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Sunday December 23, 2012

Latiff Mohidin comes full circle with Serangga

Latif Mohidin remains a ‘budak alam’, a nature boy, ever curious about the natural world around him. — Photo by OOI KOK CHUEN Latif Mohidin remains a ‘budak alam’, a nature boy, ever curious about the natural world around him. — Photo by OOI KOK CHUEN

An eagerly awaited exhibition finds one of Malaysia’s great artists in playful mood and top form as the mark-maker and the iconoclast, and the poet of small and invisible things.

LATIFF Mohidin seems to have come full circle in the Serangga (Insects) exhibition, his first solo one in five years. Not since the 1960s has he revisited in such an absorbing way his celebrated Pago-Pago series, which is a compelling fusion of stupa-like monuments and natural plant-rock forms. In Serangga, though, we get a glimpse of insectopia.

Latiff himself dubs this excursion a prequel to Pago-Pago, explaining that it is a re-exploration of the minutae of the immediate environs inspired by his visits to sacred sites in Asia. Those haunting solitary “horns”, antenna, tendrils or aloe-vera spikes topping his Pago-Pago monoliths – they all belong to insects!

“The shape of the Pago-Pago forms is three-quarter of a leaf. The jutting out part could be a pagoda or a stupa, with the half-dome, but it is also part of the insects,” he confides.

He completed 33 pieces for Serangga, all within this year, out of which he used 12 in the book Faust, the first half of his translation from German into Bahasa Malaysia of the literary magnum opus by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. Latiff, a world-class poet with several anthologies to his name, gained fluency in Deutsch linguistics during his early studies at the Berlin Art Academy in 1960-63.

The Serangga works are identified by serial numbers, save two – indicating that they are separate, distinct entities. The two named are the self-explanatory Dark Landscape, and Good Morn, Mr Mantis, with the full-frontal insect face dominated by the “spotlight” compound eyes attentively transfixing the viewer with its stare even as it is being watched.

The works are in two formats: 51cm x 38cm, and 76cm x 51cm. Like his works done in series since Pago-Pago, they are all rooted in Nature.

“I am a kampung boy (at heart),” reiterates Latiff. Nature has always been central to Latiff’s works, and especially so as he was regarded the eminence grise of Anak Alam, the carefree art collective that broke away from the figurative-art tradition of the Angkatan Pelukis Malaysia in the early 1980s. The Lenggeng, Negri Sembilan-born Latiff has spent the last 19 years based in Penang.

Serangga 17 Serangga 17

The works in Serangga are neither illustrations nor metaphor-allegories of Faust’s theme about the inevitable bargain with the devil for selfish gains. Because some of the Serangga works are in Faust, the uninitiated may see into them a Darwinian twist, or even a kind of poetic empathy – after all, the symbolic cockroach has survived the Ice Age and the female praying mantis/black widow spider are known sexual cannibals.

But the 74-year-old artist gives an emphatic “no” to all these fancy theories.

Serangga doesn’t even, in some works, embody insect forms or traits. Maybe glimpses of an exoskeleton here, a thorax, pulpae, limbs, head, antennae or tail there. Fragments suggested or even concealed or camouflaged in a Where’s Wally? jigsaw scrutiny. Sometimes, the works – call them drawings or paintings, as you like – take in a whole landscape or only elements found in a landscape.

This is where one may find a disconnect. In Serangga, Latiff revels in the delirious process of creation and its ritual of discoveries, and uses a combo of techniques – by tutelage, experiment or habit – to make ambiguous images manifesting Nature’s mysterious forces at work. Even the frames of the works are handpainted. Here, Latiff is playful yet serious, the mark-maker and the iconoclast, the poet of small and invisible things.

While there are the obvious modules, as used in his 2007 collection, Kembara (Voyage), of wet-on-wet, dry-on-wet, wet-on-dry and dry-on-dry as well as the frottage rubbings popularised by Max Ernst, in Serangga, Latiff reveals a multiplicity of media in each work. This includes quick-drying acrylic, pastels, watercolours, charcoal, chalk, soft crayons, colour pencils and pens. Also in the repertoire are tailor’s marking pencils that glide more easily over more resistant surfaces, and even correction fluid – for the streaks of opaque white that double as a dilution softener for the darker areas.

