Saturday, 26 July 2014
I was at the Nanyang Touch exhibition, housed in the Chinese Assembly Hall, Kuala Lumpur. Amidst swaying crimson Chinese drapes, Dr Cheah Thien Soong, president of Cao Tang Men Eastern Arts Society and master Nanyang Chinese ink painter, was waxing lyrically eloquent in Mandarin. His dignified white pony tail nodded as he talked. It was a testimony to his comfortable earnestness, in that hall, in this year of the horse (Ma), now galloping past it's 2014 zenith. It was Nanyang Touch, the Cao Tang Men Eastern Arts Society exhibition, and the hall was bedecked with Chinese dignitaries, Chinese ink painting artists and their brush-stroked, absorbent paper works hung as testimonies to diligence.
The red lanterns were raised, but without Yimou Zhang filming was restricted to stills. The insistent flash of digital photography, illuminating earnest speakers and idle gawkers alike, caught us all like rabbits in the glare, but we all became enlightened, in many other ways, during those hours of the exhibition.
The Chinese Assembly Hall, tucked away at Kuala Lumpur’s No.1, Jalan Maharajalela, was acutely reminiscent of a bygone era. There were shades and echoes of 1930s Art Deco amidst its Neo—Classical structure, but now anachronistic, ageing, worn by so many operas, rumbustious speechifying and the annual Gong Xi Fa Choi bon homie. In another age, and in another ‘motherland’, red cheeked, moon faced young maidens might have peered from the balconies, at spring or moon festivals, proud of their heritage, culture, their simple good fortune at being born into a race of such exceptionally talented people.
It was to honour both Dr Cheah Thien Soong and his hard working, persistently artistic students, that the illustrious and the talented were gathered, seated, intent on Mandarin speakers on the crimson stage. Dr Cheah Thien Soong, in this the year of the horse, was represented in Chinese ink, painted, sitting proud on his black stallion mount, like Sun Wu, smiling broadly for his audience. Dr Cheah Thien Soong is chief, a general of the arts, he is a Nanyang innovator, inspiring yet another generation of creative beings.
Dr Cheah is a former Nanyang (South Seas) Academy of Fine Arts (Singapore) student. Nanyang, if you will remember, led the way from the 1930s, to somewhere in the 1980s/90s, as a most original and perhaps even profound school of art. Taking its name from the region it was in, Nanyang had been one of many such, predominately Chinese, art schools springing up as Chinese immigrant artists fled their homeland, and settled in Singapore during the 1930s. Nanyang, founded by artist and teacher Lim Hak Tai, was the only one to survive the Japanese invasion, and gradually became a haven for visiting Chinese artists, giving lectures. After secession from Malaysia (1965), both Singapore and Nanyang grew exponentially.
Other than being the premier art school in the region, the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts was responsible for developing a unique fusion of Western (Paris) and Eastern (China) styles of art, emerging from out of what was loosely called the Shanghai School. Singapore in those years between 1920s and the 1950s was a melting-pot of cultures, with Western artists and Chinese artists visiting and exhibiting. Oil on canvas, and ink on paper, were equally valid and valued in the Nanyang Academy. It is rumoured that it was a trip to Bali (1952), by Cheong Soo Pieng, Chen Chong Swee, Chen Wen Hsi and Liu Kang, that hastened the metamorphosis of styles, bringing a greater awareness of the region to those Chinese artists, who were so impressed with the brightness of colours, and the general ambiance of that Hindu island.
Nanyang broke with Chinese tradition for the ink painting artists, and stirred up a renewed vigour for the oil painters who, perhaps, were subconsciously working through echoes of Western Post-Impressionism, and in particular those semi-erotic images delivered to a Victorian world by Paul Gaugin, imaging his South Seas. Elements of local (Indonesian, Singaporean and Malaysian) flora and fauna began to insinuate themselves onto absorbent ink papers, deviating from the strict signs, symbols and metaphors associated with traditional Chinese ink painting. Georgette Chen, educated in Paris, New York and Shanghai, brought her own fusion of Eastern and Western styles to Nanyang when she moved to Singapore (from Penang) in 1954.
