Seeing Beyond

A new exhibition in Kuala Lumpur opens, featuring seven emerging Malaysian artists offering fresh perspectives.

By | March 30, 2021

Tucked away in the quiet enclave of Bukit Tunku, Kuala Lumpur, the bungalow compound that houses Cult Gallery is ostensibly more down-to-earth than its neighbours—you might miss it if you’re not looking out for the gold “10A” number plate by the driveway. A thicket of trees on the edge of the compound offers cooling shade and a sense of privacy. A two-storey pool house at the back makes up the gallery space, where, on a balmy afternoon a few days before the opening of its first show of the year, Cult is a busy den of fluttering feminine energy.

It’s artwork delivery day, and there are artists, delivery boys, and assistants darting in and out with cling-wrapped paintings and sculptures. Full-length windows on the first floor allow for natural sunlight and a view of the pool surrounded by natural greenery. Sliding doors opens up onto a narrow patio which, in pre-pandemic days, would be the default mingling space for the gallery’s well-attended openings. Cult is most prominently known for its annual SISArt fundraiser exhibitions in collaboration with Malaysian women’s rights NGO, Sisters In Islam, a local art-scene event that draws crowds every year. On this day, however, the sliding doors are shut to keep out a nosy tabby cat named Milo, who somehow manages to sneak back in anyway when nobody’s looking. In the midst of it all, some time is found for a brief conversation with Suryani Senja Alias, the founder and director of Cult Gallery, along with Ain Rahman, Hana Zamri, and Haz Yusup, three of the seven artists featured in the show they’re all preparing for: 7 Ways of Seeing.

The current exhibition takes its cue from Ways of Seeing, a seminal collection of essays on art by the English art critic John Berger, and serves as an exercise for these seven emerging artists to produce a focused body of work. “We selected these artists because their practices are quite different from each other, and they each have a strong artistic identity,” explains Suryani. “Even if they evolve to do something else, whether using different forms or subject matters, their practice is already pretty distinctive and strong.” The exhibition aims to prepare them for the real work of producing their first solo exhibition, which Suryani believes all of them will soon be deserving of. “Like a mini-marathon before the big marathon.”

Home, 2021, Faiz Mahdon

Here, each artist will be given a dedicated nook or wall space, where each space can be viewed as a complete mini solo exhibition in itself. The split-level bungalow’s various arches, beams, corners, and recesses offer the curators and artists more room for play, making the final presentation more unique than a white cube display. Through “unconventional ways of hanging and displaying,” the curation hopes to open up “a new way of seeing art in relation to the space it occupies […] rejecting the notion that gallery spaces exist in a vacuum that is unaffected by the physical elements that surround them.”

All of the artists have developed distinct “ways of seeing” through their respective journeys of self-understanding and -improvement, especially with regard to the question of identity.

In my conversations with Ain, Hana, and Haz, their artistic maturity is reflected in their confident and articulate personalities.

A Drawing Sketched in Sullen Steps 1, 2021, Ain Rahman

Besides being fellow UiTM Fine Art graduates, Ain Rahman, Faiz “Fafa” Mahdon, and Hana Zamri have another shared commonality in the sense of conflicted identity that can be found in their works. Kelantan-born Ain’s charcoal drawings are dark, gooey abstractions that contrast starkly with her pleasant and petite person. Only after lengthy contemplation would the viewer realise that the drawings actually depict close-ups of the artist’s eyes with thick pools of black for her iris and eyelashes, glitter littering the folds. “I am constantly discovering and exploring myself through my self-portrait,” explains Ain, whose multi-disciplinary processes require much time spent with herself. “My subject is myself. I like to experiment with myself, and with glitter! I’m so curious what possibilities I can achieve from that.”

“Ain’s charcoal eyes train our eyes in turn. We learn a new way of seeing through contemplating this drawing of her eyes,” adds Suryani.

Trrain (detail), 2021, Hana Zamri

Where Ain goes deep into herself—to the point of eliminating the self, from being so zoomed-in that it is no longer possible to distinguish the self—the works of Faiz “Fafa” Mahdon and Hana Zamri take a bird’s eye view. Both Fafa and Hana’s paintings exteriorise the interior, with abstract landscapes being used to represent their inner topographies. Fafa presents five dreamy, desolate landscapes at various stages of nightfall; they look naturalistic except for the placement of objects where they don’t belong. The landscapes are bereft of humans, and the overall impression is one of abandonment and unfamiliarity, which reflects the artist’s own sense of alienation within states of depression and gender dysphoria.

