Venue: Galeri Chandan @ Bukit Damansara
Duration: 16 June until 16 July 2008
by: Hasnul J Saidon
Art exhibitions may feature a recurring theme and pattern. One example is the notion of ‘return’. An artistic journey or voyage may not be complete without the notion of ‘return’. It may connote something physical as well as mental, emotional and most importantly, spiritual. Many seasoned artists have experienced this, especially those who have traveled far. In fact, there is a Chinese saying that goes like this:
“Traveling far means returning”.
Sculptor Ramlan Abdullah even reminds that :
“Sometimes, it seems, one has to travel far away to gain a perspective on one’s own culture”.
Such sayings seem fitting in summarising ‘Semangat Chandan” (The Spirit of Chandan). It also seems fitting in summarising the artistic journeys of the participating artists, all of whom were born in Perak, if not Chandan. They have traveled far. In traveling far, they have also acquired the meaning of return.
Despite the apparent ‘Perak’ theme, Semangat Chandan should not be seen as a literal and parochial representation of Perak. Instead, Semangat Chandan epitomizes a point of return for the participating artists, perhaps to a shared sense of belonging and origin, more than a place of birth. Evidently, the Chandan Gallery has become a signpost for such a return. The desire to return, in both physical and spiritual terms, is a universal theme.
Notwithstanding today’s age of globalisation and transmigration, many of us have experienced a sense of ‘return’, or in a spiritual term, a cycle of recurring return. Despite the fact that many artists are becoming more international in their career path, with all its glitters and glamour, many are also having this lingering longing to always return to their humble motherland, if not their spiritual selves.
Many seminal individuals have been associated with their place of birth. Some were even named after the place where they were born. Several great masterpieces have also been associated with the places where artists who created them were born or grew up. Compared to race, a place of birth seems to be a more concrete and inclusive form of communal return, as well as a sense of belonging and shared origin. Of course, a return to a place of birth may be politically constructed, as much as it can be also be culturally-driven and spiritually-rooted.
The generic notion of the spirit of returning in Semangat Chandan is manifested through four main sub-themes, namely: Nature, culture and tradition, Female subjects, Male body and martial arts, Self and identity, war, power, urbanisation and popular culture
The term semangat or chi or prana or cosmic life force or spirit has been manifested through myriads of tangible forms by visual artists. One common form is Nature. Artworks by Yeoh Jin Leng, Nasir Baharuddin, Ramlan Abdullah, Abu Bakar Idris, Fauzin Mustaffa, Chuah Chong Yong, Yusri Sulaiman, Ham Rabeah Kamarun, Raja Zahabuddin and Mansor Ghazalli share a common empathy towards Nature, perhaps implying a more universal point of return.
Wood and clay (or soil) were used as the chosen medium by Yeoh Jin Leng, Ramlan Abdullah, Juhari Said, Nasir Baharuddin and Ham Rabeah. In comparison, Abu Bakar Idris, Fauzin Mustaffa, Chuah Chong Yong, Yusri Sulaiman, Mansor Ghazalli and Raja Zahabuddin employ images of nature such as plants, earth, water and rock forms as signs, symbols and metaphors for their own expressions.
Jin Leng’s Connections, a sculptural panel from the Belum Rainforest Project (1994) andEcology series painting (1983) provide a lyrical index for the need to return to Nature as a prelude for us to learn from the diverse and rich tapestry of Asian spiritual and cultural heritage. Jin Leng’s extensive travel and research experience throughout many remote areas all over Asia has brought him to appreciate the fact that such heritage is richly infused “with spiritual inspiration derived from Nature.” Nature in return, provides a more universal sense of common belonging, return and sustainability. For Jin Leng, Nature is ecologically intertwined or connected to us.
Closer to Jin Leng is Ham Rabeah’s Alam series (1994) that echoes a similar homage to natural forms. Clay as the chosen material itself can be taken as a visual metaphor. Ham refers to this as “a sense of communion with nature – the nature of material”. For her, “the image is nestled within the medium, everything has its unity from duality”. Clay for Ham Rabeah, represents “a fundamental equation between ‘earth’, nature and the human experience”.
Ramlan’s Still Standing – Home (2007) captures his interest in wood, which according to him, is “motivated by a desire for integration within nature’s endless processes of transformation.” Perhaps inspired by local material and his understanding of local landscape and history, the vertical trajectory of his sculpture seems to celebrate the spirit of transformation, change, growth and development. Yet, one could sense Ramlan’s alluring reminder for us to always return to our ‘root’. The reminder is expressed subtly through his formalistic flair in returning to traditional forms as a basis of reference.
Fauzin’s Majestic Land – The Six Principles (2008) according to him, combines “the spirit of earth, wind, water and tradition as the foundation to attain excellence”. For Fauzin, human spirit must be pillared by a strong faith (six pillars of Islamic faith), as symbolized by sixcokmar in his composition. Nature in Fauzin’s pictorial play is infused with his desire to return to tradition as a source of inspiration. In comparison, Juhari Said’s Okir Series (2007) embedded his visual imageries as an integral part of his freestanding wood forms to suggest the inherent spirit or life force of Nature.
