Hulutopia @ White Box

“There is no wonder of discovery. At most, the paintings are restatements of the plain and mundane. Nothing hides the bleakness throughout, as if the point is for us to be distressed by these depictions of ourselves as failures despite our constant attempts at transcending our limitations, endeavours that only confirm our fatuous existence at the end of the day. Is HULUTOPIA then simply catharsis, an indulgence of a bleak picture of humankind? Is it negativity refined into ‘paintings’, a mere projection of the world falling apart, on canvas? This would be a tempting conclusion.”
Lessons for Seeing Ourselves, Ahmad Fuad Rahmat, 2015, exhibition catalogue for Hulutopia: Through the Looking Glass Into Promised Lands

The Elephant (2014)

Masses of nude faceless figures cower or scurry within dreary landscapes, these depictions of humiliating postures alluding to a sense of shame, if one agrees with Ahmad Fuad Rahmat’s surface reading. Kamal Mustafa’s second solo exhibition is more explicit in his social commentary but less dynamic visually, as marketing messages stopped harping upon unique art-making methods. Withdrawing from the clockwork existence projected in ‘Obscura’, I recognise a familiar motif in the other hybrid work ‘The Black Question‘, then proceed to be distracted by images of wartime destruction and a rotating wayang puppet. The ear remains a potent symbol, especially when paired with the question mark; the appendage is utilised also to maximum effect in the wonderful ‘Green Promised Land’.

Video preview for The Black Question (2014)

Hung next to the exhibition title work and equally green, isolated huts nestled in thick swirls of vegetation, paint an agrarian utopia as imagined by the Khmer Rouge. Portents of a social engineering disaster take the form of ghoulish faces emerging from the canvas, as one begins to ponder about the purpose of re-presenting historical events from lands afar. Blended vivid colours and snakes & ladders draw my gaze momentarily back to ‘Hulutopia’, a metaphorical paradise that becomes the beacon of hope within Kamal’s dog-eat-dog territories. ‘Abdi-cation’ and ‘Almost There’ make straightforward statements, which describe a world where development becomes increasingly disjointed and subjective.

Green Promised Land (2012 – 2014)

These contradictions are elucidated best in the “Museum” series, tailored captures juxtaposing artefacts with people whose dress reflects the wearer’s religion, based on popular assumptions. The entry point to understand fleshy Greco-Roman sculptures or the skeleton of an extinct creature, is via the self-proclaimed authority – the museum, the historian, the curator. Appreciation of a displaced foreign object piques curiosity, and develops a veil of enigma in the eye of the beholder. In these four pictures, Kamal holds the media responsible for conjuring prejudices, and for turning humans into curious objects. Is the museum a neutral ground, and should we trust its narratives? Likewise, should we even bother about media stories from unfamiliar places?

Museum 2 (2014)

Hassan Abdul Muthalib writes, “(w)hat runs obliquely throughout Kamal’s works is the theme of religion and the media.” Looking at the gorges in ‘Blue Promised Land’, one wonders, why do many Malaysians empathise with Palestinians in its conflict with the Israelis? Is it to express solidarity with other Muslims? With the Vatican’s latest pronouncement on global matters, should Catholics think of Jerusalem as belonging more to the Palestinians? How many Malaysians have been to that part of the world? Are we going to see stranded ships in Kamal’s new works? Bleak pictures project the artist’s moral stand, yet the detached lens in Kamal’s compositions denotes a reservation for other worldviews. As ‘The Elephant’ hung near the gallery’s entrance/exit reminds us of John Godfrey Saxe’ s poem – “Though each were partly in the right, And all were in the wrong!”

Delousing Room B (2015)