Hana’s search, meanwhile, is driven by her childhood nomadism across Europe, Africa, the Middle East, and Asia due to her parents’ work. Questions of identity manifest in her work as confusion as to the true location of home and the true language of her mother tongue.

In Trrain, a five-metres-long canvas scroll, she presents a colourful sprawling terrain spanning “the mountains in Canada, the Mediterranean Sea in Southern Europe, and the sand dunes in Oman…” It’s a vast but lonely expanse, and the only signs of human life are some wandering figures that can only be seen upon closer inspection: all of them little Hana’s exploring the topography of her world. “I’m making my own map, basically. It’s a map of myself, my recreation of the places I’ve been. It’s my own la-la land,” she says with a laugh.

Her other paintings, relatively smaller in scale, also use the imagery of terrains and maps, with the addition of collaged scraps of fabric, canvas, and pages from multilingual dictionaries and exercise books. While she’s been based in Kuala Lumpur for the past decade now, the question of identity is one that’s persisted throughout her life; now, with her art, Hana is finally able to imagine a place where she belongs.

Haji, 2021, Amir Mansor

It’s Amir Mansor, another UiTM graduate, who takes the most zoomed-out perspective. He is one who prefers the mass anonymity of crowds—so foreign now to the pandemic era. He diagrammatically depicts masses of people, united by certain shared purposes, using “obsessive, repetitive” processes that Suryani likens to the trance states of Islamic artists.

Meanwhile, some of the artists are using this opportunity to put their artistic identity first by showcasing works that reflect the development of their individual styles and techniques.

“Haz treats the body in a more dignified way than other nude paintings might do,” says Suryani of Haz Yusup, a graduate from the University of Manchester who’s slowly developing a following for her sensual figurative paintings. In the exhibition, she presents a series of nudes that reflect, in the process of their creation, an improvement of her painting techniques; after all, what is the nude but historically the most fundamental subject for artists to master?

“My series has always been ongoing, but evolving. With this series, I’ve become more daring with my works and how I’ve explored figure painting,” says Haz, whose influences include European classicism, neoclassicism, and the Italian old masters.

The stirrings of Haz’s mastery are evident, in her control of light and her clean, smooth brushstrokes that create pictures so full and rounded with life beyond the two-dimensional. Her subjects are only glimpsed partially — a shoulder blade here curving into a firm bottom, the back of a pair of knees there, a soft belly in another.

After Bath, 2021, Haz Yusup

In contrast to Haz’s soft curves are Sarawak-born Mazlan Samawi’s jagged plastic bottle figures. The plastic is torched and sculpted into a circle of human figures holding hands, like Matisse’s orange dancers made three-dimensional. The effect is reminiscent of gnarled branches on a tree. Finally, there are the delicate batik and rice-paper works of Nia Khalisa, a young graduate of the Malaysia Institute of Art who recently returned from a residency in Solo, Indonesia, where she studied batik under the tutorship of the local craftspeople. Using symbolism and imagery drawn from “the simple charm of our flora and fauna, as well as its mellow colour palette,” Nia updates the medium into a sensitive and subtle way to contemplate her own experiences.

Pohon Kekeliruan, 2021, Mazlan Samawi

Working with young people, especially young artists, is not for the faint of heart. But Cult Gallery is ready to take on the curiosity and passion that young people have for the bigger questions in life, and to treat them with the respect they deserve. In the process of creating, these seven artists are also gaining a deeper understanding about themselves, a knowledge which manifests through each of their own distinct styles and visual language. 7 Ways of Seeing presents their attempts in gaining some clarity about themselves and their respective practices, without falling into navel-gazing stasis.

7 Ways of Seeing shows from 29 March–12 April 2021. To make an appointment, contact Dayang at 012 415 8031. Cult Gallery, 10A Persiaran Bukit Tunku, 50480 Kuala Lumpur.

Ellen Lee

Ellen Lee

Ellen Lee is an independent writer based in Kuala Lumpur. She mostly writes reviews, analysis, and opinion pieces on visual arts in Malaysia, along with the occasional exhibition text.