The term ‘guru’ or ‘sifu’ reverberates with a sense of reverence in me. My father was a guru. Despite his vast experience, he used to humbly remind me, “I can teach you how to read the Quran, but only Allah can open your heart.” How true (for me), especially NOW.
My late father also used to advise me, “Hasnul, chose to be a lecturer.” He uttered the advise despite knowing (and acknowledging) how much I love to engage in many forms of creative practice. I chose to become a lecturer partly to honour him. Yet I continue to engage in creative practices. Later in life, I came to realize what he was trying to imply – knowing, making and teaching the arts are complimentary parts of ‘living’ and ‘being’ the arts.
I have a deep respect to those who deserve to be revered as a guru like my father, and other gurus who have been highly instrumental in opening the path of my journey into the arts. Even the annoying ones, in retrospect, should be respected, because they came into my life for many reasons, some of which might not be apparent when they appeared.
I always feel uncomfortable whenever I am referred to as a guru. I don’t deserve such tagging. I carry too many deficits, not to mention deficiencies. I like to think of myself as a ‘gardener’ though.
Now please allow this ‘gardener’ to retrace.
To do so, I need to log off the internet and log into my inner-net. I need to re-trace certain parts of my neural pathways and database, formed by billions of cells in this supercomputer in between my ears.
Perhaps we all should, netizens or what not. Turn off the screen-light, turn on our inner-light. What I’m going to write comes from my mind, but the reverberation comes directly from my heart.
Here we go.
Dissolve in: Internal, day, Fine Art studio, School of Art & Design, UiTM, Shah Alam, 1985.
“Masuk Fine Art ni nak jadi apa?” (So you want to join the Fine Art Department, who do you want to be?) asked an interviewer.
“Nak jadi artist la Encik,” (I want to be an artist!) I replied.
After spending my foundation year under Joseph Tan and Ruzaika Omar Basaree at the School of Art & Design UiTM from 1984 to 1985, I had to go through an interview and portfolio evaluation before I could join the Fine Art Programme. One of the interviewers was a tall, stern-looking yet courteous lecturer. I didn’t know his name then, even though I saw him few times at the Fine Art studios. I knew the name of the other panel though, Fauzan Omar, who was a rather flamboyant character.
I passed the interview, and begun my life for the next three years as a fine art student. The studios became my second home, a rite of passage so-to-speak, for me, a naïve small-town boy. Those three formative years became amongst the most memorable and important periods of my life. They were marked and signified by several key gurus, colleagues, seniors, juniors, events and accounts that have left lasting neural pathways (memories).
I learnt printmaking from Ponirin Amin and Awang Damit, drawing from Tan Tuck Kan, Amron Omar and Ismail Zain, sculpture from Arifin Ismail and Zakaria Awang, painting from Choong Kam Kow and Fauzan Omar, and flirted a bit with computer art under Kamarudzaman Mat Isa. Dzulhaimi Mat Zin, Abu Talib, Ali Rahman, Jahani Ali and Muliyadi Mahamood were my liberal studies gurus. I couldn’t ask for a better set of gurus. They have opened many paths for my journey into the arts. Hard knocks that I received under their tutelage have chiselled and shaped the foundation of my shadowy presence. I am blessed.
Nobody can exist in silo to snobbishly claim total independence, or to claim success without reverting back to those who have helped to shape oneself. Each of us after all, is a bundle of energy in myriads of frequencies, interdependently interconnecting in infinite ways with one another.
My doa (prayer) for all my gurus.
Standing high (literally) amongst these gurus was a tall, stern-looking yet courteous lecturer - Choong Kam Kow, my painting sifu. From this point, I will refer to him as Mr. Choong, my painting guru.
Cut-to: Internal, Day, Kebun Rupa, Penang, Now, October 2014.
