Change begins with small acts. The title of my blog is taken from Paul Gilroy's powerful slim volume packing a resounding counter-cultural critical punch.

Sunday, April 11, 2004

Khalil Ibrahim: A Continued Dialogue with the Human Form
By Carmen Nge

From the clean, bold lines that vividly capture the undulating rhythms and sensuous sashaying of the female figure to the colourful palette of his later abstract expressionistic work, there is no denying Khalil Ibrahim’s passion for the human form. Titled “A Continued Dialogue,” Khalil Ibrahim’s solo exhibition at the Galeri Petronas at KLCC is testimony to an artist’s singular preoccupation: to depict the visual seductiveness of the human body as it engages with the motions of everyday life and relates to its social and communal existence.

A native of Kubung Krian, Kelantan, Khalil Ibrahim spent his formative years immersed in his enthusiasm for drawing. His penchant for the visual arts was spurred by Saturday art classes with Nik Mahmud Idris, a Malay school art inspector who had received his art education training in Singapore. It is from the latter that Khalil learnt the rudiments of painting. The pastoral setting of kampung life was a common theme for his artistic endeavours at the time and it remained an important subject for his commercial works when Khalil set up his first informal art gallery in Temerloh.

However, the mining of East Coast kampung life as artistic resource for his work did not privilege land and seascapes to the exclusion of its inhabitants. Despite creating landscapes that extol the verdant spectacle of nature and that capture an idyllic space untouched by humans (notably, Pepe-Pepe and Krabi, both works dated 2003), most of Khalil Ibrahim’s work foreground the human form.

In 1959, by way of a scholarship to study at the prestigious St. Martin’s School of Art, Khalil Ibrahim was exposed to formal art education rooted in the European tradition, which emphasized drawings of still life and live models. His exposure to the collections of London galleries and museums drew him to the work of Rubens, which solidified Khalil’s burgeoning interest in the human figure.

Some of Khalil’s post-graduate work from his time in London is on exhibit at the Galeri Petronas. This series clearly reveals his early fascination for the human body. The bold use of colour, the prominence of the body and a lack of emphasis on the face, and the interface between figure and ground inform much of these 1964-65 studies in gouache. Such characteristics are the leitmotifs of his later acrylic paintings.

When asked about his preoccupation with the human body in his work, Khalil Ibrahim explained that to depict kampung women and men necessarily meant paying attention to their human form. Shirtless fishermen and sarong-clad kampung women were an indispensable part of the East Coast iconography of Khalil’s youth and in his effort to capture this visual milieu, since past, he continues to make frequent visits to Southern Thailand, which is not only 90% Malay but continues to resemble 1950s Kelantan.

In one sense, Khalil Ibrahim’s work can be seen as an exercise in nostalgia; it aims to represent the rural simplicity of East Coast kampung life with all of its vibrant local colour and languorous sensuality and none of its ambivalence towards religious and urban encroachment. But because his figures are silhouettes painted in solid, bold, bright colours and set against an indistinguishable backdrop of a similarly vibrant hue, they resist the kind of realism that would fix the work in a specific spatial-temporal context.

In Serangan (Bali) 2002, the bold orange background acts as a stark and arresting visual foil for the solid female figures, which are depicted dancing in a circle. The female forms appear earthy and organic, and the fluid lines capture the sense of motion and the kineticism of their communal activity. Yet, were it not for the title, we would not have been able to place the scene in any particular geographical context. The preponderance of East Coast subjects in Khalil’s paintings makes this particular work, Bali-inspired, indistinguishable from his Malaysian kampung scenes.

There is no denying, however, that the silhouetted form of the human body in works such as Sanur, 1976 and Bebet, 2003 manages to circumvent the controversies attendant to the depiction of the full nude form within the Malaysian context. In Sanur, the bodies are well-defined, with clean lines that clearly demarcate the topless torsos from their clothed lower halves. In Bebet, the sensuality of the women is unabashedly on display through their undulating, flowing bodies and gracefully arching backs. But because all these figures are in silhouette, thereby emphasizing form rather than verisimilitude, the potential sexual energy that is palpable beneath the surface is never fully unleashed. The familiar motif in Khalil Ibrahim’s work, of intertwined bodies of both or either sexes fusing into a pulsating, kinetic whole is curiously devoid of an overt erotic impulse.

Khalil’s sketchbooks, on the other hand, tell a very different story than the one depicted on canvas. While a small number of his sketchbooks are on display in an enclosed case, the pages marked out barely hint at the ways in which all aspects of the human form interest the artist. While leafing through some of them with Khalil, I was privy to a wide selection of nude drawings—both male and female—that were the results of careful study and confident practice. From these initial sketches, some of which laid the groundwork for larger paintings, I began to understand how the silhouetted figures are able to exude an undercurrent of libidinal energy that threatens to disrupt its seemingly benign palette of colour. What the nude sketches illustrate is the necessity of grounding the abstracted, silhouetted form in the tangible human body, from which it ultimately derives.

Even in Khalil’s abstract pieces, such as the Vivacity series (2003), the disappearance of the human figure—from silhouette to shadow to an abstraction that merely hints at the presence of a figure—cannot entirely eliminate the throbbing sense of movement and vitality that pervades the works. His use of colour is vital in these abstract pieces because, when considered together with his earlier more figurative work, they suggest the presence of the human form. The bright orange, green and yellow silhouettes are now fragmented shards of colour, interspersed among varying tones of blues that remind us of the seascapes dominating his visual field.

