Langkawi through Latiff

By

Khai Hori
7 June 2018 - 3:20pm

In his retrospective featuring 60 years of practice at the Balai Seni Visual Negara in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia (2013), Latiff Mohidin’s development was illustrated as belonging to 3 periods. First was the ‘formative period’, followed by the ‘meditative period’ and ‘gestural period’. Langkawi (1976–1980) is illustrated as belonging to the ‘meditative period’, sandwiched between Mindscape series 1 (1974) and Mindscape series 2 (1976). This ‘meditative period’ was described as ‘the period whereby the stylistic and compositional tone of Latiff Mohidin’s art becomes fairly ‘controlled’ or perhaps ‘calmer’ when compared to his more constructive expressive creations in the preceding period’. [1]

 

In 1974, two years before starting work on Langkawi, Latiff co-founded and was active with the remarkably consequential Anak Alam artist collective. Anak Alam, loosely translated as Child of Nature, was a revolutionary, avantgarde collective of visual artists, poets, writers, dramatists and other creatives seeking alternative ideas in an environment laden with politicised, fiery debates on ‘national culture’ amidst a decade of post-independent sentiments. Prior, the National Culture Congress meet in 1971 had resolved to use Malay culture and Islam amongst key pivot points in drafting Malaysia’s existent National Culture Policy. [2]

 

The founding of Anak Alam was preceded two years earlier by an exhibition and accompanying manifesto titled Towards a Mystical Reality (1972) by Redza Piyadasa and Sulaiman Esa, amplifying a bold statement to ‘revolutionise modern Malaysian art’. [3] While Piyadasa and Sulaiman Esa dealt head-on with perennial discourses on ‘east’ versus ‘west’ centricity right after the 1971 national culture and identity debates, Anak Alam circles in on a more human, universal perspective; on purpose, values, readers and readings. The manifesto of Anak Alam Generation (as they were known) was laid akin a poem, a stark contrast to the 6-part, 20-page, somewhat ‘heroic’ argument of Redza Piyadasa and Sulaiman Esa. Between the two, Anak Alam appears more embracing and compassionate, openly inviting ‘all art practitioners from all branches of arts who feel this tremor and turmoil and are with us in this manifesto are our comrades in the same vassal.’[4] The point of covenant between the two appears in their reconsideration of the wisdom, knowledge, philosophies and spirituality of Asia, Southeast Asia and the Malay Archipelago. The undertaking appears for Piyadasa and Sulaiman like a mission in engaging an elusive ‘mysticism’ that bridges art with earthly realities and away from optical ‘illusions’ of the artist. For Latiff, the restless local environment of the early 1970s had made it even more necessary to take some time off, to meditate, dissolve and distil the dissonance and clamour of a rapidly urbanised civil society. Nevertheless, both struggles underline a need to return cultural authorship to artists while acting as echo chambers of discordant ground sentiments between artists and the bureaucrats.

 

Since early in his formation as an artist, Latiff Mohidin have always related and firmly held by the principles of ‘nature and elders advice’.[5] Born in 1941 in a Malay-Minangkabau village of Lenggeng in Negeri Sembilan, Malaysia, Latiff experienced a close link to traditional Minangkabau culture. For instance, here, Adat Pepatih, a matrilineal customary law and guiding principles brought to Malaysia through settlers from Sumatra in the 1400s [6] is still referenced by its community today, even if not entirely practiced. The culture of the Minangkabaus is laden with sophisticated lyrical idioms, communal creeds infused by Islam, an almost devotional appreciation for nature; and the spirit of merantau (journeying), specially to contribute to the village economy. Men in the community have after all, been described as ‘pipit jantan tak bersarang’ or ‘male sparrows without nest’.[7] In the community, the value of a journeyman’s worldview is as treasured as the capital he brings. As an example, should a man return empty after years of merantau, it is his acquired wisdom and experience that is expected as contribution for the betterment of his community.[8] Latiff not only respected the principles of traditional adat (customs) but also evidently embraced this very spirit of merantau in cultivating and contextualising his art.

