Contemporary art has always been able to make me feel something — particularly the works of Ai WeiWei, Basquiat, and Keith Haring. Their art is reflective of our 21st-century society; it highlights issues that we hold close to our hearts such as inequality and rebelling against social norms, which is why Engku Iman’s pieces hit me hard.
Here is an artist that’s able to depict feelings I couldn’t articulate onto various mediums. Seeing works of art like hers can only mean one thing: there is hope.
We managed to pick this talented creative’s mind regarding avoiding mass consumerism, steps to take to become a better a better artist, and other topics that make conservative individuals feel uncomfortable over a few glasses of teh tarik. Read below.
On her artistic background.
I was born to make art. I began drawing when I was 4 years old, and if I am remembering this correctly, my first illustration was a horse with 6 legs — I was incredibly proud of it, I didn’t stop.
Fast forward to her involvement in formal education, she says she hardly paid attention in school — something she credits her short attention span for. “I failed in almost everything. My textbooks were filled with doodles and notes to Harry Potter.”
I didn’t consider myself an ‘artist’ completely back then, but I started taking it [art] seriously after completing my Diploma in Architecture from Taylor’s University. It was then that I vowed that I’d NEVER contribute to building buildings. I feel like it’s the wrong thing to do because we need more art and parks in Kuala Lumpur!
On spending less time in malls.
I hate malls and shopping. I think it’s stupid.
People here have a lot of potential, especially the people I mingle with — I have a bunch of Malay friends that have a habit of hanging out at malls all the time. We’re raised differently, they don’t have a background in arts, so they rarely understand why I’d rather ajak them to create stuff instead of just roaming aimlessly around a mall.
Recently, I made a perjanjian with them. I said, “Let’s create something instead of parking ourselves at a cafe for hours because I don’t want to be just a consumer.”
I want to create stuff.
Every Monday, I do something charitable with them around KL such as feeding the homeless. What we started doing was based on an idea from Huffington Post whereby this photographer handed out around 100 disposable cameras to the homeless.
I thought it was a great idea, so I proceeded to buy a disposable camera that I’d give to a random Chinese uncle who was homeless. I told the uncle to “ambik gambar-gambar cantik.”
What he thought was cantik were temples, cars, the water fountain in front of Pavilion (laughs). It was really cute. I’m glad I got to do that instead of hanging out at malls.
We started out doing it for fun but we’re currently trying to make a documentary out of it, however, I don’t want to rush the process because I want people to be in the moment.
On ways to avoid mass consumerism.
Go to libraries. The libraries I frequent to are empty, I hate that. Libraries are cool! A person can gain more knowledge, you’re able to borrow books, and personally, it’s the coolest place in KL but unfortunately it’s overshadowed no thanks to our increasing numbers of shopping malls and cafés.
She’s right, we don’t need any more of these establishments, so where does a person start? “There’s a library in Bukit Damansara that’s actually a house, it’s near Humble Chef. There’s also one in Bangsar, L45, but everyone goes there just to take pictures. It’s still a cool library, though, but it’s small and there’s no air-cond (laughs), or just stay at home and read,”
The National Library is the worst. It’s in such a sad state. Even the Balai Seni Lukis nearby is shit. People don’t use those spaces to exhibit current artwork or even consider venturing into contemporary art.
What I think people should do is create more independent galleries.
Another activity people should be more aware of are ones hosted by Art for Grabs. Everyone should attend it, at least once, I was at the last one (Art For Grabs: Have A Balloon) and it was intense. There was a feminist forum which anyone can imagine attracted all sorts of characters — there were these bunch punk guys sitting in the audience yang tiba-tiba marah everyone. It could’ve been a lot more chilled but as always, the attention from the main topic was diverted to other areas such as politics and Bersih, so the panel didn’t end on a light note.
Note: Iman was one of the panel speakers for ‘Siapa Kata Gadis Melayu Tak Melawan?’
On being an underground creative instead of an artist.
I hate telling people that I’m an artist, this being because I feel the term itself is corrupted.
First of all, it’s hard to explain so people don’t get it. Secondly, people immediately ask me what I do for money — money isn’t the most important thing in the world to me.
There are many people that are willing to call themselves artists. Like, I’ve seen some people include that title in their Instagram profiles when they just doodle. I feel like it’s bullshit because some of them see it as “cool” or as a hobby. People love to romanticize the idea of being an artist sometimes. It gets to me because art is a huge part of my life.
