READING JAMAL: Indulging in Beautiful Complexities
This contemplation surely vibrates from the renewed enthusiasm in this generation’s current space and time towards a more heightened realization of how markings define us as processes determine us. Process trails or markings for some maybe temporal indulgences, they are sometimes dismissed and claimed as vestigial to attaining the One creation that the artist takes pride in, the masterpiece. Thus one should not be distracted by the ‘err ’ , or the artist gone astray, if one is really interested in the perfection of the art, the final creation of the artist.
Drawings engages one to peruse art in search of the artists most essential trace. Hence to neglect drawings is not so much an art historical oversight as it is a matter of the beholder’s personal choice.
TK Sabapathy, our beloved art historian, reminds us..
In part of the neglect of drawing (and for that matter, other aspects of the visual arts) arises from preferred or prejudicial approaches to evaluating art in which instances painting is installed in a position of dominance. In discussions devoted to art, the language used for discussing and analyzing is without exception, disposed towards painting, whether this be aimed at cultivating conceptual and formal ideologies or hunting for the wellspring of creativity embedded in the subjective realms of the artist. In such discussion, elements or features other than the painterly are co-opted in to the domain of painting, thereby compromising even devaluing the distinctiveness and operation; or they are suppressed, bypassed and ignored so as to safeguard the constitution of a picture as homogenous, painterly construct.
This exhibition of Hasnul Jamal Saidon’s drawings post-1970 to 2008 entitled In Between the Lines , appears to mock the art historian and curator to place this artist ‘in line’ by ascertaining him through possible rhetoric, his lineage, claiming him as the progenitor of new media, expounding on how he is Malaysia’s new art history artist, etc.
Instead what surfaced was the realization that any attempt to synthesize a dominant aesthetic sensibility from such heterogeneity would be ill-serving and merely passe curatorial thinking. I am not alone here as Hasnul Jamal Saidon is co-curating this as he is the artist here which makes this contemplation challenging. He is ‘re-creating Jamal’ (drawing+writing) as I am merely reading.
At an early age of fifteen, and before any formal training ,Hasnul Jamal Saidon (HJS) whose name in Arabic translates to ‘the good and beautiful’ bathed in the simple joy of cartooning, whilst his immediate audience( the family) and friends adored him. HJS enjoyed himself in picturing the trials and tribulation of his own family which he entitled Keluarga Dak Don.Energetic and brimming with ideas, he pre-occupied himself with full length illustrated stories, comic strips announcing the silly intricacies of family life, he often created stories and illustrated them for his family members who saw him as their very own comic artist of the family. He reigned in the field and imagined himself to assume the role of his icon, Mohamad Noor Khalid or Lat. The adoration and love showed towards his raw pictorial prowess pushed him further to excel. At the time he had practically no idea that he was about to embark upon a journey which was to transform and mould him through his aesthetic percept.
The preoccupations with human character , and what roles the character held via their word bubbles began to assume differing shapes and positions, exclamations began to re-assert itself as if the cartoon were animated characters and may be assuming screen roles, as the audience were watching television. Television is clearly the ubiquitous and influential mass media which had effected the artist during his formative years. One particular drawing to be found in the page of the Selujak Cipta book, a self-portrait of himself smiling with visible zeal, looking out at an audience as though he was the TV host as he exclaims “ Thanks for watching”. This work is signed off as Al-jamal in 1983.
As he matures in his new found role as an illustrator, he became more astute in recognizing the different complexity of attaining the picture perfect or the ‘beautiful’ in art. The function of drawing for him at the time is essential to understanding Man and Nature.
In the late 80s, the attempts to engage in the problematic of aesthetics and art practice had become the staple during his pupilage at the Faculty of Art and Design of MARA Institute of Technology or ITM from 1984-1989. Drawings became a trained and integral method to aspire towards a particular end in picture making. Lines were taught to serve as the setting out of first intentions, first thoughts, reminders or registration of ideas to be embarked upon, either through the bidding of the course tutor or by his own.
The ITM Art School fostered a persona of the Malay artist which cultivated firstly a overarching sense of Malay Romanticism .Romanticism became a significant force in maintaining the upsurge of nationalism and Malay pride among the artists. Scenes, personas and objects from Malay myths, legends and folklores, took centre stage in his drawings. In advertently, ITM prepared him to become a profound visual linguist of the Malay identity .
How not to succumb to the wisdom of Ahmad Khalid ,Choong Kam Kow, Joseph Tan and Fauzan Omar, Amron Omar, Awang Damit and how to negotiate this with understanding the guru of semiotics a.k.a Pak Mail ? For it was Ismail Zain who, when coaxing artists to look beyond the traditional concepts of historicism states “ I think if you skip the closed system of the myth of progress and desperately want to extricate yourself from the rarefied air of the so-called modernism ,you are left with a situation which can only be described as spatial .it is a space that does not locate you in a particular time-frame”Without these gurus he may have less capacity to search elaborately, deeply and critically about what he knows and knows not again.
