Through Ali’s Lens
Back in 2012, Raina Ng had the privilege of stepping into the imaginative mind of Malaysia’s own ALI NURAZMAL YUSOFF as he prepared for his then solo exhibition Alism. After three years the artist, together with Core Design Gallery is set to take his work into international grounds at the Art Stage Singapore 2016. Called ReALISM, the exhibit showcases the artists’ personal archive on the partial Malaysian art history. Looking forward to this we reminisce on our first impressions.
Inside Nurazmal’s head are imageries that are coloured vividly. On his canvases are apt expressions of these images that are indicative of his ability to merge different worlds and watch them interact. Nurazmal’s own interpretation of his world comes across in his work that is both theatrical and satirical.
But the core of his work comes very much from his own discovery of what art is to him. Nurazmal began drawing and painting at primary school. As far back as he can remember, he has always been drawing. Art as a career, though, had never been in the forefront of his mind until after high school. It was then that Nurazmal discovered art for what it is. “It is a way of thinking, a way of seeing things from different angles, a way of seeing from different perspectives.”
As Nurazmal learnt to define art for himself, and as he took on the discipline of art as a serious career, his art developed. His work began as pretty pictures, copying and exploring techniques of different artists. His compositions and work had potential, but they had not, as he says, developed into art. Nurazmal began exploring styles, techniques and compositions, from abstract to realism. But as much as it was exploring his art, it was exploring himself. Self-discovery, he calls it.
“As long as I have been doing art, I have been trying to find myself. Find my style and technique. I started imitating. But the works I had done seemed static. I could not, did not know, how to enhance these images. I kept changing styles, compositions and began putting together things I have discovered into a form most representative of me. I’m one who is inspired by what is around me. I paint what I know, whatever is around me. So I began injecting myself into these paintings,” he says.
Nurazmal enjoys and admires what he calls the old masters, and one of his favourite, Caravaggio is central to his art. Caravaggio’s works were considered modern, revolutionary during his time. The Italian master developed the dramatic technique Nurazmal had desired to imitate at the start of his career. The artist’s fascination and imagination sees himself seeking to transport the world painted by these old masters into his own.
“The reason why I do the Imitation Master series is because I want to adapt it to our time, and our place. To do an old master’s work in a Malaysian way. I am not seeking to ruin Caravaggio’s work, that is not my intention, but to do my own composition upon Caravaggio’s. To enhance, or inject a certain perspective that was not there, to make it relevant to us,” says Nurazmal.
Dramatic is not the only distinguishing feature that make his work his. He in constantly injecting himself into his work. It is important, he stresses, to add perspective. To make classics current, inject new elements, bring old paintings to life and make them relevant again. To him, it is about finding new ways to share an appreciation of art, and a way of documenting and encapsulating life and society as it is, together with its history. His paintings are very much a slice of that.
“We Asian artists in general are very good at imitating pieces. There is a lot of talent but these artists stop at imitating. A lot of them do it better than I do, but they just imitate. I feel there needs to be a flow through of oneself, an injection. I want to bring a new element to the piece so that the new generations can get involved so I challenge myself to add new elements to these pieces,” he adds.
The colours Nurazmal chooses are very much his. Nurazmal’s pieces boast rich colour combinations. Take his earlier piece, One in a Million, that is an apple painted red and green, and the similar apple he uses in several other pieces. While the colour combination in the piece seems odd, it comes together quite nicely.
Nurazmal’s journey with colours go a long way back. One morning, on a whim, he told his wife he wanted to start a printing business. While his wife shrugged it off as one of his mammoth ideas that often does not take off, he did, at the end of the day, manage to acquire a printing press in Brickfields. It was chance that gave him the opportunity to learn about colours, and how they work.
“I never knew the complexities of colour, and colour mixes until then. I thought colour was colour, but these printers print our magazines and such from something like four basic colours. The end result are just a mix of colours from these primary colours,” he says. He said that he has the printing press to thank in teaching him how to blend his colours that have become his paintings.
“I wake up and I psych myself, I get excited about the day and then I come in to my studio and work,” he says. Nurazmal is particular about the “energy” that he puts into his painting. “I do not want any negative energy to be projected. I do not paint when I am depressed because it comes through, and it affects the piece,” he says. Excited is where he begins, and then his imagination takes charge, active, positive and alive.
