It was fortuitous to discover Suhaimi Fadzir's latest exhibition "BEBAS" in Artcube, a gallery tucked away on the 3rd floor of the Intermark building. My husband and I were on the prowl for new contemporary furniture pieces and instead, it was contemporary art that caught our eye.
Artcube has a wonderfully open and accessible feel for a gallery that showcases some of the best Malaysian contemporary artists and so we paused, double backed and entered the gallery.
The intensely layered, mixed media pieces infused with random objects and political portraits were provocative and as I drew closer, I was surprised to find references to American society embedded in the works.
In particular, there was a series related to Ferguson, an American social/political/cultural discussion that's centered around the interplay of racism and police brutality that continues to be passionately debated in the States.
I hadn't expected to see these themes pop up in a local art gallery and was intrigued about the source of the artist's connection to the greater American discourse.
As we tried to interpret the art, Amir Amin of Artcube came over to chat with with us. Amir helpfully contextualized some of the pieces, including the juxtaposition of the images of Orang Asli (the indigenous people of Malaysia) alongside brands and images of conspicuous, luxurious consumption within the Malaysian context. Sensing our interest, he kindly invited us to come back for the official launch of Bebas and get the opportunity to meet with the artist himself.
Malaysian contemporary artist Suhaimi Fadzir splits his time between St Louis, Illinois and Kuala Lumpur and his artwork reflects the duality of his environment. His most recent exhibition “Bebas” was a mini retrospective of the past eight years showcasing the evolution of his work and style.
Batik & Bubbles was delighted to attend the launch of Bebas. The special guest of honor Datuk Seri Hishammuddin Hussein, current Defense Minister of Malaysia, made a touching speech in particular about the impression the triptych series entitled "Hishammuddin Hussein Onn" featuring three generations of the Onn family made upon him.
A week later, I sat down for an in-depth interview with the artist along with the two founders of Artcube - Azhar Ahmad and Fuad Salleh, who together have an impressive vision for Malaysian art deserving of their own B&B feature.
Suhaimi Fadzir hails from Lenggong, Perak Malaysia, which holds UNESCO heritage status as the site of Malaysia’s first civilization and holds the record of the oldest human – The Perak Man dated 11,000 years old – outside of Africa. In the midst of such ancient environs, Suhaimi found his first creative influences in the naturalistic world around him.
We are excited to share his world and inspiration with you!
Batik & Bubbles (B&B): Mr. Suhaimi, please tell us a bit about your background and how you became an artist?
I grew up in Lenggong, Perak and pursued my university and Masters degree at Washington University in St. Louis, in the United States. I’ve been making art since I was in primary school, so even as I was studying there I continued my artwork. While I was in the States, I was exposed to the arts. I had my first solo show in 1991 after finishing my degree, after I'd already started working with an architecture firm there.
My kampong, my hometown is Lenggong in Perak Malaysia. We were influenced by all the nature that surrounded us. Now it's an UNESCO heritage site, but when we were young we'd explore everywhere, we’d go to the jungles and the caves to draw. Who knows!? (Suhaimi jokes) Maybe even some of the charcoal drawings they’ve found can even be some of our drawings!
B&B: Where is your studio located, and how do you split your time?
Usually I will split my time between St. Louis and Kuala Lumpur. I tend to spend 2 months in St. Louis, then 3 or 4 months in Malaysia, and then return to the US and so on.
B&B: Do you find you're more creative or productive in a particular place?
I think culturally speaking, I find more inspiration here in Malaysia because it is closer to who I am as a person. However, when you consider access to a broader range of art work, you are certainly exposed to more in the United States.
B&B: Please describe "Archipainting" for us?
Archipainting is a style I’ve developed on my own that has three components – Architecture, Installations and Painting. Archipainting is something I’ve been playing with since the 1980s. It essentially combines architecture and painting.
You use the inspiration of whatever surrounds you to inspire your creation and use what is available for you to produce – similar to a caveman who goes to the cave and makes it as a shelter. He styles a basic creation from whatever is available at that moment.
B&B: How interested are Malaysians in Contemporary art?
Contemporary art is quite new in Malaysia – not many people recognize it even though we’ve been doing contemporary art since the 1960 and 70s. Nowadays because people have been exposed to Art Basel, Art Stage, and the internet, contemporary art has gained wider exposure among the artists, collectors and galleries in Malaysia. It’s in its infancy here but I think everyone is trying to push forward and we are catching up with our neighbors, who are quite advanced in comparison.
Among Malaysian audiences, I think the understanding and appreciation of contemporary art is quite minimal for now. If you go to our southern neighbors, even the people on the streets can talk about art.
B&B: How supportive is the Malaysian Government towards the arts, as compared to other neighboring countries?
I think the Malaysian Government is very supportive. Still somehow, the arts have become a bit lost because there is nobody who really champions the arts. The events that you see now, they are often initiated by private individuals.
Still, compared to our southern neighbors, their governmental involvement is so minimal. Whereas for example, our government offers grants to the artists to help them participate in the biannual artistic events. And if for instance an artist gets an international award or recognition, the government through the Ministry of Culture and Tourism helps the artist to sponsor the creation of a catalogue and sponsors your travel and accommodation costs to attend the awards ceremony, as long as you inform them in advance.
B&B: Your art reflects both Malaysian and American society and current events, how does your location influence your artwork?
When I compose my art, it’s as if I am composing music, I compose without distinguishing where I am. There’s no difference between what I’d compose in the US from what I’d compose in Malaysia. Take for instance, when the Ferguson riots happened in Missouri - I was there, the issue was there and yet the artwork I created was done when I was back in Malaysia.
Locality doesn't matter, as long as I am a part of the environment to produce the work.