Yusri Sulaiman’s The Rock ( 2008 ), Abu Bakar Idris’s Healing Garden (2008), Chuah Chong Yong’s Renungan Gunung Inas 3… (2008), Mansor Ghazalli’s Sg. Beranang II (2004) and Raja Zahabuddin’s Puncaknya Berirama (2004), despite the straight-forwardness of their renditions, capture the picturesque aspect and the healing power of Nature. Nasir on the other hand, is more theoretical, minimal and conceptual in his approach.
Image of a woman or a woman body has been historically attributed in many traditions to the feminine energy, the Ying, shakti power or cosmic energy, the dynosian impulse, and the homeland, mother-earth or mother-nature. In many forms of Eastern traditions, all things are said to spring from the bowels of the earth, live on earth and to eventually return to the mother earth.
Sharmiza Abu Hassan’s Alegori Ledang: Sukat Hati (2004), Raja Azhar’s Melentik (2007) and Dr. Wong Seng Tong’s An Elderly Lady (2008) feature this sub-theme, albeit perhaps through a more personal nuance. Sharmiza’s works reflect her skill in manipulating metal forms with a touch of feminine subtext, narrative quality and innate energy. In contrast, Raja Azhar is more vibrant and fore-fronting in capturing the female energy through his seductive glass work. Interestingly, Dr. Wong’s strategy in using Puan Maimun Yusuf (the oldest candidate during the March 8, 2008 12th. General Election) as the subject of his watercolour, not only tries to capture the unyielding spirit of a woman in defying stereotypes and all odds (especially in relation to the typically male-dominated political scene of Malaysia), but also the irony of such defiance.
As if complimenting the ‘Ying’ aspect of the above-mentioned artworks, Raja Shahriman’sSemangat Besi (2001) and Dr. Choong Kam Kow’s Shaolin Gong reverberate with an abundance of ‘Yang’ energy. Both works refer to traditional forms of martial arts (Silat and Qi Gong) as a reference to suggest the inherent energy within human. While Choong’s work strikes a more traditional undertone through the inclusion of silkscreened text from old almanac calendar, Raja Shahriman’s metal enigma “unveils the intrinsic face of humanity that continues to battle the splitting chasm of form and soul”. Interestingly, both artists engage with the work as a way of responding to and reflecting upon their own personal battles – Choong with colon cancer (he went through a major operation in mid 2005) and Shahriman with the taboo of figurative representation in Islam. Shafee Ramli’s Biar Bermandi Darah, Asal Maruah Tetap Terbela (2008) captures the spirit of angst that is prevalence among artists from the younger generation. His work is imbued with Malay traditional nuance almost suggestive of a prelude to amok.
Hasanul Isyraf Idris’s Peta Mimpi (2008), Hasnul J Saidon’s Hujan Emas Hujan Batu (1990), Saiful Razman’s Anarki Lumpur 2 (2008) and a repertoire of artworks by the late Ahmad Azhari represent a more political and social conscious approach towards their works. Their works are reflective of contemporary conundrum in which issues of self, identity, popular culture, cross-cultural encounters, war, power and our fast changing media-saturated, urban post-modern realities are becoming more pressing than before.
Hasanul’s work employs irony, parody, decorative kitsch and mockery in commenting upon what he refers to as “war, terrorism, superpower-alliance, and regimental ruling”. Hasanul wittily used a collage of harmless-looking decorative composition to connote the notion of power and territory. Hasnul Saidon’s collage was executed during his BFA stint in the USA as a marker for his early cross-cultural encounter in which his secured sense of local self and identity was challenged and questioned. Saiful’s repeated patterns on the other hand, are suggestive of the repetitive drudgery of an urban life, encapsulated by the “fatigue and psychological stress of the sensibility-numbing life in the Klang Valley where Saiful lives and works”. To what must we return to in today’s age of continuous deconstruction and loss of master-narrative?
Perhaps the most poignant reference to the theme of ‘returning’ can be traced in the decision to include pop-art works of the late Ahmad Azhari, who had sadly ‘returned’. As we offer our prayer or doa to Jeri’s soul, Semangat Chandan also pays a special tribute to the unyielding spirit of this son of Perak.
Semangat Chandan emanates with mental and emotional energies that transcribe the participating artists’s experiences and encounters with the trials and tribulation of life.
All the artworks, whilst gathering momentarily together under the roof of Chandan Gallery, will continue to gain extended meanings beyond the confines of Statehood and the cliched notion of Nationhood. In this regards, there is another saying:
“The perfect journey is circular – the joy of departure and the joy of returning”
In today’s age of globalisation and transmigration, perhaps it is more rewarding to return to the true nature of our soul as our shared point of origin.
HASNUL J SAIDON