things are normally not to be seen or touched. They are meant to be felt.
I think I might have taken the above quote from Hellen Keller. I believe that it captures the spirit of love and friendship that I have taken for granted in the midst of ‘sustaining a career’. It lingers in my mind as I’m writing this.
1.1 The Riddles of Sustaining A Friendship
My dear friend Masnoor.
Thank you for inviting me to write about you and your work. Thank you for traveling to Penang to spend some time with me and to provide me with all the necessary materials. I will treasure them as a ‘trust’ that only a few privileged souls would be honored to keep. Thank you for your willingness to share your journey as an artist. I welcomed your invitation as an honor, but took it as a weighty responsibility. Anyway, thank you.
Masnoor my friend.
The word ‘friend’ can be a very elusive term in today’s age of instantaneous communication. A lot have changed for the past 19 years, especially since our youthful days in UiTM. Today, its not about ‘getting high’ (with youthful idealism), but ‘getting real’. As I had written to our fellow friend Hamidi before :
“We are living in a country that is anxious to reach its ‘vision 2020’. After all, most of us would readily subscribe to an urban lifestyle as dictated by the ebbs and flow of free market liberalism, globalization (read Western) and the novelties of information and communication technology. Even lifestyle itself can be perceived as a form of industry and a money making business”.(1)
“Some of us would aspire to emulate the ways of a post-industrial society – contemporary, liberal, efficient, professional, high-tech, trendy, hip, and don’t forget – rich. It is a society of ‘spectacle’ in which impression, brand presence, positioning, business acumen and strategic planning are critical to one’s political, social, and economic survival. It is a society that is supposed to operate on a highly specialized, systematic, organized, rational, and objective system - a legacy left by the operational logic of industrial paradigm. Progress, development and success are highly equated by tangible material gains and numerical indexes”.(2)
Today, friendship can be easily swallowed by the need to be highly perceptive towards the forces of the market. Instead of simply being a ‘friend’ and valuing our ‘friendship’, we may start to look each other “as a ‘commodity’ striving for a ‘competitive market value’”.(3)
Friendship in today’s age of ‘glocalization’ can also be very clinical. Even the term ‘friend’ has sometimes being elevated to ‘professional networks’. Sadly, you and I may begin to look at each other as either a ‘collaborator’ or a ‘competitor’. We may also equate a ‘friend’ within the framework of our ‘hidden agenda’, ‘promotional, marketing and branding strategy’, and the need to expand our ‘profit margin’. With our ‘mata’(eyes), we may begin to be suspicious of everything, and at the same time, always looking for ‘strategic extension’ of our ‘career path’.
With our left brain, we may plan rigorously and strategize regularly. Our mind will begin to breed on a claim of objectivity and being ‘independent’, which will then entail us to separate ourselves as the ‘observers’ from the ‘observed’. Consequently, we may grow an appetite to control or to dominate others (including our friends).
Instead of inter or co-dependency, we may proudly yell ‘independence’ (a delusion that has been proven ‘primitive’ by quantum physic). What we may not realize is that it will also create layers upon layers of veils to discriminate, analyze, differentiate, and separate. But who cares!, It will greatly assist us to dwell into the economics of income, earnings, revenue, proceeds, turnover, profits and loss! We need to get real, remember!
In the midst of all these, what will happen to our ‘hati’ (heart), my friend Masnoor?
Perhaps, with our ‘hati’(heart), we may begin to ‘veil’our soul with self-glorification, self-centeredness, greed, envy, jealousy, and hate. Today’s friendship can be easily tested by these ‘lures’. These lures tempt every soul without discrimination. No matter how submissive we are to the stereotypical ethnic identification that we have inherited from our colonial legacy, these lures will tempt us regardless.
Masnoor my friend.
Forgive my sarcastic ranting. I need to get it out of my system before I can write with a clear conscience. 19 years of friendship cannot be simply demoted to ‘a task’ or ‘an assignment’ or ‘a project’ with a given ‘dateline’. Forgive me for the apparent lack of urgency (some would use ‘professionalism’) and having to take (or waste) some time to ‘detoxify’.
Now, I hope I can engage and write peacefully.
