Venue: Galeri Chandan @ Publika
Duration: 9 May until 9 June 2014
FROM PERSONAL TO INTERNATIONAL
by Arham Azmi
Every human being has a mission both in this life and the next; as an individual or collectively in an organization. In our everyday strive to get to another level and be successful, we systematized certain disciplines, and the effectiveness is measured by certain methods such as the Key Performance Indicator (KPI) or through annual work targets.
If an administrative organization or a person working in such an environment has a KPI, an artist should also have his or her own KPI as a benchmark. Edmund Burke once stated that an artist’s mission could be read through a personal, social and physical level. This exhibition however does not intend to elucidate Edmund Burke’s research, but rather to use the statement as an explanation on the concept behind “Mission”; a first solo exhibition by young artist, Hirzaq Harris or fondly known in the art community as Ah Loong.
The art scene associates Ah Loong ‘s artworks with ‘stamps’ while his identity is recognized through mechanical drawings; an intricate drawing on mechanic or machinery using the technical pen, by filling certain forms or shapes in his paintings. Perhaps not many are aware that Ah Loong received his formal education in Fine Arts at Universiti Teknologi Mara (UiTM), majoring in Sculpture. But after his graduation, he prefers to express or explore his artistic pursuit on two-dimensional paintings.
Looking back on how it all started, Ah Loong first approached me in November 2013, requesting me to be the curator for his first solo exhibition to be held at Galeri Chandan. In his own words, “It would be easier for me to discuss with you as I am more comfortable to work with a young curator.” It is now rare for a young artist to invite a young curator to collaborate, but I accepted his invitation. And with my saying “Yes!”, Ah Loong’s first mission is accomplished, and our relationship was further cemented through studio visits. His next mission is to complete his artworks and present them to me and together, we dug the meaning behind each artwork, the most important mission of all.
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Each artist comes equipped with deep personal experiences, and their views and perceptions are often embedded into their works. The same goes with Ah Loong. For his solo, Ah Loong revisits his frequently painted subjects like Kabuki, Spitfire warplanes and pigs whilst retaining his identity of painting stamps and his well-known mechanical drawings.
Ah Loong is a shy and quiet person. Watching him preoccupying himself drawing the mechanical lines with exact precision and in such a discipline manner is a wonder to me, making me want to dig deeper into the story behind the artist. According to Ah Loong, his father is a stern and disciplined man, and the artist once has an ambition to be a man in uniform, just like his father. This passion is reflected in Ah Loong’s huge collection of ambulance, army and police miniature vehicles. Not only is he disciplined while rendering the tedious mechanical lines, but both his works and workspace are in order and well organized, right to his neatly arranged collection of miniature vehicles on the shelves.
You might wonder, what is the relation of the story I am telling you with Ah Loong’s work. A psychoanalysis theory introduced by Freud suggests that a man embodies his past experiences subconsciously onto acts that they themselves are not aware of. The selection of Kabuki, warplanes and pigs has a subconscious relevance which has developed to be Ah Loong’s superego; a conscious chosen by Ah Loong himself.
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Kabuki is a traditional musical drama originating from Japan and has been played for more than four decades. It touches on every aspects of a theatrical performance, not just in terms of music, dance and costume, but more than that, Kabuki narrates the nature of heroism against the elements of evil. Each character is defined differently using a unique ‘make-up’ to strengthen the narrative.
Ah Loong had an experience watching Kabuki when he was a child and to him, all the characters with their facial expressions were very frightening. The exact emotion I felt when I had an opportunity to witness a Kabuki performance at Istana Budaya not too long ago. To Ah Loong, the image character of a Kabuki is brought consciously as a contemporary context, based on the beauty of its colorful illustrations. However, I can personally say that his passion to be a member of a military service, to some extent, is the driving force behind the selection of Kabuki. The ferocity on each of the character’s facial expressions is a strategy of putting fear into an opponent, and is a sign of POWER. I think Ah Loong is unaware of his choice in using Kabuki’s character through his paintings. It is actually connected to his natural love for POWER. The question here is; why did Ah Loong not choose Malay warriors to depict this issue? Indeed, it is an interesting point to be discussed as Kabuki represents universality! The images of the characters are internationally recognized, and even the Japanese propaganda heightens Kabuki theatre as the country’s main performing arts. Here, Ah Loong does not depend on the aesthetic of the illustrations alone, but rather on the universal understanding of the uniqueness of Kabuki by an international audience.
Spitfire too lies along the same line. The whole world knows the Spitfire is a warplane that was used during and after the Second World War by the British air force. The plane’s intensity had fledged talks among pilots whom recognized the Spitfire as one of the fastest planes. Why do many among us have a Spitfire in our collection? The Spitfire is one of the many model warplanes that have been popularized and produced into children’s’ toys. From a design standpoint, the Spitfire has a unique and attractive shape which collectors desire. Interestingly, the British managed to elevate the Spitfire as a symbol of their aeronautical superiority from warfare equipment to toys. Returning to the question of the subconscious mind, once again the selection of Spitfire relates to Ah Loong’s personal interest in military and at the same time represents an international icon.
