The majestic peak in all its familiarity looms up ahead of me. Mount Kinabalu — mythical, majestic and mysterious. Shrouds of mist trail around her, while the granite rock composites that make up her peak glint under the blue skied canopy. It’s almost as if I’m actually there.
It’s breathtaking how certain art pieces have the ability to illustrate the human experience -— the wonder of it, the bewilderment of it, the whimsy of it, and so much more. Right now I’m standing transfixed in front of Yeo Suh Chan’s Mount Kinabalu, a stunning oil-on-canvas masterpiece that dominates the wall at the far end of the Petronas Art Gallery. “It is beautiful, isn’t it?” remarks Ratna Siti Akbari, curator of the Petronas Art Collection. She goes on to tell me that the hearing-impaired Sarawakian artist is renowned for her landscapes, flora and fauna.
There’s no dearth of talent in this country, I observe as we walk through the gallery located at the iconic Kuala Lumpur City Centre (KLCC). The gallery’s current exhibition entitled Visual Dialects: Cultural Ties That Bind, features rarely seen paintings and photographs from the extensive Petronas Art Collection. “We had a trying time trying to pick out pieces that best represented the essence of the theme,” she admits.
At a time when discussions of walls and fences dominate the global political discourse, and a wave of nationalism seems ascendant worldwide, the gallery — she shares -— wanted to show how culture can help surmount barriers and foster connections. “Artists can illuminate truth, offer transcendent experience in a far too literal world, challenge us to feel, and connect us to our common humanity. That’s the message we wanted to get across.”
Celebrated Malaysian contemporary artist Ahmad Zakii Anwar’s Kerbau features just that — a magnificent depiction of a commonly seen beast which is a familiar feature of an atypical Malaysian rural landscape. The slate-hued silhouette with its proud curved horns is a show-stopper. His imagery is strong, arresting and unpretentious, exuding a quiet strength. “Zakii is one out of three Malaysian artists who has enjoyed an avid following outside of Malaysia. The others are abstract painter and poet Latiff Mohidin and watercolourist Chang Fee Ming,” shares Ratna.
Though Malaysian art existed in many forms and styles and with fairly little influence from the outside world, art has never been without meaning in this nation. The artistic impressions explore and compare various topics affecting Malaysia like nature, culture, heritage, industrialisation, architecture and many more.
Chang Fee Ming’s exquisite Friday brings to mind the east coast fishing boats that are lined up by the beach. Terengganu-born Chang, one of Asia’s foremost watercolourists, offers a richly detailed and vibrantly coloured painting in idyllic rural scenes, which has already sealed his reputation as a sensitive observer of culture.
Meanwhile, artist Loo Hooi Nam’s Joyful Moment showcases his distinctive impasto style and a vibrant palette of colours. Impasto is a technique used in painting where paint is laid on an area of the surface in very thick layers, usually thick enough that the brush or painting-knife strokes are visible.
Joyful Moment is arrestingly beautiful, featuring the distinctive red-painted pre-war buildings reminiscent of Malacca’s Dutch past, captured with swift unrestrained palette knife strokes. This showcases his instinctive impulses and feelings for the place he’s painting.
Artist Nurhayati Md Yusoff’s Siri Beca series feature the beca or trishaw drivers that are now slowly but surely dwindling into obscurity. “When I was growing up in Terengganu, I used to visit the Central Market or better known as the Pasar Payang in Terengganu. There used to be a lot of trishaw drivers there,” she recalls, adding: “As an artist, we love observing our surroundings and I was no different. I loved observing people.”
She tells me of her fascination with this band of trishaw pullers. “They’re unfazed by weather; they sit or stand around patiently — sometimes under the blazing sun -— waiting for customers. They don’t chase after them. They just wait,” she says, before adding: “I guess they’re a firm believer of rezeki (luck).”
Her diaphanous-like and dreamy depictions capture the nostalgia of a time long past. “They may be tough people to endure such hardships, but no one can fight the tide of time and technology that has made their profession redundant,” she adds wistfully.
A Malaysian story
Every piece tells a story -— of Malaysia past and present, known and unknown, familiar and obscure. Rural scenery of Malaysian villages, padi fields, fishing boats, ancestral homes, mountains and pastoral scenes you’d come across as you traverse the country, loom everywhere around the gallery.
