IN the purest definition, street artists paint on anything except canvas. But that was in the past. Of late, many, including Haitian-American artist Jean Michel Basquait (Dec 22, 1960 - Aug 12, 1988) and New Yorker Rammellzee (1960 - June 27, 2010), once buddies in arms, have broken the code in pursuit of livelihood and fame.
Basquait achieved worldwide fame for his record-breaking artwork titled Dustheads painted in 1982 which bagged a Hammered Price of US$43.5 million at Christie’s NY in 2013. Meanwhile, Rammellzee’s art is on a steady climb at Sotheby’s.
Closer to home, another street artist has also ventured into the mainstream — Sabahan Donald Abraham, who is finally getting his long overdue solo exhibition. Titled Yang Lain Lain (loosely translated as The Others), this exhibition, held until Sept 9 at Suma Orientalis, a hidden gem of a gallery in the residential enclave of Seksyen 11, Petaling Jaya, showcases about 20 of Abraham’s works from 2012 to 2018.
It’s here that I’m greeted by a short-haired young woman clad in a long dark blouse who introduces herself as Sophia Shung. She’s the co-owner of this single-storey gallery, which was established about a year ago. Ushering me in, she calls for Abraham, and soon, an average-built young man donning a stripy, short-sleeved T-shirt, with tattoos on his arm, emerges from behind the blinds.
This exhibition is a showcase of Abraham’s progress in the span of six years, portraying his version of reality combined with graffiti and doodles (the hallmarks of street art), and cartoon-like figures (including robots) in vivid colours.
Since joining the world of mainstream art, Abraham has participated in over 40 exhibitions, all of which have been group exhibitions, including an urban art fair in Paris, France and an art expo in Shanghai, China.
Smiling, Abraham ushers me to a room at the back of the gallery where three of his paintings are displayed on the clean white wall. He points at one acrylic painting titled 3 Scenario and shares: “This one is like our three stages of life — of childhood, adulthood, and old age.”
I notice the colour change in each stage; from vibrant — denoting childhood — to almost monotonous, presumably old age. “It’s the reality of growing up. The world will change you and things get more complicated as we grow older,” he explains.
Moving on to his other paintings, I notice one repetitive element — the words Yak Yak. “Oh, that’s my graffiti tag,” he explains, in answer to my query. “Yak Yak to me is the sound of birds and birds symbolise freedom.” Graffiti tag is like a signature for street artists and its community. So if there’s a Yak Yak in the street art, other street artists will immediately recognise it as Abraham’s.
“Coincidentally, our gallery exterior is in the shape of a bird!” exclaims Shung, delightedly.
True to the exhibition title ‘Yang Lain Lain’, there are no printed labels for each artwork. Instead, every description has been handwritten in pencil on the wall. “We decided not to have a formal setup for Donald’s art. That would be boring. This exhibition is more ‘free-form’. We didn’t hang up the largest painting. Instead, we used three red bricks to lift it up. The bricks came from the street, symbolising Donald’s humble beginnings,” explains Shung, pointing at the 245x204cm mixed media painting titled Untitled (Togetherness) .
“I had to paint that large painting in a different location as my studio in Ara Damansara has limited space,” confides Abraham.
“Do you know that he likes to paint where there’s noise?” chips in Shung.
Really? Confused, I turn to Abraham for an explanation. “Yes, I like to work with noise. I paint with my ears, and I think writers like you write with your eyes?” he poses, smiling broadly.
Slowly, we proceed to another room where there are three more paintings. It’s the large, horizontal painting of robots and ‘aliens’ that succeeds at capturing my interest. I squint at the title: Pompodon.
What’s Pompodon? I turn to the artist.
“It’s Tatana (a community in Sabah) language for ‘cut’,” replies the 37-year-old self-taught artist who is from the Kadazan-Tatana community.
With this particular piece, Abraham first imagined what he wanted to paint before putting the base colours in first. He completed the painting by accentuating the characters with black outlines.
With a smile, Shung elaborates: “You know, he painted this in a small space. Some artists, they need ample space so that they can step back and look at their paintings from afar. But not Donald. He must have an invisible eye to be able to paint like this and somehow, everything blends in so well.”
We turn to the next painting titled Drifting. It’s a picture of a moustached man surrounded by other colourful characters. Interestingly, the man is the only one without colour. On his head is a sort of hat in the shape of a boat.
“It’s like my mind sometime, drifting and sailing like a boat,” explains the soft-spoken artist before adding that he also lived in Beaufort for a while when he was little and it always flooded there. He remembers vividly the time when he had to take the boat to go places.
PASSION IN ART
Abraham’s passion for art started when he was little. He suffered from dyslexia and was only able to read when he was in Standard 4. He spent his childhood reading Gila-Gila magazines and doodling cartoon characters.
Being born in Labuan and raised in a coastal village in Sabah, he soon left for the big city and ended up embracing everything that a city life could offer, including rap music, baggy jeans, skateboarding and spray-can painting. Without realising it, street art grew to become his life and soul, and the code with which he lived by when he decided to pursue art full time.
Can you rap though? I ask, fishing for an impromptu performance.
He chuckles before replying with a nervous “no”. “But I do play guitar and was a singer in a band. The band is still around, but the line-up has changed a lot. Now they’re more into metal and want someone who can ‘huarghhhh’! You know, do the metal scream! I can’t do that,” he quips, chuckling.
He was trained by many yet never went for any formal art education. Before migrating to canvas, Abraham started his art on the streets when he was 18 — around the time when hip-hop was all the rage. By the 90s, street art was considered an act of vandalism so most of his works were wiped out. “That’s OK. Most of them were bad anyway,” he jokingly confesses.
Where it was once considered notoriety and an eyesore, street art today has gained some semblance of popularity and is recognised as being one of the most important artistic movements around the globe this century. From New York to Sao Paulo, and closer to home — Penang — it’s now reclaiming and redefining urban spaces everywhere.
I recall Christine Ngh, the founder of Bumblebee Consultancy (a creative consultancy that promotes art and artist collaboration) telling me that thanks to the proliferation of mass media coverage on street art, public curiosity has been greatly aroused. As a result, graffiti today has become accepted and even a desired art form.
According to Ngh, it’s a misconception that street artists do what they do just as a hobby. “Many street artists are professional and doing street art as a full-time job. Some are doing very well for themselves.” This is something that Shung is in total agreement with. She believes that it’s a good time to feature more of these artists and that we should not pretend that they don’t exist.
As the pair walks me back to the main room, I couldn’t resist asking Abraham for his favourite piece of work. He stops in his track before replying slowly: “I don’t have a favourite. I love them all. My art contorts reality as I express my subjects spontaneously. This world is vast. And my repertoire is to sing along, capturing its beauty, funny moments and hard facts onto my canvas. But I’m no soothsayer. I just love what I’m doing.”