 

While journeys to the Mekong region in mainland Southeast Asia informed the thinking behind his watershed Pago-Pago (1964-1969) series, it is Langkawi, the legendary and mythical island located north-west of the Malaysian peninsula and state of Kedah that provided the much-needed respite and inspiration for the artist in what have often been described as a restless [9] period of his grand journey.

 

And unlike Pago-Pago, Mindscape 1 (1974), Mindscape 2 (1976), Gelombang (1988), Rimba (1998) and Voyage (2007), Langkawi (1976 – 1980) singles itself out as the only series in Latiff Mohidin’s vast oeuvre directly titled after an actual, physical site. A quick read on the island reveals a rich and magical history most commonly anchored around the eventful burning of rice supplies at Padang Matsirat to cripple Siamese invaders and the fleeing of its native inhabitants as a consequence of the tragic death and curse set by a beautiful damsel named Mahsuri.

 

Within the Malay Archipelago, wood is a material employed for the most significant istana (palace) to the humble centong (rice ladle). The exclusive use of wood as primary substrate for Langkawi is an indication that further relates Latiff to tradition. In the tradition of Malay artistans, the selection of wood species not only depended on their availability, but also on the strength of its innate semangat (spirit). [10] As an example, Malay woodcarvers prefer to use the kemuning and kenaung woods for the hilts of the keris (Malay dagger) not only for its distinctive decorative properties, but also in the belief that these woods possess ‘good spirit that must be respected and that will accompany the weapon’.[11] As reflected in one Minangkabau teromba (poetic lyrics), the kemuning also has its place in the compounds of the rumah gadang (traditional house) to tie horses to.[12]

 

As a relentless wanderer, poet, artist and intellect, Latiff’s choice in seeking respite on Langkawi island appears not as simple a coincidence or convenience. The Langkawi that Latiff visited was not the same as the one we know today. It was not until 1986 that Langkawi was officially launched as a tourist destination, and in fact, the first flight into Langkawi was made by a propeller driven Malaysian Airlines Fokker F27 on 4 December 1986 [13].
 

Before falling into British hands in the 20th century, the historical roots of Kedah and Langkawi island were tied to the 2nd century Thai Langkasuka kingdom, 8th century Buddhist Sriwijaya kingdom, 15th century Pattani kingdom, and 19th century Sultanate of Kedah. Flowing between these historic transitions, anthropologists found clues to artistic practices guided by spiritual beliefs through an evolution of its little-spoken woodcraft heritage. In the animistic Langkasuka period for example, there exist a style of woodcarving known as Kelopak Dewa (God’s Petals) inspired primarily by elements such as earth, air, water and fire. Later in the 16th century, with the presence of Islam, the floral looking patterns evolved into what is known as Kelopak Maya (Petals of the Virtual Universe). In this version, the representation of local plants and flowers emerged, partly as an acknowledgement of the presence and greatness of God (Allah). On to the 18th century, Kelopak Hidup (Living Petals) took over eschewing the same tributes to divinity only this time, with freer form of artistic expression to its design. These measures of cultural civilisations continue to live and could be found in the Malay palaces of today.[14]

 

When they were first presented at Tunku Chancellor Hall at the University of Malaya in December 1976, the Langkawi series were billed as ‘wall sculptures’, not paintings. The same attribute was used when they were subsequently exhibited in Latiff’s solo exhibitions in Penang (1977 and 1979) and in Bangi (1980). As sculptures, they solicit to be observed beyond the two-dimensions that paintings are typically subject of. While most run flat and parallel to the wall they hung on, others curved in concave or convex from its side, while some others ‘distend’ and ‘rise’ at its center. They were constructed with a combination of plywood, wood strips and stretched canvasses. Taking on the roles of carpenter and painter, all of them were formed wholly by Latiff himself. They were painted with oil paints, but not with the bold, recognizable brush strokes typically observed on Pago-Pago, Gelombang or Rimba. Only quieter and more calculated, the paint technique on Langkawi takes after the earlier Mindscape series. On their façade, drops of colours are dribbled with restraint, each overlapping the one before to eventually form a complete, constructed colour field environment. One could trace this overlapping, dripping, ‘streaking’ and chiaroscuro-like approach to works such as Penjual Sate (1959), Reading the Koran (1959), Pangkor/Pago-Pago (1967), Imago Kelam (1968), Mindscape IV (1973) and Mindscape 49/Blue (1983).

