“THE Monet garden!” my whispered squeal of delight at the scene before me doesn’t escape the fatherly-looking gentleman, clad in a casual white shirt over a pair of baggy upturned jeans, walking mere paces ahead of me.
Swivelling sharply, he follows my gaze towards an exquisite manmade pond with a smattering of blooming pink lotuses and white water lilies floating serenely in the placid water. Just in front of the pond is not a Japanese bridge but a single wooden bench, complementing perfectly the picturesque idyll.
“You know Monet’s garden in Giverny?” asks the man with the tousled hair before beaming delightedly upon seeing the enthusiastic bob of my head. It’s obvious that this charming feature that greets visitors the moment they walk through the gates of veteran Impressionist artist, Razak Abdullah’s impressive home, Khaya Rendang, in Sg Buloh, Selangor has been inspired by the famous water garden of famous French Impressionist artist, Claude Monet.
Monet, who’d always been fascinated by the play of light and reflections of cloud on water, had created a pond, complete with a Japanese bridge painted in green, and imbued it with an Oriental feel by his choice of plants such as bamboo, Japanese peonies, maple trees, white lilies and framing the whole “masterpiece” with weeping willows. Razak’s ode to Monet, as I soon discover, is a significant feature of the landscaping on this one acre land.
“I just love Monet!” exclaims the vivacious 70-something artist, as he ushers me happily into the inner sanctum of his sanctuary. We walk in companionable silence, weaving our way down a winding path shaded by a canopy of trees.
It’s the perfect day for this tour of an artist’s haven. With the sky a beautiful canvas of azure, and birds flitting merrily from one branch to another, there’s a sense of joie de vivre in the air. And this sense of jaunty abandon is perfectly characterised by my host, who has kindly taken time out from his preparations for his upcoming solo exhibition, Bbollog, to talk about, among other things, his latest body of work
Adding enthusiastically as we stop for a breather in front of a picturesque pond framed by flowering shrubs, Razak continues: “Monet was a brave artist and was always experimenting with unconventional colours. He had a garden with lots of flowers and he painted through the different seasons. His colours would change. I’d always wanted to go and see his garden in Giverny. And I did. That was like a dream come true. And yes, my garden is inspired by his.”
When he first acquired the land, it was a literal mess, shares the Terengganu-born Razak. “Hutan (jungle)!” he recalls. There was only a small stream and he had it dug up. And not long after, he proceeded to clear the land and began bringing in plants to complete his living canvas.
Chuckling, the father-of-five adds: “When I decided to purchase the land, I didn’t even know what I’d end up with. My wife was horrified. I told her, never mind, I want to make a studio and an art gallery there. It has always been my dream to have an art gallery attached to my home.”
Khaya Rendang, a sprawling artist sanctuary set amidst a beautiful garden landscape, dotted in parts by a number of “near extinct” and lesser known local plants and trees, which Razak had acquired from the Terengganu Museum, is a veritable living sculpture that has been thoughtfully constructed to accentuate its surrounding environment. It has been home for Razak and his family for the last nine years.
“I designed the house. There are seven rooms and nine bathrooms altogether. My concept was for it to be a living sculpture,” confides Razak, beaming, before adding conspiratorially: “I’ve never built sculptures before but I’m an artist so I wanted to create something different, hence the raw finish and the interesting design. You know, Henry Moore’s sculptures are a lot like that!” Henry Moore was an English artist best known for his semi-abstract monumental bronze sculptures, which can be found around the world as public works of art.
As we emerge on the other side of the garden, just steps away from an inviting-looking veranda, Razak hastens his steps. But in the opposite direction. Eyes dancing, he beckons me to hurry. “Now it’s time for you to see my gallery,” he says, as I find myself being led to a room located towards the back the house, where a partially open door stands between me and Razak’s pride and joy – his impressive works of art.
A riot of colours accost my sight the moment I enter the air-conditioned cocoon housing Razak’s impressive gallery, a contemporary space lined with his current body of work, the Bbollog series, which contains predominantly his abstract musings of recent political developments. The main piece, titled Bbollog (a Terengganu term for chaos), is arresting; a reflection of the political situation in 2017, as seen in the artist’s mind. There are 23 pieces altogether in this series.
Although the presentation of his inner emotions and thoughts – sadness, frustrations, anger, disappointments et al – are abstract in composition, the presence of landscape remains evident in spaces and the use of colours.
Scanning the rest of the space, I notice another door to the left of the gallery. “Come, come,” invites Razak as he swings open the door and ushers me into the heart of the gallery – a more modest, dimly lit space where the artist spends his time unleashing his unbridled creativity for hours on end.
I spy a piece of unfinished canvas attached to a wooden easel on one side, and tubes of paint, lined on a table in haphazard rows. Along the walls are a diverse mix of framed paintings; some are exquisitely colourful depictions of familiar landmarks and nature; others are vibrant abstracts, and the rest, slightly more muted renderings, which look like they may have been created during the early part of the artist’s journey.
In a nondescript corner of the room hangs a framed painting of what appears to be a wooden boat. Its detailed lines and sheer sombreness, amidst the splashes of colours here, catch my attention. “Ini dari tahun bila (This is from what year)?” I ask Razak, motioning him to where I’m standing.
He approaches and gingerly proceeds to lift the frame from its hook for a closer look. “Oh, this one is a picture of a government trawler in Pulau Kambing, Kuala Terengganu. It was my first piece, painted in 1969 using oil paint on a canvas board.”
As the artist fiddles with the string to return the frame back on the wall, I make a beeline for a strikingly vibrant painting of an underwater scene, which I duly learn, is one of the pieces from Razak’s recent Portrait of Bidong series, where the artist focused on bringing the symphonies of light and colour under the sea to his canvas.
