'Lasting Impressions' demystifies the techniques of printmaking

The exhibition at Bank Negara Malaysia Museum fosters an appreciation for the ancient art form.

Out of Unknown, 1972 by Raja Zahabuddin (Photo: Bank Negara Malaysia Museum and Art Gallery)

Lasting Impressions, the theme of The Art of Printmaking exhibition by Bank Negara Malaysia Museum and Art Gallery, is a great play on words and a fitting tribute to an art form whose practice spans the better part of a century in Malaysia.

Printmaking gets a bad rap here for the common misconception that it is equivalent to printing, but it is a far cry from mechanically mass-produced products such as newspapers. It comprises any work created through a transfer process on mediums such as paper, fabric and wood, then manually multiplied by an artist. Common techniques include etching, embossing, lithography, silkscreen and woodcut, as well as lesser-known crafts like pyrography, which requires fire or heat to transfer ink. While the finished pieces exist in multiple iterations, fine prints are considered original works of art.

Our illustrious history in printmaking dates back to the 1930s with the father of modern batik, Chuah Thean Teng. A few of his rare miniature woodcuts open the exhibition, which is divided into historical and contemporary sections. Past and senior masters in the former include Lee Joo For with several of his etchings; Latiff Mohidin with woodcut Berlin in Winter and a Pago-Pago lithograph; and Chew Teng Beng, who explores the formal aesthetic of embossing and etching.

The oldest works here are likely the woodblock prints by 18th and 19th-century Japanese artists Kitagawa Utamaro and Utagawa Hiroshige. The latter’s Shono is particularly delicate with refined lines and harmonious hues. Pablo Picasso made some 2,400 print works in his lifetime, and four exhibited lithographs flaunt the medium’s versatility, from the compact composition of The Smoker to the varying forms of the roomier Dance. Around the corner from these are Ismail Zain’s dot matrix productions, featuring an army of flies in repeat print Lalat Bersedia untuk Menyerang and the Atari-reminiscent Kagemusha and the Wax Resist Caper.

Sudirman: Saya Anak Malaysia (left), 2017 by Stephen Menon; The Smoker by Picasso Bank Negara Malaysia Museum and Art Gallery)

Variety in mediums and techniques allows for nuanced exploration of everyday and existential themes. Lai Loong Sung achieves remarkable animation through woodcut in Hawkers 1, which is among several pieces to capture the blue-collar stories of fishermen, farmhands and peasants. These reappear in the contemporary section, especially in the massive, intricate wonder that is Sabahan art collective Pangrok Sulap’s Bongkud Namaus, an agricultural tale told through woodblock print and offset ink on blackout cloth.

Chew’s lithographic A Dream exercises abstraction as a cluttered consciousness seems to give way to an uplifted mental fluidity while Ilse Noor — one of the few women featured — crosses into the fantastical with sci-fi whimsy in her Istana series.

Commentary on current issues features in the contemporary half with subjects spanning social media, pop culture and consumerism. However, recurring values from the historical section — our fascination with fauna and relationship with landscapes, for instance — marks the constancy of human nature across time.

Stephen Menon takes on a national icon in Sudirman: Saya Anak Malaysia and the plaguing prevalence of social apps in Adam and Eve Series: The Judgement Day. The large tongue lolling out of Sabihis Md Pandi’s three-dimensional Slurp is popular with the Instagram crowd while The Filmmakers by Samsudin Wahab conjures smiles as the heads of industry characters — a writer and director included — are replaced with tools of their trade (a typewriter and a clapboard respectively, resting on necks).

Many of these might not be easily identified as printmaking works — Shono looks like a Chinese ink masterpiece while numerous others could be mistaken for acrylic paintings. The sheer volume and variety of the 150 exhibited works by 33 artists make this an illuminating experience. Displays of woodblocks, etching plates and a life-size recreation of an artist’s printmaking studio hint at production processes, but visitors might benefit from deeper explanations of the various techniques, only available in the catalogue. That said, the museum is hosting hands-on activities throughout the exhibition to this end.

Dead Soul is Laughing at Us by Long Thien Shih (Photo: Bank Negara Malaysia Museum and Art Gallery)

“Printmaking is more difficult than most genres. You don’t just use a brush and paint to apply colours; it requires serious strategy, preparation and labour. It is smart, the thinking man’s art form,” says Bank Negara Malaysia Museum and Art Gallery head curator Noreen Zulkepli.

“The way the exhibition is arranged also tells a story. The economic side of Bank Negara looks at facts and figures to determine the progress of the nation, but we look to art. You can see what subjects mattered in different eras and trace the transformation of perspectives and mediums. There was greater focus on personal narratives initially whereas now we talk more about current issues. We are recording the same history in different ways.”

Twenty-five years have passed since Long Thien Shih guest-curated Communications in Graphic: Printmaking at the National Art Gallery in 1993, among the few major printmaking exhibitions that have been held in the Klang Valley. His participation here evinces a prolific body of work spanning five decades, the likes of the Daliesque Dead Soul is Laughing at Us and Not Yet! But It’s Going to Happen! from the 1970s still ringing relevant in their themes and surreal modern style.

He worked with Jerome Manjat to create the large woodcut Borneo Dilemma, part of an ongoing collaboration between the veteran and the up-and-coming artist. Alongside spectacular pieces such as Self-fish by the prodigious Haafiz Shahimi — the only pyrographic work on display — this showcase of rising talent in The Art of Printmaking: Lasting Impressions suggests that Malaysia’s underrated, continued legacy in printmaking is in promising hands.

'The Art of Printmaking: Lasting Impressions', Bank Negara Malaysia Museum and Art Gallery, Sasana Kijang. Until Nov 25. 03 9179 2784. Daily, 10am-6pm. This article first appeared on Oct 8, 2018 in The Edge Malaysia.


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