The question of “who am I” is one that everyone asks at least once in their lives. Those who have done some soul-searching would know it is a thought that inevitably leads us back to our past, and is inextricably tied to our identity.
Perhaps artist Afiq Faris said it best in his reflection, “While plants may be the crucial organ, it is the unseen roots buried beneath the surface of the earth that keep it nourished and alive … for me, roots are a symbol of unseen strength and energy that stays deeply buried inside.”
It is a poignant summation of what is at the heart of Shalini Ganendra Fine Art’s latest exhibition, simply entitled ROOTS. Afiq is one of three young artists showcasing their work, alongside portrait painter Shahar “Shaq” Koyok and musician and artist, Alena Murang.
Incidentally, all three come from communities with strong cultural identities. Alena, who is of part Kelabit descent, has become a prominent champion of the ethnic group — as well as other minority ethnic communities — and its traditional arts. Shaq is an Orang Asli of the Temuan tribe, while Afiq’s family hails from Kelantan.
Gallery founder and artistic director Datin Shalini Ganendra says the intention was really to present “promising young artists who are focused on their careers and who understand where they come from, and are able to incorporate that in their works”.
What makes ROOTS interesting, apart from its first impression of a showcase of cultural art, are the dynamics between the three artists, and their rumination about how their ethnicity and heritage informs who they are.
“The way each of them interprets the idea of ‘roots’ is quite different,” Shalini explains.
What would immediately grab one’s attention — as one steps into the upper floor of the spacious gallery — is the series of six large portraits done by Shaq. Those familiar with his previous works will be pleasantly surprised. Where bright colours have been a key element of his paintings before, this series is done entirely in monochromatic hues.
The result is both dramatic and expressive at first glance, especially when a closer look reveals the pandan-leaf weavings that make up his canvases for each work. It marks the beginning of a new artistic arc for the artist, a process that he has admitted to be technically challenging to accomplish.
Technical innovation aside, even for an artist who draws significantly from his Temuan roots in his artistic practice — weaving is an essential part of the tribe’s day-to-day lives, with woven mats used in clothing, to build houses and as cooking materials and beds — these portraits are clear in their personal ties, with the subjects being relatives and community members. The mats were woven by his mother, who is also featured beautifully in one of the artworks.
But the true value here is how compelling Shaq is as a portrait artist. Each piece carries its own nuanced tone, including a self-portrait of him lying down staring at what looks like sharp weapons trained on him.
Further down the wall, Alena’s series of portraits of the Kelabit community has a somewhat similar concept. Shalini points out that visually, a conversation takes place between Alena’s and Shaq’s works. It is one of complements and contrasts — where his is immediately arresting, hers softly invites the viewer closer. An arresting piece is Tepu’ Ngalinuh Karuh (Squeeze My Heart) 2017, in which an old lady is captured smiling lightly, her face framed by what feels like a morning glow amid a shadowy background.
While the part English and Italian Sarawakian has always painted, her efforts have been overshadowed by her prominent career as a Sape musician and traditional storyteller. Like the gentle rhythmic sounds of her music and lilting voice, there is a warm charm, albeit raw, in her artworks.
“Her art is very much influenced by her music, and I love that rhythm of composition that she has in the way her art is done, like a quiet sense of luminosity and light,” says Shalini.
Two particularly intriguing works are her most recent ones — Pah Nah Dulun (Where is everyone?) 2017, and Mey Pah Uih (Where am I going?) 2017, both of which are done on plywood. The unusual choice of material, which is untreated, has an affecting story behind it. The lady depicted died three weeks after Alena painted her, which led to the second, commemorative work, and the evocative title behind it.
Rounding out ROOTS is Afiq’s four distinctive works. Technically the most accomplished artist of the three, the 26-year-old can be described as a bit of a mad scientist. “He doesn’t have a style — that’s what’s so interesting about him. Afiq is very inventive with his technique — light boxes, sound, mobiles, and now, transfer image batik prints. This is a series of two dimensional works but his approach is, nonetheless, very rare and experimental.”
Depicting what looks like everyday scenes in households, he incorporates the traditional art of batik-making from his Kelantanese ancestry within a “millennial” and urban context. Each piece offers a voyeuristic, dreamlike glimpse into his personal life, including his mother’s broom, his studio and hanging laundry. The effect is crafted through his use of both digital and physical techniques. For example, the process incorporates printing the digital image on raw silk, then washing it with soda ash followed by a traditional beeswax print method and then more touch-ups, before it is assembled with epoxy resin.
The correlating theme in each work is messiness. But in each scene, there is a sense of familiarity overall, where, as the viewer looks on, seemingly random motifs — such as a floral duvet, or printed patterns — start to invoke nostalgic memories, or emerge into the light, as if for the first time.
It comes to mind that our identity could be just like that, its often fragmented pieces easily overlooked in the everyday mess of living. But it is, nevertheless, very much present, embedded and carried along whether we choose to pay attention or not.
Roots is showing until Mar 15 at Shalini Ganendra Fine Art, 8 Lorong 16/7B, Seksyen 16, PJ. This article first appeared on Feb 19, 2018 in The Edge Malaysia.