What can Malaysian art be? Exhibition lets you enter visionary artist Ismail Zain's mind

Ismail's digital print 'Aku Rela Tenggelam' (1987), a nod to Pop Art legend Roy Lichtenstien's 'Drowning Girl'. This work surrounds itself with questions about gender and the status of women in Malay culture. It is part of his '(Mem) Bayang Maksud - Foreboding Purpose' exhibition at the National Art Gallery in KL. Photo: The Star/Azlina Abdullah

The 1980s are back at the National Art Gallery in Kuala Lumpur. A series of computer generated prints featuring Bruce Springsteen, the cast of TV soap Dallas, Linda Evans, Liza Minnelli, a Lamborghini Countach (a hint of Miami Vice?) and Malay pop star Sahara Yaacob have become conversational topics once again among art enthusiasts as they try to understand the playful yet incisive mind of the late Ismail Zain (1930-1991), who created all these works on his Macintosh computer in the late 1980s.

These pioneering digital prints are part of the larger Ismail Zain (Mem) Bayang Maksud Foreboding Purpose exhibition, the National Art Gallery’s new retrospective on Ismail. It is the first major museum exhibition dedicated to him in over 24 years.

“Considering the distance from Ismail’s first retrospective, this current show feels like a necessary revisionist history lesson, an attempt to underline Ismail’s immense legacy for a new generation,” says Jaafar Ismail, the show’s curator, who is also the founder of Fergana Art.

“When it comes to Malaysian art history, in particular, a lot has been said, and written, about Ismail being a digital artist, or the ‘Father of New Media’. However, Ismail Zain was much more than that. This exhibition, featuring 77 works, is designed as an easy introduction for newcomers, or an opportunity for art lovers to revisit his catalogue, including rarely-seen drawings, sketches and collages from the 1960s,” he adds.

The exhibition, which has taken over 10 years to come together, is also launching a book (Intermediations : Selected Writings On Art And Aesthetics) collectingIsmail’s essays on culture next month.

A dot matrix digital print titled Bruce Springsteen (1988) by Ismail, who found plenty of inspiration in the American rock icon's blue collar hymnbook that everyone can learn from. Photo: The Star/Azlina Abdullah

Ismail, who combined the roles of artistic visionary and cultural analyst/bureaucrat, is regarded as one of the nation’s most critical minds in the field of arts and culture. His untimely death aged 61 in August 1991 left behind a gaping hole in cultural concerns as diverse as art, literature, theatre, film and music.

Ismail’s first retrospective, curated by Redza Piyadasa, was held in 1995 at the National Art Gallery, four years after his death.

Outside arts and culture circles it isn’t unreasonable to say that not a lot of Malaysians know who Ismail is – which is equal parts unfortunate and confusing, because it’s hard to overstate his legacy as a trailblazing artist of his generation and beyond.

The (Mem) Bayang Maksud - Foreboding Purpose exhibition also features archival material curated by Malaysian Art Archive & Research Support and borrowed from Ismail's private collection. Photo: The Star/Azlina Abdullah

Starting out as a British art school-trained teacher, the Alor Setar-born Ismail taught at several secondary schools in Malaysia in the 1950s and 1960s before holding down key positions like National Art Gallery of Malaysia director (1972-75), director of culture in the Youth, Culture and Sports Ministry (1975-1982) and director-general of the National Film Development Corporation, Finas (1982-85).

Jaafar mentions that under Ismail’s watch at the National Art Gallery (known as Balai Seni Lukis Negara back then), Malaysians enjoyed an exhibition of Latif Mohidin’s Pago Pago series in 1973, while Redza and Sulaiman Esa’s joint Towards A Mystical Reality (1974), a seminal conceptual art exhibit, at the Dewan Bahasa Dan Pustaka gallery received his strong backing.

“Ismail also championed the Anak Alam collective. He was a true enabler and also supported the early days of Malaysian theatre.”

Ismail, as a painter, knew how to put deconstructionist beauty front and centre, most notably in 1968’s Woman Bathing In A Stream After Rembrant (oil work). Photo: The Star/Azlina Abdullah

As a progressive, modern and, sometimes, conflicted Malay intellectual and thinker, Ismail’s historical importance is increasingly finding a more secure place in the nation’s cultural formation studies.

