Saturday, October 18, 2008
1969 A Struggle Story
In Singapore Art Museum (SAM) the works of the ten finalists for the APB Foundation Signature Art Prize 2008 are displayed. I walk through the halls and examine each work carefully. The finalists have been selected by a panel of reputable art experts and the works on display prove that they have not gone by any prejudice; each work looks good and declares the talent of the artist. I am with G.R.Iranna, the Indian finalist and I am sure that he would get one of the prizes as his work stands out and draws a lot of attention from the visiting art lovers.
While walking along with the guests, I keep telling myself that I should not be prejudiced. If I see an excellent work, I should be able to say this is the one I like, without being restricted by my national pride. Yes, of course, theoretically even if you don’t like to be attached to any nationalist sentiments, when you are away from your own country, suddenly from nowhere patriotic sentiments start invading your otherwise calm mind. I should restrict such invasions.
These days, as you know, exhibitions look incomplete without a couple of dark rooms, where you expect a video work. If there is no video in a show, that might look slightly anachronistic. So in any Indian or foreign gallery, you come across these dark rooms. Here also I see a dark room and with a smile I enter the space. Except for darkness there is nothing in this room. I have a pair of trained eyes and I know where to look for the work or the video projector. I find one and immediately I make out that it is a slide projection work. Crude it may sound, but slide projections at times make better works than actual videos. Anoop Mathews Thomas is one of the contemporary Indian artists who make use of slide projections well.
I ask the security guard to switch on the machine and he does it promptly. Unlike the Indian museum staff, these security guards do not scramble here and there to find an excuse for not delivering their duties. As he switches it on, the machine comes to life with a whirring sound. I look at the blank wall opposite to it and here we go.
These slides show the images from the archives of Malaysia. There are seventy one slides with the images ranging from 1863 to 2003. The artist is Ahmad Fuad B.Osman. The sepia toned images show how Malaysia conducted itself through time; right from colonial period to now. I watch all the slides and I become curious as I find one bearded man, who almost looks like a musician in contemporary clothes taking part in all the historical events. He is the only person see in color and the artist has used the photoshop software to include him in all the pictures, but with a lot of imagination. He does not look out of context or out of place. It may not be a mind blowing technique or a new artistic approach. I have seen a lot of works like that done by Indian as well as foreign artists. What catches my imagination is the idea of participation and witnessing expressed through this work.
I take this man in the picture for the artist. Later I am corrected by the artist himself that it is one of his friends modeling for him. Reason, the man looks more like the artist but with a beard. He looks likes a man who is so eager to be a part of the history, like any other person would like to have a share of his country’s history. Malaysia celebrated its 50th anniversary of Independence in 2007 and the government archives released a lot of pictures for integrating the public through patriotic imagination. For the artist, these pictures became a point of reference for articulating his ideas about colonialism, freedom and neo-imperialism.
I meet that artist later. I chat up with him and I have this strong feeling that I know him somehow. I am sure that I have not met him before nor have I seen his works.
Ahmad Fuad B.Osman must be 5’7” tall. He is in a white shirt and blue jeans. He reminds me of one of the members of the Indian football team, especially from the North Eastern region. Perhaps, he looks more like a musician than a visual artist. He studied art at the Fine Arts Faculty, University of Technology Mara (UiTM), Malaysia. He has done a residency in South Korea and currently he is one of the well sought out artists in the country. He does paintings (excellent ones), performance art, videos, photography and installations. He plays guitar and has connections with a lot of intellectuals, writers, theatre personalities and musicians.
“When I started off my career as an artist, a few galleries in Kuala Lumpur asked me to do the kind of paintings prevalent at that time. I did not want to do it. So I went to do some odd jobs and kept on doing the works I wanted to do till I found market success recently,” Ahmad Fuad tells me.
I have this perennial itch to ask this question: “Are you born in 1969?”
To my surprise, he says ‘yes’. Another artist born in 1969. I am thrilled.
I have this strange obsession to meet up with people who are born in 1969 as I also was born in the same year. I mark the people born in this year as a kind of cusp people, who did not have the chance to grow with post-modern technology but were forced to catch up with it in a mature period. These people studied in conventional disciplines and were then forced to switch to other disciplines in a later stage. These people grew up in a nationalist tradition but were forced to re-think about their nationalist tradition when they were in their early 20s. These people imbibed the lessons of international rebellion and world revolution in their late teens and were later forced to switch their allegiance to market economy. These people thought a lot about committing suicide when they were young and survived only because they had this sheer grit to live.
Now I want to know more about Ahmad Fuad and I am sure that he is going to tell me something that is similar to the people of this generation in India.
“My family does not have any artists to claim a lineage,” Ahmad Fuad tells me. “I came to the city to study art. I could have gone back to my village that is quite far from the city, and could have become an art teacher or could have started a business. But I wanted to become an artist so decided to stay back in the city.”
I am listening and finding parallels.
Ahmad Fuad, as I mentioned earlier, was asked to work according to the then selling style, which he flatly refused. So what did he do?
“I worked as a set designer for theatre groups where I came across intellectuals and writers. It was good to be with them. I found like minded artists and strugglers like me and we decided to stick together and do works which suited to our ideas and attitudes.”
There were a few galleries. It was mid 1990s. The country’s economy was opened to globalization like any other country in South Asian region. People were confused and art was the last thing someone took up for eke out a living. But Ahmad Fuad and his friends trusted their works so much that they never thought of leaving it for pursuing fulltime careers in other fields. They sang their blues and Ahmad Fuad played guitar to belt out his blues.
As there was no help coming out of any quarters, they decided to set up a self-help group and it was called ‘MATAHATI’. In Malay language it means ‘The Eye of the Soul.’
“We were five and we had a five years agenda. We thought we would stay together, work together and exhibit together till we find our own ways. We did a few exhibitions that caught the eyes of the connoisseurs in my country. They took notice of our work though money did not come in. But slowly our country also started having an art market system and we got noticed.”
What happened to the Five Year agenda of Matahati?
“We are still together because we find we have a lot to do and our egos have not affected our mutual relationships,” smiles Ahmad Fuad.
When he recalls his times of struggle, I can see how Indian contemporary artists also went through the same struggle in the same period. In early 1990s most of the artists were a disillusioned lot. Like the beads of a broken chain most of them were thrown here and there. Many went back to their villages to live an obscure life and many migrated to the cities. They worked in different places, menial jobs and went back to their shacks with never ending hopes.
“Now we are all in an upbeat mood with the galleries pitching in to support the young artists. However, compared to the International scene, we have a long way to go. But the economic changes have brought in positive thinking. We are able to do ambitious works and travel the world,” Ahmad Fuad says with a glitter in his eyes.
So is he still doing the theatre set designing job?
“No,” says Ahmad Fuad. “Not as a job. But I still collaborate with people from different fields and do collaborative works. In that sense I enjoy working with the theatre groups.”
Finally has he moved to the flat of his own?
“I am still living in suburbs, but I think I am able to find out a good accommodation and studio space there. We all meet in the city quite often and city energizes us to create new works,” he says.
Do you find any difference between his story and the story of our contemporary artists?