Self-taught art at 'Singular Rhapsody'

Norhayati Kaprawi’s tribute to women wearing Kemban batik and other aspects of traditional Malay culture can be found in her art.

Two Singapore Biennale alumni, a gallery framer, a former underground music pioneer, a couple of community art activists, an elusive street artist, a poet/performing artist, a former ISA detainee and a French language copywriter – if you needed an outsider angle to an art exhibition featuring self-taught and naive artists, then look no further than Kuala Lumpur gallery Xin Art Space’s Singular Rhapsody exhibition.

“This show is about bringing together a wide range of homegrown naive artists. All of them are not bound by rules, and their vision for art is far removed from traditional academic interpretation,” says Tan Sei Hon, 40, the show’s guest curator. Singular Rhapsody gathers 22 names – some familiar, some new discoveries – whose works fit into the naive art category.

From paintings and woodcut prints to digital work and sculptures, this exhibition boasts an array of highly imaginative works and vivid colours on canvas, right down to disturbingly dark turns and angst-filled splashes.

Pyanz Sharifudin is one example of an artist who is willing to go the unconventional route. His intricate henna on canvas pieces, Belantara Cinta Siri, are a highlight of the show for this writer.

Pyanz Sharifudin's Belantara Cinta Siri (II) (henna on canvas, 2014).
Pyanz Sharifudin's Belantara Cinta Siri (II) (henna on canvas, 2014).

Rahmat Haron's Selamat Jalan Kepada Jiwa-Jiwa Yang Kudus (Goodbye To The Immoral Souls). (acrylic on canvas, 2012).
Rahmat Haron's Selamat Jalan Kepada Jiwa-Jiwa Yang Kudus (Goodbye To The Immoral Souls). (acrylic on canvas, 2012).

“This type of (naive art) exhibitions are important to show the public that such art can stand on its own. It is very different in terms of aesthetics and (personal) motivation when compared to popular art seen at commericial galleries,” explains Pyanz.

“It brings (background) context to what this self-taught art community is about. Naive art, to be blunt, is not shopping mall exhibition art. It is much more than that,” he adds.

The task of collecting, keeping the art organised, and researching the artists’ background required a lot of work by the curator.

Tan drew upon his interest and experience as a curator to showcase a genre of art that is marked by innocence, naturalness, and spontaneity. He curated his first naive art show, On The Corner, in the contemporary art section of the National Visual Arts Gallery exhibition Susurmasa in 2008. And early this year, Tan brought together 16 artists for a group show, We Are Self-Taught, in Kuala Lumpur.

Singular Rhapsody serves as a “director’s cut” of all of Tan’s previous shows, with the open-minded policy of Xin Art Space offering the perfect public platform.

“Curated exhibitions like Singular Rhapsody do not have to be purely selling exhibitions. Rather, they are mounted with the intention to introduce, or put into context historically or ideologically, an artist’s or a group’s output and creative vision that may not be properly understood or appreciated,” says Lilian Goh, co-owner of Xin Art Space, explaining the gallery’s willingness to support unconventional exhibitions.

Singular Rhapsody isn’t an exercise in decorative or popular art. Nor is it concerned with the need to establish its collector-base legitimacy. This show, if you browse through the catalogue’s diversity, impresses with its own quirky creative values and socially conscious themes.

Shieko Reito’s art, for instance, is tied closely to the work she does with various NGOs and marginalised communities. The artist, who exhibited at the 2013 Singapore Biennale, contributes two works; each heartfelt piece shines a light on transgender rights.

Waja's Tidak Fikir (acrylic on canvas, 2010).
Waja's Tidak Fikir (acrylic on canvas, 2010).

On the community front, Rizo Leong, a founding member of Ranau, Sabah-based art collective Pangrok Sulap, celebrates the harvest (Ka’amatan) festival in his home state through two woodcut prints. The celebratory nature of the woodcut prints is a slight departure from the collective’s socially-conscious art. As Leong says, “Not everything we do is tied to angry activist art. There is cultural life and traditions in Sabah that we want to explore through art.”

From Norhayati Kaprawi’s tribute to women wearing Kemban batik and other aspects of traditional Malay culture to Rat Heist’s street stencils highlighting the plight of Kuala Lumpur’s homeless and Fathullah Luqman’s crowded ink or acrylic canvases, Singular Rhapsody is an unconventional show filled with surprises.

“For me, creating art is an immersive exercise,” says Fathullah. “It takes over a big part of my life. Maybe I’ve had more prolific periods with art before, but I’m definitely enjoying quieter days on the canvas,” says the artist who was in 1990s-era bands like Infectious Maggots and Spiral Kinetic Circus.

For artists like Thangarajoo Kanniah, a veteran of the Anak Alam collective of the 1970s, and Ummi Natasha, there is a distinct spiritual uplift and consideration in their art.

"The fact that we have some galleries in town open to showing naive art is a good step forward. The idea is to gain more exposure. All the talk about collectible value can come later,” concludes Tan.

Singular Rhapsody is showing at Xin Art Space [No. 2-1 (above Le Geo restaurant), Jalan Jelatek 1, Pusat Perniagaan Jelatek, Kuala Lumpur] till Dec 15. The gallery is open 10am-6pm daily except weekends. For viewing appointments on weekends, call 016-505 1311 or e-mail

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