Written by Zena Khan
Hamir Soib is widely regarded as one of the most eminent socio-political painters of Malaysia, and for good reason. Works such as Sepat O Sepat, Auctionland and Wet Cat are quick, witty observations of events within the rapidly evolving social landscapes of our time. Often large in scale, these paintings are crucial for Malaysia in terms of both art history as well as social history, particularly given the penchant for visual traditions over literary, locally. Hamir has an innate ability to inspire, provoke and mobilise society with his painting-based practice, often using animals as allegories, as audiences will note once again in the beautifully painted Hot Seat, whose main body is filled with the depiction of a larger-than-life golden horse armour, set against a starry blue background.
Following on from his last painting, Wet Cat, which discussed the political situation in Thailand following 2014’s coup d’état, Hot Seat turns Hamir’s critical analytical skills to Malaysian politics. As such, audiences are reminded of the artist’s position as an insightful participant in Southeast Asia’s political discourse. Malaysia finds herself in an interesting position today, as the world’s superpowers fight for supremacy, given the country’s links with America, China and Russia. Recent events such as America’s pivot to Asia, the war in Gaza and the Russian and Ukrainian crisis are indicators of the superpower struggle, and each nation needs to strengthen its diplomatic ties with strategic countries internationally. Malaysia is often described as a pivotal state in this battle. On the home front, the country is dealing with the unprecedented event of two tragic aviation disasters within a space of four months, MH 370 and MH 17. Often, both local struggles and superpower manoeuvring, as seen in 2014, leads to external and internal forces provoking unrest, which can lead to colour-coded revolutions as in Thailand and Ukraine. Hamir understands the key to surmounting these problems and making the choices that will lead the country to greatness lies with the leader. He likens the country to a horse, in need of steering from a powerful rider. The artist’s patriotism is evident in the perfectly painted golden armour as a tool to describe Malaysia as a nation literally made of gold, with abundant natural resources and a strategic geographical position that has led to courting from powerful global countries. Additionally, the armour harks back to tales of brave knights such as the Knights of the Round Table, who bravely fought for the good of their country and King, speaking to the need of the person who leads the horse to always keep the interests of the nation above all else. Conversely, the richness of Malaysia turns the Prime Minister’s position into a most desirable one, a “hot seat” if you will. It is the Prime Minister who makes all the major decisions on governance, diplomacy and economics, and chooses the cabinet members and chief ministers who act as a crucial supporting cast. As such, the fates of thirty million people lie in his hands. Viewers will note the bright red seat in the centre of the work is twisted in its perspective. Hamir imagines the seat as literally hot, causing it to twist and warp in the heat. Lending some humour to the seriousness of Hot Seat, this detail is a delightful insight for audiences into the engaging personality of such an eminent artist.
While the mediums of acrylic and bitumen are favoured by the artist, the colours in Hot Seat are unusual for Hamir, particularly the fire engine red of the central element. Each was chosen to speak specifically about the points being raised. Gold likens the position of Malaysia to a precious jewel, while red speaks about heat and desirability. Experimental elements from 2013’s seminal work Auctionland can be seen in Hot Seat, for example in the use of blue instead of regular brown bitumen. Depicting the bitumen painted background as a cloudy, starry night adds a dream-like quality to the piece and shows Hamir’s mastery over the notoriously difficult medium. His technical genius is apparent throughout the meticulous layering of the work, leaving the viewer with the sensation of gazing at a constellation of stars in the night sky. His effortless mastery of layering is evident again in the landscape hidden along the length of the armour. Viewers will note not only the reflection of a cityscape, but also their own shadow as they stand in front of the piece. As such, the idea of the individual’s participation in selecting the correct leader for the country is underscored. Again, this is an element observed in Auctionland, and this trait is highly demonstrative of the layering skills that mark Hamir out as one of the strongest painters working today.
Artists are considered central to cultural, political and social discourse, particularly in contemporary societies. The ability to witness an event, understand its implications and produce an immediate response mark contemporary artists as the visual reporters of our time. Socio-political art in particular has been an important part of the visual landscape for centuries, a way to challenge authority and rethink social conventions. In this way, contemporary artists encourage reflection and analysis, thus promoting intellectualism within society, as can be seen in Hot Seat. It must be further noted that it is Hamir’s wondrous technical skills that afford him the ability to create imagery that effortlessly connects to his audience, thus allowing for the transmission of his powerful messages. Continuing the central role he plays in the cultural, social and political discourse of Malaysia, Hamir’s position as a favourite in the contemporary Malaysian art industry seems confirmed with Hot Seat.
Title: Hot Seat
Artist: Hamir Soib
Size: 202 cm x 342 cm
Medium: Acrylic & Bitumen on Jute