Ah Loong also expresses his views on issues of ethics in his works. The image of money and pigs as his subject matter is frequently portrayed in his paintings. But what is the relation between pigs and ethics? Ah Loong based his experiences while visiting a foreign country (I should not mention the name of the country here) and seeing how Muslims exercise a liberal culture in their daily life. Alcohol, bribery and prostitution were the norm. Pig, to Ah Loong, symbolizes haram or illicit, and together with the image of money or currency, they are used to symbolize illegal activities involving ‘dirty money’ such as corruption. It is just Ah Loong’s personal view in using the pig to represent illicitness when there are other animals which falls into the same category according to Islam. The question of a pig being used as the only illicit symbol has long been held in the Malaysian Muslim community. Not only is it illicit on a nutritional standpoint, but often viewed as disgusting and sickening. Even the word ‘babi’ in Malay (pig) is also perceived as a foul language. Whatever the issue, pigs are certainly viewed negatively by Muslims in Malaysia on a personal level. In the ancient Egyptian culture however, the pig is regarded as the ‘Great Mother’, a symbol of fertility and blessings. So when the pig is portrayed in his paintings, Ah Loong leaves the option to the viewers, whether to decipher the image on its personal or international value based on the understanding of our own cultures or religions.
Apart from the usual lineup, Ah Loong introduces a new member to the family in this exhibition; the whale! Due to its massive physical size, Ah Loong has chosen the whale as a symbol of great power like the U.S., China, France, Britain and Russia, to tell a story about the power of veto; an almost absolute power led by these five nations that gives them the authority to stop any changes, official action or resolution. These conditions creates fear among small defenseless countries as it is able to restructure the economy and the colonies. Similar to the reality in the vast ocean, the whales are feared by other smaller inhabitants, and the grandeur was when a whale was summoned to resurrect Prophet Jonah from an incident caused by his self-tyranny. With the grace of God, the great powers and the greatness of whales are both able to change the views of a man, and likewise, Ah Loong’s personal view of whales might be universal to others, based on our own sociocultural and political understanding.
Let’s take a look at Ah Loong’s works, where all works are designed like stamps. Stamps are small pieces of paper that is purchased and displayed on an envelope as evidence of payment of postage. Each stamp in every country has their own value and uniqueness, it symbolizes the national identity. The envelope will then be processed by the postal system and delivered to a destination. However to reach a certain destination, the stamp would have to possess a certain value. But this does not apply in Ah Loong’s work as most of his stamps are valued at 8 cents (8c). It is no longer a question of value, but a question of a limitless currency. Today, Along’s stamp paintings are able to reach anywhere with the strength of social media. The usage of stamps is no longer needed; the sense of nostalgia stemming from waiting for a letter to arrive is no longer there, with a click on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Whatsapp, messages can be delivered. In order to achieve his mission, Ah Loong needs a solo exhibition as a platform to pronounce, to the audiences worldwide. That requires a curator and the involvement of a gallery. Ah Loong’s mission as an artist is progressing. It is now the mission of a curator and a gallery that needs to be examined.
The curator’s mission on the other hand, is to clearly build and express the concept behind an exhibition, as well as to serve as a mediator between the artist and the gallery, and between the works of art and society; in the education context. To do this, the curator has to befriend the artist, and strengthen the relationship in order to get a clear view of the artist’s sentiments. The theme; “MISSION: From Personal to International” was initially used to relate this exhibition with The Malaysian Eye project which was planned concurrently in March 2014. Due to unforeseen circumstances, Ah Loong’s solo exhibition had to be postponed but the theme remains for various reasons. Firstly, it is a nature for human being to have a mission in life, and secondly, all the subject matters used in Ah Loong’s artworks can be viewed both in a personal and international context, as discussed earlier. Once the theme is confirmed, the curatorial mission is to complete this writing in two languages for documentation purposes and as a support to the exhibition, will be discussed with both the artist and the gallery. Finally, the utmost mission for a curator is to curate the exhibition, from the set up, to the informal educational talks and discussions, and finally awaiting the feedback from viewers.
Even Galeri Chandan has its own mission. Firstly, the gallery aims to introduce an artist before they are recognized. Ah Loong has been nurtured by Galeri Chandan from his final year in UiTM and was then presented into the art scene through a few group exhibitions under its wings. The next step is to further introduce Ah Loong into the international level through Nafa’s Residensi; a residency program under Galeri Chandan which is based in Yogyakarta, Indonesia. Secondly, the gallery’s mission is to create the right working culture in the industry, by bringing the artists and curators together, when other commercial galleries only have a guest writer or do not even bother to invite any writer, let alone a curator. This practice needs to be cultivated by all galleries in Malaysia. And lastly, the final step is to connect artists, artworks and curators through a readily available exhibition. This final mission is to hopefully convince the public through a building of trust, which can boost the sale of artworks in an exhibition.
From the artist’s missions to those of the curator and the gallery, it can be said that INTEGRATION is the key of bringing this exhibition to life. It is hoped that this kind of integration and cooperation will become the working culture for other artists, curators and commercial galleries in the future. Ah Loong’s mission definitely does not stop here, but it will be extended to a form of proper documentation, conversation and discussion. With the vast usage of unrestricted social media, it will further pronounce the images of Ah Loong’s 8c stamps and its contents to be reached anywhere in the world. It is no longer a personal mission of the artist; instead it will be interrelated and can be elevated to an international level. But how they are perceived will rely solely on the individual’s perception and appreciation. Nothing is absolute.
Erry Arham Azmi received his Bachelor’s degree in Fine Art from Universiti Teknologi MARA (UiTM) in 2003 and his Master of Education (Arts) from Universiti Pendidikan Sultan Idris (UPSI) in 2014. In 2004, he began his career as an Assistant Curator and later as a Curator at the National Visual Art Gallery for nearly seven years. During this period, he has been involved actively in curatorial, writing, conference and art talk. A few of his notable curated exhibitions are Zukifli Yusoff: Negaraku, Back Then These Days and the Young Contemporary Awards 2010. He is currently a full-time lecturer at the Faculty of Visual Communication Design at Akademi Seni Budaya dan Warisan Kebangsaan (ASWARA).