I’m half in love with cultural activist and artist Normah Nordin’s Mangrove Series, which are photographic prints that display our little-celebrated mangrove ecology in all its beauty. Arresting greens, deep browns and murky water where mangroves thrive adds to the unexpected beauty which exposes the limitations of the normal, banal natural visage many take for granted every day.
The late Ismail Mat Hussin, a Kelantanese batik painter is known to have held on to the original method of batik painting and remained one of the last few batik painters in Kelantan who used this technique. His batik on cotton cloth pieces showcase dazzling versions of traditional Malay life focussing on the arts and crafts rendered in mosaic-like composition.
Sarawakian Raphael Scott Ahbeng is one of Borneo’s most renowned abstract artists and is mostly recognised for his vibrant depictions of the rich rainforest he grew up in. The Sampadi Landscape is Raphael’s piece selected for this exhibition, with its colours seemingly exploding onto his canvas wild and glorious, a reflection of what our natural landscape truly represents. The 79-year-old artist still paints, Ratna tells me. “He’s such a prolific artist. When we visited him at his home studio in Kuching, he had numerous works drying on the floor!” she adds with a laugh.
Sarawakian artist Magdalene Tai pays tribute to her Peranakan ancestry with her Women Series: Nyonya Women and Son. The typical Peranakan interior, nyonya desserts and the woman at the forefront with her distinctive kebaya brings to life the vibrant heritage which is an amalgamation of Malay and Chinese cultures with a dash of the English way of life.
Recognised as an iconic photographer in the black and white medium, Eric Peris’ Ekspres Rakyat Melintas Tasik Bukit Merah, Perak gives you a surreal image of a train rising from the depths of the lake behind it. “This whole scenery has changed,” says the 78-year-old photographer softly. “These tracks have gone.” Sceneries such as this, continues Peris, comes from the fact that he goes out there to search for new ideas.
“I love taking train rides and every time I chance upon a scenery outside the train window that I’d like to capture, I would take down the kilometre from the markers or milestones along the road, get down at the next station and take a taxi there,” he confides. Most of his ideas, he tells me, come from traversing across the nation by train. “There’s so much out there that deserve to be explored. We should get out of the cities to enjoy and explore our natural environment,” he says, adding: “Only then can we understand and appreciate why we need to protect our natural heritage.”
When art and culture collide
A total of 93 pieces from 43 artists feature in this exhibition, and they all come from Petronas’ extensive art collection. “The primary reason we invest in the arts is for the inherent value of culture: life-enhancing, entertaining, defining of our personal and national identities,” explains Ratna.
There’s so much to take in from the exhibition. There’s certainly no dearth of talent from this corner of the universe and the imageries are breathtaking. I only wish that the cultural trope could have expanded to include a more diverse range of artwork featuring other different cultures from the melting pot of races that make up multi-faceted Malaysia. Still, the offerings are beautiful, thought-provoking and certainly warrants a visit from art-enthusiasts and those wanting to see the best of Malaysiana. As Ratna puts it succinctly: “Great art and culture really can be, as they should be, for everyone.”
This exhibition, she continues, shows how art can contribute to the understanding, reconciliation, and reflection to remember past and present history as an investment of a major importance for every Malaysian citizen. Cultural Ties That Bind reminds us of why this country is unique. “It isn’t easy to put together a collection that resonates with an abstract theme like love and harmony,” admits Ratna.
“These artworks are steeped in the messages of unity, love for nature, people, their traditions and cultures,” she explains. “I hope people are provoked emotionally by these pieces. I’m sure that it will leave a place in their hearts -— a hollowness — for it to be further filled.”
I agree with her. After all, art does that to you. It can prompt in us authentic desire, waking us to truths about ourselves and our lives; truths that normally lie suffocated under the pressure of real life. Art can bring us back to consciousness, sometimes quietly, sometimes dramatically, but the responsibility to act on what we find -— is ours.
“It’s about storytelling,” says Ratna: “It helps people develop a narrative of their lives and relate to their own experience in a new way.”
Smiling, she concludes: “That’s the beauty of art. It goes with you forever, kan?”
Visual Dialects: Cultural Ties That Bind
Where: Petronas Art Gallery, 341-43, Suria KLCC Petronas Twin Towers, Persiaran Petronas, Kuala Lumpur City Centre, KL
When: Until July 15, 2018. 10 am to 8pm daily except Mondays.
Call: 03-20517770 for details.