Written by Zena Khan
For centuries, artists have been at the forefront of major cultural and political shifts. They have challenged authority and forced reconsiderations of social conventions, shaping new views on traditional ideas of art and society. Often these works have archival relevance, particularly in contemporary art where they document both the event and immediate reactions. As such, this art comes to be revered as important both for social history and art history. This type of socio-political art is considered successful when it affords society a new way of experiencing the world as a result of the art. Eminent Malaysian socio-political painter Hamir Soib, achieves just that, with his expressive paintings that represent the times we live in, peppered with a witty look at politics, society and the workings of man, as seen in his latest work Wet Cat.
A quietly powerful political analysis, Wet Cat was painted as an immediate reaction to the Thai military coup d’état of 2014. Thailand has known a large number of coups since the Siamese Revolution of 1932 overthrew the absolute monarchy of King Prajadhipok. On May 22nd 2014, this happened again when,following six months of political crisis, the Royal Thai Armed Forces launched a coup against the Thai caretaker government. The dominant element in the work is the figure of the Siamese cat, representing the Thai citizens who have wound up in an unpleasant situation. Hamir reflects on the unending conflict between two opposing political parties and the color-coded revolution that occurred as the rural based Red Shirts consistently refused to accept the results of democratic elections. He links this painting back to Malaysia and the hotly discussed general elections of 2013. In GE 13, there was unsubstantiated accusations of election rigging and corruption; and after the election, opposition leaders called for two days of protests. Hamir sees such reactions as counter-productive to the aims of a mature democracy. The artist paints a warning on the need for citizens to abide by the rules of democracy, realizing that in the case of Thailand, the infighting between the varying forces has led to a military dictatorship, causing democracy to cease existing. Being ruled by the generals is an outcome that has left no winners, as he sees the Thais suffering.
An acrylic and bitumen on jute painting, Wet Cat outlines the tragedies of political unrest and the suffering that arises, particularly that of civilians. Combining theatrical flair with symbolic narratives, Hamir is known for constantly mastering innovative expressive and experimental techniques. Covering the main surface of the canvas is a Siamese cat who sits dejected in a pool of water. The unhappiness of the cat is immediately communicated by its downcast expression and glowering bright blue eyes, which glare out at the viewer as it swishes its tail. The work can be seen as an amalgamation of both Hamir’s traditional technical skills and his mastery of bitumen, a notoriously difficult medium to handle. In the background are trees painted dramatically but softly in bitumen, showing the artist’s ability to handle the medium as paint instead of the coal tar it really is. Indeed these trees can be seen as a quietly confident statement by Hamir attesting to his ability to do as he pleases with bitumen, he has such control over his technique. Infused with a strongly gothic atmosphere, the use of cream as the main color punctuated by strong blue accents in Wet Cat highlights the artist’s new movements forward from his monochromatic period of the last few years.
Pablo Picasso once commented that an artist is “a political being, constantly aware of what goes on in the world, whether it be harrowing, bitter or sweet, and he cannot help being shaped by it. How would it be possible not to take an interest in other people, and to withdraw into an ivory tower from participation in their existence?”
Through this comment, audiences can understand the role of art in societies as more than decorative, it is a tool that can act as an archive, spin a tale or create discourse. Hamir demonstrates his effortless ability for all three with Wet Cat, underlining his position as a major force in the contemporary art scene for his talents both as a painter and in capturing the attentions of his audience.
Title: Wet Cat
Artist: Hamir Soib
Size: 150 cm x 90 cm
Medium: Acrylic & Bitumen on jute