There are some big questions being asked here. How do we navigate a world that is getting more interesting by the day, where faith, belief, morality, and all that make the grand world order are being challenged? How do artists respond to the post-truth phenomenon where fact and fiction co-mingle to generate “acceptable truths”?
These are among the ruminations posed to the artists in Rupa-Rupa(nya), a group art exhibition from Fergana Art which is now on at the White Box space, Publika in Kuala Lumpur.
“It is a surreal world we live in, and the artists are responding to it. We live in a time where the idea of what is fact and fiction is really fluid, where words like truthiness, coined by (American comedian/TV host) Stephen Colbert, is more relevant than ever,” says Jaafar Ismail, the exhibition’s co-curator and co-producer.
Rupa-rupa(nya) is a multi-disciplinary exhibition with over 20 works from 19 artists – including Ahmad Fuad Osman, Azzad Diah, Faizal Yusof, Jalaini Abu Hassan, Sabri Idrus, Samsudin Wahab, Shia Yih Yiing and Tan Nan See – spanning installation works, sculptures, paintings and videos.
The medley of voices coming out of this show is complemented by wall text placed all around the space, imparting words of wisdom and reflections on a wide variety of topics. Art, history, power, politics and the innate nature of man – you name it.
One such quote is attributed to Australian art critic and writer Robert Hughes, who said that the idea of a Van Gogh landscape, the anguished testament of an artist maddened by inequality and social injustice, hanging in a millionaire’s drawing room, is difficult to contemplate without nausea.
Much like the current state of society, Rupa-Rupa(nya) is slightly disconcerting and mildly provocative, says Jaafar, but at the same time allows a lot of scope for interpretation and engagement with the works and the ideas presented.
“The key narrative is seen in how these artists present work that reflect the emotional state of the nation and the individual. There is a lot of playing around with symbolism that might not be apparent at first glance. An art critic might say that it is an art show that is unresolved, but I think part of its charm is that it manages to capture that sense of ambiguity and uncertainty of the times,” he says.
As someone who firmly believes that the role of an artist is to observe, record (through their works), provoke and invoke (a response), he could not be more delighted with the works that came out of his “unconventional brief”, a 12-point document that questions more than it answers.
The authenticity that shines through in these works is telling.
“I look for artists who have that authenticity in their art. They do not need to live and breathe art, but it should be driven by their own hand and their response to society, and not just pander to collectors. There is a certain kind of truthfulness in they way they created these works in the show. For me, this is a major win,” he says.
The contemplative energy behind these works is also not wasted on him.
“You sense the restlessness behind the works of these artists, but it is subtle. You also sense the discontent, but it is muted.”
Tan’s exploration of historiography in arts and culture is apparent in her contribution in this show in her Family After Piyadasa series. It draws on the history and memory of family ties, inspired by a family photograph hanging in her house.
“I embroidered the family portrait on fabric with a tropical houseplant pattern, painted the top part of the work with a hibiscus motif and added other forms like palm leaves and cacti. The variety of plants and their origins suggest a fusion of our past with the present,” she says, adding that the bells she incorporated in this work symbolise sound, movement and life itself.
Sabri has been toying with the idea of intervention with nature since his residency with Rimbun Dahan in 2013/14, with the concept of “disruptive nature” depicted in his works through its durability.
“The works produced represent resilience, with my wall sculptures evolving to standalone sculptural pieces in recent years. I use LED lights as one of the main component in this work,” he says of his two wood and steel sculptures placed in the middle of the exhibition space.
The exhibition is part the ongoing Map Fest 2018, a month-long festival of arts and culture events and activities. The works in Rupa-rupa(nya) are quietly confident, and do not feel the need to be loud or brash. Perhaps the only person visibly worked up here is Jalaini’s – or better known as Jai – Lee Kuan Yew In Panas Telinga_Fake News, an enthusiastic piece in acrylic and bitumen, which is nicely framed by Sabri Idrus’s wood and steel sculptures in your field of vision as you enter through the gallery’s main door.
Rupa-rupa(nya) is the first of what Jaafar envisions to be a series of exhibitions that explores, in as broad a sense as possible, freedom of expression, freedom of thought and the ability to make choices.
“Visual art might not be able to change the world in the way that literature can. But what it can do is offer you a window into another world, in that it provides us with a means to look at things from different perspectives,” he says.
In a brand new world, whether real or imagined, anything is possible.