Humankind is right at the top of the food chain. We are masters of all other animals because of our ability to think rationally and intelligently.
But all of that is just a sham. For though we think we are sophisticated, there are primal desires deep within our hearts that we like to keep hidden. Desires as old as time and largely, primitive.
“To be primitive is not physical. It’s more a state of mind, something in our core being. Outside, we are technologically advanced. But inside, we have animal instincts, where we do anything, even fight each other, just to stay alive,” says Ahmad Fuad Osman, a multidisciplinary artist, who is back in Kuala Lumpur for Primitive, his the sixth solo exhibition, now showing at the A+ Works of Art gallery in Sentul.
“I wanted to take this part of us out, and display it. This part we can’t see, but is there,” he adds.
Ahmad delivers seven works for this exhibition, with oldest piece Dogged going back to 2003. The artist, who has not shown a solo exhibition in Kuala Lumpur since 2007, has been dividing his time between Bali and KL since 2010.
“Apart from producing some works for some selected group shows, and some Bali-related pieces, quite a lot of my time is spent on observing, reading and thinking about a different direction and possibilities in my art practices. My Enrique de Malacca Memorial Project produced in 2016 for the Singapore Biennale was one of the results,” he reveals.
If anything, one of his famous works Syhhh…! Dok Diam-diam, Jangan Bantah. Mulut Hang Hanya Boleh Guna Untuk Cakap Yaaa Saja. Baghu Hang Boleh Join Depa … Senang La Jadi Kaya’ (1999) resurfaced last year as part of Ilham Gallery’s Era Mahathir exhibition.
The Baling, Kedah-born Ahmad, 49, is no stranger to hard-hitting subjects, and the socio-political themes in his works, scrutinising Malaysian and global issues alike, have made him a deep thinking man’s artist.
A fine arts graduate from UiTM in 1991, this lanky, long-haired artist rose to prominence first as a member of Matahati, one of Malaysia’s most significant contemporary art collectives of its generation. His works most often involve installations and paintings, and he did show viewers a tongue-in-cheek perspective to his career with the Recollections Of Lost Memories (2007) show, where he reimagined Malaysian history by inserting modern elements into historically archived black and white photographs. That series won the Juror’s Prize at the APBF Signature Art Prize held at the Singapore Art Museum in 2008.
For Primitive, Ahmad, who remains in his signature thoughtful mood through this interview, presents seven large pieces of work done in various mediums and styles, created between 2003 and 2018. True to the nature of the exhibition, many of the works portray beasts and birds.
“I decided to let the animals do the talking on the human’s behalf for this show,” says the artist with a laugh.
On the curatorial front, it must have been a challenge to create a single, collective narrative in the Primitive show considering each work comes from a different timeline, place and possibly, mindset.
“As a curator, I’ve always resisted in creating a single narrative for a particular exhibition. I think that’d be quite didactic and boring. What I try to do is to create multiple entry points that perhaps, might surface various narratives or understandings. This is the biggest challenge for me, usually. Having said that, for these works in Fuad’s show, one can see a common thread running through all the works, even if they’ve been created at different parts of the last decade. I think that itself is admirable since we can see that the artist has really been processing these ideas, visual images for a long time. In this age of instant gratification and short-attention span, how many of us are able to do that?” says the show’s Singaporean curator Syed Muhd Hafiz.
At the gallery, visitors will first encounter the face of a man. and one of the wisest men to exist, too. It’s Plato, with a quote from the Greek philosopher inscribed on the wall beside him: “Strange times are these in which we live, when old and young are taught falsehoods in school, and and the person who dares tell the truth is called at once a lunatic and a fool.”
It is amazing, the artist lights up and remarks how Plato’s words, first uttered in the fifth century, are still so relevant today.
Continue into Primitive, and there stands Deja Vu, a huge, grave-like slab with the words of author and philosopher Ayn Rand carved into it. Next to it, a pile of earth on the floor. On it is a cangkul (hoe), with a crow perched on it.
This work is called The Birth Of Tragedy. Here, Ahmad references the Quranic story of Qabil and Habil, where the first ever murder was witnessed by a crow. Directly opposite from the crow, are the portraits of three chimpanzees in the “see no evil, hear no evil, say no evil” poses.
“Many people, when they see something evil, they don’t want to get involved. Or if they are all around a person who has done bad, and they know about it, but they want to save themselves,” says Ahmad.
Another highlight is a huge painting of a fallen elephant, its flesh being slowly torn away by a flock of hungry vultures. This mesmerising art work, rich with bloody red and orange streaks, is a striking testament to how one day, even the mightiest will fall.
Ahmad, however, affirms that it was up to visitors to draw their own conclusions from his works.
“I’ve always been drawn to socio-political issues. You can’t run away from them, they are always there. But if people ask what kind of artist I am, I don’t want to say I’m a political artist. I just want to be an artist!”
Primitive is showing at A+ Works of Art, d6-G8, d6 Trade Centre, 801, Jalan Sentul in Kuala Lumpur till March 3. The gallery is open: 12pm-7pm (Tuesdays to Saturdays). FB: A+ Works of Art. Call: 019-915 3399. The artist and curator will hold a dialogue session called Primitivism, Politics And Art with Prof Syed Farid Alatas at the gallery on March 3 at 3pm. Free admission.