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The Star Online: Lifestyle: Arts & Fashion

Artists Ng Swee Keat and Nugroho Heri Cahyono on the price of power

Posted: 15 Feb 2014 08:00 AM PST

Two artists explore civilisation and what it means to them through intriguing motifs.

HISTORY is replete with the high dramas of societies and kingdoms, played out in the pursuit of power. Much is gained but much more sacrificed at the altar of power. This has always been a part of civilisation, one of the main chords in this chaotic concerto that we call human history.

Using this notion as a foundation, two artists with distinct styles took to canvas to produce an illuminating series of works. Called Civilization, the exhibition at HOM Art Trans gallery in Kuala Lumpur showcases 13 art works by Kedahan Ng Swee Keat and Indonesian Nugroho Heri Cahyono.

"Both of them deal with subject matter related to power in Eastern and Western ideas and ideals about life, and ways of achieving it – that is, the foundation of civilisation," says Bayu Utomo, gallery director and one of the local art scene's leading lights himself.

He adds, "This traditional versus the modern, with their inherent contradictions, provides interesting comparison for reflection, and we hope the fortuitous pairing complements and enhances the powerful messages in the works of both artists."

LEAD PIX: Mesmerising: Ng Swee Keat chose the great beauty from ancient China, Consort Yu, as his muse, conjuring flashes of love, intrigue and death around her. This work is entitled Life is Like A Drama 3.

Mesmerising: Ng Swee Keat chose the great beauty from ancient China, Consort Yu, as his muse, conjuring flashes of love, intrigue and death around her. This is a work entitled Life Is Like A Drama 3.

What makes this exhibition refreshing is not so much the subject matter, though, but how the artists chose to interpret it.

To convey his interpretation, Ng chose one of the great beauties from ancient Oriental history, Consort Yu, the concubine in the famous Peking opera that is referenced in Chen Kaige's 1993 Palme d'Or-winning movie, Farewell My Concubine. Around her, Ng conjures flashes of love, intrigue and death. The close-ups of her porcelain face with her deep, intense gaze are simply mesmerising.

"When I was a small boy, I used to follow my grandmother to watch Chinese opera and one of the famous ones I watched was about Xiang Yu, the Hegemon-King of Western Chu in ancient China and his loyal consort, Yu.

"Nowadays, it is a rarity to see such performances, and the same goes for wayang kulit (shadow theatre). That is why I decided to use these two elements in my paintings. Apart from nostalgia, I also wanted to show the amalgamation of different races and culture in our country," says the 35-year-old Ng, who was one of the winners of the 2011 Malaysia Emerging Artist Award that is organised biennially by HOM Trans Art and Galeri Chandan.

Besides the haunting countenance of Consort Yu and the deep red and amber that seem to burst forth from every painting, there is something else that makes Ng's paintings arresting: Cast upon his muse's face, in an eerie and intimate manner, are shadows of wayang kulit characters.

TRY TO USE: Heri's Dahulu, Sekarang Dan Masa Yang Akan Datang Kita Tetap Kaya Raya touches on the price the planet pays for progress.

Nugroho Heri Cahyono's Dahulu, Sekarang Dan Masa Yang Akan Datang Kita Tetap Kaya Raya touches on the price humankind has to pay for progress.

The full-time artist from Alor Setar says he chose these two elements as both Chinese opera and the wayang kulit offer heightened drama, and intrigue and mischief roam carelessly through them, much as they do in most political arenas.

"Initially, the idea was sparked by the current political tit-for-tat between opposing parties and their supporters in the country. However, it developed into something deeper.

"I feel that, in general, all these power struggles that are being played out now are like the performances in a Chinese opera or wayang kulit," explains Ng, a participant of the gallery's Adopted Residency programme last year.

Ng's sentiments are clearly evident in Life Is Like A Drama 6 – Old House. The painting depicts Consort Yu holding what appears to be a directive written on a flag. In the background, a bulldozer is seen demolishing an old building.