My beloved father and life guru, Saidon bin Pandak Noh, had just passed away last June. For a while, I could not write about anything. Sadness prevailed. It was hard to recall my encounter with Mr. Choong without reverting to my late father. Another important figure was Cikgu Aziz, my art teacher. Sadly, he had passed away too. I have to pay my homage.
Saidon bin Pandak Noh was an ustaz. He was also an imam, a taranum (reciting Quran) teacher, a social activist, a founder and committee member of several madrasahs and mosques in Teluk Intan, my rider (on kapcai, who rode me to school), life guru and occasional stand-up comedian, a walking stick during my fall, water during my thirst, light during my darkness.
The guru, Saidon Pandak Noh, with his little disciples, Horley Methodist Primary School, Teluk Intan, early 1970s.
Despite having no interest at all in the visual arts, this ustaz used to bring me to his Chinese friend’s shop (he called him ‘Jin’) to buy made-in-China Marrie’s oil colours. I was more interested in the towkey’s pretty daughter though.
“Hoi, Jin, anak aku nak lukis, ada jual cat tak?” (Hey Jin, my son wants to paint, you sell some paints or not?”).
Crude it may sound, that’s how he used to talk and make lasting friends then, especially in the old pasar (market) in Teluk Intan. He even brought back few wood-dust boards he took from a contractor friend for me to paint on.
I also spent many hours in nearby Cikgu Aziz’s house to watch him paint. I can still smell the oil paints, turpentine, linseed oil and Dunhill in Cikgu Aziz’s studio. These sensations have been etched permanently in my neural pathways.
By then, from 12 to 18 years old, I was already churning out oil paintings, thanks to my late father and Cikgu Aziz.
|Fishing Village, Oil on board, 1977|
Other than Cikgu Aziz, my references were the covers of Readers’ Digest magazine and cheap Indonesian landscape paintings on belacu (thin canvas) sold in pasar malam (night market).
As I entered secondary school, I was already dreaming of becoming an artist. One fine day in 1984, my father drove me to Ipoh for an interview and portfolio review by the School of Art & Design UiTM. Due to miscommunication, I missed the interview. Yet, he was persistence. He persuaded the interviewer, Ahmad Khiri Zain (who was about to pack up), to review my portfolio. Luckily, he kindly obliged. He gave me five minutes to draw a ‘dream’, looked at my portfolio, glanced at my drawing, and later pulled out few pasted photographs from my album. Then he said to me, ”Hasnul, you can get these back from me when you come to UiTM to register.” Ahmad Khiri had also passed away.
Going to UiTM and having Mr. Choong as one of my painting gurus, was a fitting takdir, or fate. A blessing too, perhaps due to the support and doa (prayer) from my mother and late father. A prayer from one guru, had led me to another fine guru, and so on like joining dots, to continue in shaping my journey.
Upon losing several dear gurus, I have become more appreciative, if not melancholic, in revisiting and expressing my gratitude.
Back to Mr. Choong.
Slow dissolve: External, night, camping site, Tasik Chini, Pahang, 1987.
It was an open busking session, the usual itinerary for field trip activities organized by the Fine Art Department, School of Art & Design, UiTM, under the Head of Programme, Fauzan Omar. The Chini trip was co-organized by the Malaysian Artists Association, headed then by the eminent Ahmad Khalid Yusoff.
The night was clear, the cicadas were singing. The mood was laid-back. Clusters of students, lecturers and Malaysian artists were happily chatting.
I was given the role of a designated singer by Fauzan, who lend his precious guitar for me to pluck. Together with Taufik Abdullah, Allahyarham Roskang Jailani and Zaki, Mohd Amin Busu, Hamidi Basar and Sallehuddin Marwan, we provided the much-needed entertainment break after spending the whole day touring, photographing and sketching the legendary lake and its adjoining areas. Roskang sang an improvised blues number in his native Jawa language, together with his own D.I.Y harmonica, using a combination of his comb and a piece of paper. Fauzan sang his favourite Ela’s number. He even composed his own song while fishing by the lake. His song ‘Chini’, was later complimented by a lyric penned by my buddy, Taufik Abdullah. It became the Department’s theme song. It also became a personal index for my UiTM experience, including those involving Mr. Choong.
