LANGKAWI THROUGH LATIFF >

Latiff Mohidin

Langkawi 1976-1980

Solo exhibition at Chan + Hori Contemporary, Singapore

23 Jun - 22 Jul 2018

Latiff Mohidin at Langkawi 1976 - 1980 exhibition artist talk, 2017

Image courtesy of Chan + Hori Contemporary

In his retrospective featuring 60 years of practice at the Balai Seni Visual Negara in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia (2013), Latiff Mohidin’s development was illustrated as belonging to three periods. The first was the ‘formative period’, followed by the ‘meditative period’ and ‘gestural period’. Langkawi (1976–1980) is illustrated as belonging to the ‘meditative period’, sandwiched between Mindscape 1 (1974) and Mindscape 2 (1976). This ‘meditative period’ was described as ‘the period whereby the stylistic and compositional tone of Latiff Mohidin’s art becomes fairly ‘controlled’ or perhaps ‘calmer’ when compared to his more constructive expressive creations in the preceding period’. [1]

 

In 1974, two years before starting work on Langkawi, Latiff co-founded and was active within the remarkably consequential Anak Alam artist collective. Anak Alam, loosely translated as Child of Nature, was a revolutionary, avant-garde collective of visual artists, poets, writers, dramatists and other creatives seeking alternative ideas in an environment laden with politicised, fiery debates on ‘national culture’ amidst a decade of post-independent sentiments. Prior to this, the National Culture Congress meeting in 1971 had resolved to use Malay culture and Islam amongst key pivot points in drafting Malaysia’s existent National Culture Policy.[2]

The founding of Anak Alam was preceded two years earlier by an exhibition Dokumentasi 72 and the accompanying manifesto for Towards a Mystical Reality (1974) by Redza Piyadasa and Sulaiman Esa, amplifying a bold statement to ‘revolutionise modern Malaysian art’.[3] While Piyadasa and Sulaiman Esa dealt head-on with perennial discourses on ‘east’ versus ‘west’-centricity right after the 1971 national culture and identity debates, Anak Alam circles in on a more human, universal perspective; on purpose, values, readers and readings. The manifesto of the Anak Alam Generation (as they were known) was laid down akin to a poem, a stark contrast to the six -part, 20-page, somewhat ‘heroic’ argument of Redza Piyadasa and Sulaiman Esa. Between the two, Anak Alam appears more embracing and compassionate, openly inviting ‘all art practitioners from all branches of arts who feel this tremor and turmoil and are with us in this manifesto are our comrades in the same vassal.’[4] The point of convergence between the two appears in their reconsideration of the wisdom, knowledge, philosophies and spirituality of Asia, Southeast Asia and the Malay Archipelago. The undertaking appears, for Piyadasa and Sulaiman, like a mission in engaging an elusive ‘mysticism’ that bridges art with earthly realities and away from the optical ‘illusions’ of the artist. For Latiff, the restless local environment of the early 1970s had made it even more necessary to take some time off, to meditate, dissolve and distil the dissonance and clamour of a rapidly urbanised civil society. Nevertheless, both struggles underline a need to return cultural authorship to artists, while acting as echo chambers of discordant ground sentiments between artists and the bureaucrats.

Cover of Langkawi exhibition catalogue at Universiti Malaya, Malaysia, 1976

Image courtesy of the estate of Latiff Mohidin

Since early on in his formation as an artist, Latiff Mohidin has always related to, and firmly held, the principles of ‘nature and elders advice’.[5] Born in 1941 in a Malay-Minangkabau village of Lenggeng in Negeri Sembilan, Malaysia, Latiff experienced a close link to traditional Minangkabau culture. For instance, here, Adat Pepatih, a matrilineal customary law and guiding principles brought to Malaysia through settlers from Sumatra in the 1400s[6] is still referenced by its community today, even if not entirely practiced. The culture of the Minangkabaus is laden with sophisticated lyrical idioms, communal creeds infused with Islam, an almost devotional appreciation for nature; and the spirit of merantau (journeying), specially to contribute to the village economy. Men in the community have, after all, been described as ‘pipit jantan tak bersarang’ or ‘male sparrows without a nest’.[7] In the community, the value of a journeyman’s worldview is as treasured as the capital he brings.  As an example, should a man return empty after years of merantau, it is his acquired wisdom and experience that is expected as contribution for the betterment of his community.[8]  Latiff not only respected the principles of traditional adat (customs), but also evidently embraced this very spirit of merantau in cultivating and contextualising his art. 

