“The Melancholy! The Melancholy!”: Anurendera Jegadeva and his Conditioned Love”
by Eddin Khoo
“In Malaysia, Sir, the business is close to ten million and is already ahead of Die Hard, Fantastic 4, the Silver Surfer, Transformer and the Pirates of the Caribbean. Those movies do not have Rajinikanth in them that’s why they’re not hits”.
“(Chennai popular conversation surrounding the triumphs of the Rajinikanth blockbuster Shivaji)”
“No artist’s work,” John Berger wrote in his essay “Courbet and Jura”, “is reducible to” the “independent truth; like the artist’s life – or yours or mine – the life’s work constitutes its own valid or worthless truth. Explanations, analyses, interpretation are no more than frames or lenses to help the spectator focus his attention more sharply on the work. The only justification for criticism is that it allows us to see more clearly”.
Within an artistic tradition in Malaysia that has so often been assertively (even stridently) preoccupied with acts on canvass (or in other mediums) that strive for an affirmation of “the truth, Anurendra Jegadeva remains a somewhat singular exception. Few artists within the Malaysian visual arts landscape could be more vocally and emphatically diffident about arriving at, or convinced of conveying, any kind of conception of “the truth.” Clarity and better “ways of seeing” have always served as the declared and deeper inclinations of this painter – a conviction dedicated to cultivating a firm and sturdy hand over matters of artistic form and application. Naturally then, over a series of sparse and modest exhibitions, he has come to be known principally as a “narrative” and “figurative” painter – undoubtedly accurate encapsulations of an aesthetic dispostion that has remained firmly rooted in the virtues, discipline and practices of a traditional formalism.
Nevertheless, as a result of an artistic vocation that has been purposefully paced and drawn out, such characterizations have beckoned a degree of durability, forsaking the more amorphous dimensions of humour and hopelessness that permeate his sensibility and work.
Indeed, to characterize Anurendra as simply a painter of the figure and narrative would be merely allusive. His remains, essentially, an aesthetic sensibility conditioned by melancholy – a painter of nostalgia and the sentimental – offering a distinctive insight into the trappings, contradictions, conflicts, even complacency, that assail when, as in contemporary Malaysia, all worlds collide.
Few artists, for example, would be as brazenly and honestly self deprecating in autobiography as Anurendra. When asked to submit a biographical sketch of himself to a conference he was attending, he described himself simply as:
“An arm chair commentator and a coffee shop activist, [who] uses the often autobiographical narratives in his paintings to try and understand the many versions of the truth that present themselves to him through his experience with family and food and migration; his understanding of histories, official and personal; his obsession with popular culture and his slavish addiction to television. He offers no solution and lives a happy and safe life with his wife, daughter and dog in Kuala Lumpur”.
“A happy and safe life…” is that variety of comment (for those who know him) ubiquitous in the Anurendra vocabulary. So is the assertion (defence?) of his “obsession with popular culture and his slavish addiction to television”. Contained within such declarations…for they are declarations…is, however, a deeper, bitter irony and despair that is battled out, harnessed and demonstrated in the growing boldness of the paintings, the ever grander scales of pursuit and the often cataclysmic themes explored.
The underlying tension that has consistently permeated and provoked Anurendra’s sensibility has been that persistent, disconcerting question of ‘how to respond?’ – to the vagaries, challenges and violence of contemporary times, while ensconced within a setting that offers all the seductions – popular culture, pulp fiction, television – of ‘safety’ and ‘happiness’. It remains a query that provokes, in Anurendra, the painting, not of aspirations, but of tendencies and yearnings, mapped through the invocation of autobiography and personal memory.
Initial preoccupations with notions of home, family in portraiture, gastronomy, objects serving as encapsulations of a fading time and a culture’s discipline forged the first landscapes of his contemplations; but the intrusion of subsequent, chiefly political, events, including the turbulent period following the ouster, imprisonment and beating of Anwar Ibrahim, the events of 9/11, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and a prolonged stay in Australia, forced in Anurendra a deeper questioning of place and artistic purpose which resulted in an expansion of the aesthetic geographies of representation, imagery and picture play that influenced his work. The convergence of events, anxieties and artistic concerns did not compromise the painter’s firm commitment to the purposeful act of moral suspension, even as the world continued to be engulfed in event after cataclysmic event; but it did – however much he might choose to resist the assertion – induce his transition towards becoming, not a political painter as such, but a painter of politics.
