Fitting in is never an easy thing to do. Just ask Klang Valley-based artist Husni Osman, who as a youth, struggled to figure out where he belonged.
The soft-spoken artist spent his youth living in one of Shah Alam’s squatter areas, yet attended a suburban school for middle to upper-middle class students in Subang Jaya, Selangor.
“When I went to school, all the bandar kids laughed and said I was from the kampung,” says Husni, during a recent interview at the Core Design Gallery, Subang Jaya.
“But when I went back, all the people there called me a city boy.”
“So I asked myself questions about my identity. Who am I? Am I a kampung boy, or a city boy?
It is fitting, therefore, that the title of Husni’s first solo exhibition is “City” Boy – a reflection of the artist’s feelings, belonging to both worlds, yet neither. The exhibition contains many of his paintings, created by the artist in his capacity as a silent, aloof observer of human behaviour.
“This is very important to me,” adds Husni about his exhibition. “I want to unleash all my internal spiritual energy, and translate it onto paper.”
Dressed casually, a baseball cap turned backwards on his head, the 37-year-old artist is slightly reticent upon first meeting. Given the opportunity to speak about his art however, Husni opens up, sharing openly with a small smile on his face.
“Art has already been in me since a young age. I started painting and drawing since young; even my parents noticed it. In school, my teachers always asked me to join competitions, and paint murals,” recalls the artist. Despite this early promise, Husni never received any formal art education, instead learning his technique from his friends who were artists. Drawn to illustration and design, the artist made a living producing artwork for graphic films, supermarkets and underground record labels.
In 2008, however, Husni decided to start painting full time.
“I didn’t know what people thought about my art,” he says. “I wanted to challenge myself.”
Husni ended up painting on the streets in various places, including Kuala Lumpur and Shah Alam for about five years, doing mostly commissioned portraits.
“Kena halau (chased away)? Oh, that was normal. Sometimes there were security guards, or the city council officials would come. But that’s a normal part of the situation; you have to accept it,” he says with a smile.
Talent, however, rarely goes unrecognised. Attracted by his paintings, some of his friends introduced Husni to foreign dealers, resulting in his work being exhibited in places such as Germany and Austria.
Husni also reglarly posted his works on Facebook and they were eventually discovered by curator Scarlette Lee of Core Design Gallery, who prepared the way for “City” Boy.
Looking at Husni’s painting, one notes they are imbued with an expressive energy, with brushstrokes, drips and scratches all employed to explore the inner psyche of the characters he depicts. Despite the seeming disorder of his layers and abstract lines, there is also a flow and method: appropriate, perhaps, for an artist who spent much of his life in between two worlds.
The dualism of his life is also reflected in the titles of many of his works, such as City Boy, The (Non) Conformist and In Between.
In Between, for instance, uses contrasting colours – rich tones vs dark cloudy splotches – as the artist reflects on his choice to pursue full-time painting instead of a steady job.
The (Non) Conformist, on the other hand, is a reflection on the younger generation, as well as an examination of the conflict between conformity and escape.
“This guy (in the painting) is actually a teenager. And as he grows older, he wants to be distinct from everyone else. He wants to be a non-conformist. But he is still a conformist, just being different for the sake being different!” says Husni.
Perhaps the most striking work in the exhibition, however, is Why Are You Wearing Those Blue Glasses?, a major 6.7m wall piece comprised of 36 various collage portraits done by Husni all through 2014.
Painted on paper (as Husni was too poor to afford canvas at the time) most of the people in the portraits are sporting blue glasses. Each portrait also has a quirky name, such as Mid-Life Crisis, Stereo Mono, or 300 Days Of Painting But No Sales.
Interpreted, they could well be a study of the diversity of human emotion, or a portrait of Malaysian society in all her foibles. Yet Husni was somewhat cryptic when asked about these paintings.
“Who are these people? It could be me, it could be anybody,” says Husni, before adding it was up to the viewer to decide. “The important thing is their expressions. Maybe you can relate to some of them.
“Why do people wear glasses? Some people do it to see the world better. Some use it to hide from others.”
Other works include The Witness, Husni’s exploration of his struggles and maturity, and Big Bird, a Sesame Street-inspired tribute to one of his favourite English teachers.
Asked his plans for the future, Husni said he planned to concentrate on improving his artwork.
“I want to develop my work,” the artist says. “Improve it for the better.”
He may have once been caught between the kampung and the city, and perhaps he still wonders about that now. But hearing him as he speaks so passionately about his art, one thing is certain: the world of art is where Husni truly belongs.
“City” Boy is on at Core Design Gallery. Tel 03-5612-1168.