RICE art is more than just pretty colours on the floor. In the right hands, the art of shaping rice can take new life and meaning as artist Ruby Subramaniam shows.
Completing her first commercial kolam at Publika for Deepavali this year, the 27-year-old self-taught artist has created a contemporary version to convey the message of unity. At first glance, it may seem like any other kolam, but a closer look reveals elements unusual to a traditional one.
Ruby putting the final touches on her first commercial kolam in Publika, Kuala Lumpur. — Photos: RAYMOND OOI/The Star
Ruby has incorporated the Malaysian love of food by incorporating Indian laddu, Malay ketupat and kuih lapis as well as Chinese mooncake into the design.
“As Malaysians, we get excited over desserts and it takes people by surprise when they see it in the kolam,” she said.
She has also drawn three Indian women and if you look closely, you will notice brightly coloured eyes, one of Ruby’s signature styles, adding that she also included a self-portrait with her short hair representing the modern day Indian girl.
Ruby said as artists, when they try to do artwork that represents the spirit of muhibbah, it is very literal – Malay, Chinese, Indian – and she tries to break away from that.
“Although it is still quite literal with the laddu, ketupat and mooncake in the kolam, it is not so obvious.”
While it is not Ruby’s first kolam, the artwork is her first in a public setting. She spent more than 30 hours working on the elaborate design.
Ruby's kolam is unique with elements of Malaysian desserts
“I have only drawn kolam at home, so it was quite intimidating to work on a big piece like this. After getting the green light on the initial sketch, I had to figure out the colours and then dye the rice according to the different shades,” she said.
Ruby used more than 25kg of rice and 10 shades of vibrant colours to complete her design.
Despite the complexities of the design, she feels elated when she sees people appreciating her work and is always motivated to improve herself.
“It is really nice working in a public space and to hear feedback from people when they ask about the artwork and its significance.
“Children are also curious. So, I will give them a handful of rice and explain how to do it,” she said.
Not done with taking on one kolam, Ruby will also be creating a smaller kolam in Publika.
“The second piece is more subtle in its message of unity. Although it looks more like a traditional kolam, I have drawn inspiration from Chinese and Malay art styles.
“The piece is centred around the kuthuvilakku (oil lamp) but the peacocks are done in different styles.
A previous artwork from Ruby seamlessly merging traditional methods of lighting in conjunction with the Festival of Lights.
“I have taken elements from Chinese ceramic with its distinctive blue and white colours while the other is in the style of Malay batik.”
The entire process has been a learning experience, said the young artist, as she tried to maintain the traditional kolam design component of using crushed rice to upkeep the art form’s original value.
“As a traditional art form, how do we revive it using the same method that has been used for centuries? How do we bring it alive without repeating the same patterns and format? These questions were some of the things that I had to think about when creating the kolam,” she said. For Ruby, rice is one of the most forgiving mediums to work with.
“For example, with watercolours, once you make a mark, it is difficult to undo it. But with rice, you can continuously shape it. But it is also one of the least forgiving medium because once someone steps on it, it is gone,” she said.
She hoped to push her boundaries by using the same rice medium to bring out other messages.
Artist Ruby Subramaniam with some of her doodle artworks
“I am not loyal to a particular medium. I started doodling with ink, then acrylics, followed by watercolours. But my style is pretty consistent,” she said.
In conjunction with Deepavali, Ruby is also organising Asia’s first Art Battle today at Publika. The event will see 12 artists create artwork in just 20 minutes.
The two kolam will be displayed at the main entrance to Publika until Oct 31.