Magic and Melancholy – StarMag Paper

Four artists use charcoal to draw out moods and underline the importance of drawings.

SOME artists put a red dot on a sheet of paper and call it art. Others bask in the glow of psychedelic whorls of colour on canvas. They also call this art.

But you are unlikely to see such works from the Dikala Jingga group of six, all fine arts graduates from Universiti Teknologi Mara (UiTM) as they pride themselves on producing art that is more accessible to the public.

They are quick to add that being accessible doesn’t necessarily translate to simplistic art pieces on a white wall. And judging by their current exhibition at the Core Design Gallery in Subang Jaya, Selangor, simplistic is definitely not the word that comes to mind.

Alter Ego features the works of four of the six artists, Ali Nurazmal Yusoff, Haris Ahmad Hamsani, Samsuddin Lappo and Zulkiflee Zainul Abidin, all in their early 30s.

During a chat at the gallery, the guys (with the exception of Haris, who was absent due to work commitments) run me through an exhausting list of ideas, concepts and techniques they incorporate into their art pieces for this exhibition.

The 18 works on display are all charcoal drawings. There is an entertainer hanging on one wall, right across sullen, intense stares from the black-and-white portraitures. Upstairs, birds stretch their wings and soar to the sky. There is magic, melancholy and the war cry of freedom in the air.

Interestingly, most of those in the group have spent a good part of the last decade developing their skills in oil and acrylic, but despite that, deem it worthy to explore drawing in a dedicated exhibition.

Centuries ago, drawing was seen as inferior to painting. Today, it is still common to associate it as an art form used only for study works or preparatory sketches. Alter Ego, the group’s first drawing exhibition, sets out to show that drawing works can just be as serious an art form as oil or watercolours.

Wall entertainment

“To an artist, the interesting part of the artwork is the process of creating it. That’s where the story lies,” says Ali, who painstakingly documents the development of his works with self-taken photographs.

“I enjoy seeing my work develop from a blank sheet of paper – it’s almost like I’m a magician! I track my progress every day, until completion. When it’s finished, I take the photographs and compile them into a short video, a bit like an animation clip.”

His obsession with tracking his progress is reflected in his attention to detail – the drawings on display are meticulously crafted, polished pieces of work.

Ali, who hails from Penang, finds “charcoal a less challenging medium than oil because it is easier to control”. The last time he used it as a medium was in his first year of university, almost 10 years ago.

This is the first time he’s participating in a drawing exhibtion and he took three months to produce six drawings, all revolving around the theme he has been working on for the past two years – The Entertainer.

“I see myself as a wall entertainer and I’m the subject in many of my works. This is me – I like to sing, paint and draw, and I like to entertain people,” he says.

Ali doesn’t usually use well-known figures in his works, but decided to make an exception this time. Charlie Chaplin stands tall in one of his drawings.

“People know him, so they will be able to make the association with the theme right away. When I draw myself, the challenge is to make the image speak to the viewer. People do not know me personally, so if the message of the theme gets across, then I consider it a success”.

Melancholic canvas

Doing away with the conventional charcoal on paper, Samsuddin opts for canvas because of its durability.

“If I’m too rough on paper, it tears. With charcoal on canvas, I can put more enthusiasm and energy in my work. So, in a way, I can be more expressive,” he says. Besides, it creates an effect you cannot get with paper.

Samsuddin is very interested in contrast and dramatic effects and always carries a camera around to take photographs of faces or expressions that speak to him.

“They serve as a reference when I finally get down to drawing or painting.”

For the past year, he has been producing portraits with either a permanent scowl or a haunted, melancholic look on their faces. “It’s not intentional,” he says, laughing. “I didn’t even realise it until people started complaining that they do not fancy the idea of hanging such masam muka (sour faced) portraits on the wall!”

Samsuddin, who is from Tawau, Sabah, is exhibting three portraits, all charcoal on canvas with the occasional brushstroke of white acrylic.

Is charcoal messy to work with?

Definitely. But he doesn’t mind as he considers himself a “messy worker”, no matter what medium he uses. “It’s all part of the fun.”

Embarking on a drawing is like a journey with no boundaries, he says.

“With paintings, you often visualise an end because you have a certain expectation of how it should look and when you should stop. With drawings, I simply stop when I see an effect that I’m happy with, even if it’s somewhat ‘unfinished’,” he adds.

Fragile layers

Unlike Ali and Samsuddin, who use dark, mysterious tones for their drawings, Zulkiflee draws lightly on multiple layers of tracing paper, on both sides, and sandwiches them between glass sheets.

His works are composed of many fine lines reminiscent of sketches; in some, if you look closely, you can see where he has stuck bits of paper to create an unusual effect.

This is his second attempt at transparent art; the first was acrylic and oil pastels on a silk screen.

“The idea of using multiple layers of tracing paper came to me sometime in the early 2000s, but I never got to explore it because, as a student, I couldn’t afford to pay for the framing. Working with tracing paper is challenging in our climate as high humidity causes it to buckle. I have to keep the paper dry,” says the lad from Alor Setar, who has four drawings on display.

As a teenager, Zulkiflee harboured dreams of being an accountant but he traded that ambition for fine arts in university. Today, he draws and paints and is also involved in other artistic pursuits – set design, production design, advertising and interior design. “In my works, I combine everything I learn from all the different things I do.”

Using tracing paper enables him to introduce a different way of looking at drawings, following the concept of transparency, both literally and figuratively.

“When my works are hung up, people can look at them from the front and back, and through them. It demonstrates that I have nothing to hide. After all, the theme of these works is inner freedom.”

Making a stand

In an email interview, Haris, who hails from Klang, Selangor, and teaches art at a local college, says his specialisation is semi-realism art. His five exhibits depict his response to the general lack of compassion in the world today.

He works with acrylic, watercolours, graphite, ink and gouache, but is no stranger to charcoal and considers it a versatile medium that can be used on its own or with other media, to create contrasting tones and a variety of moods.

“Black and white make a strong visual impact. My artworks have lots of empty spaces in them and often I use small coloured spots arranged in a specific manner to draw the viewer’s eye and to deliver my message,” says Haris, who sees art as a channel to express his thoughts and emotions.

‘Alter Ego’ is on till Oct 31 at Core Design Gallery, 87, Jalan SS15/2A, Subang Jaya. Call 012-6117 976or email sue@coredesigngallery.com for more information.


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