The Malaysian Institute of Art (MIA), Malaysia’s first school of art, from which my own dear wife graduated, was founded in Kuala Lumpur (1966) by Chung Chen Sun, who himself was a graduate of the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts. Dr Cheah Thien Soong, one of my wife’s teachers, graduated also from the Nanyang, in 1962, and in 1990 began teaching at the Malaysian Institute of Art to continue the innovations began in Singapore so many years previously.
In that Kuala Lumpur Assembly Hall, the fusion of local imagery and authentic Chinese brushwork was nowhere more evident than in those magnificent images of red-headed hornbills, bustling marketing women, bedazzling bright blue and green peacocks and the majestic jackfruit, plump, hanging, barely able to contain the gravity begging the pair to spread their seeds in the waiting, fecund, earth.
In the Nanyang Touch exhibition, Malaysia was seen with fresh, excited eyes, rendered with practised dexterity and presented to an anxiously waiting public with aplomb. Ink brush painting was revealed as more adroit, more adventurous than ever could have been imagined in Shanghai. That tentative grafting, began in the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts in Singapore, had quite literally borne fruit in those two hanging Artocarpus heterophylli (Nangka) which served as symbols of a bright new future for that Nanyang Touch, which Dr Cheah Thien Soong strives each year to preserve and prosper.
To say that the exhibition was a success was to underestimate the whole enterprise. It was a superb undertaking by a skilled team, lead by an enthused leader committed to his art and to the crafts of his culture and heritage. In its links to the forerunners of Malaysia’s art eduction system, Nanyang Touch reminds us all of the debt that Malaysia owes to both the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts and to the Malaysian Institute of Art, their teachers and their graduates.
Sunday, 20 July 2014
Beauty is eternity gazing at itself in a mirror.
Is ‘mirroring’, that reflecting of ourselves back to ourselves, ‘Darshan'? If the ‘god’ is within us, or if we are made in the image of a ‘god’, then is mirroring being in the presence of god, or Darshan (in sanskrit)? Are we seeing with ‘reverence and devotion’ in order to receive the grace and blessings of the supreme and omnipresent, through mirroring? Through mirroring are we averting our eyes/mind ‘heavenwards’ or ‘skywards’ in the act of ‘Akash’, or grounding the spiritual? In the ‘Vedas’, specifically Shrimad Bhagavatam (1.2.32), it mentions that “The Lord as Supersoul pervades all things, just as fire permeates wood, and so He appears to be of many varieties, though He is the absolute one without a second.” I will leave you to ponder these questions.
Mirroring The Centre….the science of positive vibrations, this is the current exhibition on at the Indian Cultural centre, Cap Square, Kuala Lumpur. It is a solo exhibition, and the 10th such of the well respected Malaysian Indian artist, and poet, Jeganathan Ramachandram.
Though this fresh exhibition is concerned with intricacies and intimacies of Hinduism, science and Sakti (energy), in true Platonic philosophic style the artist/poet Jeganathan also presents his viewers with enough layers, in the philosophical as well as in the textual depth of his paintings, to fascinate and enthral even the most casual glance. We are given the choice, wether to skim the surface of his canvases, and accept the paintings for the obvious beauties they are, or delve to whichever layer of meaning we are capable, or incapable, of ‘reading’, and gain either a fleeting or a more measured and extremely profound extrapolation of signs, symbols and metaphors, enough to enrich our soul. But, of course, like life, what you take away mostly depends upon what you bring to the party/launch.