“Conceptually, his art is firmly grounded in Malay culture, especially with the language, metaphors and imagery. In his works, he also addressed the rural and urban Malay divide, the growing Malay corporate class in the 1980s right to issues on community, faith, loyalty and not to forget, confusion,” says Jaafar.

The (Mem) Bayang Maksud Foreboding Purpose exhibition, with its use of Malay pantuns and proverbs in the curatorial thread, thrives on simple gestures that have a strong significance in our social life, culture, and psyche.

A close-up of Ismail's Al Kesah (dot matrix digital print on paper, 1988), detailing how mainstream Western culture was making significant inroads in shaping the modern Malay mindset in the 1980s. Photo: Filepic

“Ismail believed that the strength of culture, as a whole, was the last bastion against any forms of extremism,” says Jaafar.

Though this exhibition is ostensibly a tribute by the art fraternity, the main audience is the general public. But where to start?

“The wonderful thing about Ismail’s art are the multi-layered entry points and clues that are useful to access meanings beyond the foreshadows,” says Jaafar.

Walking through the exhibition, it’s astonishing how Ismail’s drawings still deftly capture a timeless Malay mindset and experience, one that is far from insular.

From paintings to digital prints, works such as the interracial discourse on The Marriage Of Sultan Mansor Shah (1990) and inner tumult of The Detribalization Of Tom Binti Che Lat I (1983) right to the spiritual-minded Morning Glory (1985) and identity-wrestling Malaysian Gothic (1988) provide diverse highlights of Ismail’s craft. Perhaps, each one is part of his personal mission to insert a Malay narrative into the Westernised medium of art.

Ismail's The Detribalization Of Tom Binti Che Lat I (acrylic on canvas, 1983), a work touching on the rural-urban divide and a community's impending loss of identity and culture. Photo: The Star/Azlina Abdullah

As a painter, a confident Ismail also knew how to put deconstructionist beauty front and centre, most notably in 1968’s Woman Bathing In A Stream After Rembrant (oil work), while his underexplored etchings and collage on paper works from the 1960s deserve further attention.

The big focus of this exhibition, however, has to be a nearly complete recreation of Ismail’s Digital Collage show, with the artist, in his 50s back then, focusing on pop culture and the mass media of the day, including TV, cinema, pop music, advertising and rampant consumerism.

“Was he ahead of his time? Was society not ready for him? No. He was rather the pragmatist, who was keenly aware of the medium. Ready to embrace the opportunities that technology opened up. He was an exponent of the present. Confident enough to take risks, regardless of how ‘mechanical’ his elitist friends considered his art to be,” writes Dr Shahidul Alam, award-winning Bangladeshi photographer and activist, in the catalogue.

Ismail's (Mem) Bayang Maksud - Foreboding Purpose exhibition features 77 works spanning his artistic career. Photo: The Star/Azlina Abdullah

With this digital print throwback, viewers can enjoy Ismail’s wit and his cultural reference points – pinging from East to West – with the likes of the ikan baung (a catfish) being a constant metaphoric device while golden age Japanese cinema, traditional Malay architecture, Marilyn Monroe and Edvard Munch’s The Scream are recurring motifs throughout.

Interestingly, Ismail’s opinion-dividing creative pursuit with computers – seen with today’s eyes – remains rather hip and significant.

This Digital Collage series, if you pay attention to the exhibit’s QR codes, also cuts a deeply layered exploration of collective and personal memory, myth and reality, and the freedoms and limits of technology.

Above all, Ismail knew no limits in being cheeky and cute. He had a way with humour. A sci-fi work called Birds Strike Back And MAS Loses $2 Mil – from more than 30 years ago – left a broad smile on former finance minister Tun Daim Zainuddin’s face when he launched this exhibition last month.

Talk about punchlines that have stood the test of time.

Ismail Zain (Mem) Bayang Maksud Foreboding Purpose is showing at the National Art Gallery, Jalan Temerloh, off Jalan Tun Razak in Kuala Lumpur till Nov 17. Free admission. Opening hours: 10am-6pm. Dr Ruzaiki Omar Basaree will conduct a curatorial tour on Oct 26 at 11.30am. Visit: artgallery.gov.my. Facebook: Fergana Art.

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