‘Chini’ brought me back to the most memorable event that night - a rare performance by our very own Chong Kam Kow, who was sporting enough to sing a song that got everyone singing along with him in full delight. Respected and known by his students for his ‘guru besar’ (head master) stern yet courteous demeanour, we didn’t expect him to be a ‘party-friendly dude’. Yet, there he was, sitting amongst us together with his wife and children, enjoying (or maybe tolerating) our idiosyncratic antics. Cool.
“Not, bad, this guru besar, Mr. Choong,” I remember saying to myself.
Rare moment. Mr. Choong (on the right) with his wife and son, listening to my rock kapak numbers.
Slow dissolve: External, day, Bako National Park, Sarawak, 1987.
Fauzan Omar a.k.a ‘Tom Selleck’ (far right in dark t.shirt), briefing his students at Tasik Biru, Bau, Sarawak, 1987.
In that same year, we organized another field trip, this time to Sarawak. Our handsome ‘chief’(Head of Fine Art Department), Fauzan Omar, was all for ‘living and breathing’ the arts and culture, rather than merely learning and knowing in lecture rooms and studios. We were encouraged bv him and Mr. Choong to ‘get out’, explore and study ‘other cultures’ beyond our comfort zones.
Mohd Amin Busu, Mr. Choong and I, on a boat trip to Bako National Park, Sarawak, 1987.
One of the visited sites was the Bako National Park. We took a boat. This time, I played the role of a designated body-guard, for Mr. Choong. Another buddy, Mohd Amin Busu, also played similar role, as body guards normally come in pair. We protected our sifu, out of respect. Perhaps, there was also a veiled interest, to protect our grades! We were very competitive, especially in getting an ‘A’ for painting, as it was taken then as the ‘mother’ of all subjects.
Upon reaching the site, we wandered around.
Few of us came upon a majestic cliff. We were amazed by the colourful and alluring natural patterns on the cliff. As students of fine art, we were required to document interesting visual elements that can be discovered during our field trip. As we were documenting the visually enticing texture, Mr. Choong came hurriedly from behind, waving his hands.
“Ini saya punya, itu saya punya juga, saya sudah booked!” (This is mine, that’s mine too, I’ve already booked!) he told us excitedly with a smile, while pointing at the cliff.
“Mana boleh Sir, kami yang jumpa dulu!” (no way Sir, we found it first!), one of us replied.
By then, we were quite familiar with his tactile ‘cendawan’(mushroom) works, known as the ‘growth’ series. We could sense then that he was referring to the texture on the cliffs as his next object of reference.
Few months later after the trip, I saw few new works by Mr. Choong based on the Bako texture. Witnessing (experiencing) the actual object of reference, and seeing the results of Mr. Choong’s interpretation of it through a skilfully-executed series of painting, has become one of my earliest lessons on painting. As I was scrutinizing his new series, I felt inspired to seek, acquire, honour and respect the importance of mastering a particular skill, technique and style, whilst developing fluency with the language of painting, especially colours and composition. Yet, I found staying in one particular medium, technique, style and approach as hard or difficult. My experimental urge was too strong to overcome. I was impatience. Young heart perhaps.
Despite my experimental inclination, Mr. Choong’s Bako texture stayed in me for quite a while.
Cut-to: “Jambori Rimba” (1996) and “Mohon” (2010) from “Veil of an artist” series.
Mr. Choong’s Bako’s texture re-appeared in “Jambori Rimba” a collaborative audience-interactive project I did with two electro-acoustic duo friends from the USA, Barton and Priscillia McLean. It also re-appeared again through one of my paintings in the “Veil of an artist” series.(1)
A teacher’s influence may manifest in many different ways through-out different moments of time, in the works of his/her disciple. In my case, it was through the colour and textural treatment of my video and painting works.
