Malaysian art collective Fklub explores – and pushes – the limits of figurative art in its new exhibition, Being Human.

From the crude stick figures of a child's drawing to Michelangelo's colossal David, the human form has fascinated and inspired countless artists throughout history. Even after its deconstruction by the Cubists and Expressionists, who melted it down into a melange of pure colours, the body remains a potent muse. 

But why? What is it about the human figure that continues to haunt the artist's imagination?  

Where most people only see skin and sinew, Malaysian artist Bayu Utomo Radjikin's take on figurative art goes beyond the flesh and raises questions about humanity and what defines it. But even then, there are caveats.

“Only when a figure has a human element to it can it be considered a human-being, or else it is just another animal. After all, in the sciences, humans are just creatures too,” says Bayu, 56, one of the artists whose works appear in Being Human: Figuratism of 16 Malaysian Artists, currently showing at the White Box, Publika, until Feb 15.

Drama King by Hisyamuddin Abdullah, charcoal and acrylic on canvas, 2014.

Presented by Fklub – a homegrown art collective of which Bayu is a founding member – the exhibition, which made its debut at Art Stage Singapore last month, features new works that explore figurative art beyond the established limits of the genre that may make some viewers wonder what the body actually represents. 

Aside from featuring works by members of the collective – Kow Leong Kiang, 45; Shia Yi Ying, 48; Chin Kong Yee, 42; Marvin Chan, 43; Gan Chin Lee, 38; and Chong Ai Lei, 30; and Bayu himself – it was also a chance for the group to feature works by nine younger artists including Hisyamuddin Abdullah, 26, and Fadilah Karim, 28.

Shared humanity

With its mix of established and new talents, Being Human departs from the standard depictions of men and women stretched across a canvas. Indeed, unorthodox pieces like Phuan Thai Meng’s Ex(change) Project and Chan Kok Hooi’s So Close Yet So Far series even lack a human presence.

Phuan’s piece, a mind map made up of notes, letters and receipts contributed by his students – Blue, De Ming Wei, Tiffany Huan Jia Jin, Yau Sir Meng – shows a fragmented and cynical view of Malaysia, tied together with the irony of an oversized blank postcard with the words “greetings from Malaysia”.

Bayu explains that while many take figurative art literally, Phuan’s work takes an abstract approach, connecting people together to show a shared humanity. 

Meanwhile, Chan Kok Hooi's works depicting obscured close-ups of genitalia seen as a “landscape” from the window of a plane aim to feature the human condition in a less obvious, and perhaps, darkly comic manner.

Inspiration for the work, reveals Chan, came while on a flight back from Indonesia in 2012, when he noticed many passengers taking photos of the distant scenery. “Nowadays people take photos of everything. Everything,” he deadpans.

Another theme that runs through a majority of the 16 pieces on display are hidden faces, like Bayu’s Stark, Shia’s Miss Nature under Score, Chong Siew Ying’s A Green Mountain Idyll, Ahmad Zakii Anwar’s I Am Not I Am, Hisyamuddin’s Drama King, and Fadilah’s The Lonesome Painter.

The Lonesome Painter by Fadilah Karim, oil on canvas, 2014.

While the Malay warrior in Bayu’s Stark and the hooded figures in Hisyamuddin’s Drama King merely hide their faces behind hands and cloth, the others turn their backs on the audience, leaving viewers to wonder what emotions could be etched on their faces.

“That’s one of the key differences between a portrait and figurative piece. The focus is on the shape of the body. By obscuring the face, the viewer will appreciate the whole figure,” says Bayu. “And while faces easily give up their tales, the body speaks in a different language.”

Desecrated

“Figuration is about creating a story through symbols and gestures, beyond the literal level of the image,” says Marvin Chan, whose work Desecration Of The Temple, one of the more risqué pieces in exhibition, was displayed in Singapore, but is absent from its KL edition.

Dominated by the figure of a crucified woman who is surrounded by pained bodies and butchered carcasses rendered in bloodied earth tones, Desecration is shocking because of its uneasy subject and yet remains captivating for its high degree of detail.

Desecration is a representation of how an ideal can subsequently be twisted into a mangled entity to serve self interests. In that process, a person is commodified as a part of the architecture,” explains Chan, adding that it was not aimed at any one religion but rather at how religion is being politicised.

The self-taught KL-raised artist reveals that it was his choice not to display it, as a statement against the rules imposed.

“While the painting itself carries a meaning; its absence in relation to the show should invoke another meaning however obtuse. I was also asked to issue a letter of indemnity, which I find hugely discouraging,” says Chan.

A little nudity is unavoidable with a genre associated to the human form, concedes Bayu, who adds that there are signs around the gallery to warn prospective visitors about the few works that feature the human body in all its natural glory. Still, why would anyone wish to look away?

Miss Nature under Score by Shia Yih Yiing, oil on canvas, 2014.

Being Human: Figuratism Of 16 Malaysian Artists currently showing at White Box, Publika, Solaris Dutamas, Kuala Lumpur until Feb 15. Gallery is open daily from 10am – 7pm. Free admission. For more info, visit www.thefklub.com