Heaven and hell. These abstract notions have fuelled the imagination of writers, poets, philosophers and artists for centuries.
It is no different for German-trained Malaysian artist Noor Mahnun Mohamed, who was drawn to the hereafter theme when she was invited to curate Sisters in Islam’s inaugural charity art show SISArt17, which opens today at Cult Gallery in Bukit Tunku, Kuala Lumpur.
SISArt17 features mainly new works by 19 established and emerging artists, who will donate some of the proceeds from the sale of their art to Sisters In Islam (SIS). A bulk of the funds raised will go to Telenisa, SIS’ legal aid clinic that provides women with legal assistance. With women and the afterlife so intertwined in culture, the theme of “Hell, Heaven” could not be more fitting.
“I was initially attracted to the oft-cited line ‘Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned’ from The Mourning Bride, a 1697 play by William Congreve,” says Noor Mahnun. “In full it reads: ‘Heaven has no rage, like love to hatred turned, Nor hell a fury, like a woman scorned.’ I thought it was apt because of the possibilities in interpretations and its gender-specific line. I was also interested in playing with the idea of ‘crime and punishment’, and of the concept of man-made ‘heaven’ or ‘hell’.”
Suryani Senja Alias, who runs the Cult Gallery, agrees.
“Women have been brought up on the idea that if we are ‘good’ we will go to heaven and if we are ‘bad’ we will go to hell. But who put the idea there? And who decides what is ‘good’ and ‘bad’? Or what constitutes heaven and what constitutes hell?” asks Suryani.
The vision of heaven and hell differs for everyone, she notes.
“Someone’s hell can be another person’s heaven, while someone’s heaven can be another’s hell. The ideas of heaven and hell vary. And they have a complex, sometimes conflicting, relationship with gender and religion. It is not as black and white or simple as what some want us to believe.”
This question of what and whose hell/heaven can be seen in the participating artists’ diverse interpretations of the theme – from seashells to Indian pilgrims, large roses and a political rally – in different styles and media, from oil, watercolour, prints, textile and wood to even toilet paper.
SISArt17 features an eye-catching cast of local women artists like Ilse Noor, Umibaizurah Ismail, Chong Siew Ying and Sharon Chin.
Interestingly, the show also includes notable local male artists such as Ahmad Zakii Anwar, Chang Fee Ming, Ahmad Fuad Osman and Bayu Utomo Radjikin.
Suryani believes it is important to involve men in the cause while opening up the opportunities for women artists.
Noor Mahnun says she and Suryani also made it a point to include young and emerging artists.
“I wanted to round up more female artists for obvious reasons. At the same time Suryani and I wanted to groom younger artists whom we feel represent the future of Malaysian art, not only with their spectrum of styles and medium, but also their concerns or subject matters.”
One is painter Hana Zamri, 28, who views the theme as an extension of her interest in the question of identity.
“I do a lot of human form. But it is not sexual, it is just to question my identity as a female. Identity is a big part of my art,” says Hana.
Other emerging artists showcased include sculptor Anniketyni Madian and contemporary artists Sharifah Bahiyah Jamalullial, Nia Khalisa, Izat Arif and Dinn Diran.
Known for her emotive landscapes, Chong Siew Ying, 48, found the ambiguity of the abstract theme inspiring.
“It evoked a philosophical reaction in me. I feel there is a fine line between heaven and hell. It’s a personal perspective,” she says, remarking that she will leave it to the show’s audience to decide if her painting Paths Cross depicts hell or heaven.
SISArt17 is on at Cult Gallery, 10A, Persiaran Bukit Tunku in Kuala Lumpur till Nov 23. There will be a dialogue on gender, art and culture with artists Noor Mahnun Mohamed and Norhayati Kaprawi at 4pm, Nov 18, in Cult Gallery. For more information, call 012-286 1800 or 013-224 2158.