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Painting Melancholy and Memory in Mastura Abdul Rahman’s Malayism

(Hingga kini saya sudah hampir 40 tahun mencatan. Tiada yang berubah kerana saya merasakan

saya harus meneruskan warisan serta memberi sumbangan dengan cara saya. Tiada pilihan

yang kedua. Insha Allah.)

Today, it has been forty years since I painted. Nothing has changed. Because I feel I must continue the tradition and contribute in my own way. There is no alternative to this, God Willing

–         Mastura Abdul Rahman, artist’s statement

O’ Malay essentially
what hath wrought and possess’d your consciousness?
How hath your education failed you?
How have you descended to the glorification of ignorance?
Is this not about helping the next generation to be more civil?
Do you know what knowledge is?
and what it is not?
O’ Malays essentially
wake up
smell the fragrance of the chains around your neck
chains of your feudal past
chains of those who giveth salams to others
but grateful that the oppressed from the past
hath now become the oppressor


– Azly Rahman

Introduction: A departure  

The above poem on the Malays of today will resonate with the tone of this essay. And with the artist’s statement.

I shall depart from the most often done or overdone analysis of Mastura Abdul Rahman’s paintings studied from an artistic production point of view (composition, colors, influences, themes, etc.) or from their interpretation of the iconic representation of “Malayness”. These I believe are acceptable from a layperson’s perspective and for the enjoyment of art critics, collectors, and connoisseurs. To me, the psychological, anthropological, and ideological production of her work can offer a more enriching reading of the work of one of Malaysia’s and Nusantara’s most famous women artists. What goes on in her mind and in her mind-in-society-and culture, and what is she painting against? These are my explorations in this essay as a layperson and not an” art critic.” I will take the hermeneutic approach, by letting me feel what she has produced and offer responses to the work she is exhibiting.

Mas2

Cultural context: Looking back

About forty years ago, a young girl from the Malay village of Majidee Johor Bahru, though refrained from jumping in joy and constrained by her culture from screaming in happiness reading a telegram of an acceptance to an Art school, was seen all smiles with joy and euphoria. The colonial-looking train station of Tanjung Pagar, Singapore, a last stop for those coming from Malaysia and especially commuters from Johor, seems to light up with the girl’s wide grin, one not often seen in her who has the perpetual solemn look, always reserved with smiles. Her inner world speaks in such silence. She did not hug her mother or her brother who was there to see her off to Johor Bahru, after spending time visiting close relatives in Bukit Timah.  That was not her way of expressing emotions.

Because she is not an American. Open expressionism is not in her personality jukebox.

An American would scream their lungs off reading a phone message of a college acceptance letter to perhaps the Art Institute of Chicago, a Coopers Union, Parsons’ School of Design in New York City, or any of the famed art schools in Europe. Open expressionism is their forte of free speech. Cultural constrain kept the young Malay girl from fully celebrating an important milestone of her life.

She boarded the train to Johor Bahru, ready to make her dream come true. To be with other aspiring Malay artists, sculptors, and others who would later trailblaze the Malaysian and Asian art scene to what it is forty years later. Mastura did not know what she would accomplish and how she would share the artifacts of her talent especially in uplifting the spirit of Malay women. Perhaps all she knows was she will be at the prestigious, radical, pioneering Art Program of the MARA Institute of Technology in Shah Alam of the 1980s, where the best and the brightest suburban and subaltern minds of the Malaysian art scene would be born and bred and banished into society to make changes to the landscape of Malaysian art.

Would she survive the new and foreign space? Keep her senses in place? Stay away from possible psychological and cultural danger?  Her sense of cultural pride and ethics not being polluted by the boys who were mainly into the ethics and poetics and relativist outlook of the gangsta poets and rockers and blues aficionados like Bob Dylan, Rolling Stones, Deep Purple, The Who, latter-day Beatles, John Lennon, Uriah Heep, Carlos Santana, Jimi Hendrix, John Mayall, and all those whose inspiration a large part comes from perhaps the happy consumption of gangsta ganja?

