Not solely in pursuit of art for art’s sake, artists Bayu Utomo Radjikin, Ahmad Shukri Mohammad, Eston Tan, Peter Liew and Eng Tay, find meaning and purpose in drawing from and engaging with life.
Bayu and Shukri, both 44, are founding members of Matahati, an artist collective that focuses on painting. “Mata”, the eye, drawing from seeing, and “hati”, the heart, so to speak, to do with feeling, the portmanteau means “to see with one’s heart”. The strength of their paintings comes from responding to life. Their art has to have a purpose in view while responding to the world around them.
Bayu began his artistic career highlighting global social issues such as poverty and war at Universiti Teknologi Mara (UiTM). In 1991, Bayu came to critical acclaim with Bujang Berani (Bujang the Brave), a sculpture depicting the anguish of a tribal warrior chief. Hailing from Sabah, he questions identity and culture. After a two-year stint in London, his work reflects an introspective exploration of his own ethnic identity. Bayu paints for himself, and the giant figures and self-portraits in the 2007 Mind The Gap exhibition at Wei-Ling Gallery in Kuala Lumpur, demonstrates the early development of the kinds of questions Bayu asks and seeks to resolve about his universe – issues of race, the ideal Malay identity, framed through characters of Malay mythology and text.
Shukri’s work, conversely, draws from his habitat and surroundings. Living in the midst of a forest reserve in Bandar Puncak Alam, Selangor, Shukri cannot seem to escape from the sense of inevitable and impending destruction of the forests around him. His work is deeply imbued with greenery and ecosystems, sometimes conveying a sense of loss. Often animals are shown to be part of a dream-like landscape, such as Raja Hutan (2007). Combining contemporary mixed media technique of painting and printage, Shukri’s idyllic forest scenes, feature both industrialisation and nature co-existing in a fine balancing act.
Often highlighting nature is Eston Tan, 41. Like Shukri, he also shows interest in social issues. His 2012 exhibition 26 Degrees Celsius (Penang State Museum & Art Gallery) alluded to global warming. Whether celebrating the enjoyment of greenery or raising awareness to protect it, there is commonality in the way he chooses to represent these themes. Whether he chooses a palette of dark, “brooding” colours or resort to bright greens to depict a lighter mood, there is an overwhelming amount of paint on his canvases. This thick impasto technique is one he shares with Peter Liew.
Liew, 58, takes the same technique to highlight our cultural heritage. He plants his buildings onto natural landscapes, capturing the atmosphere with expressionistic layers of paint. For Liew and Tan, the conceptual strength of their oil paintings lies in the texture. As an en plein air painter, Liew paints quickly on the spot, shaping the buildings and foliage through light and shadow. By avoiding human figures in his work, Liew seems to shy away from any narrative. But nevertheless, his work focuses on the structures that shape the human experience. He acknowledges the collective memory, on being a painterly ambassador for his generation and being a Malaysian artist.
Conversely, Eng Tay, 66, removes himself from these concerns. He looks for universality, such that his works can be enjoyed by all who see it. Working in various mediums, including bronze and oil paint, his work is often centred around families, rotund women or musicians. His paintings with placid, stylised faces seem to represent the modern pastoral world while the bronzes of musicians seem to be engaged in our physical world and project a sense of calmness. For Tay, the recognisable patina of his bronzes, adds a sense of human warmth and is perhaps, also designed to be weather resistant. For this reason, the statues can be installed outdoors, as fixtures that also shape the human experience. Commissioned by a property company in 2006, Tay created two 3m tall figures erected at the entrance of the Kiaraville condominium project in Mont’ Kiara. There are only two other luxury condominium projects in KL with a million ringgit Eng Tay sculpture on the driveway.
The truths espoused in these artists’ works are drawn from their lives. In turn, they seek to share their experiences with the viewer through different means.