Printmaker Sabihis Md Pandi was five years old when the last major printmaking exhibition was held in Kuala Lumpur. It has taken 25 years for the next one to see the light of day.
The last comprehensive overview of the Malaysian printmaking scene, featuring its notable artists (from the 1950s to 1990s), was seen at the Communication Through Graphic Art Printmaking exhibition held at the old National Arts Gallery building in KL back in 1993.
A lot has changed in printmaking since that exhibition, which was guest curated by veteran artist Long Thien Shih, who is still active in printmaking.
He, like many other local printmakers, laments that significant exhibitions dedicated to one of the oldest art forms have been few and far between here.
Which is why the Seni Cetakan: Seni Sepanjang Zaman (The Art Of Printmaking: Lasting Impressions) exhibition is a long-awaited event. The show was launched recently at KL’s Bank Negara Malaysia Museum and Art Gallery.
Featuring more than 150 print works from 33 artists, the exhibition is a walk-through of homegrown printmaking’s story told through works from pioneers and current artists that showcase their various methods, including woodcut, linocut, etching, embossing, lithograph, silkscreening and more. (Women, though, are sadly underrepresented, we have to say.)
“It’s a celebration in itself to have an exhibition on printmaking,” says Long, 72, who is a prominent presence at Seni Cetakan, with his late 1960s abstract etchings and his more socially-conscious Paris-era 1970s prints that await a new audience.
“Prints are not really high on the food chain (of local art),” he observes bluntly.
“But it is an art medium for the people, it has resilience and the durability to stay the course of time.”
In terms of scale, Long has also outdone his early works (print block-sized), with a new and large woodcut piece called Borneo Dilemma (2018), measuring 128cm x 190cm, which comes from ongoing collaboration project with Sabah-born printmaker Jerome Manjat, 34.
Borneo Dilemma, a commentary on the dark side of tourism and environmental issues in Sabah and Sarawak, is one of the newest works at Seni Cetakan.
“The woodcut method is a basic printmaking technique but it has worked well through the generations. It can be a shared medium by a veteran and a new artist, with common concerns about the state of nature in certain parts of Malaysia,” says Jerome.
There is always fresh excitement when the old and new find ways to connect and move ahead.
However, Long, though delighted with the sense of revivalism in the Seni Cetakan exhibition, gives a cautious welcome to new developments concerning local printmaking, especially with too much hype given to the medium’s resurgence.
“Print has been known as a democratic art form, it can be made in editions. In Malaysia, this medium tends to get misunderstood. It is so-called ‘not unique’ since there can be multiple copies made. It is perceived as an outsider art form, never really given the same level of recognition like paintings.
“The ‘start stop, start stop’ nature of print’s lineage here has also been a stumbling block when it comes to its true potential and development,” he adds.
Long admits, though, that today’s generation of printmakers can sustain long-term careers with the opportunities available now.
As a young artist, Faizal Suhif, 34, will not deny that he has been fortunate when it comes to progressing his career in printmaking.
“It will always be a tricky balance to survive as a printmaker in Malaysia. But with a new awareness about the value of printmaking and seeing how more galleries have opened their doors to this discipline of art, things are looking up,” says Faizal, who contributes one of the biggest works – Hidup Merumpun (monoprint/stencil 2018) at 305cm x 153cm – to the Seni Cetakan show.
His two print works, Muda Sebelum Tua and Hidup Merumpun, are glimpses of how Faizal’s nature-themed artworks are closely associated to the green life surrounding his Hulu Langat studio in Selangor.
“Printmaking, outside art circles, is such a massive part of youth culture. It’s so much a part of today’s indie-inspired world and contemporary aesthetics – it’s how the masses really view and understand things.
“My work is tied to the basic principles (of printmaking like woodcut, etching, monoprints) and how I use nature to develop my craft. But should we ignore digital prints, T-shirt printmaking and photo-media based works? There are a lot of developments going on, so it’s a good time for this Seni Cetakan exhibition to take place,” he adds.
Alongside fellow artists Bayu Utomo Radjikin and Samsudin Wahab, Faizal has been one of the prime movers in the Chetak 12 studio in KL and the Cetak Kolektif series, which trains and exhibits works from young printmakers.
Works by Haafiz Shahimi, 32, one of the rare artists in the country practising pyrography (a unique printing process which involves heating up metal blocks to create artistic images), are a fascinating addition to Seni Cetakan with their complex scorched canvases, including Self-Fish (2014), which combines pyrography print, charcoal, spray paint and oil.
"Printmaking itself, which has so many hybrid techniques now, is something that needs an exhibition with a broad view of the medium. Apart from Seni Cetakan being a snapshot of printmaking now, the show also works as an accessible entry point for the public to get know its history and how it is a serious art form here ... and let's not forget, a true passion for the artists involved," says Sabihis.
At this exhibition, the works are divided into two categories, with a historical area dedicated to the work of past masters and the early trailblazers, and a contemporary section that revisits works from the 1990s to the present day.
As a basic introduction, Seni Cetakan is suitable for the curious art lover, while the purist will be pleased with rarely seen prints from as early as the late 1930s by Chuah Thean Teng and Lai Loong Sung’s 1970s monochromatic slices of daily Malaysian life.
The exhibition’s senior section is where the viewer will find a list of works of immense depth and dark mystery. They include Chew Teng Beng’s abstract lithograph, A Dream (1969), which captures the complexity of the mind; Lee Joo For’s etching Melalui Angkasa Gelap (1964), a piece exuding a certain weightless intensity; and Latiff Mohidin’s etching Mindscape (1974), which carries a deeply reflective aesthetic.
Nur Zahirah Abdul Samad, the exhibition’s assistant curator, points out that some of these older works were the hardest to track down. But through private collections and loans from other art institutions, Seni Cetakan has assembled an informative and enjoyable show.
“Juhari Said and Abdul Mansoor Ibrahim’s works (in the contemporary section) will be popular among the seasoned collectors, they are such recognisable printmakers, but if you are keen on colours, shades and contrasts, the range of prints from Loo Foh Sang, Ilse Noor and Kok Yew Puah will be some of the interesting names to investigate further,” says Nur Zahirah.
Ultimately, there is also a good amount of experimenting with inks and colours, all blurring into interesting shades, especially in Raja Zahabuddin Raja Yaacob’s surrealistic silkscreen Out Of The Unknown (1972) and Ponirin Amin’s silkscreen Soleh (1980).
“Many of the older artists and printmaking pioneers went on to make a name for themselves as practising fine artists, academics or writers. They impacted the art scene in a wide variety of other ways,” says Siti Melorinda Khuzaina Sakdudin, the show’s lead curator.
“But they also have this solid body of early printmaking works that are ripe for rediscovery,” she says.
Seni Cetakan: Seni Sepanjang Zaman is on at Bank Negara Malaysia Museum and Art Gallery (Sasana Kijang, No.2 Jalan Datuk Onn, Kuala Lumpur) till Nov 25. Opening hours: 10am-6pm daily. For more information, visit museum.bnm.gov.my or call 03-9179 2784. Free admission.