There are many phrases Malaysians can use to describe their social landscape and a turbulent world would definitely be one of them. And with this theme in the center of his mind, visual artist Shaarim Sahat launched his solo exhibition Daerah Ruwat (literally translated to turbulent territory) at the esteemed Artemis Art Gallery.
The first in a series of solo exhibitions this year, the art gallery has been a home for many of Malaysia’s best contemporary traditional and experimental artists. As a place where artists have shared their most existential or blatantly political messages for a thoughtful crowd to contemplate and share with their friends and family, Shaarim Sahat’s artwork fits their vision like a glove. For those of you who haven’t yet had a chance to check out his exhibition, here are some of our favourite works of his, from the political to the personal.
Sekolah Kebangsaan (2018)
If you’ve ever experienced the alienation that comes from being the only ethnic minority in a public school or workplace, this poignant piece will definitely be the first to catch your attention. Sekolah Kebangsaan, like many of Shaarim’s other pieces utilises mixed media on canvas and tries to convey multiple themes within the piece itself. The uniformity of young Malay girls wearing their tudung is broken by the careful placement of one Indian and Chinese girl, both at separate ends of the canvas. For a person who has been that Indian girl at the end of the canvas, it really speaks to me and the people who’ve shared these commonplace experiences in almost bored tones. There are splashes of red ‘A’s that resemble the grades on our report cards, the tone of the piece rigid and academic, like the way many Malaysian public schools treat their students. Shaarim almost seems to say that our students are nothing more to us than the ‘A’ on a report card, the overarching symbol that drowns out a deeper racial bias children are forced to deal with.
Competition is a favourite for me, aesthetic-wise. Many of Shaarim’s work is rife with symbolism, a mark of a good artist that doesn’t convey too much in their message and lets viewers interpret their own meaning. This symbolism is conveyed primarily through his piece’s colour palette, which just relies on a Coca-Cola bottle’s signature red throughout, with a splash of colour from a Malaysian kicap bottle. The great thing about this painting is you could derive many things from just looking at it. It’s aesthetically pleasing, something that lets you calm down from his other work that features multiple symbols. If you’re like me and love prying into the deeper meaning, the emphasis on the kicap bottle speaks for itself. There’s more of a focus on foreign brands than there are on our local businesses. This is a subject Shaarim chooses to focus on in a lot of his work. In his own words, he uses his own child as a reference point to the younger generation and asks the question, “Will my children one day be employees of foreigners whom have started their own businesses here? Would my children even be able to afford their own homes?”
My 1st Lady (2017)
“The anxiety of thinking about our children’s future has lead me to be anxious about the country’s political atmosphere. Today’s leaders are the ones who will chart the direction of national policies for future generations.” As a parent, Shaarim’s work is heavily influenced by where our country will eventually turn to and what will become of it. If our leaders are responsible for everything that will ever be our future, are they doing enough, if anything at all? This is where the intensity of My 1st Lady comes in. In the light of events like the 1MDB scandal, this overt reference to our leader’s selfishness on themselves comes at a turbulent time of voter apathy and apprehension about our upcoming elections. Rather than be an in your face piece about a duty one owes to their people, the artist takes a subtle approach, using the fall of chess pieces to say something provocative about the sacrifices we ‘pawns’ have made to keep the Queen still standing. She sits atop a chair, above a heap of dead pawns lost in a chess battle and we see at least some of ourselves in that heap, wondering about the things our parents must have given up to keep the Queen fed.
Talian Hayat (Lifeline) (2017)
You might be able to relate to this abstract piece if you’ve ever found yourself relying on maggi mee for sustenance for a big part of your life. For some of us, it tastes good and that’s the only reason we eat it. But we often forget that for most of us, it’s simply one of the only things we can afford. This deeper meaning is obviously intended in the artwork’s title Talian Hayat (Lifeline), which features a malnourished young man held up roots, his prisoner-like stance rendering him vulnerable and exposed. The packets of maggi are prominent as they surround and deck out his pose, with an ominous looking crow at the edge of the painting, looking ready to pick at the flesh of the soon-to-be lifeless body. Perhaps my interpretation of it is darker than it needs to be, but knowing that Shaarim’s particular brand of art is suffused with politics and social meaning, Lifeline reads more than just an ode to maggi’s addictiveness and should definitely, be treated as such.
Media 2 (2014)
Much of our creative work is basically various forms of media – print, electronic, visual or traditional. And much of our creative potential is reliant on what we can say or do on this media. It’s normal for many Malaysians to believe there isn’t much creative potential left in this country and the future looks bleak. To some extent, they’re right; our government puts our media into a chokehold and anyone brave enough to innovate and infuse bigger questions into their work is in danger of being seditious. But there are artists and writers who still surprise us (and their exhibitions can be found featured in Artemis Art Gallery too!). Even before the recent imprisonment of artist Fahmi Reza, who was jailed for the clown face caricature of our PM, Shaarim captures the bravery of being in the media in this 2014 piece. The symbols are abstract but clearly defined – the army flak jacket, the wartime carrier pigeon, the camera strapped to its body. These are all images of war, starkly contrasted against a TV set, with the Petronas tower clear in the background. The message is precise; it’s dangerous to be in media, but like any country in crises or at war, we need these soldiers now more than ever.
Shaarim Sahat’s pieces speak for themselves and avoid sounding preachy with its symbolism that lets us figure out the meanings for ourselves. They are proof that there is much the contemporary Malaysian visual art scene has to offer us but more importantly, they are crucial and precise in their political messages. For more exhibitions like this one, check out Artemis Art Gallery at Publika, before your miss out on any other exhibitions like this.