26 May 2014

The Fine Art Of Fabrics @ Sasana Kijang (II)

Syed Ahmad Jamal's tutorship is apparent in Sivam Selvaratnam's early works, where geometrical shapes and grid arrangements display a formal approach. Nevertheless, Sivam quickly broke away from this tradition with hand-drawn curved lines, especially evident in her never-perfect squares and rectangles. Studies for 'The Message' denote an understanding of abstraction, as a view from behind an archway transforms into orange swirls in the final painting. A variety of exhibits from 1969 show wilful experimentations, one astonishing example being 'Floral Monochrome II', a delightful illustration etched onto aluminium foil for printmaking. Garbed on a mannequin is the "Malaysian Sunshine" design on cloth, first presented to the mayor of Manchester in her student days.

Sivam Selvaratnam - Floral Monochrome II (1969)

'In Circles II' presents a square in the middle of four concentric circles, the artist's freehand imbuing a breezy quality into the pleasant design. In a curious move, decades-old patterns by Sivam are recreated on cloth, its minimal and repetitive motifs as fashionable and even more striking than Orla Kiely. Ruzz Gahara and Nelissa Hilman, local batik and shoe designers respectively, utilise her art output on their products, hereby acknowledging Sivam as a pioneer in Malaysian textiles. The final part of this wonderful exhibition shows Fatimah Chik, who reverts to traditional batik chop prints, and confidently eschews the batik painting method pioneered by Chuah Thean Teng. Following on from Syed Ahmad, Islamic art notions of form and space are prevalent in her geometrical configurations.

Fatimah Chik - Gunungan (1993)

Formal properties in Fatimah's works vary by time period, and the exhibition does well to bring together a variety for comparison's sake. In 'Meditation 1' and 'Mentari Senja', repeated symmetrical motifs induce a serene disposition. Visual elements that break a balanced composition, last seen in Syed Ahmad's diagonals and Sivam's non-perfect square, do make a welcome appearance in Fatimah's framed batik pieces. Stylised designs are left uncoloured in 'Gunungan', while spaces between the squares in 'Meditation 2' display an assortment of ornaments. True to its title, these small variations aid introspection upon appreciation, a characteristic most pronounced in the rousing flames at the centre of 'Mandalara No. 7'. A unifying theme in Fatimah's pre-millennium works is the 'Nusantara Motif', its stylised figures recognised as an amalgamation of regional shapes, but to me recall an uncanny resemblance to Incan textiles.

Fatimah Chik - Meditation 2 (1993)

The later works on display fail to inspire - keris on batik does not narrate 'Hang Tuah', and a collection of abstract forms resemble Khalil Ibrahim's batik pieces made forty years earlier. 'Alami', a collage of leftover batik, represents the quirkiness of a mood board and all its trappings. Handmade batik chops are displayed, itself beautiful tools to be appreciated. Completing the exhibition are five large hangings that represent Muslim prayer times, an intricate display of spiritual affinity internalised into visual shapes. In this age where fire extinguisher foam is used on canvas, fabric as fine art is an irrelevant concern. The thorough approach and strong curated effort mark this exhibition an outstanding one, even if it is just to better understand a medium, or three innovative Malaysian artists.

Installation view of Fatimah Chik [1993, from l to r]: Subuh; Zohor; Asar; Maghrib; Isyak

21 May 2014

The Good Malaysian Woman: Ethnicity, Religion, Politics @ Black Box

A collaboration between a women's rights group and an art gallery, this exhibition aims "to get Malaysians to rethink how women's identities and lives are shaped by the pernicious combination of ethnicity, religion and politics." Good as a moral term means little, but to situate the argument within a local context interests me, notwithstanding the superb line up of participating artists. Most exhibited works are purposely made, although some artists' existing practice already illustrate the ambitious theme, such as the biting allegories by Shia Yih Yiing and inflated balloons by Cheng Yen Pheng. Few whom are not visual artists produce beguilingly political works, in particular the hijab-wearing photographer J. Redza, and activist/documentary maker Norhayati Kaprawi. 'Panas Betul' draws a voluptuous wanita berkemban fanning herself, recalling a traditional and natural dress sense disappearing in the face of religious moderation.

