How a Malaysian art collection has inspired a heartwarming book series

Nik M. Fahmee's new book of stories and art titled 'Butterflies In My Stomach'. It features celebrated painter Chang Fee Ming’s 'Chagar Hutang Turtle Sanctuary, Redang Island' artwork on its cover. Photo: Mohd Faizal Zahari

Most people, when they look at art, try to interpret the meaning of each piece.

For art collector Nik M. Fahmee, what he sees when he looks at art are stories. For example, a black and white ink drawing of a skinless human figure, right hand held high, reminds him of the times when, as a young boy, he would follow his grandmother to a friend’s house.

“I have a strong memory of sitting and bouncing on her husband’s lap,” writes Nik in his new book Butterflies In My Stomach: Art And Stories.

“He once said to me, ‘Be whatever you want to be, just make sure you are good at two things: speaking up strong and clear, and writing.’”

In the book, it is revealed that his grandmother’s friend’s husband is none other than Malaysia’s founding father, the inimitable Tunku Abdul Rahman Putra Al-Haj, who is also the subject of the story’s featured art, Edroger Rosili’s The Creed.

Nik put together 51 of these stories into his second book Butterflies In My Stomach: Art And Stories, published by Blue Monkey Press. Last year, he published his first book, Ginger Biscuits: Art And Stories, featuring stories he had written during the pandemic lockdown.

Art collector-writer Nik (left) having a chat with Datuk Lat at the book launch at Cult Gallery in Kuala Lumpur in June. Photo: Saiful ChinArt collector-writer Nik (left) having a chat with Datuk Lat at the book launch at Cult Gallery in Kuala Lumpur in June. Photo: Saiful Chin

“To date, I have written more than 500 stories, and last year when I turned 50, I selected 50 stories and published them in my first book," says Nik in a recent interview.

“In Butterflies in My Stomach, there are 51 stories – for obvious reasons. This second book shares the same concept of art and stories. But this time, there are more stories about the artists themselves, as I wanted to profile some younger artists in this book,” he adds.

Nik reveals that he doesn’t have an exact process for choosing which artwork or stories to share.

“I normally pick the art first then write the story, because my art collection is personal and most paintings and sculptures that I buy resonate with me for a reason. Sometimes it’s the stories that come to mind first, and then an artwork appears to be well connected to the story,” he says.

The book has an interesting array of Malaysian artists, including works from the legendary Latiff Mohidin and the late Khalil Ibrahim right to the art scene notables such as Jalaini Abu Hasan, Ahmad Fuad Osman, Samsudin Wahab, Chang Fee Ming, Chang Yoong Chia, Wong Hoy Cheong and Juhari Said.

The selections also have a wide-ranging - and offbeat - spin with Fadilah Karim, Nadirah Zakariya, Hasanul Isyraf Idris, Ajim Juxta, Tomi Heri, Donald Abraham, and Edroger Rosili on board.

Preserving the stories

Nik wrote the books as a way to document his art collection and life stories for his children, as well as to make art more palatable and relatable to those unfamiliar with art through the short stories.

“I want to share the passion I have for art in my stories and provide another dimension and narrative to art, which is easy and approachable, with humour in between. “As for the personal stories – those are for my children to know me. When they are grown up and I am no longer in this world, these stories and books will be for them to remember these moments in time,” he says.

A reader looks through the book of stories and art. Photo: Saiful ChinA reader looks through the book of stories and art. Photo: Saiful Chin

Fittingly, for this Malaysia Day, Nik is rolling out a special storytelling event for Butterflies In My Stomach at the Riwayat bookstore in downtown Kuala Lumpur.

Apart from Nik, the reading and sharing session (register here) on Sept 16 (from 1.30pm-3pm) will feature legendary actress and arts practitioner Fatimah Abu Bakar, socio-political activist and writer Marina Mahathir and contemporary artist Chang Yoong Chia.

“I want to create a bridge that would allow other collectors to also share their art and stories,” he shares.

A better appreciation of art

Butterflies In My Stomach gets its name from one of the stories in the book about a group of special needs students from a semi-rural school that took part in a competition to win funding for a project.

One of the students, Shamir, told Nik before it was his team’s turn to pitch their project that he was so nervous, the butterflies in his stomach were too big. The statement caused them both to laugh. It is Nik’s favourite story from the collection, though he admits that it is tough to choose just one.

In the book, Kow Leong Kiang's 'I Like ABC' (2016) artwork is the inspiration for Nik's  story about winning an auction bid and remembering an old friend. Photo: HandoutIn the book, Kow Leong Kiang's 'I Like ABC' (2016) artwork is the inspiration for Nik's story about winning an auction bid and remembering an old friend. Photo: Handout

The story is paired with Chang Fee Ming’s Chagar Hutang Turtle Sanctuary, Redang Island, an ink drawing of butterflies fluttering around a lone branch. It also serves as the book’s cover.The response to this second book has been good so far, says Nik.

“I especially value getting responses from total strangers telling me how they love a certain story, or letting me know that they can now appreciate the art better.”

Celebrated cartoonist Datuk Mohd Nor Khalid, better known as Lat, loved Nik's first book so much that he agreed to do the foreword for Butterflies In My Stomach.

When it comes to the exact number of artworks he has in his collection, though, Nik insists on keeping mum.

“I don’t know. And even if I do, I won’t say. It would get me in more trouble than I already am with my wife,” he says sheepishly. We do, however, know that he is planning a third book in a similar vein to the first two.

Butterflies In My Stomach is available at Kinokuniya KLCC, Riwayat bookstore, TokoSue Wisma Central, Ilham Gallery Gift Shop and Cake Jalan Tiung Shah Alam.

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