by Rachel Jena
Life-drawing or figurative works form the very basis of most art teachings. Thus, it is of interest to note that formal art education in Malaysia saw a short absence in teachings of this fundamental skill in the late twentieth-century.
This omission was informed by religious principles. Owing to Islamic prohibition of visual portrayals of the human figure, figurative studies were shunned in favour of geometry, arabesques and motifs – archetypal visual elements that define Islamic art.
This is not to say that figurative art did not exist in Malaysia at all – quite the contrary, in fact. In his essay, “The Malaysian Body Principle”, for the 2006 exhibition catalogue of Mind, Body & Soul, Ooi Kok Chuen sketched a dynamic history of figurative art in Malaysia, listing luminary twentieth-century artists working in this manner.
Correspondingly, there are many visual examples from international artists of this period, from the distorted and mechanized figures by Futurist artists to the more recent sculptural works by Antony Gormley.
Figurative works should not only be seen as an indicator of artistic merit or the artist’s technical prowess. Indeed, the examples listed above bear little resemblance to actual people and are certainly incomparable to the finesse in sculptures of the Classical period. But, what they do offer us is the opportunity to gain insight to both national and personal histories.
The futurist works inform us of the rallying (if slightly perturbing) call to arms by a small group of Italian artists, along with their ardent desire to break from tradition and embrace machines and new technology. Gormley’s sculptures, on the other hand, represent man’s more recent predicament; his solitary figures on Crosby Beach, for example, highlight the vastness of nature, man’s increasing isolation from it and the bleak future that awaits us if this connection isn’t re-established.
These are only two examples, but they underline the importance of figurative works in art. Figurative works allow viewers a peek at history, the chance to understand the present, and furnish us with dialogue to create the future. Through these works, we explore identities, stylistic “-isms”, thoughts and the artist’s interpretations become windows for us to grasp a better notion of ourselves.
In this light, the hiccup in our local history of art studies shouldn’t be seen as a setback, but instead, part of our Malaysian identity and the evolution of art in the country.
And, it is a desire to write and contribute to history that foretells Wei-Ling Gallery’s third instalment of Mind, Body & Soul, where nine artists have assembled to present variegated interpretations of what it means to be us, today.
The Body of Work
This central theme, which encompasses three vital elements of human existence, has presented an exciting opportunity for artists to engage in painterly debate on what defines us at this point in time and how we relate to our environment and the many incidents affecting us.
In total, there are nineteen canvases and each presents individual interpretations of the subject at hand.
The body – physical vessel for both mind and soul – feature dominantly in these paintings and the issue of gender differences is inescapable.
We see the female figure in Chong Choon Woon’s paintings, which portray her singularly against coloured backdrops. She has been presented in various poses; she exposes (Portrait I), she shields (Portrait II), she conceals (Portrait III).
The art historian, Kenneth Clark, famously made the distinction between the naked and nude figure in art. Using this indicator, it is possible to exclaim that, despite being fully clothed, Chong’s subject exudes the fear of being exposed and her poses signify her fragility at being subject to the viewer’s gaze. Conversely, her gaze (at us) is intense and there is a haunting melancholy in her expression.
Chan’s Imbasan Baiduri I & II, on the other hand, portrays the female figure in the nude. She does not look at us, but her eyes are averted to the left of the canvas or closed instead. There is an angelic quality in her depiction (mimicking the title of the paintings) and the vertical lines of paint edging towards the bottom of the canvas lend an ethereal quality to Chan’s two paintings.
These paintings call attention to the increasing idealisation of the female figure in the media and societal expectations of how they are meant to look. Digital manipulation affords more tweaking of this preconceived image, but the figural representations by Chong and Chan present a flipside to this dilemma.
The relationship of the female subject is reversed in Umi Baizurah Mahir’s painting. The female figure now stands on the other side of the canvas, as creator of the image, and it is interesting that the human figure is absent altogether in her work. In its place are a variety of symbols depicting the artist’s raw interpretation of the theme. Her painting is an exercise in semiotics and the central object – what appears to be a mechanical bird on wheels – hints at her artistic practice of creating ceramic sculptures.
