Does wisdom come with age? For Jalaini Abu Hassan, who is better known as Jai, it is an adage worth pondering. He talks of contentment, acceptance and finding inner peace, of retreating to quiet places to soothe the mind and soul.
It is this contemplative mood that he brings to his latest offering in Cerpan-Cerpen: New Works By Jalaini Abu Hassan at Our ArtProjects in Kuala Lumpur.
For this exhibition, made up not only of painted and dyed works but also old family photos and poetry, Jai dug deep to find a part of himself that has always been there but that has not spent much time in the public eye.
Over the many decades he spent establishing himself as a major figure in Malaysia’s art scene, it was obvious that he has a flair for self-portraits, as well as a certain fondness for large-scale paintings that delight in elaborate detailing and layered stories. It might come as a surprise, then, that relative to this, he has exercised restraint in Cerpan-Cerpen.
This is Jai on a more personal level, a stark departure from his flashier works of previous years.
It is more “economical”, the 55-year-old artist says, referring to his choice of material, medium, technique and colour.
Executed with bitumen and fabric dye washes, then layered with a transparent stain to give them an aged feel, these works are a quieter version of much of his previous work. The cropped format suggests archival documentation, the scenes are of the everyday mundane.
This is Jai all grown up, he says. But you can hear the tongue firmly in cheek.
“Many artists are narcissistic, they paint themselves all the time, like I used to do. But those days are over for me. In this entire show, I only make a cameo appearance once,” he says.
Rather amusingly, Jai has cheekily found a way to talk about himself, even if he is talking about himself not being there.
This prolific artist is a graduate of Mara Institute of Technology (now UiTM) and the prestigious Slade School of Fine Art in London, and Pratt Institute in New York. Recent exhibitions include Siang Dan Malam: The Landscape In Mind (2016), Picturing Painting (2015) and Painting Industry (2015).
In Cerpan-Cerpen, Jai deliberately avoids the political happenings in Malaysia that have inspired many an artist in recent months, opting instead for a more intimate examination of personal history.
He weaves a story from familiar sights and sounds: a family gathers for a meal, the preparation of food in a kitchen, a rubber plantation, an open truck piled with crates of durian.
“There has been so much talk about politics in recent months, that it got to a point where I did not want to partake in it any longer. Everyone is shouting about having a new government, about Malaysia Baru, about change and hope ... and I just wanted to run away from it all.
“So after the (May 9) elections, I went to Taiping (Perak) to see my mum and to enjoy her cooking. I go back to my hometown every month, but it is still such a nice feeling to be there each time,” says Jai.
Working from snapshots as a reference point, he describes these new works as scenes from the “mundane everyday”.
But draw closer and you will see that there are a few paintings that wander off from the mundane path Jai charted.
In Alice In No-Wonderland, a giant rabbit leaps into the picture where market workers go about their routine. In Titi Tok Tam Telaga Bunian, Menyorok Malam Mandi-Mandian, elves dart around a well surrounded by overgrown foliage. And in Aphrodisiac, two cats mate in front of a sundry shop.
When this artist talks about the mundane, one can’t help but feel that he really wants to talk about the opposite.
“When you look closely at something that you have taken for granted all this while, you will often come to realise that it is quite extraordinary. You will start noticing details that you have missed, simply because you have stopped looking. The extraordinary does not exist without the ordinary,” he says.
Where Jai keeps it stylistically simpler with the images, he goes all out with the titles he bestows upon them. In one painting, the title runs over four lines and can stand alone as a poem.
“There is another kind of art form I am good at, and that is poetry. I write lots of pantun and syair, I rhyme them beautifully, but I rarely have an opportunity to showcase them. This exhibition combines two of my loves: writing and painting,” he says. (Pantun and syair are Malay verse forms; syair in particular refers to a four-line stanza form.)
He emphasises that the visual works can be appreciated on their own, but if the viewer can read and understand the text component, it will open up another level of appreciation.
Jai might be in a contemplative mood in Cerpan-Cerpen, but who knows how long it will last? Perhaps when there is less chatter in the world around him, he might be moved to create more discernible excitement in his paintings.
But until then, it is mum’s cooking and home sweet home where he rests his head.