Will Mastura Abdul Rahman, the prim and proper kampong girl, the apple of the eye of her grandfather, and whose love for her mother is immense and her reservedness so intense be able to manage the tempestuous new setting of everything “art” and the constant will break new grounds, in a place where the instructors/lecturers too were there to indoctrinate and to gather followers who could break chains of artistic indoctrinations as well? Lecturers who were also influenced by the Hippie and Beat generation of the Sixties and into all forms of radical experimentation of art itself? Those stoned in Pop Art, Conceptual Art, Dadaism, the Flux movement, posy-this and that, and the emerging abstractness of things art? Or even the Futurist Art style of Nazi Germany?

Would she survive her “seniors” on her first week of orientation? Being thrown into the cauldron of loud late teens with long hair, who smoke cigarettes and even kretek in the open, and perhaps ganja in the closet, those walking around the school of art and on campus looking like Frank Zappa and their mothers of invention, or one who was in army fatigue who had an AK-47 looking assault weapon made of wood, made in the art studio, as if looking for John Lennon settling a score because the latter had written: “Imagine.” A song of peace. And the Malay art student had a gun. That was the semiotics of Malayness of the all-Malay art school.

That was forty years ago. Today, we are in another scene. In hypermodern Malaysia. In a Fergana Art exhibition in the glitzy post-modern city that houses the Cesar Pelli’s Twins Towers and the KLCC. Of Mastura Abdul Rahman celebrating peace. Honoring mothers. The symbol of inner strength, respect, personal monumentalism, pillar of life, love, wisdom, and all those that represent Foundationalism and those that oppose Deconstructionism.

So that, as the poet WB Yeats would say: the center can still hold.

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Cultural milieu: Johor Bahru

Because my cultural milieu and in fact my experience is intertwined with hers, I consider the setting of the genesis of her artwork important to my proposition of what she is painting against. Herein lies the Johor Bahru of the late 70s. where she was in her late teens and in the 60s when she was growing up as the only girl out of a sibling of five.

I quote some passages from my memoir Grandma’s Gangsta Chicken Curry and Stories of My Hippie Sixties (Penguin Books, 2021) to paint a picture of the “gangsta town of Johor Bahru,” a place where a teenager would have to face the human developmental risk of either succeeding in school through a strong sense of obedience to parents, or especially for the boys of transforming oneself into a “Mat Gian” or the Malay drug addict. I consider the psychological and phenomenological plight of the Malay youth in that “all-too-liberal Malaysia town down south” as that of the Bronx-Harlem-South Chicago-Detroit-East LA African-American and Latino gangsta rapping drug-addicting and vision-disappearing youth, oppressed but happy being so.

Below is a poem introducing Johor Bahru, I wrote, giving context to Mastura’s cultural milieu:

Sin City, Jay Bee

Where have all those memories gone
Of the city that never sleeps
Sin-filled you are
… Offering life’s panorama
A Pandora box of a lushness of emotions

Jay Bee
You may be called a city of filth
Of gang wars and transvestite a galore
Of rock kapak geniuses conceived immaculately
From the womb of Papa Rock
Ahhh New Johor … New York you may want to be
Thou shall never attain that notoriety

Sweet city sin city
Celebrating the velocity of money
It is there I knew love’s inner beauty
As we walked up and down the Lido Beach
     whose middle name is “filthy”
Ohh Jay Bee … you are a soul that is one with me

Jay Bee
Sin city
where politics stink
where corruption gets a nice daily wink
where the power elites are the underground kings
where the poor are hoodwinked
where the children of the working class roam the streets in motorcycles with bling bling
where the smell of ganja filled the air like a pissed-on fermented drink
Ahh Jay Bee
City of Sins

Your hunchback of Tanjung Puteri is dead and gone
Committed seppuku at the sight of what has become
   Of you sin city Jay Bee
Si Bongkok died of a death he had long-willed for
As the sight of the crooked bridge broke his heart that exploded with a roar
Ahhh… thanks to the Johor Corridor
And the Disney of Nusajaya Johoreans adore
Sin City
Jay Bee
Your economy, like a Segget River , stinks till eternity

Love is gone
Of the one my heart held on
As I walked countless miles
Along the Lido beach
Time has not been kind
To this city that never sleeps
To this sinful city
   That weeps
   The yesteryears of the loss of pride that run deep
Love is gone
The deal is sealed
Sin City you are now sold
To the forked-tongued nationalists grown old like aging Disneys

Sin City
Jay Bee
You were once mine
You will no longer be

That was the context the now famed woman painter lived through, a concrete jungle of the charm of British colonial installations, of the rotten egg and sewer stench of the Segget River, of the semiotics of Malayness here and there, of the people of all races, creeds, religion, color, caste, and class move around to survive the toughness of a Third World city and to be in the daily grind and to maintain the and spiritual and psychological balance of a city filed with sin and spirituality in one. A place where everybody hustles and haggles to make ends meet, in a city owned by the rich and plagued with moral filth.

