AL-KESAH: Homage to Ismail Zain @ Galeri Petronas

Semiological. Intertextual. Structuralist. These common descriptors of Ismail Zain’s oeuvre do a disservice to his artistic output, in its establishing of an academic distance between the viewer and the artwork. As Ismail once said, “I don’t want to think of my work as being unique, symbolic, visionary, not even privileged.” In this tribute exhibition, a number of works are chosen/ commissioned, and shown together with Ismail’s own works loaned from public collections. Such display approach demands its exhibits to only be interpreted against Ismail’s art philosophy, a difficult effort due to an arbitrary arrangement and unclear groupings. Wordy works by Nasir Baharuddin and Noor Azizan Rahman Paiman, demonstrate how challenging it is to visually represent concepts such as intertextuality (and perhaps should not be attempted?)

Redza Piyadasa – The Malays – A Cultural History by R Windstedt, 1961, First Published 1974 (2008)

‘The Pavilion’ greets the visitor, the decorative abstract painting produced at a time, when Islamic art was touted as a desirable component within a Malay artist’s output. Ismail’s mundane garden landscape illustrates a personal worldview, which contrasts with the constructed commentary about contemporary Malay identity by Redza Piyadasa hung opposite. Opposing too the reflective qualities of ‘The Pavilion,’ is Fadli Yusoff’s creation that invites introspection. Other exhibits literally present mirrors, such as Hamir Soib’s giant white canvas, or the broken glass mosaic by Razak Abdul Jabbar. The latter – ‘Spirit of the Hornbill Dance’ – reminds of Ismail’s role as an influential cultural bureaucrat (when he championed local performing arts), and is flanked by two paintings by Haron Mokhtar whose signature compositions appropriate the visual arrangement in ‘Al Kesah’.

Haron Mokhtar – Sisi Melaka I (Hang Li Po) (2015)

Walking past a lurid digital collage, one is confronted with the seminal artwork, and exhibition namesake. Moonlight illuminates a fictional family from a television show halfway around the world. Eagles soar in the in-between space, as I conjure an alternative title ‘Helang dah Sampai’, that pales in comparison with the colloquial wordplay of the original title. Kisah apa? Sapa tak kesah? Looking at two other works from the same series, it is apparent that pixellated forms emphasize the iconic nature of the images. Compositions are careful; Scale and density of dots matter, as in the censored nude lady in ‘Magic Marker’, and the faded mirror-image of ‘Vincent’. Illusion is negated in favour of allusion, as Ismail effectively portrays that Western values inherently manifest in art. Everyone is a content-creating artist on social media, but whose aesthetics are being adopted?

Ismail Zain – Al Kesah (1988)

Yee I-Lann’s doctored ‘Kopivosian’ presents an effective evolution of Ismail’s semiological art-making approach, although the juxtaposed images in Azlan Mohd Latib’s photographs are less effective due to nostalgia-inducing coffee stain effects. One rewarding exhibit is Umibaizurah Mahir’s ‘Secret Toys #2’, where a ceramic horse is decorated with floral prints, then affixed to a set of oversized wheels. The fragile body (and its identity) is progressing in this contemporary age, yet constrained by traditional labels. A similar resistance takes a different form in hands painted by Hasnul J Saidon, who mentions Ismail as a mentor. The sentimentality in Hasnul’s works can be overpowering; one exception is ‘Takungan’, the resin sculpture in an oil drum more potent here (a gallery owned by the national oil company), than I last saw it two years ago in a white box gallery.

[foreground] Umibaizurah Mahir – Secret Toys #2 (2007); [background] Fadzil Idris – Nusantara: Manusia & Anai-Anai (2016)

Good individual artworks are displayed, which fail to provide complementing perspectives to Ismail Zain’s art philosophy. Fadzil Idris’ beautiful found object assemblage questions the ontology of art. A large installation by Raja Shahriman terrifies as much as it is theatrical. Izaddin Matrahah’s paintings present Dada-like juxtapositions, while Sharmiza Abu Hassan’s transparent chair is more allegorical than symbolic. Coffee strainer head dresses by Bibi Chew qualify as interactive art, as I imagine donning it behind a backlit screen, like a wayang kulit character. One can deduce from wall statements that Ismail’s 1970 work ‘The Wayang Affair – Yield It! Yield It!’ was likely quoted in artists’ briefs. Walking in the circular exhibition space, “abstracted energies” materialise and dematerialise based on the aura of artworks, which describes an essentialist experience that Ismail resisted.

Ismail Zain – DOT – The Detribalisation of Tam binte Che Lat’ (1983)

I appreciate another significant work ‘DOT – The Detribalisation of Tam binte Che Lat’, which visual experience suppresses its surrounding exhibits. A household is dissected into chunks of perspectives, where projected images and material objects occupy the painting’s flat surface as markers of modernity. Development over Tradition? Destiny of Things? An exhibition that intersperses works, by the person being honoured, and by those paying homage, inevitably leads to messy interpretations. History has not been kind to Ismail, who is now remembered as an “intelligent” artist, and it is expected that the exhibiting artists read and interpret his legacy differently. That this arbitrary arrangement unwittingly presents Ismail Zain as an icon, is perhaps most ironic among all reflections, as I glance at ‘The Pavilion’ one more time before stepping out of the gallery.

Noor Azizan Rahman Paiman – Random Access Memory (2001)

“Ismail abjures the divisions and disjunctions that are framed in art histories between primitivism, tradition and modernity as well as those between “high and “low” art. One other effect of this strategy is to expose the fragility of the modern Malaysian art tradition placed against the expressive and metaphysical coherence of traditional art. Ismail’s single-minded desire to recapture form from its entrapment by content pulls him to accord priority to intuitive procedures in artistic expression. Actually, in his eagerness to salvage the vivacity of form in understanding art, he comes close to arguing that form is content. To be sure, his artistic sensibilities endows him with an acute consciousness of intuition and the perception that the artist while making art may be unconscious of the meanings he is generating.”
- Ismail Zain: A Protean Appearance in Malaysian Art, Krishen Jit, 1995

Installation snapshot of Hasnul Jamal Saidon – Hijab Nurbaya Series (2003); ‘Takungan’ in foreground


  1. Kau ni betul2 tahu art ke?

  2. I just went to Balai Seni Visual Negara today and had a chance to view DOT - The Detribalisation of Tam binti Che Lat. For me it was one of the visually striking pieces of all at the gallery! Thanks for your information about Ismail Zain. Now I know he is such a prominent figure in Malaysia Malaysian art scene.


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