Setbacks and survival: master craftsman uses challenges to forge strength

  • Arts
  • Thursday, 13 May 2021

Adiguru Muhaimin Hasbollah adjusts a work from his screen collection from the 'Awan Larat' series made from Damar Hitam and Seraya. Photo: The Star/Samuel Ong

It was a disaster that Adiguru Muhaimin Hasbollah will never forget. On that fateful December morning in 2014, amid a week-long torrential downpour, the banks of Sungai Pahang broke open and a terrible flood was unleashed on Temerloh town and the rest of Pahang.

Without mercy, the waters kept rising and just like that over 300 wood carvings at Muhaimin’s Inakraf woodcraft workshop were swept away. The flood also damaged several workshop machines and cutting tools.

The master carver was then back in his home state of Johor when the Temerloh flood hit.

“It took five days before the water began to subside. I was at a loss for words. I didn’t know what to do. We lost over RM300,000 due to the flood, ” recalls Muhaimin, 56, during a recent interview at Rumah Lukis in Kuala Lumpur.

Many of his wood carvings, salvaged from the aftermath of the flood were featured at his recent Temerloh Series 2021 solo exhibition at Rumah Lukis.

At this exhibit, some of the woodworks (2009 to 2014) in the series (nine works) retained their original, pre-flood design, while the rest were repurposed.

If it wasn’t for this exhibition, many, if not all, of Muhaimin’s salvaged woodworks would have gone to waste.

The recent Temerloh Series 2021 at Rumah Lukis featured restored woodworks by Muhaimin which were damaged in a flood in 2014. Photo: The Star/Samuel OngThe recent Temerloh Series 2021 at Rumah Lukis featured restored woodworks by Muhaimin which were damaged in a flood in 2014. Photo: The Star/Samuel Ong

The traditional craftsman says that while he was devastated by the effects of the flood, he had accepted it as fate.

He is also philosophical when discussing the impact of the pandemic on the craft sector now.

“Can this traditional craft survive the pandemic? My view is that we, as craftspeople, must be resilient and be ready for the challenges ahead. Things will be tough, but we must find ways to adapt and survive, ” says Muhaimin.

The movement control orders to curb the pandemic are part of today’s reality, and with the MCO 3.0, Muhaimin is already flipping through his diary, looking through event and workshop postponements.

He does remember that his career was nearly derailed once. The big flood nearly seven years ago at his workshop in Temerloh was a nightmare that also served up a lesson on how to survive.

After spending nearly a month scouring the vicinity of his workshop in and salvaging as many of his woodworks as possible, Muhaimin could not help but feel heartbroken.

But he knew he had to move forward.

“We spent years to build this industry in Temerloh, ” says Muhaimin, referring to Inakraf which he co-founded with his wife in 1991 at Kampung Bangau Tanjung.

Growing up in Pontian, Johor to a family of Felda settlers, Muhaimin says life was not always easy.

“That is why I have always aimed to better myself so that with my skills, I can go far, ” shares Muhaimin, who was awarded the Adiguru Kraf Kayu title (Master Wood Craftsman) in 2019 by Perbadanan Kemajuan Kraftangan Malaysia (PKKM).

The early beginnings

Muhaimin’s aspirations of building a career in traditional craft slowly began to take shape when he chanced upon a newspaper advertisement about a wood carving course. He was 17 at that time.

“I really wanted to explore this branch of art. I have been drawing and painting all this while and I wanted to explore something else to upgrade my skills, ” says Muhaimin. Determined, he signed up for the training programme at PKKM’s Pahang branch in Temerloh in 1985.

A close-up of Muhaimin's 'Titis I' from the 'Pola Bujang' series made from Balau. Photo: The Star/Samuel OngA close-up of Muhaimin's 'Titis I' from the 'Pola Bujang' series made from Balau. Photo: The Star/Samuel Ong

For 18 months, Muhaimin learned the basics of woodcarving.

But the young man was hungry for more. He knew he needed to undergo practical training with a master carver to deepen his understanding of carving and related skills.

He applied for an apprenticeship with the late Abd Latif Long, a royal carver based in Pasir Tumbuh, Kelantan.

“Thankfully, he took me in. I was apprenticing under him for half a year and I learned a lot about design, techniques and using the tools, ” remembers Muhaimin.

Here, he says he truly developed his skills as a carver, choosing the floral motif as his identity, something he would eventually be known for.

The intricacies and details in Muhaimin’s wood carvings are so uniquely his, it’s akin to recognising a painter for his brushstrokes.

If you have ever walked into the lobby of the Parliament building, you might recognise Muhaimin’s massive woodwork, which took him nearly two months to complete in 2013.

Recovery in Temerloh

After his apprenticeship with Abd Latif Long, Muhaimin returned to Temerloh to further his studies at PKKM’s training centre and finally set up Inakraf in 1991. But it was not smooth sailing at the beginning.

“I was competing with those who came before me. It was really tough. But I slowly built up my trade. We made wood carving products like furniture and interior design that can be sold, ” the father of four shares.

