Artists who 'bake' with clay

Japanese artist Satoko’s Passing 1 (ceramic, glass, wooden box, 2016). Photos: Galeri Chandan

Step into the Breathe: The Clay Chemistry exhibition at Galeri Chandan in Kuala Lumpur, and you might end up feeling a little bit hungry. That’s because a lot of them appear to feature fruit, vegetable and fish motifs: although not in the way you might expect.

One exhibit shows a bird, struggling to fly, encased in a tangled web of cauliflower. In another, a school of fish rise in formation with a group of winged aubergines. And toward the back of the gallery, delicately carved platters and displays of fruit and fish, their surfaces speckled with dots, stand in rows.

According to sculptor Umibaizurah Mahir Ismail, one of the three artists involved in this exhibition, these works are a reminder that even in a modern world of science and technology, it is important not to forget life and nature.

“I’m like a chef. But I bake clay. When you bake food for people, you want them hungry. And it’s the same with me too. When I make work with clay, I want them to be hungry too, hungry to see more. And that’s what I want, not just the artists, but for everyone in the public to be eager to see more contemporary ceramics work,” says Umibaizurah, 41, with a smile, during an interview at the gallery.

And looking at the visually arresting exhibits on display in Breathe: The Clay Chemistry, it is safe to say that one’s appetite for ceramics work would certainly be satiated. While all of them are made from the same medium, they take on distinct and unique shapes in the hands of the artists – Umibaizurah, Mohd Al-Khuzairie Ali and Japanese sculptor Satoko Ootsuki.

Umibaizurah Mahir Ismail’s Heavyweight (ceramic and steel, 2016).

“The theme for this show is inspired by the idea of ‘breathing together’ in the same space. For instance, the idea of three artists producing artworks from the same material, firing in the same kiln yet diverse in techniques and styles, is intriguing,” says Umibaizurah.

This exhibition is the result of the recent Patisatustudio Cultural Exchange Residency, a self-funded artist initiative, started by Umibaizurah and her husband Ahmad Shukri Mohamed. For over a decade, Patisatustudio has had collaborations with artists from Indonesia, Japan and Europe.

In 2015, Umibaizurah and Al-Khuzairie held an exhibition entitled Kita In Tokyo with Satoko, after spending some time working in Satoko’s Doronco Studio in Yokohama, Japan. To return the favour, Umibaizurah is now hosting Satoko in a two-month residency here.

“As artists, we need to keep having new experiences. We need to travel, so we can have to explore new environments to get refreshed and find new ideas,” says Al-Khuzairie.

“What was most exciting about the experience was using the same medium in a different space. You work all day in your studio, you don’t get out of your comfort zone. You need to go out and learn from international artists,” adds Umibaizurah.

“For example, in Japan, you have four seasons. And in clay, you work with water. What do you do with water when it is very cold? And the clay needs to dry, and that needs time. These were all problems we needed to solve, things we experienced.”

The trio of artists (from left) Al-Khuzairie, Satoko and Umibaizurah. Photo: The Star/Azhar Mahfof
The trio of artists (from left) Al-Khuzairie, Satoko and Umibaizurah. Photo: The Star/Azhar Mahfof

According to Umibaizurah, who is known as one of the foremost female ceramic sculptors in the Malaysian art scene, this exhibition marked a return to old themes.

“I used much of the slip dip technique this time around, as well as hybrid techniques, which you can see in my works like Camouflage. Before this, my works were mostly centred around toys, but this time, I returned to nature, like in my previous works. They were a new mood for me,” she says.

Some of her works are references to her time spent in Japan. Heavyweight, for instance, is a memory of a dog in Doroko Studio that ate bananas every day, while Pout Frowny is a reaction to seeing both favourite food (bittergourd) and forbidden food (pork) on Japanese menus.

Al-Khuzairie’s works, on the other hand, feature elements of Japanese pop culture in them, often combined with local elements. His Semangat Timur series, for example, feature manga-inspired women juxtaposed with wayang kulit and local emblems.

“History says that when the Japanese first landed in Malaysia (during WWII), it was in Kota Baru (in Kelantan), so I wrote that in Jawi here,” the explains the artist, referring to his Semangat Timur #4 work.

Most striking, however, is his Parasite series, which features fruits and vegetables dissected to reveal rather morbid human skeletons within.

“Many fruit, like bananas, come in bunches. And in one bunch, there will usually be one fruit that is bad, but we cannot tell which one. And it’s the same with people. Some of them give out a bad energy. And they can affect all the rest,” says Al-Khuzairie, 32.

Al-Khuzairie’s Parasite series features fruits and vegetables dissected to reveal rather morbid human skeletons within.
Al-Khuzairie’s Parasite series features fruits and vegetables dissected to reveal rather morbid human skeletons within.

Al-Khuzairie has been featured in recent group exhibitions, such as Selsius 2016, as well as solo exhibitions such as Platoon (2012) and Priceless (2016). He was one of the winners of the 2009 Malaysian Emerging Artists Awards.

Elsewhere, Satoko’s work is elaborate, delicate and ornate. She has ornamental pieces of natural objects placed on platforms and pedestals.

She reveals many of them are based on Malaysian architecture, fashion and culture. The rounded shapes of her Sign pieces are inspired by the curved domes of mosques. Many of her works feature well-defined little dots.

“The dots suggest the rain. They also signify the cycle of life like counting down the days for an egg to hatch, or the birth of a new life,” explains Satoko.

Satoko’s Drive (ceramic and wood, 2016).

Satoko, 37, a former architecture student, has exhibited in solo shows in Japan such as the Satoko Ootsuki Exhibition in Aichi (2011-2015), and group shows such as Chanpuru Tokyo (2016).Eggs are a big deal in her This Is series, which feature elegantly decorated eggs as an ironic call to simplicity.

“The egg’s natural form is already beautiful. Do they really need much decoration?” she asks.

While all the three artists featured in Breathe: The Clay Chemistry have very distinct styles, they are nevertheless united by one thing – their love for the medium of ceramics.

“Clay is very unpredictable. It’s not like other mediums, what you start with may be different from what you end up with in the end. And that’s what I like, it’s exciting and challenging,” says Al-Khuzairie.

“It’s like magic,” sums up Satoko.

Breathe: The Clay Chemistry is on at Galeri Chandan, Lot 24 & 25 (G4), Block C5, Publika, Jalan Dutamas 1 in Kuala Lumpur till Oct 23. For more information, call 03-6201 5360, email or visit:

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Artists who 'bake' with clay


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