"This is to depict the Jalan Sultan incident where the tenants were asked to leave the premises and whatever that happened after that," explains Ng, referring to commercial properties along Jalan Sultan in KL that were acquired for demolition to make room for the Klang Valley MRT last year.

MUST USE, MAKE IT THE 2ND BIGGEST PIX ON THE PAGE: Nugroho Heri Cahyono's To Enlightenment is about seeking one's identity in the face of change and progress.

Heri's To Enlightenment is about seeking one's identity in the face of change and progress. 

Heri (as he is called), on the other hand, chose to highlight old steam trains, at once bringing to mind the Industrial Revolution and, consequently, the subjugation and sacrifice of human lives by colonial powers. Interestingly, in the place of regular train coaches, though, some of the locomotives are pulling houses and buildings.

Heri, who was part of HOM's South-East Asia Art Group Exchange Residency (Sager) programme, drew his inspiration from the train station next to his studio in Yogyakarta, Indonesia.

"After I moved my studio next to the train station, I was reminded of my childhood, when I wanted to ride the train. My memories of this are somewhat romanticised, and that led me to explore the idea of trains.

"I looked at how the colonial powers used trains as a means of expediting development during the Industrial Revolution," explains the 32-year-old.

Interestingly, all the steam trains in Heri's art works are replete with skull motifs. This is an allusion to the thousands who were subjugated, exploited and sacrificed in the name of progress.

The piece Dahulu, Sekarang Dan Masa Yang Akan Datang Kita Tetap Kaya Raya (Before, Now And In The Future, We Will Always Be Wealthy) depicts an old steam engine on a railway track pulling a goods train. Scattered across the painting are mirror images of Indonesian words like makmur (prosperous) and sentosa (peaceful).

"Progress is supposed to make a country wealthy, now and forevermore. But sadly, that is not the reality in Indonesia. This is signified in the mirror images of these words about prosperity and peace," Heri says, adding that he uses the print-making technique of woodcuts to make his works.

Another of Heri's pieces speaks about the pursuit of one's identity: To Enlightenment does not offer up its message as clearly as the others at first glance. But should you turn your fleeting look into a long and thoughtful gaze, things will suddenly fall into perspective.

The painting is simple: A grey steam train adorned with the same skull motifs is on a track heading somewhere. But where there should have been land beneath the tracks, lies what looks like a chessboard, and the sky is adorned with flowers, a common Indonesian motif. A juxtaposition emerges: the old and the new. The chessboard speaks of strategies.

"The painting speaks about the past life and the new in the light of modernisation. And the train is moving forward, trying to find the connection between the old and the new," Heri says.

It is always interesting to look at the world through the eyes of another, especially those of artists. And when you actually gaze long and hard, and open up your soul to the art works of these brilliant artists, you will begin to see what they saw and perhaps gain a better understanding of civilisation – and maybe, just maybe, even find your self in it.

> Civilization is on until Feb 22 at HOM Art Trans gallery (6A, Jalan Cempaka 16, Taman Cempaka, Ampang, Selangor). Opening hours are 11am to 6pm Monday to Friday and 1pm to 6pm on Saturdays; the gallery is closed on Sundays and public holidays. For more information, visit

Kamal Mustafa's got an ear for art

Posted: 15 Feb 2014 08:00 AM PST

Simulations might seem like a collection of abstract paintings, but within each piece lies often-ignored truths.

"THE ear is often ignored in visual art. Maybe because it's just an appendage and it's not sexy, and people prefer looking at other parts, like the torso, for instance," reasoned Kamal Mustafa.

There's interest and then there's fixation ... and there's also a fine line between the two, which is where the 62-year-old artist's outlook seems to nestle most comfortably. But Kamal also concedes that the play of semantics intrigues him in equal amounts.

His upcoming exhibition Simulations (Feb 20-March 2), his first solo, offers but a smattering of this fascination, and with titles of paintings like Hearsay, Heresy And Hereafter, One Thousand Ears Of Hearsay and The Hearing, it's apparent where he's coming from. It's with good reason, too, that he's selected his choice of visuals since the human experience is as much aural as it is visual.

