A contemplative Zainal Abidin Musa finds light behind the clouds.
I cannot decide which image he paints best with words when describing the monsoon season. Is it when he likens the sounds of rain falling in the night to an orchestra playing live, its music swelling and subsiding in turn? Or when he speaks of having coffee in a little café by the sea, with a misty drizzle hovering over the waves breaking on the shore?
But maybe pictures speak louder than words.
In Zainal Abidin Musa’s oil on canvas triptych titled Tengkujuh – Pantai Melawi Bachok, strong waves – coloured a muddy ochre – carry sand with them as they roll and crash to the shore.
“You can almost hear the sounds of the waves. The monsoon clouds seem to be just above our heads. This painting captures perfectly the monsoon feeling, sensations and atmosphere with the loose brush strokes employed to recreate the clouds, the waves, the wind. Standing in front of this piece brings you into the painting as though you are standing on the beach itself at that very moment,” says the artist.
This is one of the 47 paintings and 52 sketches in Zainal Abidin Musa’s fifth solo exhibition, Tengkujuh.
This period of overcast skies on the east coast region of the peninsular is viewed through a dreamy lens in this body of work. The romanticism attached to these works are hard to miss, its presence as evident as the relentless rain portrayed.
This series is a culmination of four years’ work, during which the artist, now based in Selangor, made three trips to the east coast between 2010 and 2013, spending two weeks on location each time.
“I drove along the coastal roads and particularly enjoyed the route from Kuantan all the way up to Bachok (in Kelantan). There was no strict itinerary so I was free to explore any small lanes that led away from the main road. Usually, these led to serendipitious discoveries of places and moments,” says the 54-year-old artist who made all his sketches on location.
When he paints, it is not only an image of what he sees, but of the entire atmosphere – including the sights and sounds, and his emotional relationship to the subject.
“In order to do that,” he says, “I need to be there in that moment, to decide my composition, to interact with the surrounding location and people, to feel the atmosphere of the place. So I must be present, there is no substitution for that.”
With the rainy weather not permitting him to paint on location, Zainal compensated by making numerous sketches with soft pastels, water colour pencils and water colour, and taking hundreds of photos – critical resources for him to develop his large paintings.
“Once I’m ready to paint in my studio, my recollections of being on location in the east coast comes vividly to mind, and I recall the conversations I had with the people there, the sounds of the waves, the feeling of the moment.”
These works are included in the exhibition as he considers them them his early studies and points of reference, equally important in the process of developing this body of work.
Colours are crucial to his works – he comments that on rainy days, the lights and shades become very “loose” with almost no shadows, prompting him to mainly focus on the “shapes and patches of harmonic colours”.
“Due to the limited light available during the monsoon, colours tend to become monochromatic and muddy. I have to carefully decide on the right combination of colours that would highlight the interesting forms and compositions within a dull and gloomy landscape.”
When asked about the absence of the gloom and doom that many associate with the monsoon season, Zainal comments that if one were to look deeper, the monsoon is simply part of a natural process in nature.
“Nature is not evil or mean, it is just doing its job in the cycle of life. In this case, the monsoon comes to wash away and clean the coastal areas, and give a much-needed break to the hard-working fishermen,” he says. “They have learned to adjust their life to it; they don’t fight or subdue it, they just accept its presence and live with it. So let’s look into the beauty of the Tengkujuh and celebrate it, instead.”
His fascination with the monsoon season dates back to when he was 15 when he moved to Kelantan and stayed there for three years.
“I arrived in December, which was the monsoon season. I remember the cool weather, so unlike what I had known on the west coast. It was like winter to me,” says Zainal, who was born in Perak but spent part of his secondary school days in Kelantan. “This memory of the monsoon has stayed with me till today and it is associated with many other lovely memories of my time there.”
When he studied art at Mara Institute of Technology, the studio and classrooms at the Terengganu campus were located by the sea. Memories of having lessons with the sounds of the waves in the background is etched into his mind, as with a particular experience on Perhentian Island in the middle of the South China Sea.
“I was standing alone by the beach early one morning, witnessing the sudden change of colour in the sky and the sea. The sky, in dull greyish almost cobalt blue tones, and the blueish green of the sea were both blending and bleeding into each other at the horizon,” he relates. “The water looked so calm but you could feel the strong undercurrent energy in the air, a sure sign that the monsoon was coming. It was so beautiful yet melancholic. So fascinating, yet frightening. You don’t get to see this unless you are on the island. But then, who would want to take you to the island at this time of the year?”
Interestingly, Zainal went on to pursue a career in advertising, one that lasted 20 years before he returned to his artistic pursuits. But during those advertising years where he was based in Petaling Jaya, he never really left the east coast behind, making regular short weekend trips there “just to destress”, particularly during his last few years in the advertising industry.
“Advertising was very stressful for me and I was contemplating to quit my job. That’s when I started painting again, sort of like a ‘weekend painter’,” he says.
“I have always been drawn to nature, having been born in a kampung and lived by the Perak River with the jungles in my backyard as my playground. The sea, the beach and the natural surroundings on the east coast were very therapeutic and it was a nice change from the city scene.”
Zainal had not been in touch with the art scene since winning a Malaysian young contemporary art competition award in 1983. But it felt like returning home when he picked up his paintbrush again. That was more than ten years ago, and he has not looked back since.
With his earlier works mostly void of human figures, they are however present in this series.
“Probably because I had more interaction with the locals there,” Zainal muses. “Still, they are not human figure paintings per se. They exist as part of my attempt to create the emotional atmosphere of that particular moment. They exist as part of the tengkujuh environment.”
Kisah Tengkujuh, for example, shows a typical everyday scene with three fishermen huddled under a shelter, waiting restlessly to resume their fishing activities.
“Their physical gestures, the colours employed, the silhouette effect and the dripping colours suggest the rain and the wetness of the season, giving an overall atmosphere of the monsoon,” he says.
The monsoon season comes once a year, fleeting and often ferocious. But where many people brace themselves for heavy clouds and endless rain,
Zainal looks beyond the grey.
Tengkujuh is on at Artelier Gallery KL (A4-UG1-02, Publika, Solaris Dutamas, Jalan Dutamas 1, Kuala Lumpur) till Sept 19. The gallery is open Tuesday to Sunday (10am to 8pm); Monday by appointment only. For more information, call 03-6206 4703 or visit artelier.my.