I can’t go around telling people I’m an artist. I have to tell them that what I create affects people’s lives.
On Being An Artist
Before you start, ask yourself whether you’re getting involved for fame, money or society. Know yourself. Know your sexuality. Know social construction. Know the ideas that people are not allowed to think about. Be curious about things that are considered taboo because the more profane the subject, the bigger the impact on society.
This guarantees a trigger; something will click inside people that’ll make them think about the meaning behind the piece instead of creating something that continuously makes them feel numb.
On Malaysians’ lack of appreciation for art.
Malaysians undervalue art. It isn’t appreciated because our education system does not teach us to see it as a significant part of our lives. We weren’t taught to see art as its real value – as its portrayal of our civilisation; its flaws and beauty.
Our perception of art still lacks here. Only privileged individuals know how to see art as it should be. Being part of the art scene, I feel obligated to show others what we have to offer.
I use art as a tool to be myself and to be outside the system. There are numerous artists who look on and do nothing — that’s why I produce the art that I do.
On being outside the system.
It means being free to feed your curiosity. That’s my dad’s advice to me — it’s practically my life motto.
I hope people are provoked by the things I do. I hope they see it as a medium for people to start questioning things. I am a Malay, Muslim, Woman — three traits that make the most repressed in this country.
Am I going to sit still and be ethically confused? Fuck no.
I come from a Malay family with a strong Malay background. I’ve always been told what to do since I was young but I’m very rebellious.
Some tend to see me as someone yang always want to buat kacau. So they always resort to saying, “You’re like a guy, act like a girl”. In adat Melayu, it’s about sopan santun. Instead of allowing the judgement to get to me, I take what I’ve been told and turn it into art. It’s my way of telling people “this is why I’m angry.”
For example, I did a piece on Altantuya. It’s obviously an uncomfortable topic kan because the case isn’t resolved but instead of writing a bold statement on Facebook, I communicate it using a different method. I try to keep it subtle but easy enough for everyone to understand.
What I enjoy seeing is people being able to relate to my work instead of only taking pictures to post on Instagram.
On debunking Malaysian taboos.
Something I absolutely love seeing is a girl in a tudung smoking a cigarette. Every time I see someone like that at a mamak, it makes my day.
I do many illustrations of girls in tudungs because in Malaysia, when you pakai tudung it means you gotta be nice, demure and all that. However, I don’t think girls in tudung have to be “oppressed”. So, if they wanna smoke, let them smoke lah.
I’ve seen a man in a restaurant ask a Malay girl to stop smoking even though she was seated with a bunch of Malay guys who were also smoking. Why was she the only one asked to stop? If a Malay girl without a tudung already gets so much attention, what more a girl in a tudung smoking?
I have some tudung-wearing friends who are sexually active, they smoke, but obviously, they can’t reveal any of that in public. Sometimes I wonder why they continue wearing a tudung if that’s the case, but at the same time, let them do what they want, right?
On Malaysian artists.
Most of them are underground and under-appreciated. They don’t come out of their cave, ever. They’re so comfortable to the point where they don’t do interviews or do anything that involves publicity.
Tan Zi Hao is a great artist! He does political art that are occasionally about Malays. He has done many installations, given talks, and performance art. I’m obsessed with his art, plus he’s kind of cute too (laughs). He’s one of a kind. Other artists that I am fond of are Poodien, Shieko Reto, Sharon Chin, and Fahmi Reza.
Most of them are activists who do political art; they are against the system. I like that liberty is getting stronger.
Most of my friends are like “I tak suka la politik politik ni, I don’t give a shit” because it’s a hassle for them to think about. They tend to be like, “Oh, I like to chill,” They forget that our future is at stake.
I keep trying to explain the importance of it — for our future and our children’s future — so it bothers me that they won’t give a fuck about it.
On the Indonesian art scene.
I travel to Indonesia every year in June with my boyfriend to attend an art festival in Yogyakarta, it’s called Art Jog. Indonesia is the place to be, especially for people who are open to different religions and cultures.
Indonesians are very liberal. I had breakfast at a place there once, it had a bookshelf so I went to browse through it. There was a book that’s cover was of an Indonesian girl wearing a tudung, carrying a dog. Can you imagine what would happen if that book was displayed here in public?