That was her canvas.  Her tabula rasa. Of Mastura Abdul Rahman’s world she sees almost daily, times when she was not confined in that house the “harmonious interior” in the Malay village of Majidee, securing and secluding herself from the deaths and dying of those stoned with illicit drugs daily. How must she then, in her life, paint these, to keep her soul and spirit in harmony?

What will she be painting against, her whole life hence?

Central Conflict: Inner Struggle?  

Van Gogh had his. Frida Kahlo had hers. So do the painters and artists and sculptors and artisans the world over, through Time and Space. The central conflict, inner struggle waiting to be released, like a pandora box of emotions.

Mastura Abdul Rahman had hers too, as the painting became her psychotherapist, her confession booth, her wailing wall, palms for her doa/supplications directed to the divine, her innermost cave where she meets her mentor and seeks guidance and finds solace, as she traverses the trials and tribulations of life. From a young girl struggling with the loneliness of being the only girl, of the chaos her family built as a home, from the Freudian repression she alone kept in locks, and later from the challenges of making a living as an artist, to that of motherhood, the confronting of the death of her beloved mother, and to the biggest challenge of all in giving the fullest care and love to her stroke-stricken husband, the famed sculptor Tengku Sabri – these emboldened and chronicled her spiritual journey as an artist. Tapestry of her tempestuous life not many knew. And thus, she creates “harmonious interiors within,” from time to time, from spiritual epoch to the next, and she builds worlds that she could retreat into. And let the world see what is inside of each.

If I could read her mind and feel her spirit that day her mother passed away, I’d have her read what I wrote, as there was no more meaning in living when one so dear in life, her mother and pillar of love and hope, had to leave her:

Ode to Sorrow

O’ Grief
You have come again
Opening your gates wide
Inviting me
silent you are 
As I walk humbly 
Chaining me to your ship
As we sail
To a distant land
So that you may abandon me
In my solitude
And as I conclude my musings
you may hold my hands O’ Grief
And sail with me to the middle of nowhere
where I will be washed
bathed a million times
drowned
in sorrow
in tears
I can never tell
wherein lies tears
nor the sea that drowns me aglow
O Grief
chain me tight
as I leave
the self outside of me behind
bidding goodbye to the attachment of things
as I become
Grief and Sorrow
like a trinity of tribulations

Devastated perhaps she was with the passing of someone so dear that she could not paint for months, as such as her brother who could not bear to see any photos of a mother gone forever, for a few years, as if the dead is still alive, speaking to him on what life’s joys, sorrows, and regrets are about.

For Mastura, her mother Mariam was the pillar and inspiration and one she pours her life stories and the endless Aristotelian poetics of life, a lifelong project from her birth to the grave of her mother.  The painter at times became a therapist and counselor to the mother, and at times vice versa. She was the only girl who had the beloved to share the problems women struggle with.

Reflections on some exemplary work

Over the last few decades, I had the chance to look at some of her paintings closely, offering my personacratic-hermeneutic reflections privately within myself. Her paintings reflect her Malay cultural identity, her feminist ideology some would say, and her psychological state.

Traditional motifs

Mastura Abdul Rahman incorporates elements of Malay traditional arts and crafts, such as batik, songket, and wood carving, in her paintings. These motifs not only add aesthetic appeal and visual complexity to her works but also express her cultural heritage and identity as a Malay woman. For instance, in her painting ‘Gubahan Selerak Kedua’ (1999), she uses batik patterns to create a background for a still life of household items. Batik is a textile art that involves dyeing fabric with wax-resistant patterns. It is a symbol of Malay culture and history, as well as a form of female expression and empowerment.”

