In 2005, Ahmad Fuad Osman spent a whole year in South Korea at Goyang Studio in Gyeonggi-do. He did not return to Malaysia a K-pop star (although his long hair does give him a rock star vibe), but the works this artist created at his year-long residency were inevitably informed by the wave of “contemporary” living and borrowed Western culture sweeping across the country.
In Fatamorgana #1: Dream On, which is one of the works featured in group exhibition Crossings: Pushing Boundaries exhibition at Galeri Petronas, Fuad ponders his observations and experiences, condensing them in an image of a woman who looks all set for big city shopping in her striped leggings and high heels, juxtaposed against dancers in traditional wear around her.
“The world wasn’t stormed by Gangnam style then, but Korea had already been preparing and building up its pace for K-pop fever. These were the first few things I sensed when I was there. The collision between two forces, old and new, East and West, local and global, traditional and contemporary cultures, were very strong. They were holding tightly to their tradition while embracing materialistic superficiality of Western cultures, especially American culture,” he recalls.
The 47-year-old from Kedah believes that it is through challenging himself on new ground that new discoveries will be made.
“One of the most important aspects of artistic practice is to retain a little part of ‘the kid inside you’, so that you will be always fascinated by the things around and keep on questioning. This was what I decided to do when I chose to be an artist in the 1990s. I’m not interested in finding any particular technique, medium or style to form my identity as an artist, as I know that it will ‘kill’ a bit of freedom to keep on exploring,” he adds.
What is identity in the context of the modern world? What shapes it? What is its significance in an ever-changing world where boundaries are being blurred more than ever, where borders are constantly being redefined, and values merge and evolve?
The 15 Malaysian artists whose works are in Crossings: Pushing Boundaries have all spent time abroad. Spanning three generations in age, some have returned to Malaysia, while others have been based overseas for decades – and yet some others divide their time between their homeland and abroad.
Take, for instance, Terengganu-born Chang Fee Ming, who first headed for Bali in the early 1980s simply for the “Balinese culture”, and then ended up as a resident artist in a gallery in Ubud. Now, he spends a good four months each year on the Indonesian island and has a dream to visit every Indonesian province and complete a thematic body of work based on this.
Fisherman To His Last Breath is an eulogy to a fisherman Chang met in the small fishing village of Tembok in Bali, who died after battling a big tuna fish he had caught from the depths of the ocean.
“It was an 80kg prize catch and he exhausted his last breath in the process,” explains Chang, 57.
The artwork features an overturned boat, the only insignia of the fisherman’s life work, its bow shaped and painted to resemble a gaping fish mouth.
The show’s curator Shireen Naziree shares that from her personal experience working in Europe and other developed societies, there is an interest amongst cultural practitioners for a search of identity.
“When we regard ‘identity’ in its true context, it is more than an emotional experience and is one that involves histories, whether personal or looked upon from a broader perspective. From that vantage point, it is important to engage with a broader society in order to understand ourselves better,” she explains.
She highlights that we have moved on from our British Colonial past, but what we should now actively regard is “economic globalisation”, which is dominated by economically powerful international voices.
“This means that developing nations such as ours have to try harder to get their voices heard. It is within this context that I believe Malaysian contemporary art is a vital part of articulating who we are as Malaysians, and what Malaysia has to offer to the world. It also means that we have to look at ourselves from a broader perspective,” she says.
Crossings: Pushing Boundaries relates to how these selected artists have kept pace with international trends and the changing paradigms of fine art.
Besides Fuad and Chang, it showcases selected works by Ali “Mabuha” Rahamad, Anuar Rashid, Bayu Utomo Radjikin, Chong Siew Ying, Dolly Unithan, Eng Tay, Hayati Mokhtar/Dain Iskandar Said, Khoo Sui Hoe, Latiff Mohidin, Nadiah Bamadhaj, Roslisham “Ise” Ismail, Sabri Idrus and Wong Perng Fey.
“The exhibition addresses how Malaysian artists who have at some stage of their career decided to respond to events or issues that have impacted society at large or their own personal histories.
“While there is no doubt that there are other Malaysian artists who have spent time out of the country, the criteria for the choice of artist, and importantly, the artworks, were selected for the sense of scholarship they imbue, the artist’s ability to ‘push boundaries’,” shares Shireen.
From his year in Korea, Crossings: Pushing Boundaries also showcases Fuad’s S(e)oul Searching series, a collection of smaller works on canvas which are old archival and historical pictures of South Korea presented in coffee and earth hues.
S(e)oul Searching started out as a visual research and preliminary study, an attempt to delve deeper into the psyche, psychology, philosophy, history and spirituality of the country. But it soon became a piece of work that Fuad realised could very well stand alone.
“With all these images I collected from various sources, I started to play around and experiment with ideas until I came across xerox transfer technique on sepia and rustic, earth-coloured small canvases to evoke a poetic and nostalgic sense,” he says.
S(e)oul Searching, where the old and traditional adorn the wall, is a stark contrast to Fatamorgana – just as South Korea is, in many ways, a country embracing both tradition and modernity.
Travel opens doors to new adventures and new perspectives, so much that many who get bitten by the travel bug continue to discover new sights and sounds as often as they can.
“Travel makes you realise that no matter how much you know, there’s always more to learn,” says Fuad, who points out that being away from home and familiar surroundings makes you reflect more on your roots or “essence of your being”.
“People you meet during your travels tend to ask you so many things about yourself, your country, political parties and practices, religion, arts and culture, and so on. I went through this in Korea. You think you know almost everything about yourself and your country and all those things, until you get caught in some unexpected, and sometimes very simple, questions.”
He ends aptly with a quote from French novelist Gustave Flaubert: “Travel makes one modest. You see what a tiny place you occupy in the world.”
Crossings: Pushing Boundaries is on at Galeri Petronas (Level 3, Suria KLCC) till Oct 30. Call 03-2051 7770 or visit galeripetronas.com.my for more information.