I am old enough to have been a ‘flower child’, a ‘hippy’, listening to The Beach Boys sing Good Vibrations (1967). In the 1960s American street vernacular, it was all about ‘vibes’ (radiating aura or feelings). Beach Boys’ songwriter Brian Wilson heard the notion of ‘vibes’ first from his mother, but many young Westerners were interested in Oriental philosophies and theologies, the lure of India and exotica of Hinduism. Jeganathan reminds us that Western science has laid claim to the ‘discovery’ of atoms, their movement - vibration, is something that Hinduism had been aware of for centuries. Om, an oft repeated mantra, is regarded as being three separate sounds aa-au-ma, and is symbolic of the three major deities (the Trimurti) in Hinduism - Brahma the creator, Vishnu the preserver and Shiva the destroyer. Om is an intonation of the constant sound (vibration) of the world. Om, it is believed, when intoned correctly, can vibrate to one’s very soul (Atman).
Like the Indipop duo Colonial Cousins’ (Hariharan and Leslie Lewis) song Krishna Ni Begane Baaro (Krishna come soon) where Krishna, Rama, Jesus etc are invoked to save the world, Jeganathan brings a host of deities into his own exhibition, perhaps revealing them (simply?) as incarnations of the same soul (Atman), the same cosmic, eternal, vibration which we, humans, mirror. Buddha is shown, painted, as The Moment, in his blue splendour and saffron robes, sitting serenely by another canvas, that of Jesus. We are reminded of John the Baptist, referring to Jesus as ‘the Lamb of God’ (Look, there goes the Lamb of God), for within Jeganathan’s painting The Messenger, the bearded ‘god’ figure, replete with halo and cherub, holds and pets a lamb in his arms. Ganesha is represented in more than one painting, Krishna is there, and Murugan too gets a look in.
The exhibition resounds with vibrating spirituality. Jeganathan has always had a leaning towards the more aesthetic and the devotional. Ursula k.Le Guin wrote ‘I talk about the gods, I am an atheist. But I am an artist too, and therefore a liar. Distrust everything I say. I am telling the truth’. Jeganathan is not an atheist, and though an artist, strives for truth in Hindu science, poetics and revelation through painting.
His recent paintings glow. Jeganathan has achieved a scintillating glimmer to these works, an almost phosphorescence, which was revealed under UV light at the opening of his exhibition. Not in form, but in many other respects Jeganathan’s glowing spirituality approach to this series is reminiscent of the Dali acolyte, the American born Robert (Bob) Venosa. Venosa’s ‘Mirch Technique’ of bright tempera and oil painting (rendering pigment in layers, allowing light to pass through, reflecting off a white gesso surface on a prepared panel) is a revival of Renaissance painting. Jeganathan’s technique is different, but the brilliant, near candescent effects of this group of paintings are lustrous like those of Venosa.
Despite the urgings from some quarters, I see no similarities between the English artist and creator of the Hymn Jerusalem - William Blake and Jeganathan Ramachandran. If we were looking for painters as Renaissance men (all rounders) we might have pointed more towards Rabindranath Tagore, or Salvador Dali (painter, sculptor, writer, author and creator of his own museum) or to Jean Cocteau, artist, poet and film maker or, should we feel the need to extend beyond Modernism - Dante Gabriel Rossetti. But little of that helps us understand the painter poet, poet painter who is the exceptional man that Jeganathan Ramachandram really is.
To understand the man, the reader or the viewer needs to read Jeganathan’s sublime poetry and gaze upon his scintillating artworks. There his soul is laid bare, his intentions clear, but profound. Find time, do visit this, or any of his many exhibitions, take a closer look at Jeganathan’s output. Understand that he mirror’s himself, and through himself, us. To gaze upon his paintings we comprehend better the connection that we all share, as we are in turn connected to the many universes, mirroring them, mirroring us, vibrating together, harmoniously and with truthful beauty too.
Friday, 18 July 2014
In the summer, while school was out, Honey Khor took her second yearly trip to Northern Spain. Eventually landing in Barcelona, she navigated the transport system to bring herself back to the small town of Figueres, in the province of Girona, and the friends she had made there. The delicate Catalan light effused with the memory of summery scents, fresh mottled apples, ripened strawberries and creatively misshapen brilliant red tomatoes, presented itself unashamedly to the keen-eyed Malaysian Chinese artist.