Cut-to: Internal, day, opening of Amron Omar’s solo “Pertarungan” at the National Visual Art Gallery, 2012
I met Mr.Choong several times during openings of exhibitions, mostly in Kuala Lumpur. One of them was during the opening of Amron Omar’s solo at the National Visual Art Gallery in 2012. Amron used to be one of his students too. I took few pictures with Mr.Choong and reminisced about his painting classes during my UiTM years.
Cut to: Internal, day, Fine Art studio, School of Art & Design, UiTM, Shah Alam, 1985-88.
Mr. Choong used to come to the painting studio with his long stick like a discipline master. No, not to cane us, but perhaps to signify his strong emphasis on discipline and respect towards painting medium, media, tools, equipment, technique, etiquette, style, genre and skill.
We were required to make our own palette, stretcher, and even easel, all of which were graded. We were taught the proper etiquette in using the palette, arranging, maintaining and storing our brushes, and priming our canvas. He used to run his fingers across the four sides of our canvas to check on any inconsistency in the way we stretched it. “Weak stretching here at this part, potong markah!(reduce the grades!)”
“Colours are dynamics, surrounding colours influence all objects. You have a good skill, but your colours are too monochromatic,” Mr. Choong’s comment on my 2nd. year still life painting assignment, oil paint on plywood, 1985.
By our third year, we were already used to his guru besar style of asserting painting skill, visual proficiency and mastery of technique, that at times could be taken as annoying for impatient students lacking of ‘painting-correctness.’
He used to caution me over my reliance on photographic documentation to produce realistic painting, resulting in a monochromatic range that didn’t reflect an understanding of the dynamics of colours. Colours he reminded, are a phenomena of light, never stay, never fixed, always intersecting, reflective, absorbing and emitting in different frequencies.
During the third year painting class, students were required to paint a full figure and portrait based on a life model. At one point, we were confused about the use of white, especially in getting the right mix to create a fair skin colour, without turning our painting muddy, chalky or powdery.
Few students who were too eager and hasty to put white pigment during the early stage of under-painting were cautioned, as they were turning their portraits bad. To illustrate his point and offer an example, Mr. Choong brought a portrait painting of himself, painted by Amron Omar. He asked us to study the painting, or even ask Amron himself on how he mixed his colours. Few of us went to seek Amron.
We also went to the 1st floor of Permanent Collection section of the old National Art Gallery (Majestic building) to study Amron’s Potret Diri. We scrutinized his work by mixing colours using oil pastel sticks, and comparing them with his.
Lucky for us, Amron himself was invited by Fauzan Omar to teach drawing. I even went to Amron’s house to check on his methods - another case example of one guru leading to another guru and so on, joining dots, creating a lasting learning path and experience.
From Mr. Choong and Amron, I learned about the elusive nature of tonality or the quality of light and dark, especially in distorting forms. Both stressed on the importance of understanding structure, especially planes, in constructing forms. They used to remind me of the fallacy of over-styling, over-dramatizing and over-staging figurative subject through over-play of light and dark (chiaroscuro) in an illustrative manner, as that would not help me understand form.
“In the shadow, there are many intersecting colours, coming from the surrounding ambiance, not just black and dark. In the darkest part of a human form, there are hidden planes, not flat.”
One can trace such formalist bearings of Mr. Choong, Amron and Fauzan in my paintings and drawings, as well as E-art works. There are also traces of Ponirin’s cross-media tendency and Ismail Zain’s semiotic. I am proud to acknowledge this. One can’t discuss about my works without mentioning their influences.
Cut to: External, day, Mount Kinabalu Guest House, half-way from the peak, Sabah, 1987.
