Al-Khuzairie Ali has always been passionate about the environment. Ever since he was a young boy, he grew up surrounded by nature, spending much of his childhood catching birds in his village in Kuantan, Pahang.
It’s no surprise perhaps, that themes of natural conservation figure highly in his work. Just take a look at Priceless, his current exhibition at the Rimbun Dahan Gallery in Kuang, Selangor this month. It features ceramic animal skeletons displayed in a variety of whimsical forms, in a satirical exploration of humankind’s greed and exploitation of nature.
This exhibition, according to the artist, has been inspired by the rampant development going on around his art studio in Puncak Alam in Selangor.
“I looked at the hideous side of the human character, which has an impact on other beings in the ecosystem,” says Al-Khuzairie, 32, in an interview at Rimbun Dahan last week.
“We know that some animals are threatened with extinction, but the modern world focuses on the importance of money. And this has many people losing their judgment and ignoring the nature of life.”
It is perhaps very appropriate that Priceless is being shown at Rimbun Dahan. The gallery, which once used to be a fruit orchard, is a green lung tucked away from the hustle and bustle of the city, serving as a home to a variety of wildlife. Stepping into the place, beneath the shade of the verdant foliage, one can hear the cries of birds and insects.
The 12 works exhibitied in Priceless were all created during Al-Khuzairie’s six month residency at Rimbun Dahan. According to the artist, he crafted his works using moulds, before heating them up in a kiln back in his studio at Puncak Alam.
“It’s been great,” Al-Khuzairie said in Malay, speaking during a recent interview at Rimbun Dahan.
“It’s one of the few places that still preserves nature. I enjoy what I am doing, and the environment here was good for work.”
“I’d done residencies overseas before, in Europe and Japan, but never in Malaysia. But I had always planned to do a residency here. So I had to grab my chance.”
In person, al-Khuzairie is jovial and chatty. Tall and stocky, wearing a baseball cap and khaki shorts, he almost resembles a sportsman more than an artist. But appearances deceive, after all: the man is a talented craftsman, whose works have previously exhibited in South Korea, Japan, South-East Asia and the Netherlands. He represented Malaysia in the 2011 Gyeonggi International Ceramix Biennale 2011 at the Incheon World Ceramic Center in South Korea. Al-Khuzairie was also one of the winners of the Malaysian Emerging Artist Awards (MEAA) in 2009 and his works are collected by various institutions and private collectors including the National Visual Arts Gallery. The works in Priceless manage to somehow be both serious and satirical. They comment on the commercialism and commodification of nature, by juxtaposing nature with elements of luxury and pop culture.
Take his work The Investor, for example, which features the skeleton of a crocodile, crafted out of mechanical parts like gears and levers, presented against a background of a credit card. The word ‘Caution’ is marked in big bold letters, together with a row of crocodile skin coats at the bottom of the artwork, ‘Not In Your Wardrobe’ plastered against them.
“Money can’t buy you everything. No matter how much you have, you can’t buy the life of an animal back,” says Al-Khuzairie.
His work Harm, on the other hand, features the mechanical skeleton of an ostrich, set against a background with the prominent trappings of a famous handbag brand. It’s slightly tweaked, so its ‘H’ logo stands for ‘Harm’, an illustration of how the demand for luxury goods truly affects animals.
Mechanical animal skeletons seem to be a trademark with the artist, visible even in works during his previous exhibitions. The reason for this, according to Al-Khuzairie, is that if animals went extinct, all future generations would know of them would be from fossils or mechanical models.
Some of the works in the exhibition seem amusing at first glance. What The Freedom, features a mechanical seal skeleton against brightly coloured circus imagery, even a happy clown. Yet a message grimly reminds us at the top: ‘Your Fun, Her Fear’. Contrast this with I Am Not A Clown, a row of animals made to look like circus performers, crafted action figure-style.
“These days we know animals exist in zoos and circuses. Children grow up learning that animals exist only for amusement.” While the exhibition does include artistic representations of many rare animals, perhaps the rarest creature in Priceless is Al-Khuzairie himself. As a Malaysian ceramic sculptor, he is of a rather uncommon breed.
“In Malaysia, there are more painters than sculptors. And even then, not many people explore ceramics in contemporary art. When they do, it is mostly to make conventional things like vases. I hope by using ceramics, I can help people expand their thinking about this medium,” says Al-Khuzairie, who holds a Bachelors Degree in Ceramic Art and Design from Universiti Teknologi Mara (UiTM).
“But it’s alright. When not many people explore something, you are considered a pioneer!” he adds with a laugh.
He credits veteran sculptor Umibaizurah Mahir, for getting him involved with the medium. The artist did a two-month stint at her Patisatu studio in Kuala Selangor in 2008, and was later asked to be her assistant after Umibaizurah noticed his work in a group exhibition the next year.
“It was great having her as a mentor. I learned a lot,” he adds.
Rimbun Dahan owner and residency programme co-ordinator Angela Hijjas said she first encountered Al-Khuzairie’s work at a Matahati fundraiser at KL gallery Soka Gakkai in 2009.
“I was intrigued that there was someone working with ceramics. It came as no surprise that he was taught and mentored by Umibaizurah, whose work I also admire. He applied to the residency, with her recommendation, so he was an obvious choice,” she reveals.
“We depend a lot on the recommendations of our ‘alumni’, as they know what our residency is all about. In this case Umi’s husband Ahmad Shukri was one of our resident artists in 2001 and Umi was a frequent visitor. As teachers and mentors, they are in a position to see younger artists who would benefit from such a residency and we take their recommendations seriously. And I already knew his work, but hadn’t met him, so the choice was made,” she adds.
Al-Kuzairie said he hopes people enjoy his works, and hopefully be inspired to think about the value of nature.
“We have to preserve what we have now. Recently, the Sumatran rhinoceros became extinct. We can’t let this keep happening,” warns Al-Khuzairie.
What, by the way, is his favourite animal?
“Birds,” says Al-Khuzairie, before chirping, “I enjoy watching them fly.”
Priceless is showing at Rimbun Dahan, Km 27 (entrance before Lorong Belimbing), Jalan Kuang, Kuang in Selangor till Jan 24. For more info or to make an appointment, email: firstname.lastname@example.org. Visit: www.rimbundahan.org.