Bayu Utomo Rajikin is considered one of Malaysia’s most recognised figurative painters. In this interview, he speaks to Elaine Lau about his latest artworks, the inspiration behind them and about Matahati, the art collective of which he is a member, and its programmes for young emerging artists.
You would easily miss the House of Matahati amidst the shoplots in Taman Cempaka, Ampang, if you weren’t expressly looking for it. The nondescript entrance to the studio-cum-gallery of the art collective Matahati, tucked between the noise, grime and grease of not one but several auto shops, is marked only with a grey signboard painted simply with the letters “HOM”.
Stepping into HOM, one feels transported to another world, poles apart from the one outside. A sweet floral fragrance from vases filled with flowers tickles my nose, and my ears are greeted by fusion instrumental music. My eyes behold a truly arresting sight — figurative artist Bayu Utomo Rajikin’s latest series of stunning and emotive works. Unnamed is the title of Bayu’s seventh solo exhibition, which consists of four stunning acrylic paintings and 10 charcoal pieces, all simply titled numerically.
All but one of the works are self-portraits, with Bayu depicting himself as a fierce Malay warrior. And they are done in enormous scale. In fact, this series is the largest Bayu has ever done in terms of the scale and size of the figures. They are tightly composed, the figures magnified so much that they mostly depict only the face and hands or arm in elaborate dance-like poses. Provocative but sans any offensiveness, the works have a theatrical feel to them. Bayu’s longstanding involvement in the local theatre scene — he has done “everything except directing and acting” — has no doubt influenced his artwork.
There is an almost photographic quality to the works in the composition, captured motion and the skilful play of light and shadow. The acrylic works are given a drip-paint treatment that renders a grainy effect. The charcoal works are hauntingly beautiful, done on nylon canvas, a difficult thing to do and not very common.
The works show in glorious detail every sinew, curve and crevice of the face, hands and arms, and the intense, brooding facial expressions tinged with angst or anguish, depending on the work. They are truly fascinating studies of the human face and hands — Bayu’s mastery of the figurative realism style, his fine execution and impeccable draughtsmanship inspire awe.
There is a sense of the mythical in the headgear-wearing figures, and of the mysterious, heightened by hands that half-cover the face in many of the pieces. You get the feeling that Bayu is, on the one hand, trying very hard to express himself and to reveal himself to you, but isn’t quite ready to bare all just yet — he still wants to retain a shade of secrecy.
In the charcoal works Enam, Lapan and Sembilan, a single red thread runs through or between the hands. In Empat, there is a hint of red on the side of the headwear. It is an interesting detail, very unexpected and surprising. Unsure of its significance, I ask Bayu.
“It was personally significant during the moment of creating the work,” he says. “I was dealing with a lot of black and white, and I thought it needed a red somewhere … The hands, I just had a feeling of something going through the palms. I don’t know what it is so I put in the red thread. Maybe it’s a gesture of something I felt inside towards what I wish, and the thread shows there’s a connection.”
Bayu is dressed very casually in jeans and a T-shirt, and his somewhat dishevelled mane makes him look like a rock star. In a way, he is one — a rock star of the Malaysian art scene, along with his Matahati mates, Ahmad Fuad Osman, Ahmad Shukri Mohamed, Hamir Soib @ Mohamed and Masnoor Ramli Mahmud. One cannot talk about Bayu without mentioning the art collective, which made a name for itself in the late 1980s through to the 1990s with bold avant-garde artworks that went against the artistic grain of that period. A devil-may-care attitude prevailed in their artworks that were social or political commentary in nature, and as a result, an image of rebelliousness was tacked onto the members of the group.
"Everyone is looking for an inspirational icon, and the Malay warrior is inspirational to me because of the myth and the unknown about it"
That may be so, but in no way does Bayu’s demeanour hint at that. His comportment is one of courteousness and warmth, and he is only too happy to oblige The Edge’s deputy chief photographer Haris Hassan when instructed to pose this way and that. He doesn’t smile much during the photo shoot, preferring instead to stare intently into the lens, giving the impression of a very serious person — which he isn’t. During the interview, he speaks with ease, and when he laughs it is guttural and hearty. You cannot help but laugh along with him.
The use of the image of the Malay warrior is nothing new for Bayu. But even so, with each series of works, he manages to present them in a fresh, new way. This time they are much more close-up, larger in scale and free of any other elements — it’s just Bayu the warrior and nothing else. This series is intensely personal, says Bayu, and a continuation of Mind the Gap: From KL to London and Back series exhibited at Wei-Ling Gallery in 2007.