Honey had travelled continents, traversed the intricacies of transportations to return to her adoptive ‘family’ in that very special region of Spain - Catalonia, partly French partly Spanish. Skies, under which the poet Lorca wrote and Hemmingway drank, gave up a serene Mediterranean dark phthalo blue, through which barely a titanium white cloud had drifted. Honey, in her new electrically night green dress and vividly tangerine hat, ducked sweet olive branches and once more sketched her way into ancient Catalonian hearts more used to the Surrealistic eccentricities of their beloved Salvador Dalí i Domènech.
Thirteenth century Figueres, birthplace of Dali and luscious figs, sprouted green, fresh. Amidst manganese violet, madder and cooling blues the town presented antique stone facades, squares, statues and a promenade - la rambla arched with shading trees. The awed artist delighted in contrast shadow, keen streaks of sun. Majestic monuments were painted in watercolour, uniquely rendering the dry heat of Orwell’s Catalonia, and its welcoming golden sun.
Figueres market brought all the colour and flavour of the comarca of Alt Empordà in one delicious arena. While housewives and tourists sampled cheeses, dates, meats and fresh fruits Honey, in her Andy Warhol soup-tin dress, squatted and, with luscious strawberries, painted the vividness of the market environs. Strawberry pits can still be seen beneath the vigorous carmine on watercolour paper, her fingers stained with the colour and sweet, flavoursome juices.
Hotel Duran, gourmet haven for all that is Dali and Gala, sheltered the artist in its notable Dali room. She sketched portraits of the Duran family as thank-you gifts for all the late night chocolate drinks and delicate pastries Se·ñor (Mr) Duran proffered. She talked endlessly with the Duran children and became beloved by the family. She is an adopted Chinese granddaughter, the young Malaysian cousin and devourer of delicious midnight Crema Catalana. Honey stayed there, surrounded by the paraphernalia of Dali, his litho prints, newspaper cuttings, and photographs with the Durans.
In the cooling evening, gold ochre nuts (from leafy Hazel) littered cobbles near the majestic 11th century Romanesque bridge, in the antique town of Besalú. Sanguine, the colour of a poet’s blood,moss green and ebony olives succulent in their virgin oil, sat in a partially open bag as Honey perched on an ancient rock. She was sketching the monastery, and church, of Sant Pere (St. Peter). She had journeyed past lemon fields of Van Gogh sunflowers to that medieval town, stopping briefly to wallow in the acres of golden flowers. She sat by tumbling waters and remained dazzled by the splendid vistas that Catalonia had to offer. Her driver, non other than that former family friend of the late Salvador and Gala Dali, and new friend to Honey - Se·ñor Duran.
The Catalan coast is truly brave. It is ridden rough-shod over by the sea, forming coves, caves and moulding hearts exuding bravado in their welcoming of strangers. Honey headed for the sea side town of Cadaqués. The beloved coastal town of Salvador Dali, Picasso, the American visionary artist Robert (Bob) Venosa and Walt Disney. Honey sipped lemon beer (cerveza de limon) while sketching sea vistas; delicately capturing the fuchsia sky closing toward sunset. Red sea vessels echoed the tiles of distant roofs, prominent amidst the green of plentiful olive trees. That painting may be found in Hotel Duran and is the property of it collector - Señora (Mrs) Duran.
It was in Cadaqués that Honey met Joan Vehí, Dali’s good friend, frame maker and, eventually, the photographer whom we have to thank for so many images of Dali, his family and his life. Vehí, bald, creased with years but still smiling his magical smile, regaled Honey with remembrances of his contacts with Dali, the portraits, the craziness, the honesty and the loyalty of Dali. Sitting with an architect friend,Ignacio Puras Abad, in the cafe Rosa Azul, Cadaqués, Honey dipped her brush into the remains of her Catalan coffee, and painted her friend’s portrait. It was a technique she had developed in her home town of Bukit Mertajam, in Malaysia, and produces a richness of line and deep bistre brown colour, far superior to those of normal watercolour.
