Augmented reality brings Sulaiman Esa’s early Johor Baru paintings to life

One of Sulaiman Esa's early paintings of Johor Baru titled 'JB Town' (1957), featuring a landscape of government buildings. It is part of the 'Visions Of Reality' immersive exhibition in Johor Baru. Photo: Sulaiman Esa

As virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) technology continues to advance, opening up worlds beyond our imagination, it’s no surprise that it has been used by homegrown artists to enhance their work.

For multimedia artist and academic Suzy Sulaiman, the curator of the Visions Of Reality exhibition in Johor Baru, the use of VR and AR technology has given new life to a series of early paintings by her father Sulaiman Esa, 82, a renowned senior artist and scholar who was born in Johor Baru.

Sulaiman, a practitioner of Islamic modernism in contemporary Malaysian art, has produced a formidable body of work integrating Islamic geometry with Malay craft traditions.

During the pandemic, he found hundreds of paintings and drawings he made from the 1950s and 1960s while clearing his studio and storeroom in Shah Alam.

“What can you do with these, Suzy? Nak buang, sayang; nak simpan don’t know for what,” said Sulaiman to his daughter about what could be done with the stash of forgotten drawings.

In May 2021, Suzy began looking into some of these works when she curated Home Love: Still Life By Sulaiman Esa, an Instagram showcase of never-before-published sketches by her father.

This year, Suzy has gone further with an ambitious digital art exhibition titled Visions Of Reality: Sulaiman Esa’s Immersive Art Show, which is currently running at Ruang, Thinkcity JB, 27, Jalan Dhoby, Johor Baru until Oct 7.

The project not only breaks down the traditional boundaries between art and its audience, allowing viewers to actively engage with the paintings through immersive VR and spatial AR experiences, but it also reminds them of Johor Baru's heritage built environment, which has been rapidly transformed by modernisation.

Four Impressionist-style paintings were presented at the recent Hab Hab Hooray Fest in Johor Baru, including View From Ayer Molek I (1961), JB Town (1957), JB Wet Markets (1961), and Stulang Laut Village (1961).

These artworks have been reimagined through VR and AR technologies, offering a glimpse into the past. Besides that, the exhibition – at Ruang, Thinkcity JB – also includes three immersive artworks: CanVerse, Luminos Reverie, and Belaian Sangkala (the wave of time).

Using VR, CanVerse offers users the ability to engage with the paintings by means of certain quests that they have to complete; where Sulaiman’s landscapes become a world on their own. Luminous Revie then explores methods to present Sulaiman’s drawings in a way that is similar to flipping an artist’s sketchbook.

Through his drawings, audiences will notice the artist’s tenacity and obsession to improve his skills, capturing this tactility associated with hand drawings and the sensation of paper at one’s fingertips.

Having this in small scale and close to the body gives the augmented reality a more personal touch.

Contrasting this is Belaian Sengkala, which uses the JB Town painting as a starting point.

Through this work, Suzy attempts to locate a similar view of Johor Baru in 2023. It assumes a window, or a portal where audiences use their hands to peek beneath the painting to see how Johor looks like today.

Together with the four paintings from earlier, the exhibition connects fragmented memories, and gives a better understanding of the artist's creative process and environment.

Growing up in the Sulaiman household, Suzy became accustomed to stories of her father’s early life struggles, most of which are relatable to those we face in our modern lives.

“Looking at the body of work he created during his high school years was not only an obsession in my eyes, but also a form of escapism from his challenging childhood.” she said.

For the young Sulaiman Esa, landscape was an obvious subject choice because it was abundant and it did not require for one to have advanced drawing skills, especially if one were to compare with doing figure drawings where the artist would need a model and a studio.

The places shown in the four paintings in this exhibition were also within a 3km radius from his house because Sulaiman had to be able to cycle there. Due to its proximity to Singapore, Johor Baru was a bustling and affluent town compared to the rest of Malaya.

“From the exhibition, I believe landscape would be an appropriate entry point, especially those new to art appreciation. We are familiar with landscape because we are surrounded by it and it's a common subject matter in paintings,” said Suzy.

”Like a time capsule, they offer us a poignant glimpse into a world that no longer exists, shedding light on urban pockets," she added.

These old paintings from Sulaiman, now in their "immersive" capacity, are welcome additions in preserving a collective memory of a city.

This Visions Of Reality project is driven by DAM Interactive, in collaboration with Faculty of Creative Multimedia, Multimedia University, Cyberjaya. As one of the initiatives under the Downtown Johor Baru Grants Programme Heritage and Culture, a collaboration between Iskandar Regional Development Authority (IRDA) and Think City, supported by Majlis Bandaraya Johor Baru (MBJB).

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