Antares chats with two expat artists in Penang
It so happens my Penang friends are mostly artists. Great bunch of people – very sincere, open-hearted, and really passionate about their craft. However, I had been hearing reports about some of them vanishing completely from sight or becoming generally disgruntled. Could it be something in the water? Or were they just fed up with getting ignored by the KL-centric mass media? So when The Hilt suggested I do an update on the Penang art scene, I jumped at the chance to renew some ancient friendships and find out for myself what was happening up north.
First I emailed Janet Pillai – a Five Arts protègèe I’ve known for 33 years, who has dedicated her life to children’s theater – and she kindly reconnected me with Askandar Unglehrt, a German married to an authentic princess from Pattani.
Askandar met Tengku Idaura in Paris in 1968 when both were studying linguistics. He decided to make Malaysia his home and taught French at Universiti Sains Malaysia’s Language Center for 28 years. Best known for his quirky tongue-in-cheek collages, Askandar describes himself as “an eclectic” whose main influences include pop art, surrealism, and Dada (I mean the early 20th-century absurdist art movement – not the Malay word for breast).
His workdesk in a haunted storeroom on the USM campus is cluttered with photos cut out from newspapers. I feel honored that Askandar is showing me his work-in-progress, tentatively titled Synchronyms. I always thought Askandar Unglehrt resembled James Joyce but now he’s gained a bit of girth he looks more like Carl Jung. I’m tickled by one of his spoof sculptures: a pastel-colored cowpat with a deer snout sticking out on top. “It’s called The Human Condition,” Askandar offers.
On the wall hangs an odd trophy: a stag minus its antlers mounted on an electronic circuit board. “That one is titled Self Portrait,” Askandar obliges. It’s obvious that Askandar Unglehrt isn’t in art for the money. Yet he sold quite a few pieces at his 1988 exhibition of mandalic photomontages – East Coast Kaleidoscopes – wherein he created mesmeric and phantasmagoric patterns by skillfully mirroring and assembling photographs of brightly painted Malay fishing boats. I spot a few abstracts done in oil on canvas stacked on his studio floor against one wall. They are competently executed and thought-provoking, but his surrealist collages undoubtedly outshine his paintings. “I’m not very good at drawing figures,” Askandar admits, “although I’ve always been fascinated with the visual arts. One day I was painting an old cupboard, and decided to add a few designs on the panels. That’s when I first realized producing art could be a lot of fun.”
And excellent therapy too. Whenever he feels depressed or frustrated by the way things are going, Askandar scours newspapers and magazines for material to incorporate in his work, which serves as a gentle reminder to not take ourselves too seriously, lest we end up looking ludicrous.
I was perfectly content to spend the larger part of my brief visit drinking coffee and chewing the fat with Askandar and another old pal, Sugu Kingham (whose scholar-monk’s nose has been buried for the last six years in his doctoral dissertation on the symbolism of the kayon, the mystical Tree-of-Life that features prominently, not only in Southeast Asian arts, crafts and folklore, but can be found pervading all cultures). However, Askandar’s Teutonic streak was intent on my viewing several ongoing exhibitions on the island before leaving.
The only show that really piqued my interest was a debut solo exhibition by Shamsul Bahari, a professional prodigal son who recently returned to Penang after 22 years abroad – mostly in America, where he obtained a Bachelor’s Degree in Fine Arts and subsequently embarked on a fabulously checkered career (as a security guard, librarian, meat slicer, organic farmer, produce buyer, and shipyard supervisor, to name just a few jobs listed in his CV).
Shamsul’s large canvases revealed him to be mostly an ardent Sunday painter – but included in the exhibition, ingenuously titled Humind, was a series of well-traveled notebooks overflowing with streetwise Zen aphorisms and witty ink sketches that reminded me of the celebrated Dato’ Lat’s more esoteric doodles. The fact that Shamsul Bahari now works as a ferry terminal supervisor and ticket seller on Pulau Jerejak prompted me to make a mental note to visit the Jerejak Resort sometime, just to shake the man’s hand.