More symbols surface in Ahmad Shukri’s monochrome painting, where the shadowy figure of an artist’s wooden mannequin takes centre-stage. Shukri’s painting, Tubuh Dalam Jiwa – loosely translated as “The Body in the Soul” – can be said to be emblematic of the artist himself. Schools of fish traipse across the canvas, whilst a tiger juts from behind the mannequin, representing both might and Malaysian identity.
The word “Halal” (meaning permissible or lawful) makes a cheeky appearance in the lower right-hand corner of the painting. Written in Jawi, the inclusion of this word is poignant in light of the historical anecdote regarding the absence of figurative painting within the context of our local arts education. It also seems to be a remark at the pressure we face to always be on our best conduct, and, to do things properly and lawfully.
The artist’s identity (and indeed, our own) is explored in Hamidi Hadi’s two self-portraits. In Melt, his figure looms like a ghostly presence amidst mottled swabs of light-blue paint. His facial features are not clearly defined in this painting, but appears more concrete in Berbahang.
His bright red cheeks, like glowing embers, coupled with the vigorous brushwork and the artist’s fervent gaze are demanding of the viewer. Is the artist reminding us of our complacency? What exactly is unsettling him?
Hamir Soib’s contribution to this exhibition displays a continuation in the themes mentioned above. In his rich sepia-toned painting, a figure holds a paintbrush and paints a scrotum – that typifying male feature – in place of a discernable face. This suggests the role of the artist in creating his own identity and, visually, being master of his own mind, body and soul.
The presence of the explicit subject also bears relation to the doctrinaire censorship that dictates production of imagery in Malaysia. The Scrotum tackles this matter with balls (my apologies – the pun was irresistible), as does Jolly Koh’s coupling in The Kiss I & II.
n Koh’s paintings, we see the unison of bodies: male and female locked in a passionate kiss. It is an electrifying portrayal of the mingling of mind and soul through corporeal activity. The figures form a curvaceous entity on the canvas, much like a Brancusi sculpture, if it was flattened onto a two-dimensional picture plane. It also seems to be a poke at the levels of censorship we are subject to, in terms of viewing the human figure and the very natural act of displaying affection.
Whether it is scenes from a foreign film that lie spliced on the editing floor of our censorship board, or, cleavages masterfully hidden via digital technology, there is little doubt that, through conventional channels, our viewing of mind, body and soul is a highly regulated affair.
This brings us to our environment and how we correspond to it. In this exhibition, we have two renderings of this theme in Kim Ng’s six-panel piece, City Dweller, and Chin Kong Yee’s Seville.
If hung horizontally and in sequence, Ng’s paintings are reminiscent of a storyboard or a comic; a series of events narrated pictorially. The lone male figure presides in three canvases and the other three are occupied by illusory prints of traditional colonial shophouses.
Ng’s paintings highlight the solitariness of city life; the canvases with the male figure are sparse, heightening his isolation, and his surroundings – the architecture – appears fractured. As we struggle with increasing responsibility and the weight of monetary gain, it is easy to picture ourselves very much like the figure in Ng’s paintings.
Chin’s Seville, on the other hand, offers a vertiginous and condensed depiction of a place away from home. The composition takes on a spherical perspective, as the many elements characterizing this Andalusian city – its people, architecture, and religion – are placed in a circular route around the canvas.
It hints that despite the increasing chasm that separates us from each other and our environment, global borders are edging closer with various cultures converging in an arresting hybrid. Chin’s painting helps us to learn more about others in a bid to better comprehend ourselves.
There may have been a historical hiccup in the late twentieth-century with relation to figurative painting, but an exhibition like this makes amends for that. These artists have collectively produced a work that is both effervescent and representative of our contemporaneous identities. It is an exciting visual experience for viewers and there is little doubt that they too will have their names embedded in the ever-growing list of seminal figurative artists in Malaysia.
A point made by Bayu Utomo Radjikin – from whom the idea of Mind, Body & Soul originated – in an interview, which appeared in The Star on 20 November ’06. He notes the decline of figurative art in the 1970s and its mild resurgence a decade later.