Role and identity

She focuses on women’s experiences and perspectives in her paintings, often depicting scenes of domestic life and female activities. She challenges the stereotypes and expectations of women in Malay society, and asserts her own agency and creativity as a woman, a mother, and an artist. For example, in her painting ‘Interior Series’ (1990), she depicts a woman sitting on a sofa in a living room, surrounded by various objects and decorations. The woman is not looking at the viewer, but rather at a painting on the wall that shows a landscape with mountains. The painting suggests that the woman has a sense of curiosity and imagination that transcends her mundane environment. It also implies that the woman is an artist herself, or at least an admirer of art.”

Elements of Fantasy

She infuses her paintings with elements of fantasy, imagination, and storytelling, creating a whimsical and playful atmosphere. She draws inspiration from her childhood memories, her everyday life, and her artistic vision. For example, in her painting ‘Ku Lukis Rumah Ini’ (1999), she depicts a house with various objects and characters that are related to her personal history and interests. The house is filled with toys, books, paintings, flowers, animals, and people. Some of the objects are realistic, while others are exaggerated or distorted. The painting invites the viewer to explore the house and discover its stories and secrets.”

Mastura Abdul Rahman’s paintings reflect her Malay cultural identity, her feminist ideology, and her psychological state. She uses Malay traditional motifs to express her cultural heritage and identity; she portrays the role and identity of women in Malay society and asserts her own agency and creativity; and she incorporates elements of fantasy, imagination, and storytelling to create a whimsical and playful atmosphere. Her paintings are not only aesthetically pleasing and visually complex but also meaningful and insightful.

This exhibition: Celebrating mothers

I consider the work in Mastura’s current collection thus far a magum opus of her personal triumph to honor her mothers, motherhood, and to cement the idea of identity and the Motherland. She wrote (from excerpts taken from this exhibition’s catalogue):

(Himpunan sejumlah 20 buah catan ini merupakan hasil dari lebih kurang 15 tahun saya

bergelut di antara menjaga suami yang terselamat dari serangan strok, mengurus rumah-

tangga dan mengajar di universiti. Ia umpama suatu penghormatan kepada kedua ibu serta

moyang yang selama ini mengilhami saya. Moga Allah ampunkan segala dosa, terima segala

amalan serta mengangkat darjat mereka disisiNya. Amiin.)

The collection of 20 paintings represents the products of about fifteen years of my struggle in-between giving care to my husband who faced life’s challenges as a stroke victim, managing the household, and teaching in a university. These works are a tribute to both my mothers and my great-grandmothers who inspired me. May Allah grant forgiveness to them, accept all the deeds they have done in their lives, and elevate the status of their beingness. Amiin. (trans.)

Alhamdulillah

Himpunan karya merupakan ingatan kepada kedua-dua arwah ibu (ibu kandung dan ibu

mertua) serta nenek moyang saya. Saya tahu, kedua-dua ibu sangat sayang kepada saya,

sebagai satu-satunya anak perempuan juga menantu. … Kedua-dua ibu mempunyai keistimewaan serta ujian tersendiri. Mereka wanita tabah, pemurah, penyayang, arif lagi alim. Saya yakin nenek moyang saya juga begitu. Mereka memberi nasihat tentang aturan hidup yang merangkumi hubungan manusia dengan alam dan Pencipta Yang Maha Agong. … Membaca himpunan nasihat dari generasi lama dalam bentuk pantun, petua dan lain-lain

mengingatkan dan mendekatkan lagi saya kepada mereka. Saya pasti mereka sentiasa

berdampingan dengan Al-Quran, memerhatikan serta menjaga hubungan mereka dengan alam

sekeliling dan manusia.

The collection of artwork represent my remembrance of the two mothers I had (my maternal mother and my mother-in-law) as well as my great grandmothers. I know that both of them love me so much, as both a daughter and a daughter-in-law.  … Both mothers possess their uniqueness and face unique challenges. They are women of patience and perseverance, charitable, loving, wise, and deeply spiritual. I am also certain that my great grandmothers were people as such too. That gave advice on the order of things in life, which encompasses the relationship between Man and the Almighty Creator.  … Reading the collection of advice and words of wisdom from the older generation in the form of pantuns, words of wisdom, and others give me a reminder and bring me closer to them. I am certain they are always in close companion with the Quran, observing and preserving their relationship with Universe, the surrounding, and with human beings. (trans.)