 

While journeys to the Mekong region in mainland Southeast Asia informed the thinking behind his watershed Pago-Pago (1964 - 1969) series, it is Langkawi, the legendary and mythical island located north-west of the Malaysian peninsula and state of Kedah that provided the much-needed respite and inspiration for the artist in what has often been described as a ‘restless’[9] period of his grand journey. And unlike Pago-Pago, Mindscape 1 (1974), Mindscape 2 (1976), Gelombang (1988), Rimba (1998) and Voyage (2007), Langkawi (1976 – 1980) singles itself out as the only series in Latiff Mohidin’s vast oeuvre directly titled after an actual, physical site. A quick read on the island reveals a rich and magical history most commonly anchored around the eventful burning of rice supplies at Padang Matsirat to cripple Siamese invaders and the fleeing of its native inhabitants as a consequence of the tragic death and curse set by a beautiful damsel named Mahsuri.

Exhibition view of Langkawi 1976 - 1980 at Gillman Barracks

Image courtesy of Chan + Hori Contemporary

Within the Malay Archipelago, wood is a material employed for the most significant istana (palace) to the humble centong (rice ladle). The exclusive use of wood as a primary substrate for Langkawi is an indication that further relates Latiff to tradition. In the tradition of Malay artisans, the selection of wood species not only depended on their availability, but also on the strength of their innate semangat (spirit).[10] As an example, Malay woodcarvers prefer to use the kemuning and kenaung woods for the hilts of the keris (Malay dagger) - not only for its distinctive decorative properties, but also in the belief that this woods possess ‘good spirit that must be respected and that will accompany the weapon’.[11] As reflected in one Minangkabau teromba (poetic lyrics), the kemuning also has its place in the compounds of the rumah gadang (traditional house) to tie horses to.[12]

 

As a relentless wanderer, poet, artist and intellectual, Latiff’s choice in seeking respite on Langkawi island appears not to be as simple as a coincidence or convenience. The Langkawi that Latiff visited was not the same as the one we know today. It was not until 1986 that Langkawi was officially launched as a tourist destination, and, in fact, the first flight into Langkawi was made by a propeller-driven Malaysian Airlines Fokker F27 on 4 December 1986[13].

 

Before falling into British hands in the 20th century, the historical roots of Kedah and Langkawi island were tied to the 2nd century Thai Langkasuka kingdom, 8th century Buddhist Sriwijaya kingdom, 15th century Pattani kingdom, and 19th century Sultanate of Kedah. Flowing between these historic transitions, anthropologists found clues to artistic practices - guided by spiritual beliefs through an evolution of its little-mentioned woodcraft heritage. In the animistic Langkasuka period, for example, there exists a style of woodcarving known as Kelopak Dewa (God’s Petals) inspired primarily by elements such as earth, air, water and fire. Later in the 16th century, with the presence of Islam, the floral-looking patterns evolved into what is known as Kelopak Maya (Petals of the Virtual Universe). In this version, the representation of local plants and flowers emerged, partly as an acknowledgement of the presence and greatness of God (Allah). On to the 18th century, Kelopak Hidup (Living Petals) took over eschewing the same tributes to divinity, only this time, with freer forms of artistic expression to their designs. These measures of cultural civilisations continue to live and can be found in the Malay palaces of today.[14]

Langkawi 1 (1978)  

103 x 33 cm 

Private collection

Image courtesy of Chan + Hori Contemporary

Tanjung Pandan 3 (1978)  

172.5 x 59.5 cm

Private collection

Image courtesy of Chan + Hori Contemporary

When they were first presented at Tunku Chancellor Hall at the University of Malaya in December 1976, the Langkawi series was billed as ‘wall sculptures’, not paintings. The same attribute was used when they were subsequently exhibited in Latiff’s solo exhibitions in Penang (1977 and 1979) and in Bangi (1980). As sculptures, they seek to be observed beyond the two-dimensions that paintings are typically subject to. While most run flat and parallel to the wall they hung on, others curved in concave or convex from their sides, while some others ‘distend’ and ‘rise’ from their centers. They were constructed with a combination of plywood, wood strips and stretched canvasses. Taking on the roles of carpenter and painter, all of them were fulfilled wholly by Latiff himself. They were painted with oil paints, but not with the bold, recognizable brush strokes typically observed in Pago-Pago, Gelombang or Rimba. Quieter and more calculated, the paint technique on Langkawi takes after the earlier Mindscape series. On their façade, drops of colours are dribbled with restraint, each overlapping the one before to eventually form a complete, constructed colour field environment. One could trace this overlapping, dripping, ‘streaking’ and chiaroscuro-like approach to works such as Penjual Sate (1959), Reading the Koran (1959), Pangkor/Pago-Pago (1967), Imago Kelam (1968), Mindscape IV (1973) and Mindscape 49/Blue (1983).