Askandar mentioned an upcoming three-man show he was doing in July 2006 with Ernesto Pujazon and Ricardo Chavez Tovar. Ernesto (from Peru) teaches art in Cyberjaya and Ricardo (from Mexico) does the same at a private college in Penang. The exhibition will be named Is Art Serious? “You really must meet Ricardo,” Askandar says, and so we do, over a cold jug of lager.
Ricardo is a robust, reticent dude in his early forties who could easily pass for a local, but for his lyrical Latino accent. He hands me a stack of glossy photos showcasing his oeuvre: the one titled 2000 New Year’s Eve is painted on cardboard boxes, a vivid cartoon depiction of a guy (quite possibly the artist himself) celebrating the new millennium with two fun-loving amigos, Death and The Devil.
Les Canailles features a yin-yang pair of diabolically grinning canines, framed in a rainbow energy field. A mixed media piece, Smashed Angels At The Bar, evokes a scene straight out of the movie Constantine (starring Keanu Reeves) – the downside of a Catholic upbringing, no doubt.
Before getting a job teaching art in Penang seven years ago, Ricardo Chavez Tovar spent four years in Nanjing and Hangzhou, in China. He’s been to lots of places. I stare at his artwork, captivated by his confident style and Manichaean imagery. The influence of famed Mexican muralist Diego Rivera and fringe comicbook art is evident in Ricardo’s bold lines, so reminiscent of his ancestors’ Mayan and Aztec heritage, like starglyphs marking a galactic calendar – but with a humorous, neo-existentialist twist. Angels, devils, dogs, skeletons and mermaids are recurring themes in Ricardo’s current work.
“Have you read anything by Carlos Castaneda?” Ricardo asks. I reply in the affirmative but he seems satisfied with my answer and we don’t extend the thread of magical discussion. Señor Tovar prefers to leave a lot of things unspoken, but it is clear to me there are many layers to this man’s psyche. Before we part he hands me a namecard adorned with one of his grinning dogs. His name appears twice, once simply as Ricardo Chavez Tovar; then again, as a mirror image. His job description: “underground artist, outstanding lecturer.” Earlier we had taken a look at some of his students’ efforts, and found them impressively refreshing. I guess Ricardo Chavez Tovar is one self-contained artist who doesn’t exaggerate and whose ego requires no stroking.
I was keen to look in on another long-lost friend, the legendary Latiff Mohidin, but it seems Latiff has become quite a recluse. Nevertheless, I resolved to go knocking on his front door and see if it would open for me. As it turns out the whole family had gone to Kuala Lumpur. In the early 1960s Latiff Mohidin was among the first Malaysian artists to achieve international acclaim as a painter and sculptor – however, his mystical poetry deserves to be introduced to a much wider audience. To this end, Askandar has translated several of Latiff’s poems into German and they were recently published under the auspices of Goethe-Institut.
It’s been more than a decade since Latiff Mohidin excitedly announced to me that he had just finished translating into Malay the Tao Te Ching. What ought to have been hailed as an epochal accomplishment never even got published as far as I know. The Tao Te Ching happens to rank among the sublimest expressions of natural wisdom of all time: 81 pithy poems allegedly penned by Lao-tze before he vanished forever in the Kunlun mountains, where some say he attained immortality. Not much demand in rapidly industrializing Bolehland for this kind of “metaphysical hogwash,” I suppose.
Anyway, it felt good to have touched base with my old pals and the Penang art scene, which seems more vibrant than most folks in the rest of the country care to know about. The pace of life in Penang, though hardly as laidback as it was twenty years ago, is still a great deal more civilized than in the Klang Valley. From my marathon chats with Askandar Unglehrt and Sugu Kingham, I got the impression that Penang artists, on the whole, are less fixated on being marketable and trendy than their counterparts in KL. They just keep doing it because art is therapeutic – for the practitioner as well as the spectator.
15 May 2006 [Originally published in the June 2006 issue of The Hilt magazine]