Pertengahan 1986, setelah 37 tahun meninggalkan kuliah seni rupa, saya semakin memahami

apa yang saya catankan. Sewaktu di sekolah seni rupa saya hanya berfikir tentang bagaimana

hendak menggali akar-akar kesenian peribumi; tetapi tidak kepada soal-soal peribumi yang

bagaimana, mengapa harus digali dan apa yang perlu dilakukan dengan hasil galian tersebut?

Awal tahun 1987-88 bila saya mengikuti suami untuk tinggal dan berguru dengan almarhum

mertua (Almarhum adalah seorang tukang tradisional yang handal) di Jerteh, Terengganu. Sedikit sebanyak barulah saya menemui pencerahan serta kesedaran tentang apa yang saya buat

atau catankan.

Circa mid-1986, after 37 years I left the lecture rooms of visual art, I began to better understand what I am painting. When I was in art school, I was only thinking of how to excavate the roots of art of the indigenous; not explore the questions of how the indigenous-ness manifests itself, why they should be excavated, and what is to be done with the findings and discoveries. In the early part of the years 1987-88 when I followed my husband to live in Jertih, Trengganu and to do an understudy with my late father-in-law (a master artisan skilled in wood carving,) I began to be enlightened and be made more aware of what I have been doing and painting/ (trans)

Identiti, sebagaimana yang digembar-gemburkan ketika bersekolah seni dahulu, tidak semata-

mata terletak pada bentuk seni bina, batik/tekstil, ukiran kayu atau sebarang bentuk seni

tradisional yang lain. Ia sebenarnya terletak jauh di dalam hati, rasa dan keperibadian yang

diredhai Allah.

Identity, as was espoused when I was in Art school, does not reside in architectural forms, batik/textile, wood sculpture, or any form of traditional artwork. It actually resides deep in the heart, the sense of belongingness and character that pleases Allah. (trans)

.

In the above passage quoted and translated from Malay, Mastura wrote about the philosophy of the cultural production of her work. Her explanation of the cultural identity through art is clear: that artwork is not only produced as a mechanistic act devoid of deep meaning but the depth of meaning itself goes deep into the spiritual realm and in this sense, the grace of Allah, or the Divine Force of the Mysterious and the Unseen, which can only be represented in this case by Man’s act as a creator when he/she is also a creation.  Several points of the relationship between art and cultural identity are worth noting here, in that it is done by

–         representing the symbols, icons, and motifs that are meaningful,

–         portraying the history, stories, and traditions that are shared,

–         expressing the emotions, feelings, and attitudes that are characteristic of that cultre.

–         creating a sense of belonging and pride among the people who share a common culture

–         challenging and questioning the norms and values of a dominant or oppressive culture.

–         facilitating dialogue and exchange between different cultures.

Evident thus, in Mastura’s latest paintings especially in the 7 works entitled “Gubahan Selerak,” (Scattered Composition), she expressed the visual symbolisms of the interiority of Malayness and how the objects of representation of her culture are placed in strategic locations of her compositions. One not only is bathed in the finesseness of the batik motifs in their entirety and of varied design, but also be asked to focus on the cultural artifacts in them, as a reminder that these signs, symbols, and representations must always be situated in the visual-cultural-and-color-composition location and artistic milieu of Malayness: of the batik songket, and pelikat. Of Malay tapestry as a backdrop.

As it pertains to the discussion of this tribute essay, on celebrating motherhood, the three-part composition “Gubahan Selerak 7”, as I read it, exemplifies the honor given to Mastura’s two mothers whose must continue to exist, albeit in memory, in a deeply spiritual and culturally-enriched world.

General themes of past work

Over the years and pouring many moments looking at Mastura’s painting, I draw the following themes about her what she is and what she is presenting, in that she

–        captures memories of my childhood too—of joy, gratitude, curiosity, exuberance, freedom, poignance, sadness, and constant reflections. Free-spiritedness, nonetheless.

