It has been 15 years since Jalaini Abu Hassan shook up the country’s contemporary art scene with his brooding and mysterious Mantera collection. Comprising works done in charcoal, bitumen and ink, the series was inspired by sacred invocations, the name itself — a derivative of the Sanskrit “mantra” — an immediate giveaway. Through his hands, mystical words come to life in the form of dark, sepia-toned images, conjuring up visions of the shadowy realm of pawang and bomoh, a world where spirituality holds sway over the physical and one that is in stark contrast to the modern, moderate Muslim identity Malaysia is trying to propagate.
But it is hard to deny the power of blood and lineage. The artist is, after all, descended from a line of shamans and storytellers, the penglipur lara of old. “My grandfather had a book of mantras written in ancient Thai script that I stumbled upon. There were some words in Arabic, some in Malay too … and I remember how the back pages were stapled together and not to be read as they contained black magic incantations.”
In person, the artist affectionately referred to as “Jai” by all and sundry could not be farther from the stereotypical image one has of a successful, “tortured soul”. There is no hippie-style hair nor paint-splattered clothes — well, not outside of his studio anyway. Jai is often garbed in smart, form-fitting t-shirts and cool jeans, accessorised with a hat and a Bell & Ross timepiece. It was the watch that lit the spark for what will be the artist’s latest collection.
Scheduled to be unveiled on July 12 at The Godown, a new event and arts space located on the site of the former (in)famous nocturnal hangouts in Kuala Lumpur, 11LA and the original Boom Boom Room, Ghost by Jalaini Abu Hassan will be a bijou staging, by industry standards. Four works, each measuring 8ft by 8ft, have been completed, with the fifth to be finished “live” at the launch of the event. This time, the artist’s materials feature a new ingredient: an unusual glow-in-the-dark dust, mixed with primer, so as to give a second dimension to the pieces once darkness falls. “It’s a new material for me and, thus, a new exploration,” Jai says, smiling. “Traditionally, I always go back to historical references for my work, be it colonial issues, politics, folklore or mythology. My Mantera series was so serious, so dark. And although the theme this time is Ghost, it is playful as it tells of childhood stories.”
It was a chance meeting between Jai and Tong Chee Wei, general manager for Bell & Ross Asia at the brand’s boutique that sowed the seeds of this collaboration. “Jai’s art often deals with themes of space and time, memory and remembrance, and history and tradition … all of which also inspire our work in creating lasting timepieces at Bell & Ross,” says Tong. “I would like to position Bell & Ross in more dynamic directions by working with those on our local art scene in an exchange that allows for dialogue and the sharing of ideas across disciplines. With this unique collaboration, we are blurring the boundaries between the worlds of fine art and fine craft.”
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