“It is not possible to ignore politics,” the poet Octavio Paz once wrote, “that would be like spitting at the sky, spitting at yourself”.
The transformation of Anurendra from presenter of lyrical autobiography to painter of politics was marked, most physically, in the form of his working ever larger canvasses, employing diptychs, triptychs and other eccentric mediums such as his artist books, while adopting an approach that emulated a style that reached for the classically iconic. Overt and obvious, too, was the preoccupation with religion, especially in its association with its contemporary manifestation in various forms of violence.
This concern produced the sustained series’ of gun bearing monks and other religious figures, and culminated in the painter’s near obsession with the symbolism afforded by the crucifix – accentuating further his notion of the hapless condition of faith and our humanity, depicted as a destiny perennially nailed to the cross. A metamorphosis was also evident in his grappling with the politics of identity, and its corollary, cultural memory, made most manifest in the evolving thickness of lines and vividness of features found principally in the undulating and sinewy motions of “The Running Indian I & II”.
In a clever play of perceptions, Anurendra Jegadeva entitles his most recent exhibition “Conditional Love”. “Love is merely their [the paintings’] backdrop,” he tells the viewer, “love’s “conditions” are much more interesting.” And it is in the excavation of these “conditions” that he offers narrative paintings of greater magnitude and beguilement.
Love blooms most enduringly amidst the portents of trouble, and memory is invoked most powerfully in the swirl of cataclysm.
Significant events affecting Malaysia’s and the world’s history, serve as backdrops to the confluence of lament, pathos, loss and ironic hope which permeate Anurendra’s most recent paintings. The elections of March 2008, the ebullience and ensuing uncertainties are clearly alluded to, as are the events involving the Hindraf demonstrations of November 2007.
In “No Parking,” most notably – a large dyptich featuring a Hindu priest holding a shattered Ganesha head – the painter of politics is at his boldest, the potent symmetrical lines asserting a proud Indian-ness while conveying the tragic statements of a quiet violence. It conveys a large rhetoric that speaks to a broader history of displacement, belonging, communalism and the politics of modernity.
Unconditional Love, “meanwhile,” “which features a ruminative Wan Azizah Wan Ismail looking askance at an FRU personnel looking askance, reflects a mastery of treatment, the lush of yellow, the drip effect, the vivid heart symbol concealing a deeper desperation and despair etched on the visage of its protagonist.
The exhibition is replete also with one of the painter’s most deeply desired tools of narrative – the “cliché”. An act of “homage” to the irrepressibility of things we love best is most movingly depicted in “Good Year for the Roses,” an epithet to the passing of the Alleycats, Loga and, in his embracing of the motif of the May 13th coffin, to the artist Redza Piyadasa.
In “Unconditional Love,” the use of popular symbolism and the “cliché” is unstinting and unabashed, as if, in Anurendra himself, there remains a realization that today’s popular symbol exists as our future’s myths. It is this certainty of attitude, evident in the increasing boldness of the colours, contours and lines, which characterises this most recent exhibition as a significant departure and statement in the aesthetic sensibility of Anurendra Jegadeva.
Nevertheless, whatever certainty is to be discovered in the treatment and quality of the painting’s, is purposefully unapparent when considering the restlessness (“bafflement”, in the words of the artist) with which he encounters the world around him. “Love is”, he might say, “all you need”, and so the paintings exist as a plea for simpler interactions and relationships – the true histrionics of the sentimental.
That is also what underlies the recurrent appeal to memory and autobiography;
an appeal, as depicted in “Deity,” which could, wishfully, straddle generations.
There is virtue in simplicity and the sentimental “Unconditional Love” appears to say, even if it chooses to say so more boldly and vividly. In all the chaos and turbulence which permeates these series of paintings – a chaos and turbulence accentuated by 24 hour news channels and television addiction, the principal yearning in “Unconditional Love” is principally one for order and innocence – an order and innocence offered quite simply by the established routine of a Punjabi bed, or the faith that brought Morris and Gertrude to church.
“Eddin Khoo is a poet, writer, translator and journalist. He is founder of Pusaka – Centre for the Study and Documentation of Traditional Theatre in Malaysia, where he presently serves as its Director.”