 

And while many in the folio were titled Langkawi followed by respective numbered sequences or subtitles, others carry concise titles such as Laut (sea), Rembang (high noon), Tanjung (promontory), Suria (sunshine) and Fajar (daybreak). One notable piece is Langkawi Putih (white Langkawi), dated 1977, now in the collection of the National Visual Arts Gallery of Malaysia. This particular piece is fondly known as the Mahsuri, alluding to the well-known history of the slain damsel who bled white blood at her injudicious execution in the 18th century, giving off additional suggestions to Latiff’s accommodating relationship with Malay history and traditions. Given the conventions of the artistic climate he was enveloped by at that time, Latiff’s choice to refer to Langkawi as ‘wall sculptures’ and to use wood instead of canvas as a substrate broke the norms of ‘painting’. As a coincidence, we know wood to be the choice material for artisans and architects of the Nusantara (Malay Archipelago).

 

Each piece of Langkawi wall sculpture is fundamentally composed of three parts. A half-dome connects to the top of a rectangular centerpiece while another, an inverted dome, is joined at the bottom. The parts unite to make a complete shape not dissimilar to a capsule. Upon encounter, they often remind many of commonly-found local articles such as the Malay sampan (small wooden boat), beras (rice grain), nisan (tombstones), jendela (windows) and perisai (shields). It was even rumoured that Langkawi was inspired by the grains of sand from its beach, of how a single grain of sand could speak of our mortal existence. Langkawi’s construction and geometry appears to resonate strongly with the concept of sacred geometry. Sacred geometry, in the philosophy of Malay craft, points to a transcendent commitment that highlights its people’s spiritual links. Here it begins with the circle, denoting the ‘essence of God’.[15] This basic shape and its accompanying notion applies to all other polygonal-based designs including divisions of the circle such as the semi-circle or dome, a key component of every Langkawi sculpture. Meanwhile, in the same cultural context, the square, or rectangle, is said to represent earth, materiality, and internal and external human worlds and creations.[16] In every Langkawi, the rectangle retains its unmistakable position and purpose in bringing together both top and inverted bottom domes. In 1986, as part of his paper on the transposition of poetry and art in the works of Latiff Mohidin, academic Anuar Nor Arai laid a diagram to decode the structure of Langkawi.[17][18] In this diagram, the writer theorises a ‘completeness’ based on the sculpture’s design and a symbolic meeting of ‘nature’ (top-half) and the ‘metaphysical’ (bottom-half) within.

Langkawi 5 (1977)  

131.5 x 47.2 cm 

Private collection

Image courtesy of Chan + Hori Contemporary

Langkawi 5 (detail) (1977)  

131.5 x 47.2 cm 

Private collection

Image courtesy of Chan + Hori Contemporary

Exhibition view of Langkawi 1976 - 1980 at Gillman Barracks

Image courtesy of Chan + Hori Contemporary

Although Latiff has never made explicit theoretical statements on the context and conceptual resolve of Langkawi, it is not far-fetched to look beyond the formal, ‘western’ trappings of modern art should one be willing to study them deeper.  Besides, Latiff’s interest in the histories, knowledge and landscapes of the region is obvious in his keenness to traverse the Mekong region so quickly upon his earlier return from Berlin. The Mekong gave us Latiff’s pivotal Pago-Pago paintings and an unconventional Malay voice with the publication of Sungai Mekong (1972) (Mekong River) anthology. Peer a little farther and one would find it hard to dislocate Latiff’s art and its associations to ancient knowledge, traditional culture and spirituality. Latiff after all was raised amidst an environment of respect for the adat, which includes a respect for Mother Nature and the benefits of journeying. And when he began to compose poems in the first decade of Malaysian independence, unlike most others, he resisted the pressures of political, post-colonial and western dialectics.[19] He dug deep from within and injected life with lyrical metaphors of the otherwise ‘everyday’ trees, roots, rocks, wind and rivers, contributing refreshingly personal, extremely visual, and an almost vividly surreal voice as we find here in the poem dada laut (bosom of the sea):

 