–        reminds us of mother’s everlasting love,

–        emphasizes the trust derived from tradition and culture especially of the Malays, transmitted for the wisdom of living, one needs to hold on to and flourish, at a time when values are eroding,

–        appreciates the bright colors of life, depicted and conveyed through her paintings,

–        paints the metaphor of life as a sea journey (from her Bugis roots)
in a traditional Malay sampan. Yes, the artist had ancestors who were great seafarers. Warriors with profound philosophical wisdom in them, as in Raja Haji Fisabilillah as her great great grandfather of seven generations from her maternal site,

–        paints a surrealistic piece, about being faceless in a world that render the human self to be so

–        captures the deep connection between my beingness and the rootedness of it to the place “where her story (and mine too) began,” it is this piece perhaps the first in the series of “Harmonious Interiors’

–        presents fun and colorful pieces such as the one called “Let’s Play,” about the material culture of the traditional Malays back in the day. Of what they let their children play. Before the Age of the Metaverse. Girls have dolls indeed. But the clothes for these objects of a child’ play are made by the mother. With remnants of the batik cloth. Yes, the “kain perca batik”. The artist’s mother was a seamstress who worked hard for the family. Still had the time to sew clothes for the children. And for the dolls too, for her daughter. Mother’s only daughter for that matter.

–        presents a deep meaning of the self-such as in her contemplative work, “A Good Kalimah” Like a badge of honor worn in the deepest and most sacred confines of the soul. I will have to turn this painting around and around to read the words in Jawi. And translate. And then to think of what ails the Malays these days. Perhaps this is the doa these days:  WA AMPU SANA WA AMPU SINI. FULUS SINI SANA MARI” (I grease people here. I grease people there. Money comes in from here there and everywhere! That’s the new Malay doa right there in their worldly paradise.

–        presents melancholic-memoiristic work through the colors used. The dimness of the interior. The darkness descended outside. In the village that had no electricity, during the first few years of settling down. Why melancholic? Because the colors, the tone, the hues — all seemed to be the favorite of the artist’s mother. This work was produced in 1998, I believe.

–        presents her work as semiotics of openness and evolving constructiveness of central images she called “interiors”. It is as if one could see what is going on inside the Malay house as the painter removes the roof. What does this have to do with the Malay psyche? As if she is attempting to convey the synopticon and panopticon of the Malay psyche seen through our eyes piercing through from above?

Three lenses and what is she painting against?

How must we read her paintings? At least for me, I used three lenses as a guide, beyond talks of composition, motifs, color choice, the influence of styles this and that, and mere Malayness as the message.  Below is a poem that perhaps shares my sentiments of what the artist is painting against. The representation of Malayness that is anti-traditional and anti-foundational. The anti-feudal. It is the strength of the Malay mind through reading and the constant acquiring of knowledge that defines what a cultured Malay is if we frame it as such:

I share an autobiographical poem below which perhaps amplify the lens she takes in painting Malayness:


Pronouns pathetically yours
by azly rahman

Sitting in my garden under a flame of the forest today
I close my eyes
Autumn breeze so refreshing
I am at the mercy of the beauteous rays of sunlight
so warm as if love is in every speck of light
bathing me with my eyes closed, my soul scattered in the universe
Three wind chimes surrounded me
One made of steel
One made of wood
One made of bamboo
together — music so magnificent they made
Three winds of culture blew into my slumber
as i think of pronouns in a land I once knew

why did God in scriptures speak in shifting pronouns?
ahh … i thought … not an important thought at this moment
i was as if like a dry autumn leave blown to a land yonder
as i asked with eyes still closed

if i meet an ancient Malay king
will i use to pronoun “patik”
when i feel it sounds like “pathetically yours”
or will addressing them and their monopolized status divinely-sanctioned with a “you and I’ will suffice?
i suppose i have the answer: “patik” or “pathetically yours” will not go
as i think the word “beta” as the pronoun of the monarchy conjures in my mind “of an experimental “beta-testing” version of a government … if it works it works ..
no — i then say, neither “patik” nor “beta” will go well with me
yes – “pathetically yours” and “beta-testing” will they sound to me
I shall settle with “you and i” as i address these human concepts of ascribed power i shall not agree ..