For a moment, Honey dreamed a sighing dream of home. Silhouettes of coconut and banana, but in Spain she was comforted by the trailing vines of gorgeous grape and the sweet, pulpy blackberries of Port Lligat, rambling near Dali’s former home. In Port Lligat, Honey took sketch notes in her light rose carmine ‘two way’ opening double-sketch pad (especially made by a friend in Singapore). She stood in front of Dali’s painting of Gala as a Leda, approached by the swan Zeus (a replica for tourists), a Catalonia seascape in the background. Others gawped and gaped, hastily taking photographs. Honey, instead, sketched to the delight of fellow tourists. In the Dali olive grove, Honey sprang from a hatched Dali egg, an artist reborn, a tiara of olive leaves and moss green olives in her hair, all smiles, reaching for the life-giving sun.
Her Catalonian journey continued with walks from Sant Martí d’Empúries to L’Escala, Roses and around the uniquely charming small city, and Roman citadel, of Girona, all the time sketching furiously as she went. Sauntering down shaded alleyways, climbing cathedral steps, gazing at rivers from tentative bridges, Honey soaked up the Mediterranean atmosphere, easing into the casual lifestyle of coffees and pastries, olives and Cava.
Back in Figueres, Honey took a small troupe of the Duran children to sketch the gothic Church of Sant Pere, seated opposite the Dalicatessen Cafe, in Career Sant Pere, and adjacent to the Dali Museum. Honey and the children thrilled at that opportunity to be together and to sketch together, to the delight and entertainment of those waiting in line for tickets to the Dali Museum. It is in that very Dalicatessen cafe, in a large gallery set aside for such purposes, and owned by Martí Dacosta, that Honey held her exhibition of acrylic paintings inspired by her visit to Catalonia. She was interviewed by Cristina Vilà of l’Empordà - a local Spanish newspaper. Both Martí Dacosta and Se·ñor Duran looked on like proud Catalan fathers.
Then, almost as quickly as it had begun, Honey’s sojourn in Figueres, Catalonia and Spain, was finished. With more than a little sadness, Se·ñor Duran drove Honey the full length of Figueres town, past La rambla, and past the farmer’s market to the waiting train station. He bade her a teary farewell. Honey was happy to return to her beloved Malaysia, her home, family and the children she teaches, but had left a large part of her heart in Figueres, and many paintings too, which are now in collections there.
This article can be found in Art Malaysia magazine number 27, July 2014.
Sunday, 29 June 2014
Covers for the e-magazine Dusun, Malaysia's best known and best loved Asian Arts and Culture e-magazine, now in its third year.
Dusun has grown from covering exclusively Malaysian Arts to covering the Arts of Asia, with regular features from Singapore, The Philippines and Cambodia.
Dusun aims to cover all the Arts of Asia, over time, and welcomes contributions about Asia and or by people of Asian descent. Dusun is a free e-magazine, and therefore cannot pay for contributions and hopes that contributors endure the spirit of Dusun, as a 'giving back'.
Saturday, 28 June 2014
The case against public murals in Malaysia.
To gild refined gold, to paint the lily,
To throw a perfume on the violet,
To smooth the ice, or add another hue
Unto the rainbow, or with taper-light
To seek the beauteous eye of heaven to garnish,
Is wasteful and ridiculous excess.
The Life and Death of King John,
Act 4, Scene 2, William Shakespeare
Recently there has been a rash of murals in public places, in cities, across Malaysia. Kuala Lumpur has largely limited this paint daubing to the banks of the rivers which converge to form the name of that city. Penang, under a misguided attempt to woo tourists, and appease tourist ministers, has begun a mass titivation and re-painting process, with the inclusion of public statuary and public art (murals). Ipoh too has caught mural fever, and has hastily painted the side of very public buildings to cover whatever innate charm they may have had if left un painted. These public paintings present the general public with a fait accompli, an ’artist's view' of what they think should be grabbing our attention.
