KL Biennale (IV): Belas Kerohanian

The cavernous Galeri 3A houses a collection of artworks, that purports to be an exhibition titled “Malaysian Geometric Abstracts, and a couple pieces that don’t fit into the other Biennale galleries”. Greeting the visitor is the magnificent acrylic painting ‘Semangat Ledang’ by Syed Ahmad Jamal, and the walls flanking it showcase equally colourful and solemn works dedicated to one’s religious beliefs. Sharifah Fatimah Syed Zubir’s “Mihrab” series features textured collages arranged in sublime compositions; Mohd Noor Mahmud’s creations are caked in layers of pigment-based colours. Along with large creations by Sulaiman Esa and Anuar Rashid, the collection of works in this area invokes a deep conviction that seeing is not knowing, but seeing does help in knowing. 

[l] Sharifah Fatimah Syed Zubir – Mihrab Nusantara (Tribute to Sharif Hussein) (2006); [r] Detail snapshots

From the spatial displacement between protruding pyramids in ‘Dinding’, to the woven gold textile patterns in ‘Mihrab III’, to the calculated distances between sunlight/peak/stars in Syed Ahmad’s painting, internalised space is preserved as the space where one encounters the Almighty. Amidst enjoying these displays, I notice a famous acrylic painting by Ismail Zain hanging in the same area, at which point one is compelled to ponder upon the rationale behind such arrangements. As stated in the wall text, ‘Ku Bunoh Cintaku’ is “aiming for artistic detachment” while its ornate patterns highlight “decorative sensibilities”. Is the curator intentionally conflating a Malay-Nusantara aesthetic, with expressions of the Islamic faith, despite the weak religious connotations in Ismail’s work? 

[l] Mohd Noor Mahmud – Dinding (2009–2011); [r] Detail snapshot

Subsequent exhibits fall into the general category of “geometric abstracts”. Saiful Razman’s sterile ode to Syed Ahmad, presents toilet paper and medical gauze in triangular and rectangular shapes. Optical illusions and gestural expressions fascinate the uninitiated, while Tan Tong’s sensual triptych ‘Yin Yang Symphony’ is hung far apart for reasons unknown. Tripping over a floor-to-ceiling batik painting by Fatimah Chik, the visitor then encounters a series of sparse and abstruse illustrations by Fuad Arif. Walking past some unattractive tondos, K. Thangarajoo’s paintings attract via its floating orbs, snake-like spirals, and well-spaced compositions. As the artist states in the wall text, these works “encourage viewers to appreciate the diversity of patterns and the underlying philosophies of abstract art…”

K. Thangarajoo – Atomic Dance (2017)

The walkthrough follows into a room-sized installation by Hayati Mokhtar. A blown-up text reproduction is plastered onto the feature wall, its contents about the Malayan Union taken from history textbooks. Monotonous photographs of schoolchildren, with disconnected speakers embedded within the photo frames, line the other two walls. The silence is deafening, as one wonders how this untitled work relates to the exhibition theme Belas Kerohanian (‘Be Loved Spirituality’), an observation applicable to many other exhibits. One’s expectation is tempered, after I read the wall statement: “(i)n interpreting art, we normally ignore spiritual values and scientific approaches.” In appreciating art, one should ignore the wall text, and enjoy the colours, shapes, and spatial projections, on show. 

Syed Ahmad Jamal – Semangat Ledang (1999)