The curious incidents of the artist in the night-time


‘During this phase of embracing the night, I developed a hobby of caring for nocturnal animals such as moths, as well as natural processes that occur in the absence of light ...’ says Hasanul. Photo: The Star/Samuel Ong

For some, when night falls and darkness envelops the landscape, the world becomes a bit more dangerous, full of unseen things.

For contemporary artist Hasanul Isyraf Idris, 45, with night-time comes a feeling of peace and solace.

During the pandemic, he started rambling the hills around his house at night near the Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM) campus in George Town, Penang.

Surrounded by the wildness of nature that was unhampered by human intervention during the movement control order, Hasanul began to grow curious about the things he came across on his long walks.

“I have a bodhi tree that I’m growing, and one day, I found a caterpillar on it. I didn’t know what it was, so I read up on what it could possibly be, and essentially adopted it,” says Hasanul during an interview at Rissim Contemporary gallery in Kuala Lumpur, where his new works are currently on display in the Nightwalking exhibition.

Hasanul's artwork Sleep in The Belly of Kindness' (acrylic guoache and guoache on cotton paper, 2022 - 2023). - Richard Koh Fine ArtHasanul's artwork Sleep in The Belly of Kindness' (acrylic guoache and guoache on cotton paper, 2022 - 2023). - Richard Koh Fine Art

The caterpillar turned into a chrysalis, and not long after, a moth emerged.

“It was an Oleander hawk-moth,” he says, pointing it out in one of his pieces. Its patterns, which feature swirls of light and dark green, had been lovingly replicated.

‘We are the moths’

In fact, all of the pieces in Hasanul’s latest solo exhibition – his first major show in KL since HOL (Higher Order Love) Chapter 3, Scab: Lucky Draw in October 2018 – feature moths, celestial bodies such as stars and meteors, or both. Their vibrant colours contrast against the almost impossibly deep indigo that represent the night.

“During this phase of embracing the night, I developed a hobby of caring for nocturnal animals (such as moths), as well as natural processes that occur in the absence of light, such as seed proliferation, a baby growing in a womb, photosynthesis, and a black hole,” he says.

In the last few years, the Perak-born has exhibited at a few group shows in KL, including the Ilham x SAM Project: The Body Politic And The Body and Ilham Art Show 2022, both at Ilham Gallery, while his pandemic-era pocket show Mini Zoo was shown at The Back Room in August 2021.

Hasanul's 'Alphard Glow' (acrylic guoache and guoache on cotton paper (2022-2023). Photo: Rissim Contemporary/Richard Koh Fine Art Hasanul's 'Alphard Glow' (acrylic guoache and guoache on cotton paper (2022-2023). Photo: Rissim Contemporary/Richard Koh Fine Art

Hasanul has also been exhibiting his works abroad (Singapore, Taiwan, France and the United Arab Emirates) and finding a wider audience during this period.

Right now, the soft-spoken artist is glad to be back with new art and showing them again in KL. This show is a collaboration between Rissim Contemporary and Richard Koh Fine Art.

Hasanul explains that the new exhibition has three parts: “There’s the physical world, with all the moths, then they die by the rings of fire and move into another dimension. In the last part, they have fused with their creator, merging with something bigger. It’s basically an allegory about humans. We are the moths.”

Like moths to a flame

According to Hasanul, the initial paintings didn’t even have moths.

“The paintings started out with just stars, as I would be stargazing during my walks. Then I set the paintings aside and worked on other pieces. It was only this year that I added the moths,” he shares.

Hasanul’s artwork 'Zalia' (acrylic guoache and guoache on cotton paper (2023). Photo: Rissim Contemporary/Richard Koh Fine Art Hasanul’s artwork 'Zalia' (acrylic guoache and guoache on cotton paper (2023). Photo: Rissim Contemporary/Richard Koh Fine Art

It was that first encounter with the moth that lit the spark of his irrepressible curiosity, motivating Hasanul to learn more about local species of moths, and eventually, even rearing some of his own.

On his Instagram, alongside his artwork, Hasanul shares photos and videos of the insects he rears, as well as discoveries he chances upon while out and about, from spiders and bees to flowers and wild fruits.

From his extensive readings, he came across a poem written by Sufi poet Farid ud-Din Attar.

“In his poem, The Conference Of The Birds, there’s a story about moths and their obsession with the flame,” he says.

“The story is an analogy for a human’s longing to meet their creator, even to the extent of burning itself in a ring of fire, which stirred in me a realisation of how small we humans are in this multi-layered universe.”

Hasanul's 'Eye Full Of Moon' (acrylic guoache and guoache on cotton paper (2023). Photo: Rissim Contemporary/Richard Koh Fine Art Hasanul's 'Eye Full Of Moon' (acrylic guoache and guoache on cotton paper (2023). Photo: Rissim Contemporary/Richard Koh Fine Art

Indeed, the piece that was inspired by the poem, Ashburn Circle, depicts a kind of powerlessness in fighting against the moths’ natural instincts, and perhaps a sense of peace in accepting it.

The sombre turn in our conversation was broken when Hasanul says with a laugh, “It’s funny how this one tale has inspired so many artists, from Metallica to even Miley Cyrus!”

Returning to basics

Hasanul shares that while his nightly strolls – a practice he continues to this day – helped keep the cabin fever at bay during MCO, it was the practice of creating his art that saved his life.

“Art has saved my life countless times,” he confesses.

In 2012, Hasanul grappled with grief following the passing of his mother.

“That was the year I stopped painting. I couldn’t bring myself to paint, because everything was just blank.”

After seeking professional help and doing some of his own research, he turned to drawing instead.

An artwork by Hasanul titled 'Hand Full Of Crystal' (acrylic guoache and guoache on cotton paper (2022-2023). Photo: Rissim Contemporary/Richard Koh Fine Art An artwork by Hasanul titled 'Hand Full Of Crystal' (acrylic guoache and guoache on cotton paper (2022-2023). Photo: Rissim Contemporary/Richard Koh Fine Art

“I read that doing repetitive movements helped and I wanted to keep things simple and minimalist, so I started drawing using pencil, pen and watercolours.”

For the next decade, Hasanul continued the repetition of his drawing practice and made sure that he had his own space to work on his art, even if it was just a porch at the side of his home.

“These are my first pieces returning to painting,” he says, gesturing to the artworks surrounding us.

The hues are bolder and more vivid compared to his previous pieces, perhaps signalling a new beginning, like a moth breaking out of its chrysalis.

Nightwalking, which Hasanul describes as “a celebration of the night-time while contemplating life, death and the divination of the hereafter”, is his ninth solo exhibition.

Nightwalking is showing at the Rissim Contemporary gallery in Bangsar, KL until Aug 6. More info here.

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