It is perhaps with these later abstract works that one begins to question the direction Khalil Ibrahim is likely to take his passion for the figurative. If the villages of Malaysia’s East Coast continue to occupy a central place in his artistic imagination, it is perhaps opportune for him to consider how his artistic practice can be shaped by such imaginings in their current context. To revisit the same themes and motifs need not entail a sense of fidelity to what has been done before; ultimately, for the artwork to remain vibrant, its continued dialogue with the past must be shaped, though not constrained, by what has come before.

This article was published in the April 2004 issue of Options2, The Edge

Thursday, April 08, 2004

Book Review: It’s a Good Life if you don’t weaken and The Book of Bunny Suicides.
by Carmen Nge

Told in a spare, minimalist style, It’s a good life if you don’t weaken is a graphic novel that exploits its full potential as an aesthetic medium without compromising on the development of character, the creation of mood and the painstaking build-up of anticipation. Yet, in the end, it is a book that heightens our sense of suspense without capitulating to tired formulas and cliches in its denoument, and all the while, it visually engages us with a rich tapestry of images that stick in the mind long after the story is done.

Selected as one of the 100 Best Comics of the 20th Century by the editors of The Comics Journal, It’s a good life if you don’t weaken is the Canadian cartoonist Seth’s (née Gregory Gallant) homage to a time past, to a golden yesteryear where things were less complicated, slower paced and honestly lived. The novel is a semi-autobiographical tale about Seth’s quest to track down an obscure cartoonist from the 1930s: Kalo, who published only a handful of cartoons and with one notable work for the New Yorker—the very one that initially piqued Seth’s interest in the cartoonist. In the course of scouring used bookstores, libraries and antique shops in search of Kalo’s elusive works, Seth reveals his personal obssession with comics and cartoonists, as well as his reclusive, depressive personality.

In an interview with The Comics Journal, Seth explains that the title of his book is a quote from his mother, who often used the line on him as a child. Being able to live “a good life” is, thus, derived from an inner strength that refuses to cave-in to the all the negative forces around us. The character of Kalo—who never appears in the book but is only made known to us through his cartoons and stories told by others—is such an individual. As a cartoonist living through post-Depression era New York and then World War II, Kalo finds himself immersed in the ebb and flow of the magazine publishing world, eventually giving it up for a life in the real estate business when the demand for his work as a cartoonist goes into decline. He leads a life of quiet acceptance when he returns to Canada and devotes his full attention to his family without drawing ever again.

The irony of Seth’s investigation into Kalo’s life is that he becomes enamoured with a man who chooses a path that Seth can never imagine for himself. As a single man residing in the anonymous sprawl of Toronto, Seth is not responsible for a wife and children and need only care about and for himself. His personal priorities and private obssessions take precedence over any relationship he might have. The book adeptly captures this solitary, ruminative life of a pensive cartoonist in a beautifully drawn, two-colour palette.

Printed on thick yellowing paper, reminiscent of faded newsprint but without the latter’s fragility, It’s a good life if you don’t weaken is a volume that has all the heft of literary seriousness and all of the carefully composed craft of visual poetry at its most lyrical. Using bold, strong lines that harken back to vintage New Yorker panels, Seth creates a wistful world that plods along placidly amidst the stark and barren landscape of winter. It is a world that is melancholia in excess. Seth adroitly captures the empty cold feeling of urban life with an eye for the panorama of cityscapes—Toronto is depicted as a city crowded with people who move about anonymously and Seth’s only escape is the park, amidst snowdrifts and the fluffy white quiet of winter.

The power of Seth’s visual storytelling is most evident in sections of the book that are all images and no words. Through the rendering of quiet walks in the park, the mundane banality of working class domestic living with his mother and brother or the gradual passing of winter into spring and autumn, Seth manages to depict the everyday, the ordinary and the unspectacular with unpretentious care. It’s a good life if you don’t weaken is a graphic novel that pays attention to life lived with very little drama because Seth seems to understand that this is the kind of life most frequently lived and least often told.

Andy Riley’s The Book of Bunny Suicides is a lesson in contrast. If It’s a good life if you don’t weaken is a book that expands and expounds on the literary and artistic potential of comic books, then The Book of Bunny Suicides is most certainly a comic book that reminds us of how essential it is to laugh at cartoons. Quirky, whimsical, and most definitely macabre and scandalous (for bunnies, of course!), Riley’s bare bones line drawings are conventional cartoons with a decidedly wicked twist.

A scriptwriter for TV and film, Andy Riley cowrote the British Academy of Film and Television Arts award-winning Robbie the Reindeer, as well as the soon to be released new Disney animated film Gnomeo and Juliet. His cartoons, however, are anything but Disney-esque.

Furry, fluffy, cuddly bobtailed bunnies are given the royal treatment in this gruesome feast of bunny deaths. These woffly-nosed innocents are lined up for self-slaughter in the most inventive ways possible. From being impaled on light sabers to having their brains drilled by wine-bottle openers, these bunnies not only plan and execute their own suicides but they also make references to numerous historical figures while doing so—from Benjamin Franklin to Hitler, from Darth Vader to Pacman. They intend to impress upon us the fact that they not only make history by enacting their suicides en masse but they are also part of history in small (and not so small) ways.

Andy Riley firmly embeds his bunnies in our world; these are not Thumper lookalikes who warm their way into our hearts Disney fashion. These are bunnies who fought alongside the navy during World War II; they were there when American space shuttles were being launched into space; in fact, they watched Noah load his ark while they enjoyed a good tan in the sun. The genius of Riley is his ability to infuse his serious-faced bunnies with a lot of human-ity; after a while, we begin to wonder if these cute creatures may not be a surrogate for our own screwed-up history and lives.

This review was published in the April 2004 issue of Options2, The Edge