Sitting on a pillow. Washing your hair late at night. Whistling or singing while in the kitchen.
What do these things have in common? You’ve likely been told by your mother to not do these things, or scolded after having done them.
You might think they’re just old wives’ tales with no substance to them, but as you get older, you often realise (with some chagrin) that some of the things mum advised you actually make sense, and were conveyed with love (usually).
Contemporary artist Mastura Abdul Rahman, 60, says now that she herself is a mother and grandmother, her mother’s advice, shared throughout a lifetime, are coming to mind more and more.
“I feel like I am destined to continue ‘preaching’ similar messages to future generations, to remind them to keep the faith and love alive,” says Mastura in a recent interview.
These constant reminders of her mother’s wise words inspired her long-awaited second solo exhibition, Pesan Ibu: Alam Dijaga, Petua Diingat, which is showing at the Fergana Art space in Publika in Kuala Lumpur until Aug 6.
The show offers visitors a glimpse into Mastura's world of art, with 27 artworks exhibited, including 13 new works produced in the last two prolific years. There are also a handful of works from her 1990s phase on display.
Memories of times past
Between her debut show at Valentine Willie Fine Art in Kuala Lumpur in 1999 (titled Ku ... Lukis) and the current Pesan Ibu, Mastura has held firmly to familial relationships and bonds as her major working themes.
Her passion, love and hopes for her family are also reflected in the new exhibition's title.
Pesan Ibu is also a show to introduce this formidable female artist and thinker to a new generation of art lovers.
A product of UiTM's School of Art and Design, Mastura is also known in the Malaysian art scene for her multi-dimensional paintings of decorative interiors, based on studies of traditional Malay textile art and architecture. She also uses domestic objects such as clothes, furniture, ceramic wares, toys and other everyday items in her works.
According to Pesan Ibu's curator and Fergana Art founder Jaafar Ismail, the wait for such a show has been more than worthwhile.
“Mastura’s art resides in Malayness; a concept that is easily said, but rather difficult to define and pin down. A blob of mercury, devoid of surface tension,” he writes in the curatorial notes.
The title of the exhibition references the work of Tenas Effendy, an Indonesian expert in Malay culture. In his book Tunjuk Ajar Melayu (Teaching Malay), he writes: “Tanda orang memegang adat, alam dijaga, petuah diingat. (The mark of someone who honours tradition is through their respect for nature and adherence to customs.)"
Mastura’s sophisticated work is often inspired by Nusantara motifs and art forms, such as batik, songket and weaving.
“Perhaps it’s because through incorporating these shapes and forms in my work, I feel more connected with my roots,” she explains.
In the pieces featured in the exhibition, Mastura explores mixed media techniques such as collage, montage and carving.
The focal point of the exhibition is her Berselerak (Scattered) series, comprising seven paintings. It’s easy to get lost in the topsy-turvy perspectives, vintage colour palette and symbolic elements that bring to mind nostalgic notions of wooden kampung houses, mornings where you’re woken up by crowing roosters and homemade food, lovingly prepared.
“When my late mother or in-laws came to visit, they would rummage through our library, looking for books that – according to them – are 'fun to read'. They would then lie down in the middle of the house or at a favourite reading nook, often accompanied by their grandchildren,” says Mastura.
“They would read stories out loud to the grandchildren, or vice versa. That's how stories would grow and bloom in my house once upon a time.”
The piece de resistance is the seventh and final piece in the Gubahan Selerak series, a massive and complex collage relief painting stretching 3m across three panels.
The giving tree
Born in Singapore, Mastura was raised in Johor, surrounded by family members that excelled at handicrafts, especially on her mother’s side.
“My grandfather and uncle made birdcages out of rattan, whilst my mother was a dressmaker; as a small girl, I liked to watch them working. I guess their attentive working approaches influenced my working style in later years,” she says.
In the same way, Mastura passes her knowledge and skills on to her students.
She has been an art lecturer for the past 20 years and is currently a senior lecturer at Multimedia University in Cyberjaya.
Mastura, who is married to fellow artist Tengku Sabri Tengku Ibrahim, admits that it can be a challenge to juggle the mantle of wife, mother, artist and lecturer.
“Everybody has their own challenges, but it’s important to have faith in yourself. I would always seek guidance in my religious beliefs and am motivated by my family’s trust and love. Just keep going and remember to stay true to yourself,” she says.
In her own art practice, Mastura has Studio Pohon Rendang, which refers to her working space.
The name of her studio was inspired by a Quranic verse.
“I named my studio 'Pohon Rendang', which is a tree that provides shade, because it reminds me of the verse. I, too, aspire 'to become like the good tree' – sturdy, strong, and reach for the sky whilst giving protection (from heat) and fruits to others.”
Since 1985, Mastura has featured in art exhibitions around the world, including Indonesia, Philippines, Taiwan, Germany, Canada, Australia and Britain. Her artworks are in notable collections, such as the National Art Gallery, Galeri Shah Alam, Maybank, Malaysia Airlines, Bank Negara Malaysia, ISI Yogyakarta, Singapore Art Gallery and National University of Singapore, as well as private art museums and collections.
She has also been recognised by prestigious art awards, like the National Art Gallery's Young Contemporaries Art Award (Bakat Muda Sezaman, 1986) and as an Honourable Mention in the Phillip-Morris Art Award (1992).