A gallery visitor can almost feel the energy emanating from artist Mad Anuar Ismail’s latest addition to his Storm Riders series at group exhibition Di Antara Itu Dan Ini.

Perentas Ribut No.21, a canvas over stainless steel sculpture, is motion and perseverance stuck between a rock and a hard place.

A storm is fast approaching, the wind howls and waves crash against the boat. And these people lean into the wind and brace themselves for the great unknown.

Mad Anuar has been revisiting this series for over 30 years, with numerous reiterations in wood, steel and canvas. This particular piece is a bit of an experiment, he says, as he uses a technique so tedious that the sculpture took him almost a year to complete.

But where he deviates with technique and material in the search of new permutations, the core of this series stands unwavering in the face of change.

“My Storm Riders series captures the resilience of the human spirit in facing challenges in life. It is inspired by my memories of the fishermen going out to sea in my hometown of Dungun in Terengganu, of their daily struggles and the difficult life they have. It tells the story of how people are able to overcome adversity if they put their mind to it,” says Mad Anuar.

Perentas Ribut No.21, the first piece you see as you enter the Di Antara Itu Dan Ini exhibit at the National Art Gallery in Kuala Lumpur, sets a solid, rugged tone for the start of the show.

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A visitor taking a moment to soak in Mad Anuar Ismail’s epic work ‘Perentas Ribut No.21’ (oil on canvas with stainless steel structure, 2018). Photo: The Star/Kamarul Ariffin

With 16 artists in this exhibition, the viewer can expect the voices to be varied – especially with a theme that is so open-ended. Di Antara Itu Dan Ini, curated by Jaafar Ismail of Fergana Art, is a follow up to last year’s Rupa-rupa(nya) where the group of artists reflected on “Truth” in a world where fact and fiction are increasingly intertwined.

Di Antara Itu Dan Ini ventures a little further in its exploration, tapping into “Choice” and “Authenticity” in navigating a space where the only thing constant is change.

“I have always been fascinated by the notion of authenticity, in that artists are driven by the purity of intent in art-making that are discernible in their persona. This notion is of course largely unattainable,” says Jaafar.

He comments that this follow-up show has a less contemplative and less restrained feel, compared to last year’s edition. The narratives are stronger, sharper, and there is more intense exertion of their visual vocabulary and presentation.

“The artists have something to say and many have a certain independent streak that is worth encouraging. The selection of artists was deliberate and this group shows great promise of being true to themselves,” he says.

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Leon Leong’s Aisyalam: The Tree Nation No. 2 (oil on canvas, 2018). Photo: Foo Chiwei

The recent Malaysian general election and the intense debate leading up to it, which Jaafar acknowledges as an opportunity to assess and experience change, was an obvious catalyst for this exhibition.

“I thought it would be a good idea for the artists to recapture the artistic power of creation and representation, and reassert their relationship with columns or groups of power. Through this, the authenticity – or true nature of their practice – may well emerge,” he notes.

So where do we stand as a nation today?

In Leon Leong’s new series, Aisyalam: The Tree Nation, he ponders on exactly this.

His work taps into the soul of a nation that was once reported as having its people live on trees, portrayed as little better than glorified savages talked about in hushed tones by those spared such indignities.

“This report has since been erased, but it lives on in the consciousness of its people. Could there be some truth in it?” ponders Leong.

Sharmiza Abu Hassan’s Dulu Perahu Kini Takungan (aluminum plate, galvanized iron and magnifying glass, 2018) and (back) Sabri Idrus’s The Donut Project (inflatable swim rings, rubber tubes/ motor or bicycle tubes, plastic pipes, aluminum rings, nylon string, 2018). Photo: The Star/Kamarul Ariffin

His work is an allegorical take of a nation we know well, yet sometimes know so little about. It has been brewing in his head for years, he relates, but it is only now that he feels compelled to pursue it in earnest.

The first two works in this series is visually a literal take on the title: people sitting among the branches and gazing pensively at a sunset (or is it sunrise?).

“Our nation is at a crossroad since the momentous change in politics. A change can be progressive or regressive, and anything in between. It is a change that makes us reexamine where we actually are. Are we really standing on solid ground?” he questions.

Who knows? But really, would a tree nation even care?

Azam Aris’s Jalan Keluar is a triptych painting inspired by a kaleidoscope motif, a world of illusion and paradox ruled by geometry and symmetry.

Paradoxes tumble over each other like building blocks in his painting, a visual effect that he calls “pictorial weaving”.

Samsudin Wahab’s (aka Buden) Pohon Kehidupan (oil on canvas, 2018). Photo: The Star/Zahid Izzani

Here, elements repeat in their symbolism of a never-ending cycle, a loop where the only way is forward – but to where?

Jalan Keluar makes it sound like there is a way out, but does that option really exist? The idea of having choices is an illusion; within a specific time and space, you don’t really have many options in your reality, even if it feels like you do,” he says.

Anchoring the exhibition is a video of an interview with the late Redza Piyadasa (1939-2007), artist, art critic and art historian.

It offers an hour-long dialogue on the nation and related topics. As a crucial part of the show, Redza raised questions on the role of art and artists in society and nation building, and the non-deterministic nature of Malaysian art, among other things.

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A close-up of Faizal Suhif’s Rapuh … (mixed media, 2018). Photo: The Star/Kamarul Ariffin

“These issues that he raised in 2004 are still with us. They have never left us. And the artists, as autonomous as they think they are, have not really stepped up to addressing these issues,” says Jaafar.

In conceding that art is not all about pretty pictures, Jaafar predicts that the visual arts scene will grow to accept criticism. Over time it will be less elitist and less confined to a small group of aficionados, and the discourse will become more democratic, he adds.

“Artists, as the chroniclers of moral and ethical conscience, have to make a stand when the need arises. But a society without imagination is a deep hollow. And if there is one thing that artificial intelligence is struggling with, it is imagination. Artists have plenty of that,” sums up Jaafar.


Di Antara Itu Dan Ini is on at the National Art Gallery, Jalan Temerloh, off Jalan Tun Razak in Kuala Lumpur till Nov 30. Opening hours: 10am-6pm daily. For more information, call 03-4026 7000 or visit artgallery.gov.my. FB: Fergana Art. Free admission.