Today, we celebrate our mothers and all the women in our lives who are dear and important. Though the pandemic has made this Mothers Day a subdued affair, make no mistake it is still a special and precious family occasion.
In Malaysian art, there is no shortage of works honouring the bonds of motherhood. Here’s a list of visual artists - through the years - who have lovingly incorporated mothers in their art.
Yong Mun Sen's 'Mother And Child' (oil on canvas, circa 1940s)
Pioneer painter Yong Mun Sen (1896 – 1962) is generally known for his watercolours of pastoral Malayan landscapes. But the Sarawak-born was also an accomplished oil painter. His rare oil works, like this Mother And Child painting, articulated a more realistic outlook on life rather than the typically idyllic scenarios of a lush tropical land. His oil works from the 1940s showed a particular concern for the plight and life of everyday people.
'Bayangnya Itu Timbul Tenggelam' photography exhibition
Snapping a photo with mum is just a click away these days. Find an Insta-worthy spot and you’re done. Decades ago, taking a photo was a costly affair and required you to get it done at a (photo) studio, unless of course you were wealthy enough to own your own camera. What’s more, it was an all out production, complete with props and exotic backdrops, making it a special occasion for the family to dress up. These pre-Merdeka studio photographs, courtesy of KL's Ilham Gallery, are part of its Bayangnya Itu Timbul Tenggelam: Photographic Cultures in Malaysia exhibition.
Datuk Chuah Thean Teng's 'Masa Hadapan Kita' (batik art, 1960s/70s)
Datuk Chuah Thean Teng (1914-2008), known for developing batik as a painting technique, brings a simple and homely feel in this artwork. Set in a kampung house, the painting depicts three mothers either interacting with the children or putting them to sleep. This painting is unique as the artist has not used the crinkling lines so prevalent in early batik art and the play of mengkuang (screwpine) patterning. The woman lying on her front with lower legs raised is a play on the "reclining figure”, one of the most popular poses in art history.
Ramli Malek's 'Mendodol' (batik art, circa 1970s)
There is always something special about mothers portrayed in batik works. In this piece entitled Mendodol painted circa 1970s, the Pahang-born artist Ramli Malik (1943-1982) depicts in the gentle batik tones of sepia, yellow and brown, a poignant moment of a mother rocking her child to sleep in the ubiquitous batik "cradle". The British-trained Ramli set up a batik factory in Kuantan, where he continued to practice as one of the country’s finest batik artists until his untimely death in 1982.
Ismail Zain's 'The Detribalization Of Tom Binti Che Lat I' (acrylic on canvas, 1983)
It's 30 years since Ismail Zain (1930-1991) left us, and his works, filled with deeply insightful narratives, continue to intrigue. This early 1980s work displays his painterly skills, and it has a certain sadness about it. The protaganist is an elderly woman, presumably somebody Ismail knew closely, who has left the kampung life and moved to a caged-in urban environment. Here is a different kind of mothers day storytelling, looking at how an old parent has to cope with the challenges of modernity (in the 1980s) when the children have settled down in the city. This narrative hasn't changed much, especially during these pandemic times, when ailing parents from out of state are brought to the city to live with their children.
Syed Thajudeen’s 'Flower Girls' (oil on canvas, 2005)
Motherly love is beautiful. This oil painting by veteran artist Syed Thajudeen Shaik Abu Talib is a memorable one from his early 2000s catalogue. The bright and psychedelic colours of the painting transport the viewer to an otherworldly realm. His surrealist figures captured on canvas are a sight to behold, always. In this painting, a mother lovingly her puts a bright, pink flower on her daughter’s head.
Anurendra Jegadeva’s 'Portrait Of My Mother As The Queen' (oil on canvas in steel casing, 2010)
This painting brings to mind that old RTM-era TV commercial jingle ‘Ibu, ibu, engkaulah, ratu hatiku’ (mother, mother, you are the queen of my heart). In this work, this Australia-based Malaysian artist, better known as J. Anu, gives his mother the royal treatment by portraying her as a Queen. His mother looks regal. There is also a certain poise and firmness to her face, giving her a royal boldness, complete with the purple cloak. Anu's works have always celebrated women, either from family right to political, socio-economic and cultural circles.
Nadiah Bamadhaj's 'Poised' (charcoal on paper collage, 2013)
This striking portrait, using charcoal, bears the Indonesia-based Malaysian artist’s mother’s face with the torso of a bird. Nadiah’s depiction of women is strongly contrasted against the traditional portrayals of femininity in Javanese art. The use of the bird icon here is in part intended by the artist to portray, in visual terms, the various characteristics of her mother. “My mother has lived a tumultuous life, both with successes and extreme loss, but is never ‘unruffled’, ” said Nadiah when describing this work in 2013.
Gan Tee Sheng’s 'My Mother' (oil on canvas, 2014)
A good ol' fashioned portrait from a contemporary artist is always a welcome thing. This painting by Johor-born artist Gan Tee Sheng is special, not only because it is a portrait of his mother, but also because it was one of his early works from his first solo exhibition called Withdrawn in KL. Gan is known for depicting human figures and deep emotions in his art. In this portrait of this mother, Gan said, he wanted to portray her beauty.
Fadilah Karim’s 'Terrible Two' (oil on linen, 2020)
How about something direct from a mother's viewpoint? This 33-year-old mother of one is known for her large-scale figurative works which are autobiographical. This painting shows, in a cheeky way, her relationship with her daughter. Fadilah is seen sleeping on a couch, unaware that her daughter has strewn rolls of toilet paper all over her and the floor. Through this painting, Fadilah says she wants to show how motherhood can be exhausting, but also filled with love. Juggling both can be tricky, especially when both she and her daughter have their distinct personalities, as suggested by the title of the piece.