if there is “your high-ness” there must be “your lowliness” i must say. in the mind of both they must agree to play this game of pronouns i should say
no– i thought: i shall not play this game

the autumn wind blows
my eyes still close
such a beauteous day
i though the wind in its glory has brought me
like that single red leaf drying
to that land i once knew
has brought this “pathetically yours”
to where i ought to belong, the old folks would say

with a deep deep breath i took, like a buddha under a flame of a forest
i opened my eyes
i am still here … i am … that red leaf .. saved from being crushed perhaps
by pronouns … 

–         Azly Rahman

Essentially, Mastura Abdul Rahman’s painting against the decaying ideology of the Malay of today, protesting aloud by painting the ethics of Malayness, especially of the “true-blue-Johor Malayness” she grew up with through the passing down of text, context, and narratives of Malayness in the teaching of cultural wisdom. Her paintings draw viewers to the attention of foundationalism of the old and wise, and reminds us that there is still the world of Malayness worth going back to. The world is depicted through the semiotics of material culture of Malayness she so often places in her spectacular artwork.

Essentially too she paints the psychology of her Malay self she holds on to, as a world of comfort amidst the inner tempestuous life she has and lived through. As if the paintings and the interiors she creates “harmony in” will always soothe here soul as she comes home to them. She created architectures of psychological “soft power” to use a term in political theory, to have it govern her and provide the pillars of her inner and outer well-being.

Lastly, as discussed in various instances above, Mastura Abdul Rahman is painting against the onslaught of post-modernism which I feel that though she appreciates of its advent and hegemony, as such as what Artificial Intelligence (AI) is doing to our lives, prefer to stay outside of it and offer stronger traditional as a weapon of protest. I feel that this is what she has been using her art for, to protest against the protestations in art.

She is protecting the cultural motherland. And in this exhibition, to hoor mothers as a symbol of such protestation against the waning of Malay cultural effect and the disabling of Malay authenticity.

Conclusion: Painting home  

As a modern saying goes: Home is where the story begins.

She paints to heal the soul and ease suffering within. She paints against the grain of what her society was evolving into a gangsterish milieu of Johor Bahru, as a metaphor of the ugliness of modernism and of today’s world. She wanted peace and identity architectured in her paintings, with the glory of the colors, perhaps her mother and her mother-in-law preferred. Hence I have taken the phenomenological-hermeneutic view of reading her work in this exhibition. There is certitude in her visual creation of Malayness, in all its semiotic glory, of the artifacts, signs, symbols, significance, and representation of Malayness, contrary to what the filth produced by Malay politicians and traditional leaders have painted and sculptured.

Psychological, anthropological, and ideological readings can best understand what her inner world cried out for, over these years as a painter. It has to be so, as how one would read the work of the most celebrated Mexican painter Frida Kahlo, albeit the latter was painting about her dances with death, whilst Mastura was giving life to herself through years of silent suffering perhaps not openly articulated. Her Malayness refrained her from letting her screams be heard in the open.

Her paintings, instead of constructing what Frida Kahlo would do – painting the dance of the macabre, debilitating illness, passion for Marxism, and near-death experience – instead calm herself through a consistent series of “harmonious interiors” revised, renovated, and innovated differently from time to time. No artists paint out of mere objectivity or merely talk about society. Their work is essentially autobiographical and the success of being appreciated comes from the level of resonance of the personal and the societal.

She paints to heal.

She paints to conserve.

A lifelong process this is.

To make peace with herself.

To create harmony within.

To guard what is true.

It succeeded as a life-long project.

And those are the observations I made glancing through her spirit for a long time. Even before she started painting. 

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DR. AZLY RAHMAN
DR. AZLY RAHMAN
DR AZLY RAHMAN grew up in Johor Bahru, Malaysia and holds a Columbia University (New York City) doctorate in International Education Development and Masters degrees in six fields of study: Education, International Affairs, Peace Studies, Communication, Creative Non-Fiction, and Fiction Writing. He has written more than 350 analyses/essays on Malaysia. His 30 years of teaching experience in Malaysia and the United States spans over a wide range of subjects, from elementary to graduate education. He is a frequent contributor to scholarly online forums in Malaysia, the USA, Greece, and Montenegro.
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