He elaborates, “This series is an extension of my previous exhibition, where I am questioning myself. I wanted to search for what I want in life. Everyone is looking for an inspirational icon, and the Malay warrior is inspirational to me because of the myth and the unknown about it.”
Bayu is known for artworks that are social commentary in nature. So what caused this introspection and soul-searching? “Last time my work was on social commentary — you watch the news, come up with an idea and try to tell how you feel about certain issues. After a while I felt that I had become like a reporter, like a photojournalist, transferring images from one end and making [them into] another form, and becoming less involved with my feelings. I have done that, so now I just want to deal with what I feel towards myself. The work now is very personal. It’s to discover who I am … The works are meant for me.”
The warrior in this series, instead of sporting the usual tanjak on its head, is wearing a different kind of headwear, a Javanese one. It points to Bayu’s heritage for he is ethnically Javanese but born and raised in Tawau, Sabah. The artist is exploring what it means to be Javanese. “If I’m a Javanese, what are the qualities I must have to become a better Javanese?” he asks rhetorically. “Am I Javanese because of the blood of my parents, or if I practise Javanese culture? That’s the kind of questions [I address]. That’s why I’m using a lot of gestures to try to describe what I feel.”
He continues, “The face is no longer important. When you have a full face, people try to recognise who you are and what is the profile. I’m hiding, and certain elements of my face do the talking — like the eyes, nose and gestures of the hand. The idea is like when you’re talking to a person wearing a helmet. You know you’re talking to a person but it’s difficult for you … there is a distance. For this, the figure is not trying to be close to you or impress you or tell you about personal stories.”
What came out of this process of self-searching and questioning was the ability to own up to his ethnicity more than ever before. Says Bayu, “I can say to people that I am Javanese, and it makes sense to me. Usually I say I’m a Malay, nothing more than that. I didn’t think much about it. Now, it’s yes, I’m Javanese. It is a start for me to discover more … That is what makes me continue painting, to carry on creating works and keep me searching.”
And why Unnamed? “At the time I didn’t have a very strong reason for why I wanted to paint, but I had a very strong urge. I wanted to do it; I had to do it. When you put a title it leads you in a certain direction. When you put ‘unnamed’ you make it more neutral. The same goes for the paintings, which are just numbers. I don’t want to lead people to connect the title with the artwork.” The artworks then open themselves up for multiple interpretations.
You could say that Bayu began his “career” as an artist as a boy growing up in a kampung in Tawau, Sabah. He loved to draw, and obviously was very good at it for it didn’t go unnoticed. His neighbour, an English teacher, “commissioned” him to draw pictures for RM5 a pop that she would use as teaching aids for her class.
Bayu laughs at the memory and says, “I did that, but I never thought [beyond] that.” In secondary school, Bayu didn’t do much art, and he only came to major in fine art at Universiti Teknologi Mara “because my results were not that good” (said with a hearty laugh). “But I love art,” he quips.
How did his parents take it? “My parents were fine. As long as I could further my studies, whatever I took as my major [didn’t matter to them],” recalls Bayu, whose father was a teacher. “My parents never questioned what my future would be, what I was going to do. They were just happy that their son went to university.”
Bayu admits to struggling at understanding the concepts taught in art school. “In the first semester, we were introduced to what art and design was all about, and it was completely different from what I had thought. My previous understanding of drawing had to be thrown out completely. The terms used were completely alien to me. I never thought of becoming an artist. When the lecturer taught a certain subject, most of the time I guessed the method and did hopefully what they wanted. It was really a struggle to understand.”
Even so, as he neared the end of his studies, Bayu made an artwork that brought him stardom and earned him a respected place in the annals of Malaysian art history. Bayu is widely known now as a major figurative painter, but the work in question was actually a sculpture called Bujang Berani. It was of a Dayak warrior, with a face made of clay and armless body of discarded metal parts. The figure, crafted with a haunting, anguished and primal facial expression, was a powerful statement on cultural displacement. The sculpture won the esteemed Young Contemporary Award in 1991 and went on to inspire other artworks by regional artists, such as Indonesian painter Yaksa Agus.
That work, as well as those of his peers in Matahati at the time, kick-started a resurgence of figurative art in Malaysia. Bayu speaks of the early, heady days of the group with a softness in his voice.
