April 26, 2009

Being Ahmad Zakii Anwar

Time Magazine called him a sexual-rights advocate. Famous for his realist male nudes, Zakii is definitely one of the most internationally accomplished Malaysian artists. So what's he really about? The man who is responsible for bringing sexy (figuratively) back to Malaysian Contemporary Art is wise, self-aware and wickedly funny as I found out when I got the pleasure of chatting with him about life's distractions, the meaning of success, annoying writers and what keeps him up at night.

Zakii's work in progress

So, has your life unfolded pretty much as you'd hoped?

Yes sort of. I'm happy with where I'm at... but I've never expected anything in life, you know?
I think whatever success is, the important thing is to do the work.

How would you define a successful artist?
You can define it from a financial perspective if that's how you want to measure it. But for me I think it's important to do things which you want to do. The money is good, I mean it's great. It helps you but even if it's not there you can live without too much money.

So you're saying success is more important than money? Or are they tied together?

Depends how you define success. It's always nice to be successful financially but if you're successful artistically it kinda comes with the territory. A lot of people want to be successful but they don't want to put in the effort... it's important not to think about the success but the effort because success is the end result. It's the effort that counts because if your success is not based on good work then it will only be temporary. Don't think about the success, don't worry about the money. That will come automatically, just put in the effort and success will come. It's a bonus. It's not easy for any artist... it takes at least 5-10 years of hard work before you get some sort of recognition but people always pray for success and money but never for the efforts. But really that's what they should do -pray you make the right decisions and that your efforts are good.

You have a reputation of being elusive. You know this right? How would you respond to this description?
uhm... well... (infectious laughter)
Meaning how? Not easily...

I'm just basically a loner that's all so I don't socialize that much... I used to drink a lot but then I stopped. I don't socialize that much anymore. There was a point in time where I did but these days I tend to be at home.

Is that reflected in your work at all?

Not really... I don't even paint that much anymore. After the Petronas show, that was in August and then I did that charity show with Rogue Art in late October, after that for 3 months I didn't work. There was a time as an artist you do not want to be anywhere but in the studio painting, but now things have changed. Maybe it's age or you get lazy. (laughs)

What keeps you awake at night?
The internet. I read a lot and I like painting at night actually... I'm nocturnal. I think when I'm asleep the creative energy is not used up so much. You feel the energy when you're alone. So I like working at night.

Do you google yourself?


Is there a message that you hope comes out through your work? Or theme?
Really it's up to you, if you look at this drawings (gestures to his work) there's no expression, the guy's on a white background and you can't relate him to anything so I'm letting you engage in whichever way you want because the figures are not particularly in action, not angry, in despair or crying. I refrain from making any statements. I'm presenting a situation so you react to it according to how you see things.

What is the one question that you've never been asked that you wish a writer would ask you?
Depends on the writer. A writer from the newspapers once asked "How many paintings do you have? ...How many days did you take to do this?" (laughs) Artists are great B.S-ers, you know?

*Clearly that's not what he likes to be asked.

But surely there something you've thought of that you're thinking ..why do they never ask me that?
Really a lot of artists can't explain their work not because they're not intelligent or they don't know but simply because they think visually they don't think in words. It's more of a visual intelligence.

Does visual intelligence have anything to do with emotional intelligence?
Yeah. It's connected. Visual intelligence is something you're born with. You can learn it but if you don't have it you'll never have it. I've always wondered about the relationship between an artist and a collector. Like Steve (Wong) for example; obviously there is a certain connection there, a vision, the collector has a visual intelligence but he can't articulate it into a painting.

*I'm finding Zakii visually and verbally very articulate thus far.

What's on Zakii's Fridge

How do you pick your subjects?
If I'm painting a banana, I'll go to the shop and spend quite a bit of time looking for that particular banana.

Wait. So you decide you want to paint a banana first? You don't see a banana and decide you want to paint that?
Yes. Curve, texture, color. It has to be that particular one. When I choose a model it's the same. That certain figure, or look says more to you, that you identify with. it's not logical it's instinctive; you feel a connection. Because if I'm not excited about this thing or person, I can't paint him. This guy does yoga by the way (points to nude painting of super ripped Robert)

Ever paint naked women?

Yes. But I prefer the male body. It's more interesting. (gestures to his work)

*I find myself agreeing. But by now I totally have a not so secret crush on him.

Are you a collector?
I collect weapons. The Keris. Malay weapons. It's an extremely deadly weapon but it is also extremely beautiful at the same time. It's in itself craft. The combination of extreme deadliness and beauty I find that attactive. Beauty and danger gives it a different dimension, a certain intrigue. But not seriously. The most I've I've paid is about RM 8,000 but they go for a few hundred thousand.

What about art?
Amongst artists yes we swap. We have that privilege. (cheeky grin)

Who are the younger artists that you're watching?
I like Shamsuddin Wahab. He's good. He's now doing his residency at Rimbun. Beautiful figurative work. I don't know who else because I don't go to KL that often.

Would you say you've come full circle or is there more to be done?
When I get in my lazy mode and I don't paint the only way to start working is to commit. Because you get into this mode and then you say to yourself ..."Okay tomorrow I'm gonna start work but of course tomorrow you don't start, I'll do something else, then it drags on and then a week goes by...

What do you do in 'lazy mode'?
I do nothing. I'm an expert at that. (more infectious laughter) No actually there's lots; gardening, fool around with the kids, go to movies, read, travel.

Any secret guilty pleasures?
Plenty but I'm not telling. (After some pleading) Okay here's one... every night before I go to bed I get on youtube and watch bugs bunny, my favourite cartoons, Richard Pryor or Carol Burnett, Robin Williams, or Rowan Atkinson who by the way is really funny. Anything that makes you laugh because I think you should go to bed happy.

Zakii translates the everyday and the ordinary into extra-ordinary. Influenced by the development of figurative realism within painting in contemporary Malaysian art practice, Zakii has explored a huge range of ideas and style through his works, which includes works from the early still-life series to his monumental charcoals on paper.

Zakii's latest series, Being; -based on the Sufi premise of "knowing oneself and then knowing God", an encounter with the body as a metaphor for the contemporary Self. The exhibition of 10 figurative works is going on now until 7 June 2009 at the NUS Museum in Singapore. This exhibition is presented by Gajah Gallery and the NUS Museum.


D'Rimba said...

Alamak seni telanjangke ni, aurat tu..........

psst! said...

umm... wokay, so what did you think of the interview?


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