Jasmine Kok - Beauty & Strength (2014)

Also contributed by women activists are short stories printed in the exhibition catalogue, i.e. two engaging writings about Hang Jebat's concubine, and the sheer power of Mahsuri. Such readings restore the limelight on the heroine figure, lost within our increasingly Islamic and patriarchal Malaysian society. Curators express equal parts fear and audacity in staging this exhibition, where artists negotiate between the liberty of expression and practical self-censorship. Sharon Chin dispels these concerns as self-imposed obstacles, with her deck of iPhone cut-outs, scattered across a red clothed dining table. Featuring drawings and screenshots relating to Vivian Lee of Alvivi fame, the work poses questions about the judgemental appeal of social media, and those that indulge in it. Selfies and Facebook comments democratise the public persona, yet the price of fame endures precariously beyond 15 minutes.

Printed scans from Sharon Chin - Vivian Lee, Social Portrait (2014)

The Guerilla Girls once stated that "fewer than 5% of the modern works in the Metropolitan Museum in New York were by women, but 85% of the nudes were female". Feminist art revelations are not applicable here, but the statistics clearly indicate that women artists are under-represented. As an art enthusiast, this means there are more creative expressions to be appreciated. This exhibition hurdles the perception of a "woman's show" and shows good art. Greeting the visitor is Bibi Chew's woodcuts, where symbols of society's expectations of women, are carved into female head silhouettes. Attractive examples include the theatre mask and the oven mitt, which less obvious connotations complement her scale-like incisions. Louise Low's 'Respect Yourself, Respect Your Body' creates the protruding form of a sexy lady from woven thread, its diamond-shaped configuration further adhering to an international contemporary style.

Front and side view of Louise Low - Respect Yourself, Respect Your Body (2013)

Yim Yen Sum negates the functional value of household objects by immersing it in emulsion, which static presentation hampers any intent for social commentary. Projecting opposite it is Okui Lala's video 'Sewing and Sew Eng', where mother and daughter join together leftover cloths, whilst operating their respective sewing machines. The split-screen composition delineates the generation gap, via juxtapositions of appliances, tables, subjects, intents, and work approaches. Capturing a functional action to create a dysfunctional product (on display and invites audience inspection), this performance demonstrates a dynamic negotiation across epochs. Deep-rooted connections beset this intercourse, revealing cultural norms that cannot be compromised, i.e. the Hokkien dialect, and the act of sewing. This outstanding artwork adopts a positive slant, among others which tackle negatively-perceived themes like power hierarchies and sexism.

Video stills from Okui Lala - Sewing and Sew Eng (2014)

Language is one vehicle for social engineering, which the folks at TypoKaki successfully subvert by creating new Chinese characters. Their small red dictionary introduces the compound character 女 woman into the Malaysian vocabulary, convincingly making up individual ideograms that represent women's rights-related ideas. 字 Words described in writing strokes and romanised pronunciation diminish its political properties, an implied thought which changes the way I look at dictionaries and accents in the future. Izan Tahir's 'Contemplating the Void' displays gender-biased words underlying an illustrated vulva, while Intan Rafiza translates her poem 'Pembawa' into painting. Jasmine Kok's "Corset" series recalls Ruth Asawa's wire sculptures, but its focus on the female body imbues deeper associations than aesthetic ones, relating to an oppressive device that served also as a personal burden.

Snapshots from TypoKaki - 《女人的字》| Perkataan-Perkataan Perempuan | Women's Words (2014)

One diptych from Yee I-Lann's latest series "Picturing Power" is displayed, the curious image of a black gown floating outside an apartment window denying any plausible interpretations. Another local photographer Minstrel Kuik exhibits a booth with two long and one tall group of pictures, exploring in turn one prime minister's facial expressions, durians & mangos, and a woman's social identity in different places. Incongruous at first sight, "The Rhetoric of Love" centres on a humorous analogy about power with local fruits, flanked by a stop-motion display of eloquent paternalism, and the individual exposed to gender stereotypes. Concise exhibition notes provide sufficient contexts while viewing the artworks, an important move taking into account the expected variety of visitors. This exhibition is incidentally felicitous, at a time when a political candidate is denounced in the media for her gender, ethnicity, and religion.

