The Artist

in Place

 > Ahmad Abu Bakar

AHMAD ABU BAKAR

© Weixiang Lim and Chan + Hori Contemporary

“I am a child of Earth and starry Sky,

I am parched with thirst and dying; but grant me

cold water from the Lake of Memory to drink.

But my race is heavenly. You, yourselves, know this.”[1]

If one were to reflect on the practice of ceramics amongst artists in Singapore, very few names would come promptly to mind. The youngest amongst established Singaporean artists working with ceramics is Angie Seah. Not many would have heard of Sng Cheng Kiat, former lecturer at Teacher’s Training College and teacher to master potter Iskandar Jalil. Perhaps, a more familiar name here is Ng Eng Teng (d. 2001), touted as the grandfather of modern Singapore sculpture. Then, there is Iskandar Jalil himself and the Romanian-born, now Singaporean Delia Prvacki. Also, Jason Lim, the multi-disciplinary artist known mostly for his performance art pieces. Jason’s counterpart would be Ahmad Abu Bakar who was amongst those active alongside others from The Artists Village when it was first formed. 

 

Today, although LASALLE College of the Arts no longer contain facilities supporting the study of ceramics, these are offered at the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts, the School of the Arts, the National Institute of Education, and in a handful of private classes on ceramics offered around Singapore. In reality, hundreds, if not thousands, have been trained in ceramics here, but perhaps for the lack of convenient access to equipment, or conceptual and alternative thinking in the teaching of ceramics, the artist-ceramists are few and far between. Iskandar Jalil is openly known to consider himself as a craftsman, rather than an artist.[2]

AHMAD ABU BAKAR

LANGIT #3 

White Stoneware, glaze (fired at 1220 degrees) 

53 x 30 x 30 cm 

© Weixiang Lim and Chan + Hori Contemporary

AHMAD ABU BAKAR

LANGIT #4 

White Stoneware, glaze (fired at 1220 degrees) 

50.5 x 30 x 30 cm 

© Weixiang Lim and Chan + Hori Contemporary

Around these parts, the conundrum between artist and craftsman, and even ‘potter’ in the case of ceramics, has been a point of debate for as long as I can personally remember. In 1992, as part of the Bread and Butter group exhibition at National Museum Art Gallery in Singapore, Ahmad Abu Bakar presented a work titled Directions. Made primarily of wood, a clock and other materials, Directions brought forth questions on the position of ceramics, pottery and the potter in the production and presentation of art and the artist. A copy of this ‘lost’ work[3] was reconstructed in 2014 for the Modern Love exhibition at the Institute of Contemporary Arts, Singapore. Directions was originally presented at a time when ‘pots’ were the common art object exhibited at local ceramics exhibitions. Often in these exhibitions, one could find said ‘pots’ presented as functional teapots and cups. In 1995, Jason Lim and Ng Siew Kuan once again brought forward the predicament of the ceramist and ceramics in local art practice through an epic, ephemeral installation and performance artwork, filling the gallery at The Substation art center, literally, with Three Tonnes of Clay.

While the traditional potter and ceramist work nearly exclusively with clay, the range of materials and approaches by Ahmad Abu Bakar are quite extensive. From projects such as the interactive installation Teluk Belanga for Singapore Biennale 2013 where he collaborated with inmates from Singapore’s Changi Prison; Tanah Ini Aku Punya - his solo exhibition at The Esplanade, Singapore in 2010 featuring video installations and performance; Badang at The Substation, Singapore in 2005; The Space at Hongbee Warehouse in 1993; to Bread and Butter at National Gallery, Singapore in 1992, Ahmad has cemented his bona fide status as an artist working beyond the confines of ceramics. This fact of his practice has often been misplaced, for the convenience of a simplified label of the ‘ceramist’. 

AHMAD ABU BAKAR

(background)

TANAH #8 

White stoneware, terracotta, glaze, wax chord  

(fired at 1220 degrees) 

85 x 12 x 23 cm 

© Weixiang Lim and Chan + Hori Contemporary

AHMAD ABU BAKAR

(background)

TANAH #7 

White stoneware, terracotta, glaze, wax chord  

(fired at 1220 degrees) 

76 x 12 x 23 cm

© Weixiang Lim and Chan + Hori Contemporary

AHMAD ABU BAKAR

(foreground)

BUMI #5 

White Stoneware, Black Clay and glaze (fired at 1220 degrees) 

76 x 40 x 40 cm 

© Weixiang Lim and Chan + Hori Contemporary

Living and working as an artist in the most expensive city in the world[4] is challenging, and more so when you are not a citizen by legal definition - not even when you have spent practically your entire life here. Ahmad Abu Bakar holds ‘permanent-resident’ status in Singapore and was born in 1963 in Melaka, Peninsular Malaysia, barely two years before Singapore achieved independence from Malaysia. Ahmad grew up in Singapore when he was a baby, went to primary and secondary schools here, and received his art education at LASALLE College of the Arts in its nascent years. This was a time when its founder, Brother Joseph McNally, was still active and personally overseeing the developments of the college.

