Contrary to what some people may think, you don’t necessarily have to go to art school if you want to be an artist. Yes, getting artistic training does have benefits.

However, creating art without any formal training has long been a time-honoured tradition. There is even a name for it: ‘naive art’, or outsider art. There is therefore no need to take offence if you are called a naive artist. In a way, it’s a compliment.

The National Visual Arts Gallery’s latest show In Your Own Way II, shines the spotlight on some of the most talented self-taught, naive and ‘outsider’ artists in the country. “When you go through the exhibition, you will see the works do not look like they are done by artists who were trained. Even for the ones that do, they are slightly different because of their considerations,” says Tan Sei Hon, the show’s curator.

Tan has programmed several outsider shows in the Klang Valley. The first was the On The Corner in the contemporary art section in the exhibition Susurmasa in 2008. The second was the first edition of In Our Own Way in 2010. Both exhibitions were held at the National Visual Arts Gallery. “Trained artists have certain formalistic considerations, in terms of composition, colour, and so forth. But for artists who have no formal training, some of those things do not concern them. Some of them even break those rules, and come up with something different and fresh! They make things that trained artists would never think of,” he adds.

In Your Own Way 2, says Tan, is a collaboration between three private art galleries (Artemis Art, Lua Gallery and Titik Merah) and two Malaysian art groups (the Malaysian Naive Art Group and W.O.W. Kolektif). The exhibition features over 80 works from 36 artists, including names like Adeputra Masri, Ajim Juxta, Cheev, E.H. Chee, Latif Maulan, Eliza Tajuddin, Ismail Baba, Wan Jaafar Wan Deraman (Waja) and Fathullah Luqman.

Tomi Heri’s Diawasi (acrylic on canvas, 2016).

Tomi Heri’s Diawasi (acrylic on canvas, 2016).

According to Tan, the exhibition’s aim is to expand the public’s definition of art, and to inculcate appreciation for a personal kind of artistry and creativity that is different from the mainstream. This exhibition, in many ways, is a show of strength for the Malaysian self-taught art scene.

“The Venice Biennale in 2013 had a theme based on the works of self-taught, visionary artists,” says Tan.

“If the (Venice) Biennale, the oldest art event in the world, can acknowledge the contributions of these artists, I think it’s about time we acknowledge our outsider artists, too.”

Indeed, when taking a walk through the exhibition, it is difficult not to be impressed by the work on display.

Hudry Hayat’s Siri Kampung (acrylic on canvas, 2016).

Hudry Hayat’s Siri Kampung (acrylic on canvas, 2016).

Satria Utama’s Terima Kasih, Spark (acrylic on canvas, 2016).

Satria Utama’s Terima Kasih, Spark (acrylic on canvas, 2016).

Artists like Kevin Sui and Ian Chieh Ng offer striking still life works, while Hudry Hayat and Sham Ahmad contribute rustic kampung scenes.

“The colours are very bright. They look child-like, very earnest, without training. But if you really analyse, these works are well thought out. They celebrate the simple things, the things that matter to the artist. They don’t try to be sophisticated,” says Tan about the works on display.

Other fascinating artists on show are Pyanz Shariff, whose Belantara Cinta is created from the unusual medium of henna on canvas, while Latif Maulan’s pieces World Without Limits and Dawn Of The Mage, offer snapshots into a person’s life via computer screenshots.

Also eye-catching are the works of Cheev, the only sculptor in the exhibition. His work How High Can You Dance? feature a dancing female figure carved out of wood, her body twisted into impossible, powerful shapes.

The veteran sculptor says he never plans any of his pieces: whatever is created comes naturally.

“I don’t pre-draw or anything. I take pieces of wood and put them together, and look at the form. I piece them together, and think, this looks like a hand, or a leg. It’s just that. I don’t have formal training, it all just comes,” says Cheev.

His dancing figures, according to him, capture a powerful intensity of emotion.

“It’s in that beautiful distortion, the intensity of the stretching. I always come up through these feelings, expressed through the female form. If I do it with for male forms, it just looks very tortured,” he adds.

Syahbandi Samat, from Galeri Titik Merah, contributes one piece, Calm To III, to the exhibition. It depicts a man in a straitjacket riding a rocking horse. The work is done with ballpoint pen, his trademark medium. According to the 24-year-old artist, the work depicts a state of frustration.

“The madman represents us. When we have trouble, or when we cannot settle things, we do things wrongly, and we blame other people because of what we did. It’s like sitting on a rocking horse. No matter how hard we rock, we always stay in the same place,” explains Syahbandi.

Lyla Meta, of Artemis Art, contributes three pieces to the show: Threshhold, Parallel Worlds I and II. Her stormy hues and sombre-looking subjects do tend to make her work look dark, but the Malacca-born artist says her art comes from a place of comfort and solitude.

Her piece Parallel Worlds II shows an empty rowboat adrift on a dark and turbulent sky, vividly-coloured lights flashing above it.

“This boat is like me. Everything is dark, and abysmal. But with all this darkness around me, there’s something else,” says Lyla, motioning to the lights. “There’s all this other things going on. But I can’t see it, because it’s not in my world.”

Gallery visitors looking at Rozlina Khairi's feline inspired work. Photo: The Star/Kamarul Ariffin

Gallery visitors looking at Rozlina Khairi’s feline inspired work. Photo: The Star/Kamarul Ariffin

The world of veteran painter Ismail Baba, 65, on the other hand, is simple and direct. His works Cuti-Cuti Malaysia and Dipinggir Danau, feature a beach and a lake, respectively. The founder of the Malaysian Native Art Group says naive art tells the stories of everyday life.

“As you can see, my paintings look like they are done by children. Colourful, simple, almost like a cartoon. People look at them and they know what the story is about,” says Ismail, who once trained under Yusof Gajah, known as Malaysia’s foremost naive artist.

Ismail points to a cartoonish figure of a bird in his painting.

“If I were to draw a realist form of a bird, it would be very difficult. It would take a lot of time. But if I were to ask a child, ‘What is this painting?’ I’m sure he or she would get it. It’s simple. And that is the good thing about this (outsider) style,” concludes Ismail with a grin.


In Our Own Way II is on at Creative Space, National Visual Arts Gallery in Kuala Lumpur till July 10. Call 03-4026 7000 or visit www.artgallery.gov.my for more information.