Having mastered naturalism, realism and symbolism, he was then put to task in stretching the rhetoric of fine art beyond mainstream aesthetic appeal. It was all good and nice that he was skilled in the drawing of likeness in friends (see portrait drawings of ASEAN friends) and objects, but would that reduce him to being a mere replicator. Or would he rather be the progenitor? The strains of interpreting what is natural as compared to what alludes to the real brought upon the 1989 group of drawings entitled the Microscape series. By picturing the cell being the progenitor of Man and Nature, he reveled in the sketches and drawings of embryonic forms which had many fooled into thinking that he was venturing into the abstract expressionist or symbolist field. The drawings were reproduced ‘naturalistically’ from science books and had been practices in ‘expanded realism’ which was planned, he recalled, for the etching plate (handwritten side notes indicate tongue-in-cheek references to Rembrandt, Durer and Pollock). It was an attempt of coming to terms with parallels of visual knowledge via Science or specifically Biology. These lines maybe the earliest prelude to the artist acknowledging science and later, technology, as he was destined to advance the state of electronic art for the country.
By the final year, the young artist pages were brimming with a cacophony of studies, contemplations and images which would become the imprint to his renewed sense of identity.
As stacks of drawings are being figured and as this exhibition became more expansive, the emotional range of the drawings approaching the 1990s began to overwhelm the viewer. From the monochrome linearity of family and AD ITM 85 heroics to the sedated portrait depictions of his ASEAN friends, and the intriguing pull of the embryonic forms surfacing into paper based renderings of the beautiful bewilderment faced by the Malay hero in a foreign land.
Every uncertainty observed in the cross hatching or the jumping lines of the contours cajoles the viewer to analyse the line of beauty this artist has taken. The eyes search out for the artists’s pentimenti, for some re-drawing, the signs of struggle in form creation amidst the perfected tone and planes framed by confident contours. This acts as a kind of pedigree for the drawing and some viewer enjoy believing that a drawing is an authentic work by searching out irregularities and pentimenti. Part of the viewer’s excitement when approaching the early 90s drawings, is to be witness of his quirks, his contradicting lines, seeing the moment when Jamal dares to analyze the call of beauty so as to find himself.
Picturing differing pole positions during his cross-cultural encounter in the United States of America, in the xerograph pieces entitled Kandang Kambing, Kandang Rimau, Jamal can be seen to initiate his method of including a ‘portait’ of himself via handprint, further embedding himself and claiming his stance in coming to terms with the chasm between cultures. Hence the complex drawings like The Return of the Native, which he produced by utilizing pencil, marker ,and liquid paper on board, in the early 90s is evidence to attaining a plateau where the artist was producing processual studies and story-board type inquiries towards the production of expansive performance type video art installations. Jamal had reached a level where he revels in surface defragmentation, transcends planar constraints and had become conversant now in reciting his visual interest beyond typical stylistic engagements. His markings became more discriminating and had to assume an ever probing role in his analysis of reaching truth and beauty.
Painter, satirist and writer, William Hogarth expounded his own theories in then Analysis of Beauty (1753), combining practical advice on painting with criticism of the art connoisseur. He expressed his belief in the “beauty of a composed intricacy of form,” and advocated variety, regularity, simplicity, intricacy, quantity, and greatness .Interestingly all six elements lead us to understanding Jamal.
Hogarth believes most and presses upon ‘intricacy’; this to be the habit which leads us to participate in the whirling game of pursuit, when bit by bit discovering the beauty of an object. Intricacy arises from the love of this pursuit. Every difficulty in understanding or grasping the object enhances the pleasure of overcoming it, in order to continue the pursuit.
That intricacy and simplicity exists profoundly in understanding the Creation of Man, really triggered Jamal to re-think his role as the artist and father. For in 1992 when his first born, Adeela was placed in his arms for him to recite the adzan upon, Jamal knew he himself had been re-born.
Troy Samaritan Hospital labour ward attendees may have been witness to Jamal’s significant crossing into a passage where he was intellectually unversed, yet destined to serve. The new born signified the very change, renewal, and passing of being for Jamal —himself being in constant flux. The entire corporeal world constantly renews itself. The “matter” of corporeal things has the power to become a new form at any moment by Allah’s grace. And that realization of evanescence, coupled with his wonder in servitude, fuelled his intrigue in the burning Muslim-father/leader mission which pushed him to seek the wisdom of Siddharta, Lao Tze, Nakula, Osman Bakar, al-Ghazali, Qadr Al Jilani and Al-Arabi.
Jamal refers most to the Ḥanbalī theologian Abdul al _Qadir al –Jilani (1078–1166) from Baghdad. Al-Jīlānī stresses on philanthropy, humility, piety, and moderation, his achievement as a thinker was to have reconciled the mystical nature of the Ṣūfī calling with the sober demands of Islāmic law. His concept of Ṣūfism was that of a holy war or jihād waged against one’s own will in order to conquer egotism and worldliness and to submit to God’s will.
