It has been going on for long enough in his studio, this stand-off between a well-loved fictional superhero and the king of fruits. A few years ago, Edroger Rosili pitted Ultraman against a durian in one of his paintings.
This year, they make a comeback in another work – an even more enthusiastic Ultraman taking on an improved version of the durian. Managing to be stoic and menacing at the same time, the beloved durian even feels like it has a few more thorns this time around.
Ultraman vs Sarjan Durian is one of the nine acrylic works in Jepun Attack Malaya, a whimsical solo show by this Sarawakian artist at Hom Art Trans gallery in Kuala Lumpur, that combines his love for comic books, pop culture and history.
In this fantasy revisitation of the Japanese WWII invasion of British Malaya, cultural representations of both sides involved in the war are featured in one epic battle scene after another.
Ultraman, a sci-fi TV character, originally created in 1960s Japan as a beacon of hope of sorts, bravely wrestles with bamboo sprouts bursting through the damp soil in one painting. In the next, Ultraman pummels a scaly snake fruit with his fists. In yet another, he trashes wildly as fern tendrils wrap tightly around his limbs.
Then, while in combat with the distinctive reddish-purple banana blossom, probably ripped from the tree, the iconic Mr Bean – no doubt a nod to British colonists – saunters up to him and puts a gun to his head.
“I love history, but more than the facts itself, I often lose myself in thoughts of what it must be like to live in those times. In this series, I explore historical events in a playful way, just one of the many fictional accounts that can be conjured up in a fantasy world. I hope my work provides a different lens for people to look through,” says Edroger, 32.
While his first solo show WOYM? (which stands for What’s On Your Mind?) at Taksu in KL in 2013 presented a smorgasbord of styles and techniques, Jepun Attack Malaya zooms in on one theme and is comfortable being “simple and straightforward”, shares Edroger.
The title is borrowed from a line in P. Ramlee’s comedy film Seniman Bujang Lapok, where his character reveals during a job interview that he did not finish school because “Jepun attack Malaya”.
“My place in this body of work is as a mere observer of history and pop culture. In my studio, I still work simultaneously on different genres, different projects. That has always been me and that has not changed. But this show trains the spotlight on historical fantasy, a celebration of one of the many things I do that I find really fun,” notes Edroger.
“Roger uses cartoon images in this series, but its content delves into war, specifically the Japanese invasion of Malaya. As cliched as it sounds, it is important for us to know our history,” says Danial Fuad, Hom Art Trans gallery manager.
Edroger, born in the small town of Lundu, about two hours away from Kuching, didn’t have plans on being a visual artist.
The Universiti Teknologi Mara (UiTM) fine arts graduate initially wanted to be a comic book artist, a dream he had since he was 16. In his teenage years, he went through reams of paper with his constant drawing, mostly figurative and anatomical sketches inspired by comic art.
He admired the work of comic book artists like Jim Lee and Frank Miller, and studied Hollywood movie poster art by Drew Struzan. After completing secondary school in Kuala Lumpur, he enrolled for a graphic design course, thinking that it was the closest he could get to a comic book illustration course.
“Back then, art to me was all about pretty pictures. But having a formal art education broadened my perspective and made me realise that there is so much more to art than that. It was no longer enough for me to look at art as something aesthetically pleasing. I also became interested in how it touches your mind. When I discovered fine art in my foundation year at university, I guess, you could say, I never looked back,” he says.
Since then, Edroger has dabbled in many different artistic pursuits, including candid photography, sculpture and installation work, and abstract and experimental art. He says that this has resulted in criticism that he is not focused enough as an artist, but he makes no apologies for his love for variety and the liberation that comes with it.
In 2016, Edroger’s installation The Greatest View At The Similarities In Features Between The Pinnacles Of Two Different Nations (Revisited), which is a mash-up of the Malaysian National Monument and the Iwo Jima Memorial, saw him drawing upon similar war-related themes.
“I do not strive to have a unified style or signature form, I just enjoy being able to explore new forms as and when they come. You have no idea when inspiration will strike you and the last thing I want is to have an idea but be reluctant to develop it in as free a manner I envision simply because it is not ‘my style’,” he says.
Edroger was selected for the Young Contemporaries Award at the National Visual Arts Gallery in 2010. His yearning to be a comic book artist has not dwindled even after all these years, though at the moment he is kept happy with the occasional reference to the art form in his works. For instance, each painting in Jepun Attack Malaya is an action scene that could very well be a panel from a comic strip. Despite the humour in this series, Edroger approaches the creation of this fictional universe with earnest dedication.
“When Ultraman battles a monster, it must be dangerous and intimidating and poses a real threat, even if it is ubi kayu (tapioca) or paku pakis (ferns). I must be fair to the elements I manipulate, so I try to get it to be as believable as I can within the realms of this fantasy world,” he says.
That is as much as you can ask from a fantasy world, and Edroger knows this one inside out.