Malaysian punk printmaker unveils personal side in his solo art exhibit

Syahnan says his painting 'Muko Bukit', which is part of his exhibition 'Potret Diri' at the Back Room gallery in KL, is a tribute to his parents and hometown in Kelantan. Photo: The Star/Maria Ibrahim

It might have happened eight years ago, but for artist-printmaker Syahnan Anuar, the infamous police raid at independent music venue Rumah Api in Ampang - to haul up so-called “anarchists” - is a fearful memory that still haunts him.

Over 100 youths were detained, and Syahnan, a punk scenester who ran a DIY silkscreen printing stall at the venue back then, was one of them who was remanded for three days.

“For the longest time, that incident - with the police rushing into the venue and taking the gig-goers away - had given me flashbacks and severe anxiety, I developed PTSD ... the lock-up experience also really affected me,” recalls Syahnan, 33, who is also the founder of Bogus Merchandise, a silkscreen and sewing-based indie company.

His Awas (2023) print series, which is a part of his Portret Diri debut mini exhibition at the Back Room gallery in Kuala Lumpur, shows how he embraces art as a means of overcoming that difficult episode in his life.

'Potret-Diri; Mengejar Mimpi, Menunggu Mati' (silkscreen on acid free paper, 2022). Photo: The Back Room'Potret-Diri; Mengejar Mimpi, Menunggu Mati' (silkscreen on acid free paper, 2022). Photo: The Back Room

In these new works, Syahnan deployed tiny FRU personnel in parts of his home, notably in his bathroom.

“This series might look irreverent and maybe cute ... but it is also how art has given me the strength to deal with my fears. There were days when I didn’t want to come out of the house during that period. To me, it felt like the authorities were following me, they were in the house, they were behind the door,” says Syahnan, who has also created art inspired by the public rallies and street assemblies in Kuala Lumpur through the years.

Potret Diri also includes some of Syahnan’s earlier works, featuring political themes.

However, it’s his latest pieces draw upon a more intimate side of the artist as he explores the relationships and enduring bonds of family.

Syahnan's 'Awas; Cuci-Cuci' (silkscreen on cotton paper, 2023). Photo: The Back RoomSyahnan's 'Awas; Cuci-Cuci' (silkscreen on cotton paper, 2023). Photo: The Back Room

Syahnan is the 7th child in a family of 10, his late dad was a school teacher and his mum a homemaker. A few of his siblings and mum also have starring roles in his new works.

Ironically enough, it was the artist’s older brother, an FRU policeman who is based in Kuching, who restored much of the young man’s confidence, giving him the motivation to move on from the Rumah Api incident.

“I had some really meaningful conversations with my policeman brother. He knows I’m not out looking for trouble. And he doesn’t talk down to me. Instead, he understands my art and is very supportive.

"He even rounded up a few colleagues and photographed them in uniform for the FRU poses in my Awas series, which I think is rather cool. Both of us see the ‘art’ side of things,” says Syahnan, who moved from his hometown Machang in Kelantan to Kuala Lumpur in 2009.

Busy Kuala Lumpur might be home for him now, but Syahnan’s Potret Diri exhibition, which features his silkscreen print works and his first painting, is strongly tied to his roots in Muka Bukit, Machang.

Cinta Buta (I) (silkscreen on Rosaspina acid free paper, 2022). Photo: The Back Room Cinta Buta (I) (silkscreen on Rosaspina acid free paper, 2022). Photo: The Back Room

“This is a very personal show for me, there are a lot of family memories - especially of my late dad. There is also the Machang I left behind, I was so eager to get out of that place ... to make sure I was far away from Kelantan. But home, as they say, draws you back in a strange way, and works such as the Cinta Buta series, Muko Bukit and Potret-Diri; Mengejar Mimpi, Menunggu Mati are the most personal pieces that I have done,” says Syahnan, who is a self-taught artist.

Muko Bukit is my first painting. It’s also the first time I have used a canvas,” he reveals.

Even with this current exhibition, Syahnan feels that he still might be viewed as an “outsider” in the art scene. But he plans to concentrate on making more art after this show, which ends its run today at the Back Room gallery.

“I have no issues with people calling me that ‘silkscreen guy’, that’s how I pay the bills and how I can make art. I’m glad that there are galleries out there which are willing to give my work a chance, especially a tight-knit community gallery such as the Back Room,” he says.

A work from Syahnan titled 'Pah Ceroh!' (2021), a silkscreen on map of Japanese invasion of Malaya via Kota Bharu on Dec 8, 1941 (1958). Photo: The Back RoomA work from Syahnan titled 'Pah Ceroh!' (2021), a silkscreen on map of Japanese invasion of Malaya via Kota Bharu on Dec 8, 1941 (1958). Photo: The Back Room

Since he started exhibiting at group shows in 2015, Syahnan has worked primarily in the medium of silkscreen across different surfaces. However, he has enjoyed moving into painting, and Muko Bukit, which has the main wall at the Portret Diri exhibition, offers a loving tribute to his parents.

“My father died in 2014. He was a math teacher and in many ways, we were two very different people, on different wavelengths. Or so I thought. I used to think that he was distant when I was growing up. We also held different opinions on just about everything but upon reflection, he must have seen how frustrated I was with life in Machang. He supported my early forays into art ... well, the days of making punk fanzines, printing material and learning to draw,” says Syahnan.

For the Cinta Buta series, he recalls that the photos were shot in his home in Kelantan, right after his mum was done with her prayers. He had a rough idea of a “mannequin shot” for this portrait series, which somehow also captured how far a mother would go to indulge a child.

“She knew that I did not have the easiest of times when I moved to Kuala Lumpur. I dropped out of a helicopter engineering course and went on to start a silkscreen business instead. That’s enough to worry any parent.

"But she never said much, she had faith in me even when I wasn’t so sure. I made the Cinta Buta works as a tribute to a mother’s undying love ... despite how ridiculous the child has turned out to be,” he concludes with a chuckle.

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