‘Traces, Legacies, and Futures’ was a conversation on electronic art between Hasnul Jamal Saidon and myself, presented under the auspices o the Muzium dan Galeri Tuanku Fauziah, mediated by Ropesh Sitharan. It took place at 9pm (MYT) on 30 September 2020.
‘Traces, Legacies, and Futures’ is a live-streamed conversation on electronic art between Hasnul Jamal Saidon and myself, mediated by Ropesh Sitharan. It will take place at 9pm (MYT) on 30 September 2020. It will be accessible on –
Facebook Live https://www.facebook.com/mgtfusm
The practice of art is contextual in that it is responsive to, or critical of, the time in which it is performed. Especially a work of art that invites us to foresee the possibilities to come, akin to a message that tries to teach (some say warn) future generations. In this sense, an artist is not someone who mimics the ordinary for a palatable outreach, but who is ready and willing to use their talents to challenge norms and shift perceptions. This casual conversation with Hasnul and Niranjan probes such significant efforts of ‘shifting’ in their art practice – what we have come to refer to as ‘new media art’ today. It will address the diversity and the various trajectories in their practice that have substantially contributed to the ongoing conversations about art, culture and technology in our lives today. Indeed, it is hoped this conversation on past ideas, expressions and arguments by them will help preserve their legacy and launch critical inquiry into the future of electronic art in Malaysia as these ideas find their way to the relevant institutions.
In reflecting on my engagement with the art of Jeganathan Ramachandran, I clearly recall including his paintings in the exhibition I curated for the Balai Seni Lukis Negara in 2002 titled Bara Hati Bahang Jiwa. The exhibition was premised on the need to reconsider the established narrative on Expressionism in Malaysian art from the perspective of a post-colonial recovery. Skirting the pitfalls of essentialism and nationalism, I pitched the reconfiguration in terms of ethnic, ethnographic, regional and national considerations. I identified the underpinnings of a Malay approach to ‘expressionism’ and presented the representative artists this within a boarder national overview, placing the dominant Malay idiom within the wider pool of contemporary Malaysian expressions.
While my thesis was couched in the aesthetic and emotional proclivities of the Malays, I included Chinese and Indians artists even though they disrupted my neat Nusantara schematization which emphasized indigenous psychology and culture (amok, latah, adat and adab). I decided that I would try negotiate the essentially Malay aesthetics of my curatorial theme with the overarching multiethnic realities of the nation. The Indian and Chinese artists did not fit in neatly within my theme and, In this regard, I must acknowledge that, as a whole, Bara Hati Bahang Jiwa was somewhat unresolved, perhaps it was unresolvable by definition … as unresolvable as the idea of the Malaysian nation itself!
Given that I was going to include an Indian artist in the mix, regardless of the goodness of fit, I needed to identify an artist whose work exemplified and encapsulated contemporary Malaysian Indian expression on its own terms … Who would it be? ….. Jeganathan Ramachandran had been making his presence felt in the contemporary scene since the mid 1990’s, with his powerful figurative paintings. Having studied sculpture, woodcarving and painting from a traditional perspective, Jeganathan had been developing a direct and personal mode of expression that was nevertheless steeped in traditional Indian philosophy, psychology and science. I saw in his work the complete Malaysian Indian expression – religious, spiritual, mythical, metaphysical and, most importantly, social.
In a note sent to me in the course of our communication after the ASEAN Art Awards 1996 Jega had said, “I have always believed that art is not just a decorative medium but a powerful tool of expression and the deeper I looked within the Indian art context I saw the vast symbolic expressions that exist within the ‘rigid style’… Then I started painting in a narrative form much like the old times. Nearly every painting of mine had a story and every symbol I applied, new and old, further enhanced the story. During this time my involvement in spiritualism introduced me to many wondrous expressions and their visual impressions upon my mind took on new shapes and I started depicting them in my paintings.” Just as the Malay artists I had selected seemed to carry their particular traditions and psyche into the contemporary idiom of ‘Expressionism, Jega brought forth a deeply Indian expressiveness.
I included 4 of Jega’s works in Bara Hati Bahang Jiwa – ‘Invocation’ (2001) and ‘1 Tree = 40 Life Forms’ (2001) reflect this quest for a spiritual expression, with different degrees of reference to aspects of lived experience. ‘The House Slave’ (2001) is a response to the suffering of a friend in an abusive situation and a reflection on the plight of women caught within Indian social norms. Pictured above is the most expansive of the 4 works, both in scale and in thematic. It is titled ‘Fallout in the Garden of Life’ (1998). The artist has said “Kali is nature and she is fighting everything unnatural which has created imbalance on earth and all the people in the boat- like thing, that Noah’s Ark (my version). My belief is that nature will always protect those who are natural and the five hands represent the five elements (pancha butham). And notice the tree, that’s where it all starts.”
Rest in Peace Jega – Kali Kali Mahakali!