 

And while many in the folio were titled Langkawi followed by respective numbered sequence or subtitles, others carry concise titles such as Laut (sea), Rembang (high noon), Tanjung (promontory), Suria (sunshine) and Fajar (daybreak). One notable piece is Langkawi Putih (white Langkawi) dated 1977 now in the collection of the National Visual Arts Gallery of Malaysia. This particular piece is fondly known as the Mahsuri, alluding to the well-known history of the slain damsel who bled white blood at her injudicious execution in the 18th century, giving off additional suggestions to Latiff’s accommodating relationship with Malay history and traditions. Given the conventions of the artistic climate he was enveloped by at that time, Latiff’s choice to refer to Langkawi as ‘wall sculptures’ and to use wood instead of canvas as a  substrate broke the norms of ‘painting’. As a coincidence, we know wood to be the choice material for artisans and architects of the Nusantara (Malay Archipelago).

 

Each piece of Langkawi wall sculpture is fundamentally composed of 3-parts. A half-dome connects to the top of a rectangular center-piece while another, an inverted dome, is joined at the bottom. The parts unite to make a complete shape not dissimilar to a capsule. Upon encounter, they often remind many of commonly found local articles such as the Malay sampan (small wooden boat), beras (rice grain), nisan (tombstones), jendela (windows) and perisai (shields). It was even rumoured that Langkawi was inspired by the grains of sand from its beach, of how a single grain of sand could speak of our mortal existence. Langkawi’s construction and geometry appears to resonate strongly with the concept of sacred geometry. Sacred geometry, in the philosophy of Malay craft points to a transcendent commitment that highlights its people’s spiritual links. Here it begins with the circle, denoting the ‘essence of God’. [15] This basic shape and its accompanying notion applies to all other polygonal based designs including divisions of the circle such as the semi-circle or dome, a key component of every Langkawi sculpture. Meanwhile in the same cultural context, the square, or rectangle, is said to represent earth, materiality, and internal and external human worlds and creations.[16] In every Langkawi, the rectangle retains its unmistakable position and purpose in bringing together both top and inverted bottom domes. In 1986, as part of his paper on the transposition of poetry and art in the works of Latiff Mohidin, academic Anuar Nor Arai laid a diagram to decode the structure of Langkawi. [17,18] In this diagram, the writer theorises a ‘completeness’ based on the sculpture’s design and a symbolic meeting of ‘nature’ (top-half) and the ‘metaphysical’ (bottom-half) within.

 

Although Latiff has never made explicit theoretical statements on the context and conceptual resolve of Langkawi, it is not far-fetched to look beyond the formal, ‘western’ trappings of modern art should one be willing to study deeper into them. Besides, Latiff’s interest in the histories, knowledge and landscapes of the region is obvious in his keenness to traverse the Mekong region so quickly upon return earlier from Berlin. The Mekong gave us Latiff’s pivotal Pago-Pago paintings and an unconventional Malay voice with the publication of Sungai Mekong (1972) (Mekong River) anthology.

 

Peer a little farther and one would find it hard to dislocate Latiff’s art and its associations to ancient knowledge, traditional culture and spirituality. Latiff after all was raised amidst an environment of respect for the adat, which includes a respect for mother nature and the benefits of journeying. And when he began to compose poems in the first decade of Malaysian independence, unlike most others, he resisted the pressures of political, post-colonial and western dialectics. 19 He dug deep from within and injected life with lyrical metaphors of the otherwise ‘everyday’ trees, roots, rocks, wind and rivers, contributing refreshingly personal, extremely visual, and an almost vividly surreal voice as we find here in the poem dada laut (bosom of the sea):

