The visual activism of Shooshie Sulaiman
Written by : Ooi Sue Hwei
Photo by : Sharil Amin
Even though Shooshie Sulaiman is a celebrated international artist, she is far from being a household name in her own homeland. Yet, it’s not fame that she seeks, but a desire for her fellow countrymen to embrace art as a form of visual activism.
Despite winning numerous accolades and receiving worldwide recognition, Malaysian artist and curator Shooshie Sulaiman has no desire to move abroad. Instead, she revels in the current political climate in the country, describing it as being good exposure for local artists.
“I’m very engaged with the local political scenario. I even made an effort to be in the country during the last general election. Although I often travel to Japan and admire the peaceful way of life there, I’m proud to be a Malaysian and love the chaos here. It’s time we learn to embrace different opinions, but no matter what anyone says, we must protect and do what is best for the country”, says Shooshie, who was born Susyilawati Sulaiman.
For Shooshie, being an artist is akin to being a visual activist who uses the visual language to contribute in terms of knowledge. Although she believes that artists should take a stand on certain issues, she is against those who take advantage of controversial ones to promote themselves and their work.
“Don’t dabble in issues that you are not deeply engaged in. To me, that’s a little cliche’. Being a visual activist means your visuals produce a certain knowledge that will help society gain a better understanding of your subject matter.
” To understand the origin of today’s society, you need to study the history of the Malay, Chinese, Indian and even Japanese civilization because they are all interconnected, and that’s just what i did. You just can’t pick and choose any issues that strikes your fancy; you can’t consider yourself an artist if you do that, you need to go deeper than that”, she says.
Shooshie, who graduated with a bachelor’s degree in Fine Arts from Universiti Teknologi Mara, Shah Alam, is the first Malaysian to be engaged by the Tomio Koyama Gallery, one of Japan’s most powerful contemporary galleries which represents major japanese artists like Murakami Takashi and Nara Yoshitomo.
Born in Muar, Johor in 1973, she considers her mixed parentage a blessing and she makes an effort to understand both her Malay and Chinese cultures and channel that into her artwork. Her mother came from a well-to-do Chinese family. She had a promising future and was supposed to study abroad, but fell in love instead with a young Malay neighbor, whose only possession was a bicycle. They got married in 1967 and Shooshie’s mother barely lived long enough to see her children grew up.
“Their marriage was a beautiful thing and I respected my parents for not allowing anything to get in the way of their love for each other. I not only embrace my mixed parentage, I’m also proud of it. But maybe at that time, the media didn’t play such a major role in pitting one race against another. Sadly, that has escalated to become a major issue today.
“Sometimes, I think that it’s better not to address an issue the way they do it in the West as they are more outspoken. Frankly, as Asians, we have our own way, a better way of handling such delicate issues. Our society has been influenced by Western ideas like the freedom of speech. I don’t deny its importance, yet I don’t think it is applicable all the time. Sometimes we just need to hold back a little”, she says.
Challenge as an artist
Shooshie never imagined that, as an artist, she would have to read widely and conduct research. “Initially, I thought that all an artist needed to do was to put brush to canvas, but I found out otherwise. As artists, we need to look at daily life from different perspectives, and not interpret it from only one angle. Sometimes, it can be overwhelming in terms of what you read and what you want to experience. What you read is another person’s experience; what about your own experience from that angle? Then you need to experiment and let it come naturally to you. In my case, I wait for a signal; and if I don’t (get one), I do other things like gardening, spending time with my animals, talk to people or even look at the stars “, she says.
To be true to themselves, the statement that artists make through their work must be in tune with their experiences. ” Some people tell me my paintings are scary looking. There must be something in them that causes that reaction. In truth, the paintings are only projecting a vibration or emotional energy that you don’t understand, thus making you afraid. This is something I try hard to explain”, she says.
“Through my artwork, I try to spark different emotions like anger, restless energy or even a nice feeling. I particularly like installations because it becomes a space that you can enter and experience with all of your senses. I also try to reactivate your sixth senses. I also try to reactivate your sixth sense, and that’s something everybody has but few put to use”, she says.
Dealing with criticism
Unlike most artists, Shooshie welcomes criticism about her artwork from the public because they are honest and direct. ” I really love it because when somebody criticizes my work (because) I know I will gain a particular knowledge or experience that much faster “, she says.
Some years ago, during an art exhibition, a woman took a great dislike to her artwork and commented : ” What is this? It’s like jamban-how can an artist produce this kind of work? It’s so horrible”. Apologising to her, Shooshie said : I’m so sorry if this disturbs you. This is an interpretation of my life, and to me, not everything is beautiful. So how can I only emphasize that which is beautiful and deny that which isn’t ?” After the show, the woman approached Shooshie and told her she realized the truth in her words.
She also recalls an incident in 2000, when prominent Malaysian artist, Bayu Utomo, scolded her about a piece of artwork. ” I was a young artist then. He told me he hated my work because I try too hard to make it look intelligent. Seeing my experiment, Bayu then became a little upset and accused me of not being natural. He even said it’s impossible that I can be okay when people are upset with my work. I became puzzled and asked him, why wouldn’t I be okay with it?
