Hasanul Isyraf Idris takes on censorship, sensitive issues in Malay context
Hasanul Isyraf Idris, born 1978 in Perak, Malaysia, was trained at Mara University of Technology, UiTM, in Perak. He has received a number of awards, including the Young Contemporary Arts Award in 2007 at the National Visual Arts Gallery, Kuala Lumpur, and is known to be a highly elusive artist, shunning attending openings and mostly working anonymously.
Hasanul produces works in a variety of media, from paintings and meticulously crafted drawings to painted oven-baked clay sculptures. Mining inspiration from within, he articulates his personal struggles as an artist by personifying them as strange characters that inhabit his invented universes, says a note from Richard Koh Fine Art, Kuala Lumpur.
Influenced by the graphics of underground comic books, 1960s science fiction, fast food, street art and fashion, Hasanul juggles pop culture references with a personal viewpoint, says the note. Recurring topics in his practice are the meaning of life and death, memories and fantasies and sin and reward.
At this year's Art Fair, Hasanul will be showing alongside Dhavinder Singh, hosted by Richard Koh Fine Art. Here's a chat with Hasanul, leading up to the India Art Fair 2018.
Tell us a little about the artworks that you will be showing at the Art Fair this year. Is there an underlying message in your works that you wish to share with viewers?
Hasanul Isyraf Idris: My artworks largely relate to past experiences, reminiscing past memories and relationships, especially with my parents. This series is made of fragments of my parent's background and history, in a time of ignorance and underdevelopment. I traced their past by recalling stories of their early married life in Pangkor Island (off the west coast of Peninsular Malaysia), at a time that implied hints of racism and violence, whilst reflecting on relevant present global situations.
These pieces are fragments of my life, of a time that was filled with violence. I’m merely observing the residues of time through these works. The context for the political situation of today is only dissimilar in a way that the communities have progressed. Persecution and oppression still happens today, only managed and handled through a larger variety of methods – that is, through Facebook, films, internet trolling, etc.
How do you perceive artworks that make a political statement? Would you like to produce more pertinent, and politically charged artworks as a part of your practice?
HII: To be honest, I’m not entirely sure. I have no objection to political artworks nor do I have strong opinions about it. I try to progress with the ebb and flow of my works, in terms of style and content. As such, political opinions might emerge occasionally throughout my visual art practice. I am not obligated to be political, yet at times, I feel compelled to rise up and speak about it through my artwork, and at times, I prefer to be silent. I feel that socio-political situations are relevant and related to my body of work in this current phase of my creative practice. For me, HOL (Higher Order Love) Chapter 2.3, Wound : Environment of Naga and Doubt resonates on a global situation of migration, oppression and discrimination.
Give us your overview, of the rise in political art over the last few years, as you have been witnessing it - as a viewer, and as an artist. Would you like to see more artists making powerful works with a socially relevant message?
HII: I keep an open mind about situations like these. For me, art can be an instrument or medium to act and respond to a case - perhaps it is a suitable time to make a response and perhaps it isn’t. Fundamentally, I feel that an artist should be able to have the freedom to express their thoughts on any matter. Artist from all over the world respond individually, collectively and parallel to each other on plenty of issues such as oppression, LGBT, feminism, etc. These acts or responses would not necessarily result in an ideal or utopian environment, but they are gestures of hope for a better world.
Give us your take on the idea that "All art is political in the sense that it engages society in some way, either influencing or influenced by it." Would you agree with this thought? And does this apply to your own practice?
HII: Yes I do agree, even the art scene itself can be political. For example art fair participations require many considerations, which in its own involve certain political strategies. Almost everything is relevant to politics and political strategy. I used to be a teacher in Sabah, Borneo Island. Sabah is one of the poorest state in Malaysia despite its abundance of natural resource.
During my time in Sabah, I had a hand in community involvement with a local school for the deaf and mute. Sometimes, my friends and I would prepare breakfast for them. I also did a sort of documentary-like photographs series of the living environment of my students, which covers their diet, housing, facilities and source of economy.
What, according to you, is political art - in essence? Is it necessary for political art to assume the conventional forms of editorial cartoons, or perhaps, protest art? How would you distinguish political art as a form in itself - removed from the distinctions of paintings, illustration, and protest performance?
HII: The mediums used in creating cartoons are still relevant art tools. I feel that the latest mediums from the internet, such as memes, are more appealing and easily accessible by a larger audience. These mediums are a great expression for art, as they are widespread and could get viral instantly.
How important, do you believe, is it for artists today to take up the responsibility of making a political statement - to comment on current affairs, or draw the attention of viewers to larger issues? Is it essential for artists to make politically charged works, to possibly gain larger visibility?
HII: There are definitely important, sensitive issues that are not matters to be taken lightly. In the Malaysian context of censorship, racial and religious matters are extremely sensitive issues, and penalties on these issues can be quick and harsh. There are things to consider before a statement is made, artists have their own well-being to take care of, some might also have other jobs and even hold government positions, which makes it harder for them to respond critically to certain issues, with these situations in mind.
A lot of contemporary art, unfortunately, tend to get discussed in closed and often select groups. How would you like to encourage further discussions on art among larger groups of people, and possibly extend art appreciation in a more inclusive, rather than exclusive manner?
HII: Certain museums and especially galleries are exclusive places. Perhaps, the going strategy or method would have to be changed. Exhibition spaces would need to be more accessible to public to be inclusive. Mural and street art, for example, are among artworks that are closer to public and everyday life.
Today, we see many contemporary artists addressing concerns of racism, identity, power struggles, and women's empowerment, among other issues. How effective do you believe their attempts are, to produce artworks that truly make a difference? How do you believe these artists need to be supported more?
HII: I believe having access to funding would help these artists. Many artists need funding to cover expenses for research, production costs, promotion and other projects such as talks and workshops to create platforms to share their practice and thoughts. Some such artists are full-time activists, so they would really benefit from funding, in maintaining their space or community.
In the last few years, we have also seen the rise of varied forms of art - spanning performance, video, installations, street theatre, poetry and even music, especially of the folk kind. How would you like to see all these art forms coming together, to make more of an impact not just for the sake of contemporary art, but for a larger social cause?
HII: I feel that they do leave an impact, and I believe these works went through an evolution processes through the years. The evolution and development would breed new achievements and new innovations for the future.
There's also the final question about balancing the aspects of aesthetics, beauty and taste, with technique and skill. How important is it, in your view, for a powerful work of art to also be visually, and artistically pleasing and beautiful - perhaps, to emphasise the underlying message?
HII: Visual imageries are important in art, so is meaning. Sometimes, these visuals are only an outer layer, like a surface or skin that covers the body. Proverbs and metaphors are close to Malay culture, and also to my family - they are an important part of communication and expression. These languages are layered, and often used to conceal emotions. They are rich in thought, yet so controlled that they blur the lines of expression, leaving room for interpretation. The same language is applied in my works. It is this charm of layered languages in which I use images and text as symbols to express my meanings and stories.
Hasanul Isyraf Idris will show with Richard Koh Fine Art at the India Art Fair 2018, Feb 9-12.