Open House “SOLD”
Written by Zena Khan
Open House “SOLD” is a 2014 mixed media on canvas work by the acclaimed contemporary Malaysian artist Ahmad Shukri. Centred on a large figurative painting, visually it appears familiar and yet vastly different to avid followers of Shukri’s prolific career. Shukri is known to be a keen observer of human nature, and Open House “SOLD” is a sharp parody on current social conditions and the effect of civilisation on the natural environment.
Open House “SOLD” is made up of a six-and-a-half foot square canvas with a wooden panel to the right. The background of the canvas is filled with a detailed landscape of a rainforest as is indigenous to Malaysia. Over this, Shukri paints a large figurative scene, depicting three adults and two children sitting around a table. This scene is the replica of a local 1950’s advertisement poster, and shows all the races present in Malaysia: Malay, Indian, Chinese and European. It was this multi-racial overtone that initially drew the artist to the original image. As the five individuals sit around a table, they appear to be having tea together, and their interaction is natural and affable, presenting an idealised vision of the 1Malaysia concept for society. In this way, audiences can view Open House “SOLD” as a continuation of recent works such as Hello! Obama Speaking… and Papan Hitam: Hari Pertama Sekolah Negaraku, which also speak of local political and social issues in a serene presentation. Shukri’s charming manner of putting across his views is well known, and fits in with his manner of being quietly persuasive rather than outwardly confrontational.
As the group speaks animatedly with each other, there is an informal party-like atmosphere to their gathering. Shukri subtly plants the question of what is the topic of their seemingly informal discussion in his viewers’ minds. Now the viewer is almost voyeuristic in their appreciation of the work. Shukri likens this to the voyeuristic culture cultivated by the prevalence of social media in today’s society. Sites such as Facebook and Instagram now allow open access into the inner lives of most people, and increasingly privacy is flouted as much as it once was protected. Friends and followers can log onto these sites and trawl through updates of people they know briefly or not at all, and be presented with an often carefully scripted version of someone else’s life. This phenomenon has been termed “social voyeurism” and is a by-product of the mass integration of technology into daily lives of today’s population.
As a mixed media artist, layering is a crucial tool in Shukri’s arsenal. Typically he layers paintings with collages and three-dimensional elements, but Open House “SOLD” relies more heavily on the layering of painted imagery to present his observations. Pre-civilisation, Malaysia would have been almost entirely made up of rainforest, and a fully detailed forest landscape is Shukri’s vision of the original state of the environment. Adding people over this shows a visual of the current landscape of Malaysia; now the country is developed and hosts people of all races who co-exist. The yellow stain rising like a cloud over the right of the canvas speaks to the destructive feature of civilisation towards natural environments, an unavoidable reality as society develops. The wooden panel on the right has the word “SOLD”, giving rise to several connotations. With its poster inspired central imagery, Open House “SOLD” clearly has a link to pop art, which is sometimes seen as quite commercial due to its natural popularity and accessibility. “SOLD” reminds the viewer the original visual was used in advertising, therefore rendering it aspirational and an image used to sell products or an idea to a 1950s audience. Aesthetically, the use of the wooden panel is also typically Shukri, providing a strong link to his signature style given the fresh painterly visual of the main canvas.
Open House “SOLD” is a simple but fitting title for this new work which depicts a utopian scene of past life in Malaysia. Overall, the atmosphere of Open House “SOLD” slants more heavily towards a Malaysian flavour than other recent major works by the artist. Shukri’s penchant for mixing pop elements with a local twist is highly attractive not only to Malaysian audiences, who have a deep affection for their culture and habits, but also to international viewers for his ability to aptly describe the scenes that constitute Malaysia’s physical and intellectual landscapes.
Title: Open House “SOLD”
Artist: Ahmad Shukri
Size: 211 cm x 272 cm
Medium: Mixed Media on Canvas and Salvaged Wood Panels