While I agree that many painted images, including some murals, are amazingly beautiful to look at, skilfully executed and perhaps done with the best of intentions, there are many good reasons why the art of mural painting had died down, until it's renaissance in the mid twentieth century. The realisation that it was more difficult to upkeep a mural than a portable artwork is one reason why murals declined, but I feel that another reason is the innate beauty of walls and their interaction with their environment, and with nature, as opposed to we public being subjected to the mind, eye and hand of the muralist, however well intentioned. It has also been mentioned that in the early 20th century, and later, murals appeared in Mexico and in places in North America, with the least literacy.
It could be said that murals are as much as an imposition as billboard advertising, in public spaces. Mural painting is an anti-aesthetic, it is the difference between a book and a film of the same story. A book (usually the product of one person's storytelling) engages your imagination, works with you, whereas a film (the vision of a whole team of people) sets out everything for you, tells rather than engages. That is what I fear murals do. It is the very people who prefer plastic Christmas Trees over real ones, or artificial flowers over ones whose petal drop, or prefer to wander around listening to an iPod instead of the life about them. People, effectively, willingly disengaged from the natural world, and yet imposing their aesthetic upon others.
There is a beauty, an authentic aesthetic to an outside wall often chipped, with broken bricks, plaster starting to decay with black mould or green moss. It may be an end to a house where the next door building has been demolished, revealing where staircases had once stood, rooms were coloured etc. but there is an unplanned, naturally occurring beauty to that.
There is a simple, and yet timeless beauty, in ageing buildings such as Britain's Elizabethan Shakespeare's cottage, The Egyptian Pyramids, Ancient British Stonehenge, Cambodia's Angkor Wat, Jordan’s Petra, Java’s Borobudur etc., and no one is suggesting they be mural painted, tarted up, made smart and acceptable for tourists visiting. No, they are left to their natural beauty for visitors to capture for themselves, the original and authentic ambiance of those places mentioned. Then why must older inner-city buildings be subjected to a marring of their natural beauty, by murals.
Shakespeare wrote the phrase - to gild the lily, to take something which is naturally beautiful and cover it with a metal made precious by man. The innate beauty of the lily is destroyed, that naturally occurring beauty disappears to be covered by something of less beauty but of more financial value. This is what murals do, they cover an evolving authentic beauty with paint. They take away our imaginations and replace them with someone else's vision, to make reference to something else entirely, to the detriment of the natural beauty of the surface they are painted on.
Many would argue against this, I know, and cite successful mural programmes that reflected the culture of the area (as in the Northern Ireland murals), or attempt to engage tourism, (the Penang and Ipoh murals). But isn't that really just gilding the lily. Instead of finding a way to engage in a dialogue regarding naturally occurring, or evolving, beauty, we are subjected to the artifice of dubious mural beauty thrust into our sight, whether we appreciate it or not.
My thesis, therefore, is for city planners to learn how to appreciate the innate beauty in the buildings we already have, rather than seek to cover that beauty with a dubious and transient aesthetic. To, in fact, unnecessarily gild the lily.
Sunday, 15 June 2014
|Always Leafing Never Staying, 2006|
Continuing the series of digital artworks created while I was living in rural Malaysia.
I had started using digital layering in Photoshop back in England, some decade and a half ago. By the time I have left England for Malaysia I had given up physical painting altogether. I just was not practical to carry bags of gouache colours and paintbrushes around with me.
Digital layering relies on me taking many digital photographic images of the countryside around me, often cutting out the main image, by hand, then adding different photographs, in layers and manipulating their density, colour, sometimes erasing parts of the photographs to let other layers show through.
The final image is arrived at in a process similar to abstract painting, in so much as you know, roughly, where you want to end up but anything can, and does, happen along the way. I stress that ALL the images I use are taken by me, not rummaged from the internet. It is important that I am the whole originator of these images, that I have selected the images all the way through the process trying to ascertain the 'essence' of Malaysian rural life, at any one moment in time.