Mantra Mak Yong 4 (acrylic on canvas, 2015) is one of the 15 new works that form Ismadi Sallehudin’s Mak Yong exhibition at the Museum of Asian Art, Universiti Malaya in Kuala Lumpur. The show features pieces inspired by the ancient Malaysian dance form by from the Raub, Pahang-born artist. Photo: Puah Chin Kok
“In my new pieces, I want to emphasise traditional Mak Yong roots of folk medicine and spirituality through movement and colour,” says an affable Ismadi Sallehudin, referring to the broad use of darker shades and charcoal with passionate brush strokes and tiny white scribbles in his newest offerings.
Ismadi has found a deeper relationship with Mak Yong through his recent art pieces. If anything, this is Ismadi’s adaptation or return to the roots for source material.
The Raub, Pahang-based artist was in town last week to talk about his latest exhibition Mak Yong, which is currently on at Universiti Malaya’s Museum of Asian Art.
At a glance, the paintings with broody black splashes that line the Museum of Asian Art’s creative space bear little resemblance to its subject matter, Mak Yong. But Ismadi disagrees with this view during an interview at the gallery.
Through his 15 new acrylic on canvas pieces, he seeks to look at the degree of continuity and/or change that has evolved with Mak Yong, a traditional dance-drama from northern Malaysia (which is mostly associated with the state of Kelantan).
Influences from his Catatan series, which showed at Artisan Fine Art in Kuala Lumpur late last year, have cropped up in his new works.
Instead of jottings, Ismadi, 44, explains that the text in the Mak Yong pieces were mantras used in the performance of Mak Yong as well as a description of how the dance is done.
Through his paintings, which are on prominent display at the gallery, Ismadi hypothesises Mak Yong as a form of spiritual healing.
Regarded as one of the most authentic forms of traditional Malay theatre, Mak Yong combines dancing and acting with improvised dialogue. More than a performance, it is believed to have been able to heal a person of illness through an act called “Main Puteri”.
Ismadi admits that he was mildly unimpressed at first, even wondering why Unesco designated Mak Yong a Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity in 2005.
However, a meeting with Mak Yong practitioner Fatimah Abdullah in 2012 piqued Ismadi’s interest to set the dance drama to canvas.
He was introduced to Fatimah, daughter of the famous Mak Yong master Abdullah Awang, while both were lecturing at the National Academy of Arts Culture and Heritage (Aswara).
Back then, Ismadi began attending her classes and taking photos of dancers to form an image in his head of what he needed to paint. The result was the first piece in the series, Semah Kumpang.
However, for the Mak Yong exhibition, Ismadi is only displaying his latest pieces, all titled Mantra Mak Yong and numbered sequentially.
Ismadi admits abstract was not necessarily the best medium for the Mak Yong subject, but he decided to work with the genre he felt most comfortable with.
Since graduating from Universiti Teknologi Mara (UiTM) in 1994, Ismadi has spent most of his art career perfecting his works in the abstract genre.
“For me, abstract is more thorough, this form of art is better at capturing feelings. It gives a complete point of view,” he says.
Asked if he had tried realism, Ismadi replies: “It isn’t satisfying, it lacks feeling.”
While researching the Mak Yong series – all made in the last four months – Ismadi travelled to Bachok, a small town about 25km out of Kelantan’s capital, Kota Baru.
“In Kuala Lumpur, Mak Yong has been prettied up with flashy outfits and choreography, but if you go to Bachok, the Mak Yong performance there is raw, there are people dancing in kain pelikat, and the dialogue and dancing share equal billing,” shares the artist.
Ismadi notes that the true Mak Yong has been forced to seek refuge in the shadows, performed secretively in the outskirts, due to a ban by the PAS state government since 1991.
He explains that the Mak Yong was viewed as a form of pemujaan (animistic worship).
“A response to this was to have Mak Yong altered to focus on the dance and strip away the spirituality. That way the memory doesn’t die, even if the tradition has been remembered differently,” he muses.
He adds that the complex performance was being simplified as a form of whitewashing.
Ismadi is no stranger to controversy regarding spirituality. His previous series Arjuna at the Museum of Asian Art last January drew criticism for being too Hindu-centric.
“Our culture appreciation is too shallow. I was just adapting the events of Krishna’s tale,” says Ismadi, referring to how the series made up of paintings, drawings and sculptures was centred around Arjuna and Krishna, two characters from the Sankrit epic Mahabharata.
In the same way the Maha-bharata has been represented and refreshed through art, Ismadi intends to preserve the deep art and spirituality of Mak Yong through his paintings.
Ismadi Sallehudin’s Mak Yong is on display at Museum of Asian Art, Universiti Malaya, Kuala Lumpur till Jan 20, 2016. Admission is free. Opening times: Monday to Thursday, 9am to 1pm and 2pm to 5pm; Friday, 9am to noon and 2.45pm to 5pm; Saturday, 9am to 4pm. Closed on Sunday and public holidays. For enquiries, call 03-7967 3805.