 

dada laut, 1966 (bosom of the sea)

ombak adalah rambut-rambutku

pasang adalah nafasku

kulitku dari garam

suaraku dari angin

mataku telah kuberikan

pada bulan tak menjelma

hati dan empedu

pada ikan tak bernama

kini

aku adalah dada laut

lepas bebas

dari akar dan paut

 

the waves are my hairs

the tide is my breath

my skin is of salt

my voice is of wind

i gave my eyes

to the immaterial moon

my liver and bile

to the fish that has no name

now

i am the bosom of the sea

uninhibited

from roots and links

 

 

In traditional Malay woodcraft, the adaptation of nature is poetry, represents an evolving mindset and is itself a form of devotion. Artistic interpretations are “based on the creativity of Malay carvers, plant motifs are usually changed and interpreted according to their appropriateness consistent with Malay culture and values and which are not in conflict with Islamic values or beliefs.”[20] Whereby in 1972, Redza Piyadasa and Sulaiman Esa were rallying for ‘a mental/meditative/mystical viewpoint of reality’[21] in the approach to art-making and its reading, Latiff’s metaphorical ‘boat’ appears to have sailed far into the horizon. In Latiff’s hands, nature dominates and transcends the corporeal into the spiritual with an absolute, mystic frequency.

 

 

 

 

 

Khai Hori - June 2018

 

Langkawi 7 (1977)  

126.5 x 41.5 cm

Private collection

Image courtesy of Chan + Hori Contemporary

First published in Latiff Mohidin: Langkawi 1976-1980 (from the Studio Series) 
ISBN 9789811172236

[1] 60 Tahun Latiff Mohidin Retrospektif, Ed. Mohd Yusof Ahmad, Haned Najak et all. Balai Seni Lukis Negara, 2012, Malaysia, p. 28

[2] National Culture Policy, National Department for Culture and Arts, Malaysia, (http://www.jkkn.gov.my/en/national-culture-policy)

[3] Towards a mystical reality: a documentation of jointly initiated experiences, Redza Piyadasa and Sulaiman Esa. Exhibition catalogue, 1974, Malaysia

[4] Annex 1

[5] 60 Tahun Latiff Mohidin Retrospektif, Ed. Mohd Yusof Ahmad, Haned Najak et all. Balai Seni Lukis Negara, 2012, Malaysia, p. 42

[6] Sejarah Pengalaman Adat Pepatih di Negeri Sembilan, Rosiswandy bin Mohd Saleh, Muzium Adat, Jelebu, Negeri Sembilan, Malaysia, p. 5, (www.jmm.com.my)

[7] Rosiswandy bin Mohd Saleh, op cit, p. 39

[8] Rosiswandy bin Mohd Saleh, op cit, p. 40

[9] Interview by www.pluralartmag.com, June 2018

[10] Timber Species in Malay Wood Carving, Ismail Said, Proceedings of the International Seminar Malay Architecture as Lingua Franca, Trisakti University, June 22 and 23, 2005, Jakarta, p. 6

[11] Ibid

[12] Annex 1

[13] Penerbangan Sulung MAS Dari Kuala Lumpur ke Langkawi, Hari Ini Dalam Sejarah, National Archives of Malaysia, 8 Oct 2008, Malaysia, (http://www2.arkib.gov.my/)

[14] The philosophy in the creation of traditional Malay carving motifs in Peninsula Malaysia, Haziyah Hussin; Zawiyah Baba; Aminuddin Hassan; Aishah@Eshah Haji Mohamed, Issue 7, Malaysia Journal of Society and Space 8, 2012, Malaysia, p. 88-95

[15] Tradition and transformation: the structure of Malay woodcarving motifs in craft education, Sumardianshah Silah; Ruzaika Omar Basaree; Badrul Isa; Raiha Shahanaz Redzuan, 6th International Conference on University Learning and Teaching, 2012, Malaysia, p. 827

[16] Ibid

[17] Latiff Mohidin, Transposisi seorang penyair-pelukis, Anuar Nor Arai, working paper for Seminar Ikatan Sastera Universiti Malaya (ISUM), Berita Harian, 4 December 1986, Malaysia

[18] Annex 2

[19] Mencipta Sepanjang Hayat, Baha Zain, Pago-Pago to Gelombang : 40 Years of Latiff Mohidin, Singapore Art Museum, 1994, Singapore, p.60

[20] Haziyah Hussin; Zawiyah Baba; Aminuddin Hassan; Aishah@Eshah Haji Mohamed, op cit, p.90

[21] Redza Piyadasa and Sulaiman Esa, op cit, p. 21