How do Malaysian artists make art? 'Living Art' tells their stories


  • Arts
  • Wednesday, 08 Jan 2020

Artist Sharon Chin working in her studio in Port Dickson, Negri Sembilan. Photo: DL Studios

Whenever veteran sculptor Mad Anuar Ismail approaches material for a new piece of work, he needs to “negotiate” with it first. Some artists begin with a preconceived idea of what they want to make, and then look for the right medium to craft it.

According to Ong, she was inspired to create this book after doing a review of Dolores D Wharton's 'Contemporary Artists Of Malaysia'.According to Ong, she was inspired to create this book after doing a review of Dolores D Wharton's 'Contemporary Artists Of Malaysia'.Mad Anuar, in his late 60s, will listen to the “will” of the wood he works with. The resulting artwork he creates will reflect the conversation they had.

For over 40 years, Mad Anuar has had these kinds of conversations with wood slabs, the primary material for his large-scale sculptures inspired by Malay folklore.

Lecturer and writer Emelia Ong was fortunate enough to hear this insight on Mad Anuar directly from him, during an interview they had for her newly-released book Living Art. The book collects in-depth interviews with some of Malaysia’s best-known artists, and reveals the diversity of their art practice.

According to Ong, the idea for the book came after she had to write a book review of Contemporary Artists Of Malaysia, a 1971 book by arts advocate Dolores D. Wharton, which was published by the Asia Society. It was one of the first biographic surveys on the Malaysian arts scene.

“In that book, she interviewed (pioneering) Malaysian artists. I thought to myself, ‘How come there were so few (Malaysian art) books of interviews?’ Contemporary Artists Of Malaysia was so easy to read, and you could hear each artist’s voice, straight from them. It would be good if I could do an updated version of this book, ” recalls Ong, 45, during a recent interview in Kuala Lumpur.

That is exactly what Ong did.

Getting to know the artists

Ong’s Living Art crowd-funded book project, published by Areca Books, began in January 2017, and she took two years to complete it.

'Living Art' compiles interviews with 14 prominent local artists.'Living Art' compiles interviews with 14 prominent local artists.It contains interviews with 14 Malaysian artists, namely Mad Anuar Ismail, Noor Mahnun Mohamad, Sharon Chin, Abdul Mansoor Ibrahim, Hasnul J. Saidon, Gan Chin Lee, Jennifer Liu Hsin Ying, the late Roslisham Ismail (aka Ise), Elias Yamani, Eiffel Chong, Azzaha Ibrahim, Shia Yih Yiing, Ilse Noor and art collective Pangrok Sulap.

Ong, a senior lecturer, teaches Malaysian art history in the Visual Arts MA programme at the Cultural Centre in Universiti Malaya, and she holds a PhD from Universiti Sains Malaysia, with a thesis on the construction of identities through art practice during the independence period of Malaysia.

Academia might be her speciality, but Ong knew she wanted this Living Art book to be accessible to the masses. The main thing was to let the artists involved tell their own stories, and what gets them inspired to create art.

“I used to live by the sea. I feel like I am part of the natural environment. I think that’s important to me. If I am dislocated from that environment for too long, like, if I lived near the supermarkets or behind enclosed walls, I grow weary. It gets too much, after a while, ” says Mad Anuar.

This 136-page book with commissioned photos contains many illuminating stories behind each artist’s life. Topics covered include their first exposure to art, learning process, relationship with space and place, working process, tools and materials and current practices.

A project that expanded

The author reveals she began the project with about five artists in mind, whose works she found interesting. After meeting them, she would also get recommendations on other artists with interesting work, which she would then follow up on.

Founder member Rizo Leong of the Pangrok Sulap collective, based in Ranau, Sabah, rolling ink for a woodcut print.Founder member Rizo Leong of the Pangrok Sulap collective, based in Ranau, Sabah, rolling ink for a woodcut print.Ong feels the selection of artists in the book offered quite a handy overview of contemporary Malaysian art. Of course, Living Art is not expected to be a comprehensive survey of today’s local art, but to its credit, the book zooms in on artists (from varying age groups) involved in painting, printmaking, etching, wood carving, metal work, performance art, conceptual art and photography.

In putting this book together, Ong mostly had interview assignments in the Klang Valley, while she also went to Penang to visit Hasnul J. Saidon, Kota Baru to see Azzaha Ibrahim, Port Dickson, Negri Sembilan, for Sharon Chin and Ranau in Sabah to interview Pangrok Sulap.

“I had to drive three hours from the (Kota Kinabalu) airport to visit Pangrok Sulap in their studio in Ranau. That was an adventure in itself!” says Ong.

For each assignment, Ong would talk to the artists in their studios, usually framing a chapter after two and three interview visits.

Each interview ran for three hours, with Ong, at times, following the artists out on visits. She also appointed photography studio DL Studios to help with images of the artists.

“The interview was super fun! Usually I only get interviewed when I have a project out, but all the interesting reflections actually happen in between. I hope the book revives the idea of the studio visit to the public. It’s a great way to get close to art and artists, ” says Chin.

Taking the accessible approach

The way the book has been mapped out, with a strong focus on each artist’s identity, art and back story, and its accessible language (not too stiff or obtuse) gives it a broad audience.

Ong says Living Art had been written in a simple style. This book is meant for everyone, from the ordinary person to art critics.

“It is also good for artists as it shows them that they are never alone on their artistic journeys. I think they can be inspired in their creative process, and take it to the next level. It helps inform them that somewhere out there, someone else is going through the same struggles as they did, and tells them how to overcome them, ” says Ong.

Mad Anuar is a sculptor who works primarily with wood and metal, creating large-scale, 3D artworks inspired by Malay folklore and traditional motifs. Photo: Fauzi TahirMad Anuar is a sculptor who works primarily with wood and metal, creating large-scale, 3D artworks inspired by Malay folklore and traditional motifs. Photo: Fauzi Tahir

From enjoying artistic purple patches to how an artist deals with a creative block, there is much to discover.

“I think this is the first art book focusing on how various artists work, and it comprehensively introduces how different artists solve their problems in this tough environment and survive. To me, Emelia is a very serious and detailed person. All the questions that she asked make me feel that she is concerned about the logical order behind the development of art, ” says Gan.

Gathering info for the book, Ong says, was a very rewarding experience. Most of the artists involved had been very frank and candid about their stories. Highlights of the book include Ilse Noor giving a step-by-step explanation of her printmaking processes, and Chin’s honest thought processes behind her work.

There are five female artists featured in this book. According to Ong, it is important to have the female voices in Malaysian art heard.

The late Roslisham Ismail (aka Ise), pictured in his Kampung Pandan studio in KL, obliged two interview sessions for the Living Art book project. Photo: DL StudiosThe late Roslisham Ismail (aka Ise), pictured in his Kampung Pandan studio in KL, obliged two interview sessions for the Living Art book project. Photo: DL Studios

This role of documentation is further amplified when an artist dies.

Ise, who died aged 46 last July, is a name that Malaysians need to know better. In Living Art, Ong conducted interviews in KL with Ise in March 2017 and September 2017. They followed up through email until August 2018. Ong doesn’t think they were Ise’s last interviews, but his story in the book will be a poignant one since his art has, arguably, always been taken more seriously abroad.

“What was also surprising was the interview with Ise. He was so honest, for instance, about how he felt nobody cared about his art, that it was only important to him. But he felt he had to do what he believed in, and he worked hard and overcame his challenges. I tried to keep as much of it in the book as possible, ” concludes Ong.

Living Art is available now at all good bookstores nationwide. More info: arecabooks.com.


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