When art collector Nik M. Fahmee was forced to stay home during the pandemic, he spent a lot of time staring at his walls.
It is a good thing these walls – and many other surfaces in his house in Selangor – are not bare. With paintings in every room, he had plenty to look at and lots of time to think.
He reminisced about the past, about living and joy and grief. He reflected on his childhood and what raising a family means to him.
An image in a painting might spark a memory – of a marriage proposal, a happy decision or a difficult conversation with a loved one.
“I thought about my journey of art collection and the relationships I have built. And then I wrote about these things, at first daily, and when restrictions were lifted, weekly,” he says during a recent interview.
Fadilah Karim’s colour pencil sketches transported him back to his school days, where in retaliation to a friend slapping him, he snipped off her ponytail with a pair of scissors and flung it out the moving school bus window.
A still life by Ahmad Zakii Anwar, featuring a papaya, reminded Nik of his late grandfather who loved this fruit.
“He loved his papayas. He would have it after almost every meal. He especially liked them chilled. He passed on when I was 10 years old. I remember the phone on the piano ringing, and my father answering the call, then my mother came to him and hugged him and they both cried. My mother was the eldest daughter. She stopped cutting and eating papayas for a long time. She couldn’t bring herself to. Such is grief,” he wrote in one of his stories.
An oil painting of a goldfish by Samsudin Wahab brought to mind how a young Nik caused chaos at a wedding when he hungrily gobbled the goldfish-shaped bahulu (traditional Malay pastry) meant as a wedding hantaran (part of a wedding dowry).
“Everyone was staring at me. Who knew the goldfish’s head would come off so easily! My mother lunged forward, apologised profusely, and yanked me out. Once in the car, she gave me the biggest and longest cubit geram (pinch) ever bestowed upon any child in the world. I was known as the ‘Budak Makan Hantaran Kepala Bahalu Ikan Mas’ for a while. I was a legend,” he says.
He shared these stories on Instagram, an account he keeps private till this day.
He has built his art collection – which he displays in his home – for almost two decades, adding pieces whenever he comes across something that speaks to him.
“I don’t buy a painting or sculpture unless it resonates with me. Every artwork in my house has some meaning to me. With one or two exceptions, like an artwork by a Filipino artist who is a relative, all the works are by Malaysian artists. I like supporting the local art scene and I also like how accessible it is to meet these artists and get to know them a bit better,” says Nik.
The book idea
When he posted his stories online, people told him how much they liked them. There were hundreds of stories, written over a span of over a year.
Then they started asking for a book, and Ginger Biscuits was born.
“When I started this project during the MCO (movement control order), I never thought I would ever be compiling it into a book. I was just writing for fun at home, right? When I was compiling the stories, selecting which ones would make it into the book, I told my wife that these are really personal tales, so it feels like kind of an expose, you know? But I was turning 50 this year, so I thought what the heck, just do it,” he says with a laugh.
Ginger Biscuits is self-published, a passion project that has reached out to readers beyond Nik’s Instagram followers, since its release a few weeks ago.
Fifty stories made the cut, with each story accompanied by an image of the corresponding artwork.
For instance, there is a red teapot painting by Fauzulyusri featured here, a work that transported Nik back to his childhood where a “terrifyingly garang (fierce) teacher” from school came to have tea with his mother every week.
“Who in the whole wide world would want their teacher coming to their home for tea? I tried to persuade my mother to end her unnecessary, ridiculous and traumatising friendship with my teacher. But of course, my mother being my mother, never listened to me,” he wrote in Tea At Home.
The stories here are lively, heartfelt and easy to read. They range from childhood stories to observations of the world around him and conversations with artists.
“Several people have told me that they read it in one sitting. One guy wrote to me, saying that he doesn’t know me and he doesn’t know art, but he loves the stories.
"Another woman, who knows the art world, told me that she felt like giving me a hug after she read the book. I never intended to make any money from this book, but it has been very rewarding in other ways. I am blessed because I am able to connect the artworks I love with the stories of my life, the people I meet and the things I do,” he says.
Nik also sees this book as an attempt to leave behind stories for his children and the younger generation.
He used to listen to the elders in his family tell stories of their childhood and considers it a pity that these were never recorded.
This storytelling project is an effort to document some of his thoughts and love for art.
In Ginger Biscuits, he has penned a story about each of his four children. At the recent launch of the book at Cult Gallery in Kuala Lumpur, he got them to read these stories.
“I really enjoyed watching them read the stories I wrote about them. During the MCO, we walked around the house together and I got them to pick their favourite artworks. They all have very different personalities and it reflects in their artwork choice as well as their observations and opinion about the art.
"I wanted to go deeper into my kids’ minds and understand why they like these works. A good artwork will stop you in your tracks, it will make you feel and think. I want my children to feel the love and passion I have for art and stories,” he says.
Ginger Biscuits is a compilation of stories and art, a personal project that morphed into a book because it touched hearts and minds and will continue to do so.
The book is available at Kinokuniya KLCC, Riwayat, Ilham Gallery gift store and Kasa Suasa in Kuala Lumpur, as well as Cake Jalan Tiung in Shah Alam, Selangor.