Haffendi Anuar watched as a red double-decker bus crossed his path, its exterior gaily adorned with a troop of proboscis monkeys in a lush Bornean tropical rainforest. He was on the streets of London, more than 10,000km from home, and yet, here was a familiar sight.
Or was it?
“What was fascinating when I saw the image on the bus was that it reminded me of home, but a home that was simultaneously foreign,” says Haffendi, who was then a student at the prestigious Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design in London.
It was like a reverie of sorts for him, watching the bus carrying the monkeys, pride and joy of our exported rainforest images, cut into his line of vision and then glide gracefully out of sight.
“I remember it felt almost like a passing dream,” he says of his observation of the Tourism Malaysia ad on the bus.
The monkeys might be found in our jungles, but is this advertised version of Malaysia more familiar to us or to outsiders?
“It got me thinking about how familiar things can look so different when presented through the tourist’s gaze,” he says.
This incident four years ago, of tropical paradise imagery set against a foreign and displaced environment, was what sparked the idea for Migratory Objects, his solo show currently on at Richard Koh Fine Art in Kuala Lumpur. It expands on his presentation at contemporary art fair Volta New York earlier this year, delving into ideas of transformation and transmutation of “cultural debris” through displacement, movement, and digitalisation.
In this exhibition, Haffendi’s story-telling takes the form of painted panels, many mounted on the wall in groups, or “flocks”, with a selected few affixed onto free-standing fabricated metal structures.
Named after migratory birds, like indigo bunting, bar-tailed godwit, arctic tern and passerine, these works allude to the seasonal migration of birds and, not unlike the propagation of seeds by animals, also references the dissemination and consumption of commercialised cultural objects and souvenirs through tourism and trade.
The panels are painted in vibrant hues, with neon colours and tonal gradients accentuating the irregular, sometimes asymmetrical, forms. They take on an approximation of the plumage colours of the birds they are named after.
Within the panels are cut-outs, or voids, adding new meaning to the language Haffendi has put together for this show. And stretching across one wall of the gallery is an image of a lush green landscape taken at the KL Bird Park, a popular attraction in the city, serving as a simulacrum of natural paradises. It is reminiscent of commercial tourism posters commonly used to promote Malaysia’s natural attractions.
Hybrid sculptures, composed of conjoined wooden objects and typical souvenirs purchased from tourist spots in KL and Bali, round out the exhibition. These ready-made objects are joined together, painted, sanded, and “simplified” into irregular silhouettes that resemble modern sculptures.
As a whole, Migratory Objects feels like a convergence of ideas under the migration and displacement umbrella, with transformation and evolution being a side effect of change.
“The works are inspired as well by the designs of Dayak and Iban masks, many of which are moved around due to tourism or economic reasons,” Haffendi adds.
“They are advertised for sale in different locations around the world and shipped to buyers everywhere. I thought about the physical displacement these masks undergo, but also the change they go through when their images are uploaded online and shared.
"So the idea of the migratory image is relevant to the premise of the show here in more ways than one,” explains Haffendi.
The 32-year-old multidisciplinary artist completed a four-month collaborative residency alongside fellow artist Veronika Neukirch at Rimbun Dahan, Selangor, in May this year.
He is also one of the two winners of the first commission to create outdoor sculptures for the Malaysian consortium-led Battersea Power Station development in London (the other winner is Britain-born, New York-based sculptor Jesse Wine).
Haffendi’s sculptures for this commission are a site-specific series of columns traditionally used across Asia to raise dwellings such as fishermen’s huts above water. The works were unveiled at Battersea Power Station’s Circus West Village late last month.
Evidently, Haffendi is no stranger to taking risks and boldly exploring the unconventional in his practice.
“Conceptually, the works in Migratory Objects play with the ideas of movement and migration, and the fluidity of forms and ideas. But they also push the boundaries of what paintings could be in Malaysia,” he says.
Haffendi ponders how the open-endedness of painting as a medium has been comprehensively explored in the West, but how we still have a long way to go in Malaysia as far as the “expanded field” of painting is concerned.
“An artist who paints should understand the strengths of the medium he works in and how it is unique from other media. In Malaysia, painting has not been pushed and pulled apart. We have to look at the possibilities of painting to be more than just a painted surface that gives an illusion of space,” he explains.
Migratory Objects is Haffendi’s attempt to venture into this relatively uncharted territory in this part of the world.
“The process of creating these works was challenging but exciting. I hope people who visit the show will keep in mind not just the conceptual premise of the works but also keep an open mind and discard preconceived notions about what a painting should be. I hope they take a really good look at the works and all that is happening in them and all around them,” he adds.
Not unlike his practice, these works are now poised to take flight into the great unknown. And it is in this instance before they soar off to new worlds that they can be examined and admired for what they are – and all that they could be.
Migratory Objects is on at Richard Koh Fine Art (No. 229, Jalan Maarof,) in Kuala Lumpur till Oct 7. The gallery is open Tuesdays to Saturdays, from 10am to 7pm. For more information, call 03-2095 3300 or visit rkfineart.com.