B&B: do you draw any parallels from Malaysian and American society from the perspective of an artist?
The appreciation for the arts in the US is a lot more developed compared to Malaysia. Americans are exposed to the arts from a young age, not only in their schools, but also their exposure to museums and concert halls.
However, it’s slowly growing here. I recently did a solo show at a local archeology museum in Lenggong. I brought all my works there and people were surprised to see that you could put a cinnamon stick on a painting, or a rattrap.
People were surprised, they think ‘What? Is this art?’
They are confused because they expect art to be of scenery like beautiful coconut trees with paddy fields, so to do something different like this surprises them. I’ve realized I must take my art to them instead of simply waiting for them to come to a gallery.
B&B: What are some of the key differences between living an artist’s life in Malaysia versus the US?
In the US, not only is the level of exposure different, the way in which the people view the artwork is a bit different. There they really look at the artwork. Whether a viewer or collector, they really go close to the piece to see the details, and they ask questions.
Whereas here nobody really does that. Instead in Malaysia, people come, mingle around and have food, if there’s good food, they say their hellos and then leave. It’s more of a social event.
I can create freely where ever I am. Sometimes, I start work here and finish it there. In 2009, I did a recycled toys and found object series that started here in Malaysia but finished it off there, whereas the Ferguson series started in St. Louis but finished off here.
B&B: What’s the draw for the recycled and found objects in your artwork?
I see the beauty in these objects; when I travel along the roadside if I see something interesting, I pick it up. Or when I travel in stations like commuter stations, I’ve found beautiful postcards or sometimes objects even at flea markets.
B&B: Do you already have an idea in your mind of what you are searching for?
No, I just pick up what I find interesting. I see the beauty in certain objects and I pile it in my studio. Then when I create my works, I start thinking of what I have. So it’s more of viewing these objects as my medium, similarly to the way other artists might consider their arts and oils. My medium is mixed.
B&B: When you create a portrait for instance of a famous figure, do you seek permission to paint them first?
I am trying to be an artist. I just do it freely. When the trouble comes, you just have to deal with it. I don’t want to limit myself. They might be happy to see their portraits, but other people may feel differently. Hmm, since you’ve mentioned it (Suhaimi laughs), maybe next time I’ll have to be careful!
B&B: What new pieces are you currently working on?
I’m currently developing a new series called “MAKAN” – which is about eating, about us – in order to move forward, to carry on, we need energy.
In our society when we have food on the table, we are happy. If we've got a job, then we stay away from trouble. If everyone is happy, with a happy home, a good job, we don’t think as much about the negatives. But when you start to have high unemployment rates, even a little issues can become big, like that of discrimination. In a way, it relates to Ferguson – in the black community when unemployment is very high, these quickly become really big issues, so the new series is about exploring this.
I’m also exploring more on the usage of neon lighting and calligraphy, as well as using a sandblaster, which allows you to create texture with glass or acrylic by blasting the surface with sand.
B&B: In looking up some of your earlier work, I’ve been interested in your earlier work that focused on the environment. Can you tell us more?
We’re from the kampong, these small villages, so this sense of community is always with me because we’ve grown up among the caves, the jungles and the Orang Asli.
In 2010-or 12, I was nominated for the Smithsonian Art fellowship, so I spent my time visiting and talking with the Orang Asli communities in Temengor, the Temiar and the Jahai communities. Since childhood we’ve heard stories about the strength of Orang Asli, stories about how resilient their immune systems were because of their lives in the jungle. But I was more interested in observing their lives – how their families work, how they move about the jungle. In 2012, there was a Venice Biennial and I was able to use my experience from observing the Orang Asli to build a big model of their architecture.
I observed how their houses were built, the airflow, and the ways in which to extend it. You will also see the influence of Orang Asli in these paintings where their images are shown alongside symbols of materialism and consumption.
B&B: Have you ever invited the Orang Asli to see the work that's been made and inspired by them?
No not yet, but actually that is what I plan to do that here. I’d like to make an Orang Asli show and invite them, make them comfortable in the space by featuring their huts and their music but there are always limitations of resources and time.
B&B: You mentioned you started creating art as a child, what influenced you as a child?
I think you start by observing things. As a child, you want to have things but you can’t afford to buy them, so you create your own things. When we wanted to play hockey or badminton, we didn’t have resources to buy these things, so we'd go to the jungle and chop the trees to make the hockey sticks. Same thing if we wanted to play with toy guns, we’d go to the jungle and get bamboo to make our toys or we’d make kites from old newspapers.
There’s a tree – the Sago tree- which when we were young, we’d chop a branch to get some sap. The sap acts like a glue, and we'd use it together with bamboo sticks and newspapers to make kites. Sometimes I think it’s amazing, how we created so many things in that village environment.
B&B: Do you remember some of the first artwork that you were really proud of or signified to yourself that you were an artist?
I grew up painting and sketching, but I was studying architecture. So every future piece could be the best piece, when you look back at past works you can always see a way to improve it. You hope the next one will be your best one – there’s always something ahead that you look forward to producing.
I never stop. Sometimes people mention that a good artist is even someone who produces just one or two pieces a year, that this is good enough. But I always go against that. I have to work everyday - produce, produce, produce. That trail and error, hardships, failures – you can learn so much, and that process leads to better art.
- Learn more about Suhaimi Fadzir's art and Bebas exhibit here.
- For a more in depth look at the Bebas exhibit itself, check out the NST article here.
- You can check out Artcube's brand new exhibition "Space Invader(s)" featuring Azad Daniel Haris at the Intermark - Level 3, 348, Jalan Tun Razak, 50400 Kuala Lumpur - Open 11am - 8pm.