“Choong, no way I’m going to let you climb to the top!” Fauzan gave his warning before we continued to climb to the peak of Mount Kinabalu at around 2 a.m. Mr. Choong was in his climbing cloth and gear, ready to go. Eight hours before, during the first phase climb to the Guest House half-way from the peak, his face was turning paper white, his legs trembling, unable to walk, and he was struggling to breathe. About one hundred metres away from reaching the Guest House, few students had to carry him. We were so worried. Yet, after a break at the Guest House, he was determined to continue the climb, only to finally oblige his boss’s (Fauzan) directive.
A persistence and determined (some would call stubborn) artist-guru, Mr. Choong Kam Kow. Well, he survived a colon cancer surgery in 2005.
Cut-to: Internal, Creative Center, National Art Gallery, 1997.
One of the ‘high’ moments I had with Mr. Choong was during the judging of Malaysian Young Contemporaries 1997. I was invited, together with Mr. Choong, who was then the Head of Jury. It was
an honour of course, to be in the same company with my sifu, judging one of the most important competitions in the country.
It was also a time when many non-conventional entries through installation and multi-media works were received. Being trained in E-art in the USA, and having acquired a different take on the linguistic paradigm of what I took as contemporary art practice then (post-modernist deconstructive stance), I anticipated a heated ideological clash with him as we went through some of the more experimental and explorative works. I was also expecting a strong resistance to such works from him, as I had encountered similar response from those who were traditionally conditioned and trained according to the clearly-demarcated modernist practice of painting, drawing, sculpture and printmaking.
I could sense Mr. Choong’s subtle resistance as he said, “We’ll see whether these are just some passing fads, or strong enough to pass through the test of time.”
Yet, he was kind enough to allow me to present my argument, despite my sometimes big-headed, snob and abrasive verbosity. Throughout the judging session, he displayed his usual cool and courteous demeanour, surprisingly open to new ways of reading and approaching contemporary art beyond the formalist confine of painting.
The fact that we had chosen an unconventional installation piece by Sooshie Sulaiman as the winner, is perhaps indicative of Mr.Choong’s open attitude towards promising new approaches in the contemporary art practice then.
Cycle of guru-disciple and lineage of teaching-learning
Sooshie is now one of the most critically acclaimed contemporary artists, not only in Malaysia, but also in the international contemporary art scene. Nowadays, she occasionally takes the role of a mentor for few young local artists, another case example of a cycle of opening a path for other younger artists’ life journey in the arts, passing through from one generation to the next. Sooshie’s own guru-mentor during her student days, as attested by her, was Joseph Tan, my foundation guru (and early collector of my work!). Connecting dots again!
Several other students of Mr. Choong from the 1986/7/8 batches such as Tengku Sabri, Mastura Abdul Rahman, Haron Mokhtar, Mustaffa Kamal, Abu Sareh, Mohd Noor Mahmud, Zulkifli Yusuf, Allahyarham Roskang Jailani, Suhaimi Tular and Zainon Abdullah have become gurus themselves, teaching and lecturing in schools and universities. Other than teaching, they have also continued to produce works. Other much braver souls such as Shukri Elias (Lennon) and Mohd Fauzin Mustaffa, have become full-time artists, charting their own career paths.
Admittedly, as a lecturer and like a proud father, I like to brag about my students. Of course when I was teaching painting and drawing, part of Mr.Choong’s embedded influences came through me. If my students want to give thanks to me, good, alhamdulillah, syukran. Nonetheless, they have to revert back to Mr. Choong (and other key gurus of mine) as well. The bragging right is not for me alone. We are all connected, remember. Mental-emotional relations between humans are far more complex and intertwined in a complex web of quantum interconnectivity, beyond all the superficial boundaries that we can normally politicised, intellectualized and discoursed.
Connecting dots - Flanked by ex-student Tan Sei Hon (left) and ex-guru Ponirin Amin (right), during judging of Johor Open, 2011.
