Kamal Mustafa's got an ear for art

  • Arts
  • Saturday, 15 Feb 2014

Dead and buried: 'Archivist' comes across as a warning for hoarders to beware.

Simulations might seem like a collection of abstract paintings, but within each piece lies often-ignored truths.

"THE ear is often ignored in visual art. Maybe because it’s just an appendage and it’s not sexy, and people prefer looking at other parts, like the torso, for instance," reasoned Kamal Mustafa.

There’s interest and then there’s fixation ... and there’s also a fine line between the two, which is where the 62-year-old artist’s outlook seems to nestle most comfortably. But Kamal also concedes that the play of semantics intrigues him in equal amounts.

His upcoming exhibition Simulations (Feb 20-March 2), his first solo, offers but a smattering of this fascination, and with titles of paintings like Hearsay, Heresy And Hereafter, One Thousand Ears Of Hearsay and The Hearing, it’s apparent where he’s coming from. It’s with good reason, too, that he’s selected his choice of visuals since the human experience is as much aural as it is visual.

“Hearing has got to do with second-hand knowledge, knowledge handed down to us, and it’s not something that can be ignored. We cannot live life without the concept of hearsay, and this has provided me a big canvas to play with,” Kamal explained during a recent interview in Kuala Lumpur.

Despite the plethora of ears, Cacophony Of Silence is made out to be a paradoxical observation.

But it’s not all about ears that encompasses his 22-piece collection, even if it takes up a large chunk. There are those that depict the human form and stacked paperwork, even, but thematically, the collection places strong emphasis on the construction of memory, history and knowledge.

No doubt, thinly veiled under the numerous depictions of ears are socio-political messages which stir the senses. Kamal feels that what we think we know is actually based on numerous layers of interpretation.

“As a photography student, I was taught that photography imitates reality, but that’s no longer true because every other thing is spun around these days,” he said, painting a lucid picture of the age of technology we live in today, and referencing Jean Baudrillard’s book Simulacra And Simulations, a philosophical treatise from 1981, in the process.

Every artist has a process of how his art is conceived, and Kamal’s is no less organic. He has placed his knowledge into something more meaningful from his career in films, having now retired. “This is atonement for me. People say art is neutral, but artists are affected by their surroundings. I absorb what’s around me, filter it in my head, and that comes out in my art,” explained the former film director, who was behind some of the most heartwarming Petronas TV ads.

In fact, it’s his expertise in moving pictures that has allowed him to not only create mere static pieces for this collection, but extended works, which he plainly describes as “hybrid”, almost mocking the generation he comes from. The extended pieces are artworks with cutouts, with screens plugged in the holes from the rear, featuring mini movies with “no storylines”.

Thousand Ears Of Hearsay depicts the human communication process and the role of the ear in it.

While the scenes might be made to seem random or even incoherent at points, closer inspection reveals subliminal messages.

He works with acrylic and uses computers to align his paintings, which naturally call for the use of industrial-sized printers, since some of his works involve a montage of four pieces of canvas. “Acrylic and computer ink seem to blend well. Also, the ink manufacturer says the ink will not lose its lustre for 75 years, which bodes well for archival purposes.”

Kamal was born in 1952 in the small town of Sabak Bernam, Selangor. He spent his secondary school education at the Malay College Kuala Kangsar in Perak, after which he applied for a government loan to pursue his interest in film, eventually earning a BA in Film from the Polytechnic of Central London. “As much as I loved art, I knew I had to earn a living and pay off my loan, so I did advertising,” he revealed, knowing his vocation would pay the rent.

And now that he is able to stand on sturdy financial ground, he can finally pursue his love with fervour. “I’d always shared my art with people over the years, but it was difficult to get exposure, since I wasn’t pushing hard because of my job, but things have developed lately.”

While caught up in the rat race and keeping a roof over his head, Kamal made some landmark TV commercials for Petronas (working with the late Yasmin Ahmad) and a host of other clients. He fondly recalls the ones he did for the oil and gas company for the Gong Xi-Raya festive period of the mid 1990s (one of which touched on the watershed May 13 riots) and one for the Malaysian F1 Grand Prix.

Literal take: The walls truly have big ears in Echo Valley.

So, what can a piece of art say that no amount of words can? “Art is not part of mass media, so it’s elitist, which is why you might need more words to describe something. And if you put an illustration in an art gallery, that makes it art.”

Kamal knows his art and he knows it well, but there’s nothing remotely elitist about him. In fact, he’s just one of those people who has something profound to say to the common man. When you meet him, you just feel you’ve met the salt of the earth. And that grounded personality shines through in its resplendent glory in Simulations.

> Simulations, presented by Fergana Art, runs from Feb 20-March 2 at White Box, Publika, Solaris Dutamas, Kuala Lumpur. Admission is free and exhibition times are from 11am-7pm daily. For more info, visit www.fergana-art.com or www.kamal-mustafa.com.

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