KUALA LUMPUR, March 27 — A good road trip can do wonders for opening up your mind.
All the more so when you’re travelling to a place you’ve heard about but not really understood. This was exactly what Nadia J Mahfix, Poodien and KG Krishnan, three of eight Malaysian artists who went on an interfaith excursion to Kelantan, discovered.
Organised by Projek Dialog, a local social discourse project, the trip allowed the artists to encounter various communities and places of worship for different faiths in Kelantan. The group, which also included Alex Lee, Wiliam Sim, Engku Iman, Khatijah Rahmat and Yoke Tan, recently had works inspired by the trip exhibited at Galeri Reka, Balai Seni Visual Negara.
Titled Khabar dan Angin: Excursus on Faith in Kelantan, the exhibition was curated by Ong Jo-Lene and Yana Rizal. So how did these artists recreate their experiences of modern-day Kelantan, complete with an exploration of the diverse communities, faiths and history of the state?
A recent finalist at the Asia Women Photographer Showcase, self-taught photographer Nadia J Mahfix counts Hiroshi Sugimoto, Antoine D’Agata and Diane Arbus as her early influences. Over the years, she has begun crafting her own style and participated in various exhibitions such as Beyond Our City: Lights & Myths (2010) organised by the Goethe-Institut and The Two Mountains Photography Project (2014), a joint-exhibition of Malaysian and Japanese photographers.
The excursion to Kelantan was an eye-opening experience for Nadia. She recalls, “We visited the Temiar people at their village in Gua Musang, mingling with them and listening to their concerns regarding their lands and future generations.
“When we headed back to our homestay, it was already late at night and freezing cold. But the night sky was a sight to behold. We asked the driver to pull over so we could sit back and watch the sky. A shooting star shot across the horizon and I managed to photograph that moment.”
That captured moment became one of the exhibited photographs from Nadia’s “Wahyu” series, each a 59.4cm x 42cm digital photo print on lightbox. The series encapsulated her takeaway from her time in Kelantan, which was to “always leave your judgement at home. Never assume what you hear from others is the solid truth. You have to experience it yourself and only then can you make your own conclusion about it.”
There are no easy conclusions for visual artist Poodien (whose real name is Shaifuddin Mamat) in the aftermath of the Kelantan trip. He says, “This trip influenced my work in a way related to the subjects of time and the universality of all religions.
“How all religions share the same elements and it’s a matter of interpretation that makes them try to compete with each other, influenced by other factors like politics and the economy. That’s where the idea of power come from. Power shapes spaces and our ideas about space.”
A recipient of the inaugural Malaysian Emerging Artist (MEA) Award, Poodien was inspired by visiting different religious spaces and communities in Kelantan. He says, “The trip allowed me to physically experience the history of all important religions in only two weeks. That’s like compressing thousands years into a couple of weeks! We only spent a few hours with each community. What we really got was maybe just snippets of some bigger picture.”
The bigger picture is something KL-born photographer KG Krishnan is working on capturing in his work too. Known for exploring themes of sexuality and gender politics, the winner of the Golden Peacock Excellent Photography Works Award at the Xishuangbanna International Festival believes in allowing his interactions with fellow artists inform his work.
“One experience I treasure were the boat rides down Sungai Kelantan I took with Poodien, who is originally from Kelantan,” he says. “Initially I intended to work on a piece about the two rivers in the state and its tributaries, but my conversations with Poodien and our shared attraction to stories of water made those trips memorable.
“Many of the spaces I’d photographed for the show came together as an idea in an organic fashion through this process of shooting through the day.”
When his original idea to document the rivers and how they related to spiritual practices didn’t quite gel, KG was quick to move on to a different idea. He explains, “My gut feeling was that it would be important to go see the football stadium in Kota Baru. Having worked on stories of urban development for three years now, I recognised the potential of exploring public spaces as a reflection of the state’s social structure and how it was all connected to the issue of state and religion.”
The result of this midway pivot was “Sacred/Space”, a series of nine pieces presenting KG’s views on spirituality in public spaces in Kelantan. For Poodien, the trip was interpreted in a series of three paintings titled “Dari Ketiadaan Sampai Ke Sini” utilising both ink on paper and oil on canvas. He notes that the word “tiada” could mean “nothing” but also “absence.”
The business of being an artist isn’t all road trips and epiphanies though. According to Nadia, if one wanted to become a working artist, the “work” part is equally important. Part of the work could simply be persuading others that what they do even have merit.
She says, “In Malaysia, there seems to be less appreciation from the public when it comes to photography. Probably because everyone thinks that anyone can take a photograph, so it’s not really art for them.”
Nadia opines that the most challenging part of being a photographer-cum-artist is getting one’s works into art galleries. She says, “One thing I have learned and that I’d do differently is to learn to price properly. When I first participated in exhibitions, I didn’t take into account that the gallery takes a cut of the proceeds from the sales of my artwork too.”
KG adds, “This can be anything from 30 to 50 per cent, depending on the gallery. It can be quite a headache if you’re not prepared to deal with the business end of art. You can’t just create art; you have to work at getting it out there, for others to see and, hopefully, appreciate and maybe even buy.”
Even when their works find buyers, the three artists understand that is not necessarily the same as finding widespread acceptance. Poodien says, “The current challenge is how to open up the function of art to serve all kinds of purpose other than just being a pretty picture on the wall or sculpture on the pedestal. This is not really new. Artists everywhere have been grappling with this for a long time but I guess, just like religion, the challenge is always there.”