Perennial Contemplations

Pucuk selasih dibuat ulam
Patah tumboh hilang berganti
Apa nasib sekelian alam
Jika bomoh hilang sakti

In his earlier work, Jalaini Abu Hassan, better known as Jai, searched through our shared traditional tales and engaged with the myth and magic of the bomoh (shaman). His recent ARTJOG postcards directly trace historical figures and scenes. His own hometown and family have been a fruitful source of material for themes of succour and belonging. Throughout his career, Jai has frequently introduced his own personal past and present into multi-level compositions that then become larger negotiations around memory and identity.

This time, the simple and somewhat cheeky exhibition title Cerpan-Cerpen: New Works by Jalaini Abu Hassan betrays few clues as to how to approach this loosely-interconnected series featuring unassuming scenes of life in KL and Taiping, Jai’s hometown. All the works in this solo exhibition are drawing-paintings executed with bitumen and fabric dye wash. The tints are layered with a transparent stain giving them an aged feel, while the cropped format of the canvas suggests archival and personal documentation, history, and memory.

Compared to his best-known work, these canvases are deliberately economical. They may still be substantial in size, but their materials, medium, and colour are kept to a muted minimum; their subjects and events, taken mostly from snapshots, are accordingly on a more intimate scale. For the most part, Jai does not employ multiplanar, multiscale, or multidimensional techniques, nor does he use portraiture. With the exception of one piece — which is dominated by an overgrown rabbit that seems to be from a different reality to the female market workers in the painting — the artist does not disrupt the realist mundanity of the scenes on display.

Jai is in a reflective mood here, using his mastery of painting and drawing to return to some of his recurring concerns: belonging, homeland, and the (distant and not too distant) past. By stepping away from much of the (necessary) excess of his past work, and even removing himself from the frame, the artist can now look around and into, instead of at, the self. The artist is free to revisit himself in his current circumstances, creating the opportunity for a re-evaluation of both past and present. 

Conspicuously avoiding the recent political upheavals in Malaysia, Jai seeks a more intimate examination of personal history over a longer time frame. As a process artist, he has always made his work an exploration of medium and material. Jai “speaks” with his work as he progresses, moving away from certain elements, negotiating narratives, journeys, departures and homecomings, without necessarily keeping a fully worked-out destination in mind.

This lively engagement with medium and material extends to the imagined audience. For Jai, a finished work will live in conversation with those who approach it. Art is a dialogue – with material, medium, and eventually, viewer – and as such, Jai is uninterested in the one-way street of simply delivering a message or making a point. Dialogue, in the Freirean sense of a conversation of mutual respect between equals, frames the practice of art. 

It takes true vulnerability to converse in this way. Through the years, Jai has opened up in any number of highly personal ways. Self-portraits, in particular, have made an appearance in much of his work. This format once memorably allowed him to draw a clear link between himself and the bomoh, the spiritual healers of the Malay world. What transpired was an exploration of a heritage that was both metaphorical and personal — since Jai's own grandfather was a bomoh.

Cerpan-Cerpen is an even deeper exposure of interiority than Jai’s previous works. Largely stripped of any collage-like elements competing for attention, these pieces evoke the sense of encountering a stranger’s photo album or Instagram feed. Although there is a distinctly voyeuristic feel, they are offered up like an invitation — rather than a warning against trespass — to see the world through the artist’s eyes, to walk the journey of discovery along with Jai. Deeply personal, these snapshots look inward, and give more away about the artist then the represented subjects. Jai admits as much when he describes one of his works: “Seeing is not simplistically a matter of entertaining mental pictures. The kebun getah (rubber plantation) scene is more than an image of a rubber plantation. It is my imagined world of memory, mystery, romance, secrecy, hardship. It is a kind of portal or gateway to another world.”   

Yet personal expression is only the entry point. The portal Jai alludes to leads to a wider discourse. The artist as medium/bomoh goes beyond simply applying a balm or singing a soothing song-story that salves the soul. The commitment to a spirited engagement means that the artist/medium is an instigator above all else, the artwork a catalyst for deepening understanding and connection. With his mastery of the fundamentals of art-making, Jai can draw the curtain aside to unveil slumbering secrets and half-told stories, but what happens after this mediated encounter is more to the point.    

With Cerpan-Cerpen, the stories being recounted are not as flashy as Jai’s previous works or the noisy present of the Malaysian public sphere. Yet it is perhaps even more vital in a time of upheaval to reflect deeply on foundational questions rather than simply react to immediate circumstances.      

In this solo exhibition, the everyday is presented with the minimum of fuss. A family gathers on a veranda to eat and relax. Food is prepared in a canteen kitchen. Immigrant women, in search of a better life far from home, end up in the fantastical anti-climax of a Malaysian market. An amused fondness is at play here. The jibes are gentle, not parodic or patronising, and might be seen as interjections into a heavy discussion to prompt levity and to spark further reflection. In Aphrodisiac, for instance, we find cats mating in front of a sundry shop — a wink to Malaysians’ obsession with herbal products.  

Then there’s Caravan of the King, a canvas dominated by an open truck piled with durian crates. All the perspective lines lead the eye firmly to the lone figure seated furthest right: he nearly breaks the limits of the frame and his face is concealed by the flaps of the canvas roof. All that is left are the crossed legs, which have a character all of their own, in trousers whose texture mirrors that of the crates. Who is this Raja Musang on his roadside throne? Who is it that we cannot see, this unflappable someone in a supposedly Malaysia Baharu? 

The importance of process for the artist is underscored by exhibiting the finished works alongside selected materials that offer a glimpse into an artistic practice concerned with discourse. The addition of unfinished thoughts, scraps of inspiration and technical tests offer up the mechanics and personality of Jai, the interlocutor, that viewers find themselves faced with. 

With Cerpan-Cerpen, the artist’s longstanding concerns take their latest shape as Jai’s unencumbered painterly skills work through the dongeng-dongeng (folklore) of mundanity in Malaysia. Everyday life has continued unabated here, gently suggesting that perhaps this is where we should search for ourselves and our nation.


Text by Mayang Al-Mohdhar