Snapshots from Minstrel Kuik - Father says he loves me (2014)

16 May 2014

505·祭墨 The Worship @ 茨廠家鄉音館 Petaling Street Art House

Chinese ideograms continue to fascinate, with its flexibility of compound arrangements, and evolution from pictorial representation. To commemorate one year after the wishful watershed of GE13, Petaling Street Art House stages a unique display of calligraphy and performance art. Pang Heng Khan 彭庆勤 appropriates the Fulu 符箓, a Taoist talisman written on yellow paper that summons spirits for exorcism and protection purposes. Ascending the stairs, one is greeted by a mixture of mustiness and agarwood (?) scents, the space crowded with paraphernalia placed upon furniture salvaged from its historical surroundings. Scrolls hang from the ceiling and walls, while a central altar and incense sticks remind of a worship ceremony held earlier. A video loop of such rituals is projected behind for the curious observer; One is standing in the government-designated tourist area called Chinatown after all.

KiniTV coverage of "505‧祭墨" exhibition

Obscured from view are 'The 24 Solar Terms in Lunar Calendar 二十四节令', a non-satirical yet essential work that melds into the condensed atmosphere, setting the tone for other proclamations hung around it. Red invocations are paired with Chinese proverbs playfully informed with animal references, notable favourites being '鼠一鼠二' and '猪事顺利'. Contemporary concerns include wishing for the peaceful return of one missing aeroplane, and two quotable quotes by recently deceased lawyer Karpal Singh. Augmenting black ink creates striking contrast in larger works such as '镇国安民 Save The Country and Peoples', which incantations are directed to popular Malaysian deities, thereby surfacing the question of cultural identity within a nationalist framework. '净' Citizen Rights: Clean and Fair' encapsulates perfectly the dictum of the Bersih movement, its single expressive monogram prescribing a summon issued by the rakyat.

彭庆勤 - 鼠一鼠二

The Fu 符, with its scrawling characters acting as charms, is typically only issued by an authorised Taoist practitioner. Heng Khan's political works bypass this present hierarchy, but remain respectful of its stylistic and symbolic references. This conscious choice/act rings of a recalcitrant desperation - if ballot boxes do not rid us of bigoted politicians, perhaps traditional talismans will.
- 吾土我歌, a mandarin translation of Negaraku written on calligraphic scroll by Pang Heng Khan

彭庆勤 - 镇国安民

13 May 2014

The Fine Art Of Fabrics @ Sasana Kijang (I)

Bank Negara's art gallery director Lucien De Guise observes, that "(i)n Malaysia, where textiles are the lifeblood of the nation’s creative heritage, textiles have an elevated position." This exhibition attempts to classify textiles as fine art, making reference to three established Malaysians whom also share mentor-student relationships. Exhibited at the entrance are formative examples of the represented artists - Syed Ahmad Jamal's geometrical forms, Sivam Selvaratnam's joyful designs, and Fatimah Chik's symmetrical batik chops. A major contributor to local art, Syed Ahmad successfully blurs the line between craftsman and artist, evident in the splendid vertical designs displayed. From University of Malaya's collection, the iconic 'Allah' utilises shimmering threads in its jawi calligraphy, set upon a harmonious stack of colour bands.

Syed Ahmad Jamal - Tumpal (1975)

In his efforts to craft a local identity which matured into the adage Rupa dan Jiwa, Syed Ahmad turned away from "curving brush strokes in the 60s to solid and tranquil pictorial structures in the late 70s, based on the design of pandan mats..." (Syed Ahmad Jamal, Seni Rupa Islam) This minimalist shift is manifest in tumpal, a triangle that represents the artist's spiritual beliefs, distilled through the relationship between three lines. In 'Tumpal' (acrylic painting), a golden pyramid floats in the middle of the canvas, its diagonal lines connecting heaven and earth. The songket work bearing the same title, however, features two triangular forms at top and bottom. The atmospheric background of blended paint is replaced by horizontal colour bars, but a strong sense of serenity remains because of its distinguished shapes.

Syed Ahmad Jamal - Adelaide (1985)

Translating a painted landscape onto cloth is the binding objective, wherein shades and tones project visual depth. In 'Adelaide', made ten years later, an impressionist vista with river and trees, emerge from a geometrical configuration. Gold and silver threads illuminate basic shapes, while the harmony of colours underlie an unbearably idyllic scene. Form and representation carry equal weight in the accomplished 'Hujan Pelangi', its shimmering bars spaced perfectly apart. Abstract first-person perspectives of nature is Syed Ahmad's interpretation of Islamic art, although the snapshot captures of an expansive landscape, do not fit into the byword no beginning and no end, used to describe Islamic art. The exhibition introduction refers to the "restrictive format of songket", yet hanging fabric imbues a dynamic quality to the artist's pictures, that is less apparent in his paintings.