 

dada laut, 1966 (bosom of the sea)

 

ombak adalah rambut-rambutku

pasang adalah nafasku

kulitku dari garam

suaraku dari angin

mataku telah kuberikan

pada bulan tak menjelma

hati dan empedu

pada ikan tak bernama

kini

aku adalah dada laut

lepas bebas

dari akar dan paut

 

the waves are my hairs

the tide is my breath

my skin is of salt

my voice is of wind

i gave my eyes

to the immaterial moon

my liver and bile

to the fish that has no name

now

i am the bosom of the sea

uninhibited

from roots and links

 

In traditional Malay woodcraft, the adaptation of nature is poetry, represents an evolving mindset and is itself a form of devotion. Artistic interpretations “based on the creativity of Malay carvers, plant motifs are usually changed and interpreted according to their appropriateness consistent with Malay culture and values and which are not in conflict with Islamic values or beliefs.”[20] Whereby in 1972 Redza Piyadasa and Sulaiman Esa were rallying for ‘a mental/meditative/mystical viewpoint of reality’ [21] in the approach to artmaking and its reading, Latiff’s metaphorical ‘boat’ appears to have sailed far into the horizon. In Latiff’s hands, nature dominate and transcend the corporeal into the spiritual with an absolute, mystic frequency.

 

 

1 60 Tahun Latiff Mohidin Retrospektif, Ed. Mohd Yusof Ahmad, Haned Najak et all. Balai Seni Lukis Negara, 2012, Malaysia, p. 28

2 National Culture Policy, National Department for Culture and Arts, Malaysia, (http://www.jkkn.gov.my/en/national-culture-policy)

3 Towards a mystical reality: a documentation of jointly initiated experiences, Redza Piyadasa and Sulaiman Esa. Exhibition catalogue, 1972, Malaysia

4 Annex 1

5 60 Tahun Latiff Mohidin Retrospektif, Ed. Mohd Yusof Ahmad, Haned Najak et all. Balai Seni Lukis Negara, 2012, Malaysia, p. 42

6 Sejarah Pengalaman Adat Pepatih di Negeri Sembilan, Rosiswandy bin Mohd Saleh, Muzium Adat, Jelebu, Negeri Sembilan, Malaysia, p. 5, (www.jmm.com.my)

7 Rosiswandy bin Mohd Saleh, op cit, p. 39

8 Rosiswandy bin Mohd Saleh, op cit, p. 40

9 Interview by www.pluralartmag.com, June 2018

10 Timber Species in Malay Wood Carving, Ismail Said, Proceedings of the International Seminar Malay Architecture as Lingua Franca, Trisakti University, June 22 and 23, 2005, Jakarta, p. 6

11 Ibid

12 Annex 1

13 Penerbangan Sulung MAS Da

14 The philosophy in the creation of traditional Malay carving motifs in Peninsula Malaysia, Haziyah Hussin; Zawiyah Baba; Aminuddin Hassan; [email protected] Haji Mohamed, Issue 7, Malaysia Journal of Society and Space 8, 2012, Malaysia, p. 88-95

15 Tradition and transformation: the structure of Malay woodcarving motifs in craft education, Sumardianshah Silah; Ruzaika Omar Basaree; Badrul Isa; Raiha Shahanaz Redzuan, 6th International Conference on University Learning and Teaching, 2012, Malaysia, p. 827

16 Ibid

17 Latiff Mohidin, Transposisi seorang penyair-pelukis, Anuar Nor Arai, working paper for Seminar Ikatan Sastera Universiti Malaya (ISUM), Berita Harian, 4 December 1986, Malaysia 18 Annex 2

19 Mencipta Sepanjang Hayat, Baha Zain, Pago-Pago to Gelombang : 40 years of Latiff Mohidin, Singapore Art Museum, 1994, Singapore, p.60

20 Haziyah Hussin; Zawiyah Baba; Aminuddin Hassan; [email protected] Haji Mohamed, op cit, p.90

21 Redza Piyadasa and Sulaiman Esa, op cit, p. 21