Contemporary artist Roslisham Ismail, or better known as Ise, whose artistic practice spanned social relations across generations, cultures, class and geography, died of health complications at Kuala Lumpur Hospital on July 23.
Born September 1972 in Kota Baru, Kelantan, Ise was often regarded as a global traveller and one of Malaysia’s hardest-working artists with an international reach.
A big part of his career, after he graduated with a fine art degree from UiTM Shah Alam in 1997, was spent improving his craft and exhibiting abroad.
His foreign art residencies and fellowship awards, which began in the early 2000s, included cities like New York, Tokyo, Berlin, Sydney, Seoul, New Delhi and regional stints in Jakarta, Singapore, Ho Chi Minh City and Bangkok.
“When I finished art school I started to think that I wanted to become an artist but I was never sure if I could survive or not in Malaysia because everybody here does artwork in a really conventional way,” Ise was quoted as saying in The Star interview in 2007.
As an emerging artist, he developed his art through a series of group shows in Kuala Lumpur, while also co-founding the SentAp! art magazine and setting up the Parkingproject artist space based in his apartment in 2005.
“Everyday life is a really big influence on my work. I don’t want to be cliched and make things that I don’t know about, so I just talk about reality and my experiences. For me the purpose of art itself is the communication of ideas and feelings,” he added.
His works, exhibited in eye-catching solo shows such as Keluar 90 Hari (2006) in Sydney, SuperFiction (2008) and Ghost (2010) in Kuala Lumpur, Operation Bangkok (2014) in Bangkok and The Self Help Open Space Project (2016) in New York, reflected Ise’s vast – yet highly accessible – artistic range and visual language that incorporated aesthetics of urban, alternative and underground art.
Despite the pop culture appearances, a human connection was never far from his art. Ise’s installation entitled Secret Affair, which first appeared at the Singapore Biennale 2011, featured six fridges filled with groceries. The work captured how Singaporean families – from diverse racial and socio-economic groups – bought groceries when given an identical budget. To the artist, this was his way to locate an intersection between identity, place and time.
“This project is about how people live their lives via the fridge. For me, the fridge is a secret box of the family. You can read everything about the family via what is inside their fridge. It’s like modern anthropology,” revealed Ise in an interview in 2014.
There is no arguing that Ise’s art, no matter how time-consuming the process, was also about bending rules and not everyone had the means, talent or headspace to accomplish what he did.
His anOther story installation in 2017, presented at the Sunshower: Contemporary Art From South-East Asia 1980s To Now exhibition in Tokyo, laid out a complex historical diorama – toy soldiers to plastic warplanes – that circled in on Kelantan’s trauma during the Japanese WWII occupation, the later protest against British colonial rule, the rise of Malay nationalism and the small matter of a porous Malaysia-Thai border.
This work, arguably, was Ise’s ambitious mid-career direction coming together. It had “ghosts” haunting Kelantan’s old maps, an array of wartime posters and sketches, political and cultural comment, video documentation and oral history recollections; all combined to create an epic installation.
Ise, who felt he was an “outsider artist” in his own country, was steadily coming into his own as a Malaysian original, with a series of warmly-received exhibits in KL in the last few years.
In 2016, Ise presented a work called NEP (New Economic Policy), which was a collage of found stickers, loan shark pamphlets and posters, at KL’s Ilham Gallery’s Era Mahathir exhibition.
His historical epic ChronoLOGICal (mixed media, 2015), which tells the story of old Kelantan through memories, myths and forgotten histories was one of the highlights of the Escape From The Sea group exhibition at the National Art Gallery in 2017.
ChronoLOGICal also references Ise’s own personal heritage (a descendant of Yemeni Arabs who came to the Malay peninsula in the ninth century) and discusses the complex, alternative, cultural roots of a place.
Last year, as part of Ilham Gallery’s south Thailand-centred Patani Semasa group exhibit, Ise – the sole Malaysian artist – presented a “homecoming” for his Langkasuka Cookbook project. He hosted a traditional Kelantanese feast at the gallery. The communal art experience, developed passionately by Ise, traced the history of the cuisine of his home state of Kelantan to the ancient Langkasuka kingdom.
Through the years, Ise developed a unique artistic style with drawings, collages, video, found objects, publications, interactive installations and participatory art events. His network of artistic “Superfriends” around the world also became the hallmark of his shows, with strong collaborative ties forged by Ise.
His major exhibits have been shown at the Singapore Biennale 2011, The Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art 7 in Australia in 2012, Sunshower: Contemporary Art From South-East Asia 1980s To Now exhibition in Tokyo in 2017 and this year’s Sharjah Biennial 14 in the United Arab Emirates.
In his recent years, Ise, who was suffering from kidney disease, based himself in his hometown Kota Baru and continued working and networking in art.