Poetry in Motion


Alexandra Tan
10 June 2013 - 12:00am

Sharing an interest in communicating poetic beauty, contemporary artists Ahmad Zakii Anwar, Chong Siew Ying and Kow Leong Kiang seem to evoke a certain lyrical mood in their paintings. However, their contemporaries like Jalaini Abu Hassan and Eric Chan seem to utilise the element of fleeting beauty to project a subtle message.

On the one hand, Kow, 43, typically draws on the figurative representation of people, either fictive or from his social circle. In many ways, his “Malay Girl” or “Dreamer” series of works do not seem to lend themselves to any anecdote.  He frames these figures or characters in idyllic settings.

With his Jogja Constellation (2009),  Kow painted oversized portraits of his artist friends such as Agus Suwage, Jumaldi Alfi, Eko Nugroho and Putu Sutawijaya. And in doing so, he created a sense of intimacy and curiosity to these soon-to-be larger than life characters. He uses a degree of photo collage and digital manipulation in his technique and disguises it heavily through the medium of paint and reflecting a hazy wash and transient form. Outwardly and inwardly searching, Kow’s oeuvre seems at once introspective and ethnographic. Currently, he has moved on to painting bare-chested male figures barely clad in a sarong. Paintings of the tanned, sinewy body and masculine features of the Malay male figure contrast dramatically from his demure Malay Girl series.


In the Mood for Love

As for Chong, 44, she  has been inspired by the cinema and the idea of projecting an emotional atmosphere visually without necessarily resolving the narrative. Wong Kar Wai, Hong Kong director of In The Mood For Love (2000), is cited as one of her influences. Her body of work is driven by her experiences and feelings. As such, her constant serialisation of motifs is, to a degree, autobiographical. Consistently she uses her signature physically charged brushwork despite shifting emotions and subject matters. Earlier paintings were dominated by figures and portraits, punctuated with serene landscapes and flowers, but her more recentInfinity series (2011) demonstrates a shift in focus, taking landscape and her vested interest in Chinese ink painting to the foreground. She draws from Chinese ideals in finding a harmonious and positive beauty and injects these with personal sentiments.

Meanwhile, Ahmad Zakii’s contributions to Malaysian art has been described as “spiritual naturalism” by artist and writer Anurendra Jegadeva, a former curator at Galeri Petronas in Kuala Lumpur.

Zakii, 59, often employs monochromatic or dichromatic schemes for his realistic depictions. Though subscribing to Islamic principles such as “ihsan” (excellence), he does not rely on an Islamic visual vocabulary to express his interests, or visualize his “rasa” (feeling). At the heart of his work there is an interest in the immaterial, with philosophical and intellectual questions. Looking at his paintings – particularly the Buddha, Smokers and Balinese series – he seems to explore alternative spirituality, and seems to find universal understanding of such realities. Zakii’s experience of painting is an intimate and spiritual one, yet it is a lived spirituality rather than preached, manifesting itself in darkly rich canvases.

Now in his late 50s, his recent re-marriage and the birth of a daughter have inspired him in a profound way, reflected in his choice of subjects and his notion of what is truly beautiful.


When Jalaini, 50, went to London to pursue his masters of fine art, he found himself isolated from his cultural roots. And so, he focused on making a stronger effort in connecting to them. Finding inspiration from his surroundings and traditions, Jai – as he is popularly known – “grounds” his work on Malaysian references, motifs and symbolism. His work is typically shaped by cultural elements found in our socio-political environment. Yet it would be unfounded to say that Jai’s work is exclusively “Malaysian”.  He has excellent command of form, as is exemplified in his many drawings. He later studied at the Pratt Institute in New York, where he began to bend the rules he was taught in London. It is through mastery of technique that one can overcome it. Hence, to appreciate Jai’s work is to appreciate his process. He continually transgresses the conventions of painting and drawing through the vehicle of Malaysian themes. Inevitably, he is searching for the truth. What that means is only apparent to the beholder or viewer of his art.


Singapore-based Eric Chan’s paintings seem to have a certain recurrent theme. Though conceptually, the 38-year-old’s work varies from series to series, underlying many of them is an exploration of duality, and multiplicity, of meaning. The duality of absence and presence is found in the form of photographic negatives, and the short life-span of flowers is an apt metaphor for ephemerality. It is a continual investigation in the construction of images, of seeing an image. From his earlier work as a student and spanning to hisBalik Kampung (2012) exhibition, these motifs are a constant feature.

His 2012 mixed media work, Hitchcock’s Love Affair with Abstract Expressionism, which was shown in London, seems to head towards a new direction. This composition appears to elevate his art to a three-dimensional realm. Taking inspiration from The Birds(1963), he responds to the symbolic raven, exploring the differences in cultural perception of the black bird motif.

These artists all have one thing in common: consistency. Their successes can be found in chasing their ideals over their work.  There is a delicate balance of constant evaluation and the danger of over-producing the same motifs, the same ideas. They are still active, and with every series of work they produce, they are constantly developing and growing.

Collectively, they rank among Malaysia’s most thought-provoking and interesting group of contemporary artists today.