Muhaimin hopes more young people will start venturing into wood carving to keep the traditional art alive. Photo: The Star/Samuel OngMuhaimin hopes more young people will start venturing into wood carving to keep the traditional art alive. Photo: The Star/Samuel Ong

“Suddenly, when the flood hit, everything was gone. All that we worked for. For three months, we didn’t have any work to do... no income. We just spent time washing off the mud from all the salvaged wood.

“And looking at the ruined woodworks everyday got me so angry, I burned many of them and discarded nearly half, ” admits Muhaimin.

When designer Muhamad Razif Nasruddin, who co-curated the Temerloh Series 2021 exhibition, heard this story during a conversation with Muhaimin at a craft workshop organised by Malaysian Timber Industry Board (MTIB) in Temerloh last July, he knew something had to be done.

“We were shocked by the fact that he had burned more than half of his works. So we went to his workshop and tried to find the pieces that were still around, things that could be salvaged and had memories of the flood, ” recalls Razif.

Upon realising that Muhaimin’s woodworks could in fact be restored, Razif and his team decided to take on this project which gave birth to Bahkolektion.

A play on words on banjir (flood) and collection, it is an artisan project that was founded last August to create awareness and appreciation for traditional Malaysian arts and craft through restoration and reinterpretation.

Bahkolektion is commissioned by CTCS Worldwide Sdn Bhd, a subsidiary of MTIB, to inject contemporary ideas and marketing into traditional Malaysian arts and craft. The recent Temerloh Series 2021 exhibition was Bahkolektion’s debut show.

“When Razif saw all the wood that I had saved from the flood, he saw them as items of value. I thought they had become worthless as they were mostly flood damaged or broken.

“I decided to throw most of them because that’s a common practice after a flood. I just didn’t think that they could be restored or repurposed, ” he says.

New life, new value

“These wood carvings have a life within them, their own strength. Even with the flood, the artistic value is still there, ” says Muhaimin.

The Bahkolektion project accelerated the woodcraft master’s desire to exhibit the restored works.

Setting up Bahkolektion, says Razif, is not meant as a one-off thing. Just like giving Muhaimin’s woodworks a new lease of life, Razif hopes to offer such a chance to other traditional craftspeople.

Muhaimin's 'Tepus' collection from the 'Pola Bujang' series made from nyirih batu and balau. Photo: The Star/Samuel Ong Muhaimin's 'Tepus' collection from the 'Pola Bujang' series made from nyirih batu and balau. Photo: The Star/Samuel Ong

“More than that, we knew this had the potential of telling the story of how passionate and resilient these craftsmen and artisans are.

“I think there’s a lot of craftsmen out there dying to show what they could bring to the world.

“The narrative of our future exhibitions may not be the same, as in, works salvaged from the flood, not necessarily. But it is basically to highlight local craftsmen and give them this platform to show their talent and also to raise awareness, ” explains Razif.

Raising awareness about the traditional woodcraft and training the next generation of wood carvers is also something that Muhaimin takes seriously, especially now that he is an Adiguru.

Ten years after Inakraf was founded, Muhaimin slowly accepted students who wished to do their practical training there.

“At that time, there wasn’t much government support. It was all self sustained. After five years, we successfully produced many new carvers. They learned from me and also worked for me.

“And if they wanted to leave, I gave them one condition. They have to open their own workshop so that the skills will not be lost and can be passed down, ” he shares.

He also gets invitations by schools and institutions to teach wood carving and conduct workshops.

“For me, it’s important to see this wood carving industry grow and expand. So, it’s necessary to have a new generation of carvers who can continue on with the craft.

“You see, wood carving is really difficult. There’s a lot of process and techniques. It’s time consuming. Which is why we need to start as early as possible to train the younger generation and draw them in, ” says Muhaimin.

Perhaps, that explains why Muhaimin isn’t a strict traditionalist at heart. He is also not opposed to the idea of the contemporary.

 Razif (left) and Muhaimin are looking ahead to more collaborations with the Bahkolektion platform. Photo: The Star/Samuel OngRazif (left) and Muhaimin are looking ahead to more collaborations with the Bahkolektion platform. Photo: The Star/Samuel Ong

“There are some from the old guard who draw a clear line between the two. For them, only traditional ways exist. But in reality, the carving world is wide.

“One can choose to do either the traditional or the contemporary. For me, I think we need to adapt and change according to the times. This also makes it easier to market our products, ” says Muhaimin.

Razif agrees with this viewpoint.

“The key word is contemporary. It appeals to the younger market. Wood carving is very traditional and you have to be passionate enough of the craft to be willing to learn and appreciate it.

“By making it more contemporary, especially through exhibitions or training by master carvers like Muhaimin who are more open, you are exposing traditional art to the younger generation. This is about reaching out, ” offers Razif.

Muhaimin encourages the younger generation to take up the opportunities which are out there for them.

“Nowadays, there are so many incentives and assistance provided by the government. This is a heritage that we have to preserve. If it’s not us, who else is going to do it?” he concludes.

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