The markings that matter most in Jamal’s oeuvre can be found in the five sets of works entitled Proclaim, executed in 1994, which include markings, the written words in letters from his father. The writings of his father are mediated reflections of his teachings, and generated from the teachings of the Quran. Hence, to ‘proclaim’ or ‘read aloud’ is translated to Arabic as Iqra, and is one word that is associated with the first direct revelation to the prophet Muhammad. For Jamal, the circumstances, material, physical and spiritual in which he has been ordained to perform, as a visual artist, are circumstances within which he must deliver his artistic ideology, anchored upon the notion of a divine dynamic internalized .
Proclamations abound further in a number of expositions which were convened foregrounding New media art positions and strategies. Analytical drawings and critical writings emerged to present new modes of art production, and Jamal had became extremely influential in proclaiming himself and the decree came to assume great forms. In 1997, not only did he declare himself in HYPErview, the much-referenced solo exhibition at the Creative Centre of The National Art Gallery, at the end of that same year Jamal with fellow artist-colleague Niranjan Rajah pioneered the first Electronic Art exposition in Malaysia, also at the National Art Gallery. Much has been written on this phase of Jamal’s influence by Roopesh Sitharan.
The relationship of man and nature for Jamal is a point of continuous contention .The contention began to grow in poignancy as he professed his new knowledge of what was claimed as electronic art/ new media art and created fresh discourses on contexts and creation. Gradually, through rejection and contention, new opportunities abound and ideas were to be forged, negotiated and sustained. By the year 2000, his assertions of his edict through his constructed metaphors is further heightened by more explorative use of multimedia technology. The topics of de-centering power relations, chasms between the equipped and the ill-equipped in the era of, what he terms as ‘gobble’ization, kept his audiences bemused. Among the bemused witness was Dr Mahathir Mohammed who had on the occasion of opening the Rupa exhibition at the National Art Gallery, had a full length explanation by Jamal of his installation Kdek,kdek Ong!, which is now a national collection.
Jamal is egotistic as much as he is altruistic . He appears to be antagonistic in thrusting himself upon others whilst he performs a whole spectrum of self-critique, also playing the protagonist in parody of Man to advance schemes which re-question socio-political agendas. Hence Jamal provided the searching gaze, manifested in visually recorded inquiries (his artist books), his Antologila poems, in parables often satirizing, probing into the complicit relation between art and its production, reception, evaluation and final destination. It is, rather, his innate desire to become more perfect, which directs this ceaseless self-renewal, self-origination, or self-emergence into a perpetual and irreversible flow upward in the scale of being. This upward movement towards the Truth is the Ibn al -Arabi in him.
The Essence -UNSUR
Ibn al-Arabī attempted to explain how Intelligence proceeds from the absolute One by inserting between them a primordial feminine principle, which is all things in potentiality but which also possesses the capacity, readiness, and desire to manifest or generate them first as archetypes in Intelligence and then as actually existing things in the universe below. Ibn al-Arabī gave this principle numerous names, including prime “matter” or unsur and characterized it as the principle “whose existence makes manifest the essences of the potential worlds.”
The feminine principle in Jamal’s upward journey is best appreciated in the portraiture of women, his wife and ultimately of his mother. The drawings of Bonda harkens the viewer to recall the series of Rembrandt 1630s drawings and studies of his own mother and of his wife, asleep that provided a vocabulary for works recording reclining and /or ailing women. These studies of the mother show Jamal’s portrayal of her character and inner strength via meticulous yet simple lines . He introduced shadows sparsely imbued to add to the atmospheric mood of picturing the personal.
More interested in the psychological aspects of portraiture, Jamal indulged in drawing with charcoal, the primordial medium that can readily follow every artistic impulse. The seizing of characteristic elements and an adequate plane rendition provides for less realistic detail. Mood elements, intellectual tension, and personal engagement are typical features of these series of portrait drawings where the economy of lines delineate the pregnant space within which the forms emerge.
Jamal has a striking capacity to replicate images and transform them into new traces, here his reinscription of the national artist, Hoessein Enas’s famous drawing Aida, may seem simple yet challenges us to recognize that our eye receives information processed by two artists assimilated in one form flooding our retina to become a signal re-encoded.
How many times have we laid eyes on a woman, but never really see her?
This exhibition is indeed a comprehensive view of the Jamal’s journey of searching out the beautiful complexities in being an artist. It begins from the youthful exuberance derived within an imagined space to experiencing interdisciplinary thrusts in works produced in the intense journey transcending cultural, psychological and meta-physical spaces. Somewhere they retain their character as documents, observations, historical artifacts, where once fragmented and assembled again, only makes for their current position in relation to one another, truly overwhelming. Here are documents of Jamal’s propitious posturing, his description of new and conflicting temporalities, where in the last drawings he sheds the recurring double edged wit, ultimately in the consideration of his essence.
It seems, therefore that it is exactly these drawings that locate Jamal. Perhaps for Jamal to continue the next phase of his journey (as this exhibition is presented on the eve of the Islamic new year) he must dislocate, de-construct, he must not hold sacred his ego – himself depicted in these twenty-nine years of drawings. For he is but one dot in between the lines of the beautiful complexity of Allah’s plan.