Underneath all the bragging, politics and dramas of charting a career path, is the cycle and lineage of guru-disciple that needs to be respected, honoured and revered, regardless of whether one is a superstar full-time artist, an angry man, Mat Rock pencen, a public servant, a bureaucrat, a renegade, a professor or not (yet).
Today, such a revered cycle of guru-disciple that forms a lineage of teaching-learning has at times being obscured by other more populist discourses and immediate forces of contemporary art practice, especially those driven by the ebb and flow of the art market.
At times, I felt as if the ground underneath is shifting beyond the ‘rule of play’ that I’m used to. It makes me ponder the fate of the early generations of artists-gurus especially in honouring the significant roles that they have played in laying the foundation of visual arts education in Malaysia.
Let us retrace.
The writings of Syed Sheikh Al-Hadi around 1920s, Lim Hak Thai and Nanyang artists in 1930s, Abdullah Ariff and A.B Ibrahim, Peter Harris and Specialist Teachers Training Institute (STTI) in 1950s, writings by M.Ashraf, Abdul Ghani Hamid, Adi Mas dan Abdul Kadir Ahmad in 1950s(2), Tay Hooi Keat and Penang Art Teachers Council in 1950s, Syed Ahmad Jamal, Anthony Lau, Yeoh Jin Leng and the Malayan Teachers Training College at Kirby in 1950s, Jolly Koh, Redza Piyadasa, Sulaiman Esa and Hornsey College of Art in 1960s, Ismail Zain and Slade in 1960s, Malaysia Institute of Art, School of Art & Design, ITM and Kuala Lumpur College of Art in 1960s, all these can be considered as key figures and institutions that formed the historical and theoretical grounding for visual arts education in Malaysia. One can also trace the cycle of guru-disciple as well as the lineage of teaching-learning through these key figures and institutions, and how they have critically influenced the successive generations of visual artists.(3)
The successive and linear tracing of teaching-learning lineage may have been further diversified by the offerings of visual arts programmes in local institutions of higher learning, with their own interpretations and versions of visual arts education embedded in their syllabus and curriculum. The teaching-leaning lineage has bifurcated into various trajectories, forming a web of multi-dimensional and interconnecting influences. Today, numbers of visual arts lecturers with Phds have increased, though I am not sure whether such increment indicates rise of quality artists-gurus.
With the passing of key artists-gurus such as Ismail Zain, Redza Piyadasa and Syed Ahmad Jamal, critical primary data on the contribution of artists-gurus towards the early development of visual arts education will be harder to ascertain. Other than Mr. Choong Kam Kow, artists-gurus such as Yeoh Jin Leng, Jolly Koh and Sulaiman Esa should be reproached to unveil and honour their contributions in education, not just for their studio practice alone.
Yes, we can brag about our success stories, degrees we have collected, accolade, awards, purchased and collected works, successful solo show, strong collectors and followers, big house complete with a studio, workshop and gallery, fancy cars and so on. We can even belittle those who have chosen to dedicate their life to teaching. Or we can demean them by implying that they can’t survive ‘in the real world’. I’ve witnessed several stolen souls who like to demean their ex-teachers/lecturers such way. Sadly, even teaching itself has become a ‘profession’ quantitatively measured by KPIs (Key Performance Indicators) that may have very little to do with being a ‘guru’. No surprise there. After-all, we are living in a competitive age that stresses on not only ‘getting’ and ‘having’, but also ‘appearing’ and ‘showing’, especially on the internet.
Yet, true success for me begins with pacifying and calming the ripples (or even tsunami) of our own inner-net, in order to see our ‘true reflection’. Only a real guru can help us pacify and calm our ripples, open our path and guide us in seeking our true reflection. Ya I know, I sound like an ustaz, couldn’t help it, my late father used to be one okay.
Let us honour and revere the cycle of guru-disciple and the lineage of teaching-learning that have shaped us to become who we are NOW, and every NOW in our life.
Al-fatihah for you, Bapak, my life guru.
Thank you Mr. Choong Kam Kaw, my painting guru.