Born in 1978 in Negeri Sembilan, in person Husni Osman comes across as a man of few words, peering out from behind his rimmed glasses. He is humble, self-effacing even. But this casualness of manner belies an intensity and maturity in his thoughts and deeply-felt principles, amassed throughout years of struggles and persevering in the local art industry.
Interestingly, Husni has never received formal art education. Once, he had pursued landscape architecture, but found himself more fascinated by illustrating as opposed to the technical side of architecture. After years of producing artworks for graphic firms, supermarkets and underground record labels, he decided to start painting full time in 2008.
Living in one of Shah Alam’s squatter areas but attending a suburban school for middle-to-upper-middle class students, Husni grew up often feeling like he belonged to both city and kampong (Malay for village), and just as often like he belonged to neither – hence the title of his first solo exhibition, “City” Boy.
The narrative of “City” Boy followed the artist’s growth from a young innocent boy to a confused, rebellious city boy, to the Husni we now see. His contemporary observations of life add depth and balance, making “City” Boy a purposeful and autobiographical selection of works.
Shunned by the richer urban students and mocked by his villagers for his purportedly superior education, Husni adopted the role of silent, aloof observer of those around him, fuelled by his innate curiosity about the reasons behind their actions.
Through years of barely making enough to survive from street painting and working on construction sites, he encountered people from diverse backgrounds, giving him a profound understanding of human nature. His fragmented view of self-identity gradually resolved itself into an awareness that he could be both city and kampong boy. Husni now sees the world through the lenses of a middle-class Malay citizen influenced by globalisation, the new economy and his position in the social structure.
Conflict or oppression, which he perceives among classes and individuals, are distilled down to their essence and then poured out through portraits of himself or others. Consequently, the faces mirror emotions and struggles unique to their situations, giving viewers an interesting glimpse at a slice of society yet to be seen in the Malaysian art scene.
Husni’s techniques are an outcome of self-study, which contribute to a certain purity and rawness in his work, unshackled by the rigidity of formal education. He imbues his paintings with expressive energy, using brushstrokes, drips and scratches to explore the inner psyche of his characters. Within the disorder of his layers and abstract lines, there is an order of form and method, yet behind the order there is also freedom in the flow of his self-expression.