Self-taught Muhamad Suhaili emerges from the shadows to showcase his mercurial skills.
Call it a talent or a gift but Muhamad Suhaili has a photographic memory. Not only does he have a vivid recollection of his childhood, he can just about carve anything from any material, after seeing it once.
The woodcarver from Lombok, Indonesia, is now experimenting with paint brush on canvas, and the result is the ongoing exhibition Antara Wayang Dan Bayang (Between The Play Of Shadow), being held at Sutra Gallery in Kuala Lumpur.
“There are a lot of woodcarvers in Lombok and I’m just one of many. It’s part of our tradition and culture. Most of us have no formal training. I just need to look at the picture once and I can carve or paint from memory,” says the self-taught artist, in a thick Indonesian accent.
In his first solo show, the artist, who prefers to be called Ali, offers a compelling body of work which pays homage to the nostalgic memories of his childhood, where he soaked in the wayang kulit performances staged in his village.
Wayang kulit is an integral part of Javanese culture, with Ramayana being the most popular shadow play. Hence, most of Ali’s paintings depict the characters in the epic. And what a rich imagination he has, especially since it has been more than two decades since he last saw these performances!
In all humility, he offers: “I used to see the shows from afar but it all comes to my mind clearly. I even remember the dialogue of the puppets.”
Ali’s Fauvism style and two dimensional naive treatment of his subject matters are augmented with a sequence of traditional decorative embellishments such as the motif of the mega mendung (rain clouds) and the pohon beringin (tree of life). What stands out is the neatness and precise detailing in these pictures. Many of the paintings comprise embossed carvings melded into the surface areas, made to appear so by the opposite end of his brush. At first glance, these “incisions” appear unintentional, but upon closer inspection, these perpendicular and parallel lines are tactically positioned using a fine paintbrush.
“My most challenging piece was Jatayu And Hanoman. I didn’t have any reference but I knew I wanted certain colours from what I remembered of the puppets. But, it was difficult to get those colours,” explains Ali.
Gunungan, another highlight, is also the artist’s personal favourite and has many layers. The gunungan or kayon (the Cosmic Mountain or Tree Of Life) has both practical and highly symbolic functions in performances of wayang kulit. The gunungan represents the cosmic order of the universe and is placed at the centre of the stage before the performance commences. Ali’s version has all the four elements and many a tale can be woven from the painting.
Many of his characters are also comical or clownish in appearance, with a hint of wittiness. Such examples include the colourful Semar, arguably the best known and most popular of the Javanese wayang characters, and Togog, the clown-attendant.
Ali’s works embody a range of emotions – grim, soothing, stimulating, and alluring – all of which encapsulates his years in Lombok.
Ali started carving when he was eight, and his first product was a fishing rod handle in the shape of a frog. The passion and hobby eventually led to the creation of a variety of objects, which began to clutter his house.
“My father was so annoyed that he would give my carvings away for free. I only started selling them at 18, but competition was tough because there were so many good artists in my village,” says Ali.
He would also sketch trees and flowers using a pencil. Like most of his island folk, he worked as a farmer and sold his stuff whenever he could. With limited education, life was tough and he decided to find employment here.
Unbelievable but Ali landed in Malaysia in 1992 as a construction worker. During the day he would work on site under the scorching sun, and at night, he would carve objects to sell, without his employer’s knowledge. Give him wood, plastic, foam – any material, and he can create masterpieces.
Often he was shortchanged by shop owners who never paid up, but as someone looking for extra income to feed his family, he plodded on.
It was at one of the shops that Sutra’s resident artist and designer Sivarajah Natarajan chanced upon his creations and contacted Ali. Sutra House was being renovated and he was looking for carvings to embellish the place. That was in 1997.
“I explored his talent as a prop maker using different mediums such as foam and sponge. I just have to tell him the concept and he will expand on it and create amazing things. I didn’t realise then that he also had a talent for painting,” recalls Sivarajah.
“He is an artist but is always in the shadows. Everyone else takes the glory so it’s time to give him a platform to showcase his works.”
Today, Ali is Sutra’s very own set designer and carpenter extraordinaire though he still works in the construction industry. His intricate works are seen all over Sutra House, in the carvings at the main door frames, mirrors, lamp stands and masks.
It took Ali two years to put together the pieces on exhibition, and his employer only found out of his skill the day before the exhibition opened.
“I’m a bit scared,” he admits. “I’m not used to big crowds of having people scrutinise my work. I hope they like it.”
Through his construction work, carvings and paintings, Ali has managed to put his two children in university – both are in medical school in Padang, Sumatera.
Muhamad Suhaili’s Antara Wayang Dan Bayang is showing till Oct 10 at Sutra Gallery, No 12 Persiaran Titiwangsa 3, Kuala Lumpur. For more information, contact 03-4021-1092 (9.30am to 6pm, Monday-Friday). Browse: www.sutrafoundation.org.my.