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Sunday May 5, 2013

Reaching arty heights with Zarian Babjan

Eye in the sky: Artist Zarian Babjan has always looked to the infinite airspace above us for inspiration. Eye in the sky: Artist Zarian Babjan has always looked to the infinite airspace above us for inspiration.

Inspired by aviation art, artist Zarian Babjan has brought together his two loves in his artwork.

PEOPLE will be greeted by Tom Cruise when they walk into the exhibition,” says Zarian Babjan with a smile that could only be flashed by someone who just won the lottery. That’s the sort of zest the artist has for life – in spite of the things that wear us down, there’s always so much to look forward to.

Zarian’s brand of aviation art, titled Machines & Muses, is currently being exhibited at Seni Gallery, Seni ’Mont Kiara in Kuala Lumpur. The 68-year-old has perfectly married his two interests in life – planes and celebrities. It’s obvious he knows his aircraft, and on his winged machines are images of musicians and cinema icons including the likes of Mick Jagger, Shirley Bassey, Diana Ross, Cameron Diaz, Catherine Zeta-Jones and Barbara Bach, among others.

His music interest isn’t surprising since he listens to plenty of it while painting, and that’s many hours spent in a day. And like all art folk worth their salt, Zarian wears his heart on his sleeve, or more specifically, attaches his toolbox (with the image of The Rolling Stones painted on it by him, no less) to his work space, a tiny shack off Taman Tun Dr Ismail in Kuala Lumpur.

And what of these celebrities? “I like them ... I like them all. My favourite are singers ... Elvis (Presley), Beatles, Rolling Stones,” he enthuses with wide-eyed amazement.

It’s not just singers and actors that he’s worked his acrylic magic with; he’s also done so for world leaders like former Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Kwan Yew.

But well before he first committed brush to canvas, Zarian was simply fascinated with the whirly birds he saw in the sky. “I saw my first plane when I was about five, during the Emergency period. It was a propeller plane that flew above me,” he recalls of mid-1950s Kuala Kangsar, Perak, his hometown.

It was at school that he was introduced to art and found his medium of expression, thriving in his arts and crafts lessons in Standard One.

“I used to make matchbox planes, you know, from those old wooden matchboxes. I’d put a few boxes together and make up the fuselage. Then I’d open up and flatten some to make the wings,” he says, revealing his early engineering methods at Clifford School.

It was difficult for Zarian to resist painting Mick
Jagger’s portrait, being a Rolling Stones fan. It was difficult for Zarian to resist painting Mick Jagger’s portrait, being a Rolling Stones fan.

Being a voracious reader and having a keen eye for the arts, Zarian would thumb through British and American magazines like Post and Life, respectively, sourcing inspiration. And it was on one such occasion that he chanced upon the image of a Hawker Typhoon fighter plane circling a German Panzer tank in a WWII depiction, effectively burning the artist, aviation art specialist Frank Wootton’s name in his brain.

Eventually, he graduated to putting together Fleet Air Arm and later, Airfix model planes together, a pre-occupation that had many kids the world over gluing their fingers together and painting over floors and tables, too. Hence, he learned to differentiate fighter planes like a Hawker Hurricane from a Spitfire, and an F-4 Phantom from an F-15 Eagle.

Somehow, his love for painting stuck and as a child, Zarian’s pre-occupation with Word War aviation saw him drawing bi-planes as well.

“I once drew 100 bi-planes from a frontal view in my exercise book.” Honouring the belief that while an artist might turn his back on art, art will never turn its back on an artist, the animated Zarian – who worked in the advertising industry up to his 40s before opting for early retirement – persevered with his passion and developed his attention to detail, clearly visible from his intricate artwork.

Matching celebrity to the plane in his artwork appears a random process, but there is also a method to his madness: “I try to highlight the person’s country of origin.” He beckoned to his painting of singer Olivia Newton-John adorned on an Australian Air Force fighter jet, saying, “See, she’s Australian, so I paint her on an Australian plane,” he explains.

His favourite fighter jets include the Grumman F-14 Tomcat, the plane immortalised in the mid-1980s Tom Cruise vehicle Top Gun (guess the painting of what plane greets visitors to his exhibition?), Dassault Mirage 200, Mikoyan MiG-29 and the cutting-edge Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptor.

Fighter planes and bombers with paintings on them came to the fore duringWWII, and invariably, they were almost always of women. “Women are always inspirational,” Zarian theorises, with paintings on cave walls giving credence to how man has adulated the female form since time immemorial.

As an artist, he naturally harbours the hope that his works will be enjoyed by the viewing public, but he also has another desire. Almost bashfully, he admits: “I hope the celebrities I’ve painted get to see my paintings and like them.” That’s not as impossible as it seems anymore, given how small the world has become with the Internet age.

And if international acknowledgement is still beyond his reach, local appreciation is the next best option, and he has seen to that given his paintings of singers Datuk Siti Nurhaliza and Datuk Sheila Majid, and actress Datuk Seri Michelle Yeoh.

Ultimately, he indulges in his art because he simply loves it. “I do this because it truly brings me joy.”

> Zarian Babjan’s Muses & Machines exhibition at Seni Gallery, Seni ’Mont Kiara in Kuala Lumpur, ends on May 11. For details, visit senimontkiara.com.my or call 03-6203 1919.

E-mail: christine.ngh@bumblebee-world.com.

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