Nurazmal began work on his centrepiece for the exhibition over a year back. Adapting one of Caravaggio’s masterpieces, The Calling of St Matthew, Nurazmal’s Imitation Master After Caravaggio II gives the Baroque-ian piece a whole new meaning.
The most difficult part of painting, he relates, is the first stroke. And that was why Nurazmal started at a blank canvas for two whole months before he began the composition. The first stroke is the one he is most afraid of making. He takes pride in painting freehand, without gridlines, or a projector, and he does not trace. This is why he needs to be well prepared, and sure-handed. He said he sat before the blank canvas planning, visualing, projecting in his mind what he had cleverly conceived in his head. When he finally started, it took him a good six months to compose, carefully painting the eight serious portrait figures proportionately on the 1.8 by 3.2 metre surface.
“It took me another eight months to put in colours and strokes before the final detailing.” He adds, “when I work on this, I cannot work on anything else.”
Nurazmal shares that he must work in isolation during the crucial composition period, thinking of nothing but the imageries he wants to convey on his canvas. “There was a period I was so obsessed with it, sleeping next to it for weeks just to get it right, documenting the strokes from beginning to end.”
Alism is very much a show. While the paintings standalone as individual pieces, for Nurazmal there is another element when crafting pieces for an exhibition. Nurazmal often sits and watches from afar, observing how each piece interacts with the other. Nurazmal, the man, is more than an artist. He was an athlete, a vocalist, dramatist and his work very much embodies these elements. His pieces are loud, with musical elements, and they speak.
“You see the lines behind the figure in this piece, ” Nurazmal asks, pointing to one of his pieces, Networking. “That is the soundtrack of the Godfather playing.” Nurazmal beams from ear to ear as he explains the piece. The piece is an adaptation of Michaelangelo’s sculptures and as you see it, you hear it and then you watch it happening. “This is me,” he explains pointing to his self-portrait within the piece. Nurazmal, in the painting, is trying to get to the boss, the figure on the far left, so he can get some things done. But to get there, he needs to get past two others. The guy seated on his right is hiding his half eaten apple in his hand while Nurazmal is holding an apple ready to give it to the next guy. “You see?” Nurazmal beams cheekily, “This is how things work here in Malaysia.”
The social critique plays out nicely in his piece. His portraits are his characters, and him the conductor, or the director of the play. “But I don’t expect people to hear the message, if they are entertained, that makes me happy enough. It is after all a show,” he says. When all is said and done, there is more to be said and done. Nurazmal sits in the centre of his studio very often watching how his pieces interact, how they speak to one another and then he sees the necessary finishing touches each painting needs. “Sometimes it is just a dot, sometimes a few strokes here and there,” he says.
THE DISCIPLINE OF ART
Nurazmal does what no other Malaysian artist does. He documents and encapsulates a part of society and views it from a certain window. As Nurazmal sits in his stool before a painting of his son, he muses on the future for artists. Apparently, art might be taken out of the school curriculum.
“It is because they think art is just about drawing, and so the ones who cannot draw or paint see it as irrelevant,” he says. For Nurazmal though, art has taught him how to analyse and see things differently and taught him discipline.
“I have tried teaching art – parents send their kids to me and I try to help them cultivate skills. I tell them to draw everything they see, translate what they see onto paper. And they quit within weeks! It is not easy, it is not just about drawing something, it takes patience and discipline. A lot of thought. “It is like kung-fu training,” jokes Nurazmal who incidentally has a black belt in karate. “My studio is a mess though, some artists might think it is such a disorganised space, undisciplined, but when it comes to the work, it is disciplined.” It shows; his work has a sort of relentlessness, evident in its finish. And it shows art is not easy.
“I think art is there to develop mentality, and is crucial to the system. Art is in all fields and it is through art we can develop. If people see art as this, a form of discipline and thought that is relevant in all fields, I think we can develop much more,” he says. Art, as his pieces show, document and encapsulate history, and society. It shows the development of society through a different perspectives. To discard a discipline such as art, is a grave matter. It is society discarding a balancing tool.
Then, what will our nation become?
* This is an excerpt from a 2012 article by Raina Ng published in the New Sunday Times.
Written by: Raina Ng
Published by: Baccarat Malaysia
Publication Date: November 2015