Bumi Larangan: Zulkifli Dahlan @ National Art Gallery

Studying one artist’s progression based on works held by the family ~40 years after his death, is a messy effort. Curator Nur Hanim Khairuddin describes in her catalogue essay ‘Yang Aneh, Nakal dan Trajis: Kehidupan dan Kesenian Zulkifli Mohd. Dahlan’ – “(n)early all of the works in the collection are not dated (…) it is hard for us to determine precisely the different phases of the development of his imagery, for instance, the shift from partly dressed to totally naked figures, or from realist figures to hairy monsters to distorted forms to amoeba-like zoomorphic and biomorphic shapes; and the transition of the various configurations of his mutant hybrids: plant-animal, plant-object, animal-object, human-plant, human-animal, human-object, and so on and so forth.”

Untitled (c. 1970s)

“Apa yang dia lukis, bonjol-bonjol di dalam lukisan itu?”, asks Siti Zainon Ismail. Looking at the ink drawings on display at Galeri 2B, it is astounding how well these figurative characters effectively represent this world. Humans & machines are fused together as one. Sprouting is a natural function. Windows frame an alternate reality. A television is just another window. Sitting is a contemplative/ dreamy action. A landscape (preferably one with a horizon) is required to ruminate. When pop-eyed individuals look at each other, engagement & narrative occurs. Collectives thread the same line. Or multiple selves spawn from one’s sense faculties. Humans harbour inner beasts. Perspective is personal, not visual. Durians are awesome. The interior and exterior are two sides of the same line. What is nakedness, when everyone is unclothed?

Detail snapshot of the centre panel of Realiti Berasingan: Satu Hari di Bumi Larangan (1975), painted on a board advertising the boxing match between Muhammad Ali and Joe Bugner at Stadium Merdeka. The red letterings MUHAMMAD are now showing through the drawing. [Anecdote from Zanita Anuar's essay Satu Hari di Bumi Larangan published in Tanpa Tajuk (No. 1), 2000]

As rightfully pointed out by Tan Zi Hao, “Zulkifli’s meandering lines, as a formalist feature of his aesthetics, receive scant attention.” His “resolute outlines” possess a “semangat”, but is unfortunately canonized in Malaysian art history as cartoonish, na├»ve, or lucah.  Zi Hao’s penetrating write-up also detects the “sense of fascination predicated upon his exceptionalism” that “contributed to the fossilization of Zulkifli’s works.” A rarity in local art exhibitions, this wonderful show is accompanied by an exceptional catalogue, that I purchased online. A biographical write-up, reminiscing interviews, tributes from friends & family, an effusive reflection that compares ‘Kedai-Kedai’ to Mondrian’s ‘Broadway Boogie Woogie’, poems, re-published exhibition essays and newspaper clippings, and colour plates for all exhibited artworks. Gem of a catalogue for only RM 100.

Installation snapshot of [clockwise from left] a sketch book; photograph of Zulkifli Dahlan and Latiff Mohidin at Studio Dapur (1972); image used for the front cover of the "Pameran Kenangan Allahyarham Zulkifli Mohd. Dahlan" exhibition catalogue (1978)

Another fantastic essay is contributed by Niranjan Rajah. ‘Revisiting the Art of Zulkifli Dahlan: A Post-traditional Reading’ argues that the artist “…has left us a body of work that exemplifies an indigenous humanism that sits comfortably within a theocentric view.” Niranjan elaborates, “(f)rom an Islamic point of view, Zulkifli’s work never presents sufficient illusory space, sculptural dimensionality, dramatic action or definitive personality, to constitute a focus that would amount to or facilitate idolatry.” These essays debunk decades-old interpretations of Zulkifli’s works, and present updated perspectives that are relevant now. For example, there were repeated mentions of Zulkifli growing up in suburban Petaling Jaya, and is the son of a ustaz. Or how the May 1969 riots may have influenced the young artist’s outlook in life.

Untitled (c. 1970s)

Moving away from ink drawings – once described by Ismail Abdullah as ‘permulaan yang berkesempurnaan’ – Zulkifli’s paintings require a different mode of interpretation. The utilized canvas is relatively large, juxtaposed blocks of colour create luminous contrasts, and its composition typically emphasizes the painting’s flatness. Showcased here are four of the five paintings that nabbed Zulkifli the major award, at the inaugural Young Contemporaries competition organized by the National Art Gallery. The styles displayed are rather incoherent, for example, if one compares ‘Penjual Kueh’ to ‘Halaman Rumah Kami’. Geometric shapes define objects in the former, and follows an unconventional but definite horizontal perspective. In the latter, colours fill entire outlined forms, although one cannot ignore the dated and spotty condition of this 43-years old work.

Halaman Rumah Kami (1974)

Intentional spots cover densely the diptych ‘Dari Dalam Sa-Buah Rumah’ and ‘Ruang Tengah Sa-Buah Rumah’. Instead of Pollock, I presume that such expressionist gestures are influenced by Latiff Mohidin, whom Zulkifli shared a studio with in 1972. Latiff was then working on his “Mindscape” series, which arched portals probably reinforced Zulkifli’s philosophical beliefs in the depiction of windows (or was it Zulkifli that inspired Latiff?) Another interesting anecdote is that Zulkifli was the resident artist at Angkatan Pelukis SeMalaysia (APS) in 1973/74 – what did other APS members think of his surreal creations? I think Zulkifli depicted a universal truth, however ideal that ambition was. The meandering lines manifest a knowledge that what is prohibited on earth, stems from a hierarchical seeing and evaluating. When that imbalance is flattened, like in his drawings, reality is unveiled.

Untitled (c. 1970s)

“Subjek utamanya memang saya ingat. Insan yang bermata agak belolok, ‘insan getah’ nama saya untuk dia. Insan tidak berskeleton. Kalau ditiup angin, ia bergoyang. Barangkali itu pernyataan Zulkifli untuk mengatakan bahawasanya kita ini hanya kulit sahaja. Kita tidak bertulang. Ertinya kehidupan insan yang dilihatnya dirumuskannya begitu. Kita ini hanya kulit sahaja, kita tidak ada batin. Mungkin itu yang dilihat sebab kita boleh ambil kira latarnya sebagai anak kepada seorang agamawan. Jadi, tentu soal dunia akhirat mesti ada dalam diri dia dan dia melihat hidup di dunia itu sebagai bayangan kepada masa akan datang. Di akhirat, sebagai misalan. Jadi, dosa dan paha diterjemahkan ke situ.”
- Excerpt of interview with A. Samad Said, 25 February 2016, Balai Seni Negara

Untitled (c. 1970s)