 

Unlike other cosmopolitan cities such as New York, Paris, Berlin and London, state support and public acceptance for foreign artists based in Singapore has been somewhat selective. Here, although largely bolstered in various professional fields by contributions of expatriates or what is known in local lingua as ‘foreign talents’, both quantitative and qualitative support for the arts by non-citizen artists appears either a tad inconsequential or possibly too challenging to measure, justify and recognize. Perhaps, and unless, the foreign artist enters the local fray by bringing with them an outstanding brand capital (read Murakami, BANKSY, Hirst or KAWS), and despite the 'woke-ness' of this millennium, technicalities of citizenship place the Singapore-based-foreign-artist behind the local in the order of priorities. This is, perhaps, out of a fear of being rebuked by citizens, as most art activities in the city-state are intertwined with public funds.

 

Given these positions, Ahmad intuitively finds himself navigating ideas of land and identity. In TANAH LANGIT BUMI, his most recent solo exhibition at Chan + Hori Contemporary, Ahmad Abu Bakar unlocks pockets of space for contemplative dialogues by activating intrinsic and mnemonic vocabulary of symbols. Presented in three main groupings, identified by the bright green TANAH (land), white LANGIT (sky) and bright orange BUMI (earth), his ceramic sculptures evoke emblematic yet minimalistic contours of megaliths, urns, headstones, architectural columns and other traditional crocks. This reference to iconic forms is inspired by ‘truths’ earned by the artist through life experience and profound understanding of journeys and distinctive encounters. Ideas and emotions are condensed here as shapes and colours that are almost puritan in nature. Their spirit is reminiscent of works by artists from a movement coined Orphism by French critic and poet Guillaume Apollinaire. Partly inspired by the form and colours of works by artists such as Sonia Delaunay, Marcel Duchamp and the cubists; Orphism also touched upon Wassily Kandinsky’s thoughts and connections in music and art through his writing Über das Geistige in der Kunst (Concerning the Spiritual in Art, 1912). Orphism also finds connections with the lore of Orpheus, patron deity of the Orphic religious movement in ancient Greece and ‘superhuman’ lyre player who was said to have visited the underworld in a failed attempt to bring Eurydice, his deceased wife, back to earth.

AHMAD ABU BAKAR

TANAH LANGIT BUMI exhibition view, 2019

© Weixiang Lim and Chan + Hori Contemporary

The shifting dualities, between citizenship and citizenry, physical and spiritual, seen and unseen, artist and artisan can be found encapsulated in the works of Ahmad Abu Bakar. Materials, shapes, size, colours, placement, reflections and the delicate fall of shadows in TANAH LANGIT BUMI are considered and deliberate. On first sight, each installation gives off an impression of fragility. With quiet tension, they call for visitors to traipse gingerly through the space for fear of collision and breakage. His forms are poetic, and devoid of visual or aesthetic ostentatiousness, brash expressions or simple-minded narrations of the frustrated or boastful, or of artistic bondage, social and political commentaries. The drooping shadows of the bulbous LANGIT, sitting on faux marble racks installed higher than ‘eye level’, prompt lyrical suggestions of umbra and penumbra. Pieces of slender BUMI are lain on the floor, propped up by octagon-shaped, brass-tinted mirrors which add to the air of precariousness. TANAH, each bearing dome-shaped pendulums hung using red, waxed cords, are choke-held with stainless steel tubes to the wall. As a composition within the room, they alter our state of mind. Yet, Ahmad describes these sculptural forms (racks, pedestals and all) as simple ‘support objects’ devoid of symbolic potencies. They exist only to sustain reticent artists’ monologues, codified into the bronze-brown (TANAH), white (LANGIT) and blue-black (BUMI) tops of each supporting sculptural form embodied by alternating states of dreaming, thinking and being.

 

One could relate Ahmad’s continuous relationship with clay (tanah) as material reflecting his personal sentiments and the realities of living in Singapore as a foreign body. He is an owner of ancestral land in his hometown in Malaysia. And, as a Muslim, he recognises the creation of Adam (from clay) and the ritualistic return of every person to earth (tanah) by burial upon death. In one of my conversations with Ahmad, he cited verse 22 of Ar-Rum (also known as The Romans, The Byzantines and/or The Greeks) a chapter from the Quran which underscores God’s divinity through the creation of the skies (heaven) and planets (Earth), various tongues and colours of human skin (relative to various colours of clay found on Earth). This all encapsulates what we commonly recognise as humanity. Ahmad says that his art is a continuation of his journeying. He is an artist, a living, thinking, being; an independent, whose language is unfazed by the conceptually fashionable tendencies of other artists of his day.

Khai Hori

Jan 2020

[1] Parts of a translation from a 3rd century Orphic tablet from Entella, Ritual Texts for the Afterlife: Orpheus and the Bacchic Gold Tablets, Pg 21, Fritz Graf and Sarah Iles Johnston, Routledge, New York, 2007

[2] “Iskandar Jalil's lifework in two exhibitions”, The Straits Times, 30 Aug 2016

 

[3] The original edition of this artwork is supposedly ‘lost’ amongst the collection of Singapore’s National Heritage Board. Source: Ahmad Abu Bakar

[4] These are the most expensive cities in the world in 2019, Marissa Perino, Business Insider US, 19 March 2019, https://www.businessinsider.sg/most-expensive-cities-in-the-world-2019-1/, accessed 5 Jan 2020