“My artwork is my personal expression, I don’t expect everyone to agree with it. And when someone doesn’t, I see it as looking at my artwork from another angle. That is actually something that is valuable to me. Yet there are people who think I’m faking it, simply because it’s not the normal reaction that one would expect when being criticized. People who are not familiar with my background will think I’m not being natural. But this is the real me”, she says.
Highlight of Shooshie’s career
ALTHOUGH the artist counts every achievement as a blessing, there are some that are more memorable than others. Shooshie Sulaiman’s most nerve-racking moment was when she was invited to participate in dOCUMENTA in 2007, which is one of the longest-running international art events and often referred to as the “museum of 100 days”.
“At that time I was so ignorant, and when I told the curator that my idea was to share my books with the visitors, he rightly pointed out that I didn’t have a clue just how big a deal the event was. After that, the more they explained, the more nervous I became as they told me more than 10,000 visitors from around the world would be coming every day. I became scared, I thought God would take my life away now that I’ve tasted the best of the best. I seriously didn’t, and still don’t know how to celebrate my success “, she says.
Even though Shooshie is the only Malaysian who has ever participated in dOCUMENTA, it was an event that nobody in the country was familiar with. ” There were six artists from India who participated as well, and when they returned to their country, they became national heroes. During an interview with several press members at the event, they asked me how my country would reward me for this achievement. I told them that I don’t think I would even get a second-hand car because Malaysians simply won’t understand what an honour this is, and frankly I don’t blame them “, she says.
Shortly after, her career took off and she became renowned internationally. The proverbial icing on the cake was when Tomio Koyama approached her in September 2012, an experience that she described as “blessed and beautiful”. Lapsing into a pensive mood, she says : “To me, all that I’ve achieved seems to be merely a happy coincidence. That makes me nervous because the more successful I become, the more I feel the need to find ways to contribute back to society, especially towards knowledge.
“People say being an artist is glamorous, but I don’t feel that way. But don’t get me wrong, I’ve had a really blessed life, to be given the freedom to go on a journey where every little thing triggers my curiosity. I like the fact that I’m always inspired by something in life, just like a child with a new toy. So I hope to be able to produce art until I’m old”, she says.
Shooshie’s ultimate wish is to create a library full of books filled with her own thoughts, stories and sketches that represent her life’s journey. She started writing when she was in her final year at university; one book on a related subject for every painting she produced.
“My books represent another type of art; very intimate with fragmented fictional and non-fictional stories. At dOCUMENTA, I shared the story of Anna, who was an imaginary friend. Another story was about me counting blades of grass to give someone for Valentine’s Day. There are all sorts of stories with lots of visuals. I’ve created more than 60 books to date based on my daily life and experiences. After I finish writing, I don’t read; I just keep it away”, she says.
Once Shooshie wrote a book that she wanted to keep as a secret, so she buried it in her garden. Before going for an exhibition in Japan, she dug it up and brought it along with her at the last minute. “As a result, the curator made such a big fuss as he was afraid of the possible contaminants. Throughout the exhibition, I kept most of my books in a refrigerator. Whenever I wanted to share one of my stories with a visitor, I would take the books out, and the smell of soil and dampness would permeate the air. The curator was really furious about that “, she recalls with glee.
Celebrating her growing up years
SHOOSHIE Sulaiman’s earliest memory of her late mother was of her painting, sketching, colouring and doing collages with her and her two elder brothers. Sadly, she passed away when the artist was only three years old. Cared for by her maternal grandmother, she rarely got to see her father who had to work in another district.
Looking back, she appreciates the time she spent with her grandmother. Without her parents around, she learnt to be responsible from a young age and began to “develop a certain mind pattern, one that did not impose a limit on my expression and imagination”. Shooshie recalls assisting her second brother to organise a funfair in their village. “We managed to organise it on our own, and I remember the adults and children alike enjoying themselves on that day. For me, if I could achieve all that at the age of five, just imagine what I can do now “, she says.
No doubt her past has made her who she is today. She says : ” The kind of artwork I produce is unpredictable. I don’t place a limit on myself and will try to make my installations as gigantic as possible. I will picture the finished piece in my mind before I even start. I also have a strong sense of determination and drive. Therefore if I want something, I’ll make it happen even if it takes me five years to do it. Money is not a problem if you’re passionate about something. However, there have been times when I’ve reduced the people in my team to tears because they thought I was imagining the impossible”.
Ironically, when Shooshie was in university, she never had any intention to be an artist. Her friends teased her for being money-minded. “I used to collect the things other people threw away and recycle them into something that I could sell. In fact, every semester break, instead of returning to my hometown, I would ask the Dean’s permission to clean up the fine arts studio. I would then collect the leftover paint, nails or anything I could find and sell them. Everyone thought I would end up a businesswoman “, she says.
However, a year before she graduated her father passed away. Not knowing how to handle the traumatic experience, she slipped into depression. ” Art really saved me then; I used it to heal the pain I felt when I lost my father. To cope with the loss, I created Kedai Obat Jenon or Dementia Apothecary, which was about the self-healing that I was going through”, she recalls.
Incidentally, it is also her first piece of artwork put on public display and her winning entry in the 1998 Young Contemporaries Competition, widely regarded at the time as an important stepping stone for emerging artists in the country.
Article was published in The Heat newsweekly paper (Issue 21)