1.2 The Enigma of Transcribing the ‘Hati’(heart).
Most of what I will write about will be based on my personal encounters with your artworks for the past 19 years. Most of the encounters were primary, meaning that I had spent some quality time engaging directly with the works when they were exhibited or screened. Some of the encounters came from secondary sources – your own documentation (videos, pictures, press reviews), and exhibition catalogues. Of course, I will add some spices by employing several theoretical frameworks and contexts. I know that we might end up feeling dizzy or ‘high’, but I guess I don’t mind taking that risk. My approach is not chronological, but thematic. Since your artworks feature various trajectories, I have to employ a combination of methods - formalism, semiotic (which relates to deconstruction, intertextuality, simulacra) as well as a restrained use of psycho-analytic and spiritual frameworks. Most of the time, I will try to be ‘rooted’ to the local contexts.
I will also rely on what others have written and said about you, from exhibition catalogues, press reviews and interviews (sometimes bordering on gossiping). Simply put, the whole writing will be based from what I saw with my ‘mata’(eyes) and what I felt with my ‘hati’(heart).
Certainly, the ‘hati’ part is best told or narrated by you. Initially, I thought about using Al-Ghazali’s elaboration of ‘mata hati’ to propose my reading of your group’s name.(4) I think the name of your group is very beautiful, important and has a very deep spiritual connotation. It would be interesting to know where the idea of using the name ‘Matahati’ came from, before the formation of the Group.
In recalling the initial formation of Matahati at UiTM, Rahime Harun writes:
“While at MARA they sowed the seeds of wanting to create a ‘garden of art’ with the vision to enliven and brighten the somewhat lackluster art scene in the nation”.(5) I do hope that you and your friends have succeeded in enliven and brighten the local art scene, perhaps with the Group’s hearts.
But since the significance of the group’s name will probably be done by the appointed Chief Curator and another appointed writer, I will focus on you as instructed. Anyway, even if I wanted to quote Al-Ghazali in explaining your work, it would probably turn this writing into a ‘khutbah’ (sermon) or make it sound corny. That was my enigma.
When it comes to ‘hati’, the cliché assumption is that an artist should not be required to explain his or her work. Such assumption can sometimes be used as a veil. Since I know that you don’t like cliché things, I will also refer to your diary or personal notes on your artistic journey. But the reading of your work will mostly be mine. I propose that you include some of your personal notes as a separate entry in the catalogue.
Another enigma is that no matter how ‘independent’ you may claim to be, I hope you will be open to the notion that your ‘identity’ as a visual artist may be a ‘construct’ – build by a combination of overlapping matrix of relationship, not just with ‘friends’. As mentioned by Adeline Ooi in her “Thoughts on Matahati PL 1999”:
“Identity is a construct. Perception constantly changes. It is never absolute, only relative”. (6)
This ‘relative construct’ relate directly to my previous ranting. The players and movers within the intertwining matrix are your fellow artists, curators, writers, gallery owners, collectors, editors, journalists, and almost anybody who has become a symbiotic part of the local art scene (and in today’s age of ‘gobble’lization, includes regional and international art scenes). The matrix will continue to construct and re-construct your ‘image’ by defining, explaining, positioning, marketing, promoting, hyping, acknowledging, validating, celebrating, and glorifying you, or even deconstruct you by doing the opposites.
I understand that ‘meanings’ and meaningful things in such matrix can be ‘lost in translation’. I don’t have to elaborate on this. Shahnaz Said has explicated rather eloquently on this and on what she called the ‘third meaning’ in her essay for your “Matahati PL” exhibition, held in the Petronas Gallery in 1999 :
“In a desire for the construction of a vibrant contemporary context for art, they have maneuvered a means for critical dialogue through an exhibition agenda in which topical issues are brought to the fore. In order for dialogue to take place, language must be founded on voices heard”.(7)
At the end of the whole thing, you may end up reading the voices of my ‘mata’ and my ‘hati’. How ironic isn’t it.
But then again, the ‘I’ in ‘my’ can also be taken as a accumulation of ‘voices heard’, a kind of endless strings of intangible frequencies or vibrations that manifest themselves in a localized or physical form as MASNOOR RAMLI : THROUGH THE ‘EYES AND ‘HEART’ OF A FRIEND.
My reviews will be broken into 7 parts, since 7 is an auspicious number according to