I wish I could’ve stayed there longer. Everyone’s very accepting — like when I tell them the kind of art I do, they’re not shocked because it’s a norm there. It helps that Yogyakarta is the capital city of art in Indonesia, so anyone can talk about art until 3 a.m. with the locals.
On her favorite artist.
Ai Weiwei. I love him, he’s like my God and the reason I got into political art. His work usually mirrors the public, I think he really cares about his audience and his artwork is mostly about people. What I also love about him is his bravery and ability not to give a fuck.
One art installation of his which impacted me was the one with sunflower seeds in the UK. In his documentary, ‘Never Sorry’, he explained the process of the installation; he gave jobs to people who didn’t have any, made seeds from ceramic. His process of making art, in general, is what makes me want to do art. In the documentary, they filmed people’s experiences of stepping on the seeds in the gallery, it was very entertaining. I hope to experience it one day too.
My boyfriend bought me “The Second Sex” by Simone de Beauvoir — it’s a feminist bible. He asked me to baca like gila babi (laughs). He’s a feminist. Most of my guy friends are not like him, they’d be like “feminism is cancer” because they don’t get the point of it.
My boyfriend tells me not to hang out with them but even though their misogynistic way of life is very frustrating, these are the friends that I can be chill with.
When we try to explain what feminism is to them, they interrupt by saying “takpe takpe, yang kita tau, perempuan memang macam ni,” They refuse to listen. After a while, malas lah to tell them.
On her top 4 Malaysian experiences.
- Charity. I’ve been doing it for 3 years now with my friends —
our NGO is called ‘Reach Out’. The people you meet will surprise you.
- Have cheap food. When I say cheap food, I don’t mean at the mamak. One of my personal favourites is Humble Chef, it’s a food truck. You can sit by the road and have RM5 spaghetti.
- Attending rallies and/or funfairs.
- When I was younger, I enjoyed being in particular scenes like skateboarding or art. I did some artwork for Wheel Love Skateboarding which became my first art series. It was a great experience.
On art exhibitions.
I would love to exhibit at MoMA and Art Jog.
I exhibited my pieces from my first show ‘Hidup Lama Selesa’ — it was a pair of sculptured wax hands — in the UK once, it was for a small feminist group show which I enjoyed. It was like nothing you’d experience here. The people there are different in the sense that they’d go for these types of gatherings because they genuinely care about the topic. I rarely get to experience that here.
The sculptured wax hands were of a hand gesture I learnt in school that I think is popular amongst children, it’s called ‘Bontok Ayam’ — I saw it as a symbol of culture.
My other pieces are in Penang right now. I had a KL show in January where I had to do research on how religion is oppressed in Kelantan. Whatever we hear about people from Kelantan is not 100% true. It’s just how the media portrays them.
We had a meeting to prepare for this exhibition and there was a Chinese attendee from Kelantan who said that people from Kelantan are open minded. I have a kampung back in Terengganu, which is near Kelantan, and I kind of get why people say we are close minded.
If you’re Malay and you don’t wear a tudung, you’ll be fined for it in Kelantan. Even the cinemas there are separated between males and females but certain parts of Kelantan are definitely not like that.
On where she’ll be in 10 years.
Not here (laughs). My initial idea was to migrate actually. Anywhere, as long as it’s not here.
I’m slowly starting to feel like I don’t belong. I hate how people don’t want to grow here. For example, if you want to talk about feminism, they don’t want to hear us talk about it. I hate how we cannot grow when we don’t talk about stuff that matters, like art.
Art is not that strong here to bezakan with places like Indonesia. Their art scene is so strong. When I go there, I get frustrated. From the way I see it, they can talk about it and they can do art together without being judgemental. People are really judgemental here and it pisses me off.
My biggest dream is to be in New York, especially since I applied to SVA. I just want to go there, make art, and mingle with artists.
I think what stresses me the most here is that people tend to chase the wrong things. Parents only want to hear about us making money. I don’t deny that it is important but there’s so much more to discover.
The artists here are very comfortable with their lifestyle. Some of them don’t really experiment with other stuff. I’m the kind of person who likes to experiment. I started out with drawings and now I do installations because I feel like it has more to say.
I would like the people here to open their eyes more.