“Even when I started in the early 1950s (Latiff was dubbed a boy wonder at school in Negri Sembilan and he sold his first work, on brinjal, at the official age of 11 to none other than Sir Malcolm MacDonald, then British High Commissioner in Singapore), I had been doing various media (though as separate entities and not combined),” he reveals. There was even a collage of a black bamboo stalk in a 1951 work, which will be shown in his Retrospective, the second accorded him, at the National Art Visual Centre (Dec 26, 2012, to June 13, 2013).

The insects may be lost in the dense foliage, like in No. 25 with its aloe-vera megalith structures or No. 29 with its forest of mounds like ant-hill colonies, and No. 32 with the slanted giant leaf like a Tree of Life making a diagonal swathe.

Serangga is raw and unpolished, even at times looking unfinished.

No. 27 is the only concession to colour, with its dark red reminiscent of his 1968 Pago-Pago work, Red Night. Otherwise, Latiff’s palette here is one of earthy ochres, burnt sienna and nocturnal black. It is depressingly dark, reminiscent of Neo-Expressionists like Anselm Kiefer, with an ambient backdrop that is tranquil and mysterious, secretive, and dangerous.

Serangga 25<br>Master at work: In Serangga, Latiff Mohidin seems to revel in the process of creation, using a multitude of techniques to create these darkly ambiguous images of Nature. Serangga 25
Master at work: In Serangga, Latiff Mohidin seems to revel in the process of creation, using a multitude of techniques to create these darkly ambiguous images of Nature.

(The only time Latiff is known to have sexed up his colours with unbridled frenzy is in the psychedelic 1983 Mindscape which was sold in the May 2012 Henry Butcher Art Auction.)

Latiff also points out the flicked stipples of myriad dots reminiscent of the technique he used in his Mindscapes series. “Distance is important, as is the brush used and the amount of paint laden on the tip, and sprinkled at an angle. Not too far and not too near, how many feet and if not happy, six inches? There were some close encounters.”

And also distance as detachment between artist and object.

Latiff also reveals that each painting was done differently from the next in terms of variations, “as little and as much”, of colours, shapes and style.

The natural fibrous quality of the Tibetan paper with its uneven absorbency is used for effect, with the pigments “biting” into it and residual traces of colours hanging on strands and bumps of paper crevasses like overstaying dewdrops or perched, recalcitrant insects. A natural “ageing” and antique effect is a result of the slightly sepia tone of the paper.

For Latiff, it has been some 60 years of work with an unswerving affinity for Nature that has seen some of the most compelling Expressionist abstracts in print and on canvas – Pago-Pago (1963-68), Mindscapes (1974-75), Langkawi (1976-81), Mindscape Revisited (1982), Gelombang (1988 and 1990), Rimba (1998) and Kembara (2007).

Latiff reveals that he is working, in print, on a “travelogue” of sorts of his 1960s travels while another book will oscillate between “monologues and dialogues”.

“I am comfortable learning from Nature and looking at it,” he says, pointing out that he was in the Science stream at secondary school where he put flowers and frogs under the magnifying glass before his understanding of nature widened in his travels to the ancient sacred sites of South-East Asia .

His Serangga works are not botanical or naturalist studies of insects like, say, the works of anonymous Chinese trading artists in the William Farquhar Collection (1819-1823) or even those by Walter Spies (1895-1948), or going further back, 17th century Chinese woodblocks.

Yet, Latiff knows his insects. “Every praying mantis is different,” Latiff says. “Sometimes, they look like they are carrying a sword and some have horns like reindeer. You don’t see them, as they are usually mistaken for the jambu leaf they are perched on.”

And it strikes you that the praying mantis in Good Morn, Mr Mantis, has become something of an alter ego, morphing into Latiff looking out with those sly eyes under the cover of darkness and the thickets of jungle that he has created, smiling and surveying. Guten morgen, Mr Latiff!

Serangga, which was launched by Bank Negara Governor Tan Sri Dr Zeti Akhtar Aziz on Nov 28, is on display at the Temporary Gallery, Level 2, Bank Negara Malaysia Museum and Art Gallery, Jalan Dato Onn, Kuala Lumpur. The exhibition ends on Jan 28, 2013. Admission is free and the gallery is open daily from 10am to 6pm. For more information, call 03-9179 2888, e-mail infomuseum@bnm.gov.my, or go to its Facebook page at facebook.com/BNM.MAG.

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