The above is a modified extract from my essay ‘Expression and Expressionism in Contemporary Malaysian Art’ published in 2002.
Rajah, Bara Hati Bahang Jiwa: Expression and Expressionism in Contemporary Malaysian Art, Kuala Lumpur: Balai Seni Lukis Negara, 2002.
With the sudden passing of Jagannathan Ramachandran Malaysians and Malaysian Indians in particular have lost a great practitioner of the arts, one who has bridged the traditions and techniques of his Indian legacy with the forms and formats of a modern Malaysian presentation. Jega’s life and work has embodied an exemplary post-traditional focus within the ever widening milieu of Malaysian contemporary art. I have known Jega since the beginning of his entry into the Malaysian mainstream and have written a little about the importance of understanding his approach properly.
In Malaysian modernism there is the official narrative of Islamic spirituality (see my essay “Insyirah Al Sadr: The art of Sulaiman Esa.) and then there are a whole host of other traditions that subsist and coexist, emerging and receding from prominence in the contemporary discourse. Following is an account of a personal encounter with Jega. One could say that, at this time Jega was an Indian artist, who determinedly been practicing Tantric methods of visualization on the periphery of the Malaysian mainstream. I met him after having been on a panel of judges that had selected his ‘Seeking an Answer: The Indian Migration’, 1996, for inclusion in the Phillip Morris Malaysia / ASEAN Art Awards exhibition 1996. We exchanged vanakams (greetings) and addresses, and some time later I received a package in the post containing examples of his work which I had asked for. I was surprised and disturbed by one of the works. It was an idealized portrait of myself in line and verse which seemed to have echoes of lord Shiva Nadaraja. I was embarrassed and considered writing back admonishing him for flattery and the cult of personality. Somehow, I did not write back but was left, nevertheless, pondering this image of myself. I felt there was some truth in the idealization but this made me even more upset as I felt, in contemplating this image, the expansion of my own ego.
Much later, it came my understanding that it was not the artist but the model who had responded inappropriately … I had taken the image personally! In this connection and as a kind of mitigation of my egocentricism, I must ask – which modern person would not have done so, it was after all ‘my’ portrait. I was wrong, of course! Jeganathan had received training in the arts of meditation and Samudrigham from a Himalayan master named Bootha Muni. Samudrigham or Samudrika Shastra is a descriptive art and part of a symbolic system based on the study of bodily features. Jeganathan explained that unlike in the West where physiognomy is defined as physical attributes which may index the individual’s personality, Tantra sees it as the link between man and the cosmic force. Every expression is brought through in the state of meditation and that which is formed in the moment of totalness, in pure slumber, can be nothing but creative impulse of the Maker … and by Maker, the great Maker of all!
Rest in Peace Jega – Om Nama Shivaya!
The above is a modified extract from my paper ‘Sacred Pictures Secular Frames’ published in 1998.
Rajah, N. ‘Sacred Pictures Secular Frames’ in Art Asia Pacific 17, 1998: 67-71.
Rajah, N. “Insyirah Al Sadr: The art of Sulaiman Esa.” in N. Rajah, ed. Insyirah: The Art of Sulaiman Esa from 1980-2000. Kuala Lumpur: Petronas, pp. 31-64, 2001
The official opening of an exhibition of the hitherto unreleased drawings of Zulkifli Dahalan was held on the 17th of May at the National Art Gallery, Kuala Lumpur. This exhibition was curated by Nur Hanim Khairuddin who kindly included an essay by myself in the catalogue. After I had completed and submitted my essay to Hanim, I was alerted to Hasnul Jamal Saidon’s extended review of the then newly released film Arrival on his Jiwa Halus Blog. The review was titled THE LATE ARRIVAL OF NON-LINEARITY: A NON-OBJECTIVE REFLECTION ON THE MOVIE “ARRIVAL” and was written as a series of three letters to the films director. I was delighted to find that Hasnul had chosen to conclude PART 3 of this innovative series by citing my own application of Keith Critchlow’s ideas on geometry in my essay on Sulaiman Esa for his Petronas Gallery retrospective Insyrah. Indeed, in Islamic geometry, the extension from point to line to plane, and back again, carries the allegory of space into that of time. The non-spatiality of the point in geometry and the bindu in Tantra are indifferent from the intemporal consciousness of the Sufi Ibn al-wakt or ‘son of the moment’. Beyond my superficial delight in finding my name at the ‘point’ of closure of Hasnul’s marvellous serial letter, I was profoundly moved by the fact that after nearly two decades with only occasional contact, our inner rhythms seem to be in perfect synchronicity. You see, Hasnul had appraised Arrival in terms of abstraction, geometry and the Islamic ideas of Shirik (interdiction against life-like representations or concentrations), Tawhid (multivalent singularity) and Fitrah (the original state of man). And I, in my newly submitted catalogue essay, had attempted to interpret the figuration and humanism of Zulkifli Dahlan in exactly the very same terms.