Syed Ahmad Jamal - Hujan Pelangi (1988)

Around the corner are studies for songket murals on graph paper, which provide an insight into the artist's structured art making approach. Curved lines create visual interest within grid arrangements, a fundamental principle that is amplified in the broad golden diagonal seen in 'Tumpal' (songket). Completing the survey of Syed Ahmad's works within the curatorial theme, are photographs of tapestries hung at Istana Budaya. Designed by the artist and fabricated by Ahmad Badarudin Fadzil, stories from Malay folklore are rendered in his signature abstract style. Judging from the exhibits, songket is the medium better suited, to express Syed Ahmad Jamal's understanding of the formal and spiritual properties in line, colour, and space. His influence is apparent in the works of the other two exhibiting artists, spiritual beliefs notwithstanding. [Part II]

Syed Ahmad Jamal - Kajian untuk Mural Songket 14 (1980s)

10 May 2014

Configuration @ G13

G13's annual showcase features a variety of artists exhibiting under the umbrella theme of figurative representations. Touted as a "curated project", three heroic poses on pedestals stand among the wall hangings, yet Mat Ali Mat Som's metal forms on canvas is the most visually interesting sculpture. Melancholic scenes by ethnic Chinese artists bore, although the uneven price tags make for interesting observation. One exception is Cheong Tuck Wai's depiction of children on a rocking horse, its peeling glue surface masking colourful impressionist strokes within its bleak background. Detached limbs by Liew Kwai Fei amuse, but more beguiling is his self-indulgent photobook about motion and time. Set to the artist's biographical experience, cut-out horses from a Malaysian race calendar make reference to the unsparing passing of the seasons, notwithstanding voyeuristic photographs of a foot in cast.

Yeoh Choo Kuan - Brute Romance II (2014) 

Aptly hung across opposite ends of the gallery, fetal developments drawn with soot by Mohd Bakir Baharom, contrast with Yeoh Choo Kuan's white oil painting of bounded breasts, both artists' works invoking strong emotions about life's uncertainties. Thrust into the spotlight by the Malaysian Eye, Khairudin Zainudin outlines movement to freeze gesticulating figures. Sketchy drawings are the flavour of the month, but the young artist displays a welcome development to his representational approach. Not part of the main exhibition, 'Membilang Pelanggan' features a printed plastic chair and table, the static objects thereby imbuing a stronger contrast to the subject's dawdling gesture. My leisurely stroll is cut short abruptly, when an enthusiastic patron leads the gallerist around to provide her interpretations, where knowing exclamations of "real yet not real" and "the title should be walking person, not walking man!" had me scrambling for the exit.

Khairudin Zainudin - Membilang Pelanggan (2014)

01 May 2014

Off Gravity: Into Contemplation @ Aku Cafe & Gallery

Influenced by the USM schools of thought i.e. Fauzan Omar and Hasnul J Saidon, situating the self via a methodical framework appears to be an important aspect in TC Liew's art practice. His ongoing "Off Gravity" series is exhibited at the kilometre zero of Peninsular Malaysia, as regional concerns take a back seat to contemplative drawings of sense organs and familiar insects. A wall sticker and video loop summarise TC's art output, denoting a premature academic desire to categorise his own oeuvre, but provide a great introduction to the uninitiated. Body part illustrations first appeared on brown envelopes in "Unveil Self-demon", which has since evolved into depictions of reaching (mechanical motion), unveiling (introspective feeling), and reflecting (revealing shadow). 'Touch the Love' is straightforward and a visual feast, as one staring at the beautifully drawn heart eventually notices the torso outlined behind it.

Touch the Love (2013)

This refreshing technique - using white lines to create contrast - was first seen in the portrait of a Chinese orchestra master. Then, a trompe-l'œil cicada was added to symbolise change and longevity; Now, the augmented bugs appropriate folk interpretations and anchor the picture in the present. One good example is seen in 'Seeing Beyond', where a body in fetal position is accompanied and mirrored by a grasshopper signifying birth. The shadows impose a self-projection, its emphasis on sense organs an overly general representation that is almost banal. Magnified bodies and cultural symbols in postmodern art are hitherto tiresome, but TC's earthy colours and simple juxtapositions, display a sincerity rooted to the ground. Furthermore, the artist is also following in the footsteps of his idols as educator, whereby 20% of sales will be donated to administer art education programs at his high school.

Seeing Beyond (2014)