“That’s from the Bidong series. Over there tu – that’s all from my new series,” Razak’s soft murmur interrupts my scrutiny. “You’re focusing more on abstracts now?” I ask, in response, tearing my eyes away from the eye-catching piece to look at where he’s pointing.
As my eyes travel to the pieces nearer to the main gallery, I note that the canvas is a world away from his more discernible visual reality. Shapes, colours, forms and gestural marks are now presented to be deciphered.
“My eyesight is failing,” confides the artist. “I only have 50 per cent vision now. One side is almost finished. That’s why you’ll see that most of my work now is purely abstracts. The colours too have become more striking.”
The change in artistic style – from Impressionism (realistic portrayals are abandoned in preference for fleeting impressions of the subject, often found outside) to Expressionism (presenting the world solely from a subjective perspective, distorting it radically for emotional effect in order to evoke moods or ideas) which started in 2017 – hasn’t been an easy transition but as Razak, who has done six series so far, puts it, “…a failing eyesight will not stop me from continuing my career and putting forth what I see in my mind’s eye.”
Asked what the main challenges are in Expressionist art, Razak, whose favourite time of day to paint is after dawn breaks, replies: “It’s difficult because you don’t have a subject matter or object to refer to. It’s basically a case of just absorbing and throwing out what you think or feel. These days, I’m inspired by things that I’m dissatisfied about or are ecstatically happy about. Definitely makes things less boring and predictable!”
Razak, who has four siblings, grew up in the rural idyll of Kuala Terengganu. His interest in art started from his school days. Proudly, he recalls: “My secondary school was the only school in the East Coast built by funds from the Colombo Plan (a regional organisation that represents a collective intergovernmental effort to strengthen economic and social development of member countries in the Asia-Pacific region). And when the school was built, they included all the features commonly found in schools in England, like an art and pottery room.”
Eyes shining, Razak shares that he won awards in two art competitions when he was in Form 4/5. “One was the Minggu Keselamatan Jalan Raya award (Road Safety Week), where I got third place. And the other one was for a 10 Year Merdeka Campaign in 1967. I remember the prize money was pretty big for the time; big enough to buy a scooter!”
Despite his accomplishments, he remembers that his parents, especially his father, a government servant, were hardly enamoured by his newfound passion. Chuckling, Razak recounts: “One time, my father saw me folding my clothes in my room. I saw him looking so I asked him to buy me a white bed sheet. He asked me where I was going. I told him I wanted to enter Mara. He asked me what the hell for! So I told him I wanted to learn how to draw. He replied: “Orang nak jadi DO, dia sibuk nak melukis! (Everyone wants to be a district officer, you want to draw!) All your brothers want to be DO and you want to be a lowly artist?””
But Razak got his way and was accepted into the-then Institute Teknologi Mara (or ITM in Shah Alam during the early 1970s) where he went on to become one of its top students at the pre-diploma level. “Then I was asked to choose – whether to do fine art, graphics, or fashion and textile,” he recalls. Razak was keen to pursue fine art under one Redza Piyadasa, who was then a teacher at the School of Art and Design.
When he confided of his plans to Piyadasa (renowned artist, art critic and art historian), the latter advised him against it. Wryly, Razak shares: “Redza said to me: “Jangan jadi bodoh. Kamu orang kampung, miskin (Don’t be stupid. You’re just from the kampung, poor). No need to do fine art. Go and pursue graphics first. Nanti nak jual lukisan tak laku… susah kamu (You’ll be struggling if later you can’t sell your art).” He said that only when I’ve established myself as a designer and could make some money, then I could entertain the idea of pursuing fine art. And that’s how I went on to do graphics instead.”
Razak kicked off his professional career as a graphic artist, establishing his own graphic art firm during the 1980s, before becoming a successful businessman “…wheeling and dealing in all kinds of things,” admits Razak, wryly, before adding that he was so rich then that he could afford to be behind the wheel of a Porsche Carrera 911.
But, adds the artist, despite the heady heights, his soul was troubled. Whenever he went overseas on business, he’d make it a point to visit the many art galleries and museums. “Certainly, I was missing art. I wanted to return to drawing.”
And he did – at the age of 58. But by then, life dealt him a different card. A harsh one. “By that time, I’d lost almost everything. I thought God must be punishing me for all the “bad” things I was doing before. I found myself unemployed and having to borrow money from my cousin to get by,” recalls Razak solemnly.
He spent eight long years in “art wilderness”, unable to sell a single piece of his work. But throughout the turbulent time, his wife, Bahiyah Abdul Aziz was unwavering in her belief of her husband’s ability and continued to support the family – and Razak – on her modest teacher’s salary.
The clouds eventually lifted, sometime in early 2000, when Razak’s cousin, in his attempts to help, decided to fund a gallery space for the former to sell his work at City Square, KL. Smiling, the artist recalls: “On my first day there, an architecture lecturer bought my painting of a Terengganu scene. He paid RM5000 for it – it was the first piece of art that I sold. You can imagine how my spirit soared.”
From that day on, Razak had a newfound sense of motivation. “I took the steps to call a friend, Datuk Bahari and told him I wanted to hold an exhibition. I even asked him to call Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin to officiate the opening. And guess what? Muhyiddin did come! That day, seven of my pieces were sold and I went home with RM47,000.”
And suffice to say, there’s been no turning back since. His gaze resting on his treasured space, Razak concludes: “This gallery here… I want it to be my legacy. It’ll be a place for the public to come and appreciate art. None of my children have inherited my passion. But I want to ignite that passion in the new generation of Malaysians...”
For more, go to www.razakabdullah.com