The Star Malaysia - Star2
Shadows on canvas
Art lovers are being treated to a rare glimpse of the biggest collection of works by Malaysia’s foremost wayang kulit artist.
WAR photographer Robert Capa famously said: “If your photographs aren’t good enough, you aren’t close enough.”
In his paintings, Nik Zainal Abidin Nik Mohamad Salleh (1933-1993) might well have got too close to the mystical realm of wayang kulit, blurring shadows and reality to his own peril (he suffered lapses of memory in May 1984). The story of the struggle between Good and Evil, between Rama and the ogre Rawana in the Hindu epic Ramayana (upon which many traditional wayang kulit tales are based), became also a test of his own inner search and conflicts.
When I interviewed Nik Zainal in December 1986 just before he retired as set designer cum illustrator at Radio-Televisyen Malaysia in 1987, his wife Aminah answered my questions on his behalf with the artist grinning as if in agreement and occasionally flashing his eyes at his paintings hung up in the hall of his Petaling Jaya house.
A self-taught artist and master craftsman, Nik Zainal was the first in Malaysia to have transferred and adapted the carved leather character stick-boards from the Ramayana into a painterly Western art format – onto paper (via watercolours and sketches), canvas (via oil) and wood (two very rare pieces carved on cengal wood). He explored figure-ground relationships in his two-dimensional characterisations in ornate and colourful forms from the perspective of the dalang (master puppeteer) reprised from behind the illuminated muslin kelir (screen), often to the accompaniment of gamelan music, the gendang (drums) and the serunai (flute).
More than 60 of Nik Zainal’s works in various media, including rare sketches, all from the collection of former diplomat Datuk N. Parameswaran, are on show in the Nik Zainal Abidin: Malaysia’s Foremost Wayang Kulit Artist exhibition at Interpr8, the latest Kuala Lumpur gallery, at Publika.
This definitive Nik Zainal show comprises only the first tranche of works in a two-part series of 130 works, with a planned book to be launched at the finale.
It is the biggest single collection of Nik Zainal’s works and it shows the multi-faceted dimensions of this incomparable modern Malaysian art master; it also features little-known works that have rarely appeared in public.
The National Visual Arts Gallery (formerly the National Art Gallery) has only 13 works (watercolours and oils), all of which it exhibited in a memorial tribute from Feb 22-28, 1993 – just after Nik Zainal died that Feb 16. It showed Nik Zainal’s works again in selective numbers (10) in the travelling Of Shadows And Images exhibitions in Malmo (Sweden, May 16-Aug 17, 2003) and Madrid (Spain, as part of the Casa Asia Festival, November 2003); I was the embedded journalist in both these events.
Parameswaran says that he bought his first Nik Zainal in 1986 from the late art dealer and former National Art Gallery director Rahime Harun at his AP Gallery, then at KL Hilton, and this led the diplomat to gradually amass a large body of Nik Zainal’s works directly from the family. “I was drawn by his deep knowledge of the subject and the masterful way he depicted the wayang kulit characters, in detail and in a splendid range of colours,” says Parameswaran, 65.
Those were the seeds of his now vast collection of over 3,000 paintings and sculptures not only from Malaysia but also Vietnam, Indonesia and Singapore.
Interpr8, which was established last year, will be a showcase of some of Parameswaran’s collection and will also provide an avenue for young artists to show contemporary artworks, which is a special interest of his daughter, Sharmin.
Nik Zainal, whose work was among four by different individual artists that formed the initial National Art Gallery collection in 1958, is a seminal figure in Malaysian art, transforming the ancient wayang kulit art form into painting with inventive variations of techniques and styles.
His Drupada series was inspired by a 1959 visit to Bali where he was exposed to the Javanese wayang kulit purwa. On his return from a one-month West German cultural orientation tour with five other artists in 1970, Nik Zainal started experimenting with semi-abstract and abstract art (a work each influenced by drip-paint master Jackson Pollock and Cubism founder Pablo Picasso will be shown in Nik Zainal 2).
In Contemporary Arts Of Malaysia: A Biographical Survey (Asia Society, 1971), Dolores D. Wharton wrote: “There are many who tried their hand at painting wayang kulit but none has unlocked the vitality of drama or acquired the skills of painting the figures that Nik Zainal does so effortlessly.” An observation that still rings true today.
His works were featured at the 2nd India Triennial in 1968; the Malaysian Art touring exhibition in Europe (1965) and Australia-New Zealand (1969); the 1970 World Expo in Osaka, Japan; and also the Malaysian Art 1965-78 exhibition at the Commonwealth Institute in London in 1978.
But Nik Zainal’s development of his wayang kulit art was greatly affected by the global trend towards Islamic fundamentalism under the Ayatollah Khomeini in Iran in the 1980s, and the gradual Islamisation of some state administrations in Malaysia. In 1990, Kelantan, led by conservative Islamist party PAS, frowned upon wayang kulit because of its folkloric Hindu origins and banned the traditional Menora and Mak Yong dance forms as “unIslamic”.
As this exhibition shows, Nik Zainal’s subjects are more wideranging than just wayang kulit-related elements and includes figuratives, home-life (mother and daughter engaged in traditional embroidery), designs, Islamic calligraphy, romantic landscapes and even one 1979 work that documented the floods in Kelantan.
His claim to fame was not only in painting. In 1960, Nik Zainal was commissioned by the country’s first Prime Minister, Tunku Abdul Rahman, to design the “Kunci Ibu Kota” and the Royal Throne for the first Yang di-Pertuan Agong as well as the cokmar (mace). In 1962, he created the mural on concrete and wrought iron for the West Wing of Muzium Negara.
Even before the re-indigenisation process brought about by the 1971 National Cultural Congress, Nik Zainal was already incorporating motifs and iconography of, for instance, the mengkuang (screwpine leaves) format into his works.
Born in Kampung Pak Nik Ya, Kelantan, on May 20, 1933, Nik Zainal was exposed to wayang kulit by his goldsmith father Nik Mohamad Salleh. After a stint at a religious school from 1948-50, he took up informal art classes during weekends at the Sekolah Melayu Padang Garong run by Cikgu Nik Mahmood Idris, who also trained Khalil Ibrahim, Mokhtar Ishak and Yusof Sulaiman.
In 1955, Nik Zainal was lured to Kuala Lumpur by (Tan Sri) Mubin Sheppard, where he first worked as an illustrator at Muzium Negara. He also joined the informal classes at the influential Wednesday Art Group run by Peter Harris.
Nik Zainal also began excelling in art competitions, winning a prize in the Merdeka Fair in 1957, and the 1st Prize in the Joy Of Living art and photography exhibition in 1964.
It was no mean feat that the fastidious Frank Sullivan hosted Nik Zainal’s first two solos at the Samat Gallery, the first in June 1970 and then again in October-November 1971. There was a long gap before Nik Zainal held his next solo at Yiu Hong’s Art House gallery, then at Wisma Stephens (now Wisma Cosway) in Kuala Lumpur in 1983.
This was before he came under tremendous pressure when working on the sets and props for the Japanese drama, Rashoman, and Bangsawan Terawih, for television, in 1984.
The NikZainalAbidin: Malaysia’sForemostWayang KulitArtist exhibition will be on until June 8 at Interpr8 Art Space, Lot 20, Level G4, Publika, Jalan Solaris Dutamas 1, Kuala Lumpur. Gallery hours are from 11am to 7pm. For details, contact Sharmin Parameswaran at 012-395 2081 / email@example.com or Priscilia Loh at +65-9191 7123 / lohpriscilia@ gmail.com.