Barehands 2017 @ National Art Gallery

The sequence of events that culminated in this exhibition is well worth recounting. As stated in the catalogue, it started with Juhari Said inviting Anees Maani to his studio Akaldiulu in 2010. In 2014, Anees joined Mamoru Abe for another residency at Akaldiulu, then Juhari visited Anees’ studio in Amman the following year. Upon returning to Malaysia, Juhari and Setiawan Sabana arranged for the inaugural Barehands – Asian Artist Residency Project to be held in Bandung, with 19 participants from five countries. The rotation continued with Mamoru hosting 21 artists in Fukuoka, who stayed in Munakata for a week. For this Kuala Lumpur leg, 28 participants spent a month beginning April 2017, in five studios spread across town – Akaldiulu, Pantau Iraga (Awang Damit Ahmad), Studio Tikus (Samsudin Wahab), M.I.A. Studio, and RAG Studio (Ramlan Abdullah).

Kenji Makizono – The City and Its Tower (2017)

While residency programs offer great learning and networking opportunities among fellow artists, the short duration and expectation to produce exhibits, is typically seen as a constraint towards good art-making. However, Barehands boasts an international line-up of mid-career artists, and experience shines through in this collection of well-executed artworks. In works exhibited immediately outside Galeri 2A, Kenji Makizono offers clever takes on Malaysian matters. ‘Look Yeast’ presents a metaphorical play on Mahathir’s “Look East” policy, with local ingredients such as tapai and tempoyak left to ferment in vitrines. On the wall, 30 horizontal photographs of water tanks captured in and around Kuala Lumpur, is titled ‘The City and Its Tower’. A couple of these snapshots even feature the Petronas Twin Towers and KL Tower.

Exhibition snapshot

Entering the gallery, one is struck by the smell of earth, the sound of waves, and the many artworks made from natural or industrial materials. Among creations by foreign artists, it is difficult to pinpoint specific Malaysian influences, notwithstanding the works’ visual attraction. Paintings of tropical plants and embedded signboards. Rusted metal plates fused together into a rectangular picture. Woodcut prints of large faces onto tufted cloths. Creatures illustrated manga-style onto banners by Indonesian artists. Multiple layers of coloured stripes. A video focused upon bare hands. Interactive art which requires visitors to stare at a dot, or make clay objects. The sparse exhibition layout only accentuates the lacking coherence between artworks. 

Marvin Chan – Desecration of the Temple (2017)

Nevertheless, it is nit-picking to expect more from an end-of-residency show. I probably appreciate the works by local artists better, because I am familiar with their oeuvre. Marvin Chan’s ‘Desecration of the Temple’ assembles drapes and paintings onto a red wall, where women figures appear ready to smash the ceiling over a church’s nave, as a hardened heart is depicted at the centre. In ‘Lee Kuan Yew & The Tales From The Little Red Dot’, Stephen Menon juxtaposes the Singaporean’s portrait with various symbols, which result in a cheeky yet ironic series. Outside, two large & three small paintings by Awang Damit depict forceful expressions, and one imagines that Tisna Sanjaya’s powerful painting displays traces of influence from the senior artist. 

Exhibition snapshot

Ramlan Abdullah’s ‘Zero to Zero’ recalls the term kosong-kosong this Ramadan month, and its sturdy construction projects an elegant aesthetic balance. Equally crafty are creations by Sharmiza Abu Hassan and Bibi Chew. The former’s conjoined bird cages and floating nest with roots, explores sources of inspiration; Coconut husks and sawdust from the latter, denote symbolic representations utilizing heavily-textured materials. Faizal Suhif’s ubi-shaped print appears static in the presence of Samsudin’s ‘Mud Tent’, literally a tent-shaped cloth covered in mud from Tanjung Harapan, Klang. An accompanying video captures the work/performance by Buden, as the artist digs up wet grey soil and spreads it across a long piece of white cloth. What is left behind – a muddy shelter, a hopeful hovel, or both?

Video snapshots of Samsudin Wahab – Harapan Tanjung Harapan (2017)

Although it is unclear how the name Barehands came about, a conjecture can be made based on exhibited works by the project initiators. Quirky-shaped sculptures on pedestals, lead up to two rust-coloured figures by Juhari. Anees’ smooth pieces of wood draw attention to the medium’s distinct grain and texture, which presents a balancing effect when contrasted with the generic wooden veneer of gallery floorboards. The transformation of materials into appealing forms continue with Mamoru, whose ‘Surveyed Map’ recalls a dried-up diorama of a sunken lost city, while Setiawan’s ‘Paperium, Reflection’ makes industrial detritus from paper and wood. Being hands-on from crafting one’s artwork, to building networks, to organizing exhibitions, require a significant amount of effort and resilience. The sensual experience of this show, testifies to all that.

Exhibition snapshot