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Sunday July 6, 2008

He had a dream

An artist’s long-held wish comes true after his death. An art lover celebrates the occasioBy remembering his life.

MY earliest visual recollection of the late Mohammad Din Mohammad is a photograph of the two of us taken at the opening of an exhibition in Kuala Lumpur, in the early years of my decade-long formal involvement in visual art in this country.

In the photograph, he is immaculate in his suit, with his trademark curly hair touching his shoulders, and his instantly recognisable impish grin on his face. That grin was always there, even when he was being all earnest and serious.

I cannot recall exactly when I first met Mohammad Din, but I think it might have been at a dinner party in Singapore, many years ago. It was a gathering of people involved in art and culture, so he would have been on the guest list because he was active in the Singapore art scene. Very active: he was practising many facets of artistic endeavour, making visual art, acting, and (as and I later found out), offering the art of traditional healing to those in need.

Mohammad Din, who died last year at 52, was born in Kampung Gangsa, Durian Tunggal, Malacca, in 1955. At the age of two, he was taken to live in Singapore, which was still part of newly independent Malaya then.

This modest space in Malacca is a dream realised, albeit too late, as Mohammad Din died before it was completed. But with its recent opening, the arts community can celebrate the life and works of a passionate soul.

He received his formal art education at the highly respected Nanyang Academy of Fine Art in Singapore. However, the reality was that Mohammad Din had been studying various forms of art from a very early age, from his first experiment in ceramics at the age of five, in fact, when he collected clay and fashioned cups.

As was the norm for many young men at the time, his formal education was augmented with the study of traditional art forms: the Malay martial art of silat was one discipline he studied to the level of mastery, when he was able to teach others.

And, as was also quite common among people who study traditional Malay art forms, Mohammad Din was also gifted with the knowledge of the art of traditional healing.

Fitted in among his studies was travel in the pursuit of knowledge and experience that would help shape his visual art. And shape it they did.

Much has been made of Mohammad Din’s mystical leanings in his art, but is that really surprising given this sort of nurturing and conditioning?

In addition to an upbringing rich with experiences with and exposure to the many Malay art forms, there was that Western-style formal art education. There were also sojourns in several other parts of the world: he studied the mystical world of the Sufis in France (of all places!), he painted in the streets of Vietnam, he painted in solitude of his home studio for international art exhibitions ... Mohammad Din seemed to have done it all.

The thread that ran through all his experiences, all his works, was Mohammad Din’s thoughts and feelings about the meaning of life. Through his art, he continuously engaged with the voice within him – the inner voice that urged him to question his very existence and all that it represented.

Mohammad Din painted with a strength and energy that at times seemed unusual. Hampered by the inadequacy of the brush to convey his sense of the Divine Benevolence, the Divine Greatness he perceived around him all the time, he resorted at times to using his palms and fingers to transfer his spiritual energy onto canvas.

The result is a collection of calligraphic and abstract paintings that are laden with ideas and questions about man’s reason for being, and man’s relationship with the Creator.

Several years ago, at the opening of one of his solo exhibitions, Mohammad Din told me of his dream to build a gallery. The profusion of art galleries in rural Bali that he discovered during his visit there added another dimension to his dream. He dreamt of a wide open space in which to make his art. He dreamt of having artists from both Malaysia and Singapore making art in his rural gallery.

He told me that he had found the perfect location for it.

Last year, his wife Hamidah called one evening out of the blue to say that Mohammad Din had died. It was exactly a week after his 52nd birthday.

Last week, I drove to Kampung Gangsa, Durian Tunggal, Malacca, for the official opening of the gallery Mohammad Din had spoken about. He had started construction three years ago; his family continued the project after his death.

An idyllic kampung setting, adjacent to a tributary of Sungai Malacca, buffalos grazing in the open fields around, the blue sky bright and cheerful ... it was a perfect day.

The opening was a celebration of a lifetime of work and the achievement of a dream. Other than a slight pause and a wobble in Hamidah’s voice as she gave her welcome speech and thanked everyone who helped make her husband’s dream a reality, the mood was joyful, and at times reflective.

The gallery currently displays Mohammad Din’s paintings and sculptures. There are plans for exhibitions by other artists.

There are also plans to run residency programmes to enable artists (who tend to be, on the whole, urban creatures) to make art in a rural environment. And, no doubt, to develop their own interpretation of the meaning of life, just as Mohammad Din tried to convey through his art.

Galeri Mohammad Din Mohammad is in Kampung Gangsa, Durian Tunggal, Malacca. Visits are by appointment only; call 06-553 1726, 012-246 2769, or 017-614 1842. The gallery is closed on Fridays.

Mas Zetti Atan studied Political Science and Kesenian Melayu (Malay art) at university where an encounter with a painting by a local artist ignited a passion for modern Malaysian art. She has been involved in organising art exhibitions for almost a decade.

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