Raja Lope has moved from caricatures to a mythical world which springs from a well of inter-cultural folklore, writes Samantha Joseph
RAJA Lope was waiting. Like the kucing bertanduk of the Malay proverb and his own paintings, Raja Lope says for a long time, he didn’t know what he was waiting for.
“I was waiting for awhile and my friends and family asked me, ‘what are you waiting for?’ Because I’ve been underground for quite a long time and I really, really wanted to show my paintings, show what I’m good at,” says the artist almost shyly.
He admits that although he has been painting for a long time, the country’s art market had not been welcoming. “I’ve been doing art for 20 years. But I’ve never shown it.”
Recently, though, the art galleries have started to fight for more modern contemporary art, giving him an opportunity to set up LOPE, his first solo exhibition. Core Design Gallery in Subang, where the exhibition takes place, was also one of the first places to carry Raja Lope’s artwork three years ago when he shifted from producing mainly caricatures to creating fantastic landscapes.
The 11 artworks represent a spread of illustrated imagination, where fragile fairies speak to jade-eyed unicorns, a winged woman rides with mechanical kuda kepang and horned cats are given their own cloudy territory.
One captivating painting frames a mermaid’s undulating body, head thrown back and meticulous detail marking the curving shape. “She might be one of the princesses of Gangga Nagara,” muses Raja Lope. Inspired by his hometown of Beruas, Perak and the legend of its underwater kingdom, Gangga Nagara is a cultural remark — the body of an Indian girl meshed with that of a Toman and decorated with batik patterns.
“I wanted her to be really beautiful,” he says. Clearly he is drawn to the idea of beauty, of royalty and the Malaysian lore he draws from is rich in both. “If you see my paintings, the women are elegant, they are princesses. I wanted to bring that out, that we should be proud of our culture.”
Raja Lope very much appreciates the female form. When they appear in his works, they are sensual and magical, their bodies a set of slender curves and the detail put into their accessories and accouterments is fantastic. Yet they are all inhuman; they are robots, androids, mythical creatures. In Raja Lope’s own apt words: “I did a Malay alien robot wearing kain batik in a sexy way,” but, he adds: “my point is to show that in my world, my fantasy world, there’s no more use of the female model as an object.”
A DIFFERENT WORLD
A buyer of one of Raja Lope’s previous works, The Long Vacation (2011), a Dalian landscape of a deconstructed carousel, describes it as “daring but unpretentious”.
The journey to create his daring masterpieces was not a smooth one. Scarlette Lee, director of Core Design Gallery, admits that when Raja Lope first started participating in exhibits, he was not taken seriously as a fine artist as his works consisted mainly of caricatures.
“I felt that he was denying what was truly him, with the caricatures and the Western influences,” she says of his first few pieces. “We can always do that but who are we actually? I thought in this solo exhibition, Raja Lope brought what was truly him. He brought in these cultural elements.”
For Raja Lope, his dreams and stories from elders form the basis, from which he plucks ideas for his paintings. “I collect all these stories, all these dongeng, all these folklore, all these fairy tales from my grandmother.” He is animated when talking about heritage. “All these old sayings, kucing bertanduk, pungguk rindukan bulan. I try to visualize these things, make them real. I want people to see what they are like.”
The horned cat plays a main role in several paintings, one welcoming guests to the gallery. A two-panel piece, The Long Vacation III portrays a young boy floating high up in the air, buoyed by two yellow balloons while a giant horned cat sits on a column, looking up at the floating figure. The background is a vast sky of fluffy white clouds.
“It’s a bit mysterious,” says Raja Lope of this painting. “It’s not like the ones inside, landscape-y and compact. It’s very simple but the horned cat is still there. This is me in my favorite pajamas,” he adds with a laugh. “This is me going to my world.”