"Hearing has got to do with second-hand knowledge, knowledge handed down to us, and it's not something that can be ignored. We cannot live life without the concept of hearsay, and this has provided me a big canvas to play with," Kamal explained during a recent interview in Kuala Lumpur.

Sound of silence: Despite the plethora of ears, Cacophony Of Silence is made out to be a paradoxical observation.

Despite the plethora of ears, Cacophony Of Silence is made out to be a paradoxical observation.

But it's not all about ears that encompasses his 22-piece collection, even if it takes up a large chunk. There are those that depict the human form and stacked paperwork, even, but thematically, the collection places strong emphasis on the construction of memory, history and knowledge.

No doubt, thinly veiled under the numerous depictions of ears are socio-political messages which stir the senses. Kamal feels that what we think we know is actually based on numerous layers of interpretation.

"As a photography student, I was taught that photography imitates reality, but that's no longer true because every other thing is spun around these days," he said, painting a lucid picture of the age of technology we live in today, and referencing Jean Baudrillard's book Simulacra And Simulations, a philosophical treatise from 1981, in the process.

Every artist has a process of how his art is conceived, and Kamal's is no less organic. He has placed his knowledge into something more meaningful from his career in films, having now retired. "This is atonement for me. People say art is neutral, but artists are affected by their surroundings. I absorb what's around me, filter it in my head, and that comes out in my art," explained the former film director, who was behind some of the most heartwarming Petronas TV ads.

In fact, it's his expertise in moving pictures that has allowed him to not only create mere static pieces for this collection, but extended works, which he plainly describes as "hybrid", almost mocking the generation he comes from. The extended pieces are artworks with cutouts, with screens plugged in the holes from the rear, featuring mini movies with "no storylines".

Casual conversation: Thousand Ears Of Hearsay depicts the human communication process and the role of the ear in it.

Thousand Ears Of Hearsay depicts the human communication process and the role of the ear in it.

While the scenes might be made to seem random or even incoherent at points, closer inspection reveals subliminal messages.

He works with acrylic and uses computers to align his paintings, which naturally call for the use of industrial-sized printers, since some of his works involve a montage of four pieces of canvas. "Acrylic and computer ink seem to blend well. Also, the ink manufacturer says the ink will not lose its lustre for 75 years, which bodes well for archival purposes."

Kamal was born in 1952 in the small town of Sabak Bernam, Selangor. He spent his secondary school education at the Malay College Kuala Kangsar in Perak, after which he applied for a government loan to pursue his interest in film, eventually earning a BA in Film from the Polytechnic of Central London. "As much as I loved art, I knew I had to earn a living and pay off my loan, so I did advertising," he revealed, knowing his vocation would pay the rent.

And now that he is able to stand on sturdy financial ground, he can finally pursue his love with fervour. "I'd always shared my art with people over the years, but it was difficult to get exposure, since I wasn't pushing hard because of my job, but things have developed lately."

While caught up in the rat race and keeping a roof over his head, Kamal made some landmark TV commercials for Petronas (working with the late Yasmin Ahmad) and a host of other clients. He fondly recalls the ones he did for the oil and gas company for the Gong Xi-Raya festive period of the mid 1990s (one of which touched on the watershed May 13 riots) and one for the Malaysian F1 Grand Prix.

Echo Valley is part of Kamal Mustafa's Simulations exhibition.

Literal take: The walls truly have big ears in Echo Valley.

So, what can a piece of art say that no amount of words can? "Art is not part of mass media, so it's elitist, which is why you might need more words to describe something. And if you put an illustration in an art gallery, that makes it art."

Kamal knows his art and he knows it well, but there's nothing remotely elitist about him. In fact, he's just one of those people who has something profound to say to the common man. When you meet him, you just feel you've met the salt of the earth. And that grounded personality shines through in its resplendent glory in Simulations.

> Simulations, presented by Fergana Art, runs from Feb 20-March 2 at White Box, Publika, Solaris Dutamas, Kuala Lumpur. Admission is free and exhibition times are from 11am-7pm daily. For more info, visit or


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