Soil and toil goes the story of the farmer. In honouring their life of labour, contemporary artist Samsudin Wahab’s Wira Bangsa (Nation’s Heroes) multimedia series depicts them as warrior heroes over genetically modified pests that have grown into freakish mutants.
First staged at the 2016’s Kuandu Biennale in Taipei under the curatorial theme Slaying Monsters, the series has finally returned home to Malaysia.
It is part of the Kadang Kadang Dekat Dekat Akan Datang series, now showing at the A+ Works of Art gallery in Sentul, Kuala Lumpur.
In this work, Samsudin displays the images of the farmers using duratrans prints in a lightbox, giving the impression they are monster movie posters at a retro cinema.
“I took queues from the old Western hoax of the Thunderbird,” says Samsudin, referring to a fake photo where several American Civil War-era soldiers posed with a “Thunderbird” they supposedly shot. It looked suspiciously like a movie-set replica of a Pteranodon, a flying dinosaur.
Samsudin even chose apt titles to fit this outlandish show. The pieces are called The Lone Ranger, The Dynamic Duo, The Magnificent Three and The Brilliant Four.
“Imagine if you had pests the size of cows, you could kill them with a shotgun, maybe. But in reality small ones are harder to catch and kill,” he muses, during a recent interview at the gallery.
Samsudin, a kampung boy from Semanggol, Perak (a small town bordering Kedah’s Seberang Prai industrial zone), knows all too well about the hardships of agricultural living.
The fine arts graduate from UiTM even had a chance to retrace his roots during a six-month fellowship at the Fergana Art Fellowship programme in 2015, where he was coached by artist-curator Wong Hoy Cheong, and explored his old hometown and reconnected with his friends there.
This culminated in a bizarre photo-shoot, where Samsudin used his friends, actual farmers, as the models.
“I had to ask them to hold pinang branches to help them imagine how to pose, then later photoshopped in a leg or tail,” he says candidly.
The photoshopped monsters – with the exception of the dead rats caught in a Shah Alam bundleshop – were fictional to boot. They are made out of various seafood.
Samsudin, laughing, as he explains the process, says the slug beasts were actually fish roe while the monster crab was reconstructed from several crabs he had bought for lunch earlier.
The look of concern and tiredness on the models faces was, however, very much real, reveals Samsudin.
The photo shoot was timed in the late evening, after a long day’s work for the farmers. It dragged on for three hours.
“By the time we were finishing, they wanted to go off to the mosque for prayers,” he shares.
The process of killing the “pests” was also made into a video short called Tok Chey - Of Thoughts And Pests.
In this tale, Samsudin shrugs, saying that Tok Chey did not even have the land any longer. A distant family member wrestled away the ancestral land by getting the writ from the Land Office and giving the old farmer the boot from his own farm.
The multi-disciplinary artist also introduces a new element into the mix in the form of the monumental Tambun, a 3m tall, 80kg installation made from mud collected from Tanjung Harapan in Klang and shaped upon a frame of wire mesh and steel oil-barrels.
At the gallery, visitors can interact with the mud totem. Its smell and feel are meant to transport visitors to the muddy paddy fields of Samsudin’s hometown.
“When this exhibit is done, I’ll pack the mud up and return it to the mangrove swamp,” says Samsudin.