“We tried to practise what we learned in art school but without being concerned about the commercial value or outside influence. We were producing works that we wanted to produce … We kept doing social commentary works — very bold. It was a period of abstract art, but we were doing figurative. We were still in the art school spirit of do whatever you want, and the more extreme the better. People liked it. It was different, but that was that. There was no attachment. We struggled for five or six years as a group, but we kept on doing it.”
In an essay titled Locating Matahati, art writers Adeline Ooi and Wong Hoy Cheong describe the collective’s artistic vision. “Unlike artists of previous generations who had singular vision in their practice, often informed by modernist notions of a linearity of progress, the Matahati artists opted for a multiplicity of media, styles and content. They belong to a generation where the splintering of worldviews, experiences and practice were becoming the norm. Having grown up in kampung environments, they are inextricably tied to place and tradition. At the same time, they are also worldly, urbane and informed. A cursory examination of their practices will reveal this splintering.”
More crucially, the group functioned as a support structure for the members, which at the time also included two others, Kamal Ariffin Kamisan and Soraya Yusof Talismail. “We felt that in art school, only friendship could hold us together,” says Bayu. “After we graduated, if we didn’t have each other, we would have become very different people … It is very difficult when you first start out, so we worked together in part-time and freelance jobs. The good thing about being in a group is you feel you’re not alone, even when things get difficult.”
In tandem with producing works as a group — Matahati has mounted 20 exhibitions over the years — each member also charted his own individual career in art, finding and fine-tuning his own style and making a name for himself in the process. The freedom to craft their solo careers was important for the artists’ development, and did not interfere with their work or identity as a collective. In fact they were strengthened by it.
Matahati, founded in 1989, remains one of the longest running art collectives in the region. It states on its website, “What binds the members together is a unity of purpose, originating from their student days and maintained in the fluid structure and spirit of mutual respect and camaraderie. They share an interest in current social, political and aesthetic issues, but — except for their overarching dedication to the visual refinement of complex concepts and their employment of virtuosic technique — the members of Matahati work and evolve separately.”
For Bayu, his style was and still is very much figurative realism in the painting discipline, though it was sculpture that he majored in at university. “Sculpture never became my thing. But painting, I needed to do it. I wanted to do it,” he says.
What is his fascination with figures? “I simply cannot avoid that. I feel I do figures best. It’s not why I’m doing figures, but since I like it, I have to make sure I do it best. I can do abstract, but I feel it’s not me. After my 1996 solo show of all these figures, I got tired. So for two to three years I did only abstract. After that, I felt I needed to do figures again.”
Bayu’s forte is the male form, though he did produce a series of works on female Indian classical dancers for the group exhibition Stirring Odissi, which was just as beautifully executed. He says his involvement in theatre has shaped him as an artist. “It has shaped me in a way I didn’t realise. But you can see it in the perspective. And that’s why I like to do light and dark in my paintings. Most of the figures I draw have their own character. I try to draw in some emotion, and this is the influence of theatre, where I watch rehearsals and they talk about emotion.”
Bayu is at a point where he can “fully concentrate” on his art, unlike previously where he took on other jobs like theatre work and teaching to pay the bills. “I’m more known now. I can sell my work a little bit easier than before,” he says, with a pleased expression on his face.
People buying his artwork is no doubt gratifying, but what’s even more so are the projects and programmes he and HOM undertake.
“What I feel good about is with HOM, we’re doing a few programmes with young artists to help them. That really makes my day, meaning that even though I’m not very successful I can do things to help artists or the art scene. Because of that, I [am not concerned about] what level I am at now, or how well I’ve been received by people,” he says.
Bayu is the main driver of the three programmes that HOM has initiated to nurture young emerging artists: a six-month art residency programme, at the end of which an exhibition is held for the artist; an art fund, where local artists can apply for grants for an art project or programme; and a biannual art competition for young artists, where winners are awarded prizes like art materials, travel grants to one of the countries in Asia and the chance to do a solo exhibition.
Between juggling the planning and execution of the programmes and his art practice, Bayu is also a busy family man. He and his wife, theatre practitioner Norzizi Zulkifli, have two young sons, a three-year-old and a nine-month-old. The children are too young to know their father as one of Malaysia’s most recognised figurative painters, but they will in due time.
On his career, he says: “Twenty years is not enough. Even now, people ask me and I still feel shy to claim anything. Maybe after 30 years I can make a statement. The good part of feeling like that is I can still make mistakes. It’s okay, I can journey into another direction.”
And when he does, you’ll be sure that the art community will sit up and take notice.
This article appeared in Options, the lifestyle pullout of The Edge Malaysia, Issue 813, July 5-11, 2010