Thursday, December 8, 2011

Bayu Utomo Radjikin

Bayu Utomo is one of my favourite Malaysian painter. I simply loves his work. I had the opportunity to interview him and the story was published in the sun newspaper on Nov 18. Here is the full story

Headline : Basic Instinct

MALAYSIAN figurative artist Bayu Utomo Radjikin has had his work exhibited in the United States, Britain, Austria, India and elsewhere. The award winning artist tells theSun there is an urgent need to take our art outside Malaysia.

* Your father was a teacher. Did your parents ever object to you being an artist?

No. Where I come from (Tawau, Sabah), as long as you have made it to university, you have made your parents proud. They will feel they have fulfilled their duty as parents. What course you take at university is never an issue. I took a degree in Fine Arts from University Technology Mara in 1991. They just want to see you succeed.

What has been the best compliment and the worst criticism you have received in your 25 years as an artist?

My name was surprisingly mentioned in school text books. It is a compliment when the young know of you and your work. As for criticism, I have yet to receive any.

Are the media playing their role in promoting Malaysian art?

The media wants to cover something that’s interesting. If art no longer interests people, you cannot blame the media for not covering it. Perhaps we should be putting on more exciting exhibitions to grab media attention. I do feel that whenever the media cover an exhibition, they are more interested in reporting who came to see it. Maybe artists need to explain an exhibition, so the media understand the concept behind it. In that way, they will be more tempted to write about it.
I would also like to see more in-depth writing on the arts. Everyone knows about the late Ibrahim Hussein and his work that is worth millions. Yet, there are no real discussions in the media on why it is worth millions or why it makes his a popular name around the world. Everyone knows that the late Syed Ahmad Jamal was awarded the Seniman Negara, but there are no real discussions about his art work in the media so that people will understand why. I may be asking too much of the media, but it would be good if we could have that.


Tell us more about your gallery, House of Matahati (HOM)?

It was created by Matahati, an art group consisting of five members, and was established in 2007 as an independent art space. Besides exhibitions, we have a programme to help nurture artists, especially young ones. We have a six-month resident programme for local graduate artists. We give chosen artists an allowance, basic art materials and a studio to work in. At the end of the programme, the work they produce will be exhibited in this gallery. So far, 11 artists have been on the programme. We also have international residencies where foreign artists stay at HOM for a month and interact and connect with local artists and the art scene. The most recent is the SAGE (Southeast Asia Art Group Exchange), where we are inviting artists from Indonesia and the Philippines to stay here in Kuala Lumpur and visit artist studios, galleries and collectors with the locals.
HOM also has the MEAA (Malaysian Emerging Artist Award) that is given to young and talented artists to pursue a direction in art practice, and lastly the Matahati Art Fund where some of the money we collect is channelled to artists who want to run art activity locally. We also give to relief funds such as after the Yogyakarta earthquake and the Mount Merapi eruption.

Some artists believe the government gives the arts less priority than other areas.

The answer can be yes and no. Culture and the arts are still on the government’s agenda, but of course culture gets more emphasis. Maybe the physical form of culture is more attractive. It is easier to sell as a brand outside Malaysia, to pull in the foreign tourists. There seems to be less dedication to showing our art outside Malaysia, I guess.
But recently, there have been increasing efforts to showcase our work elsewhere. However, some of us find the whole business of promoting our art outside Malaysia a little bit superficial. And when things are done superficially, they don’t last.

An example of superficial?

Contemporary art is very in now, so they make all our work fit into this segment. People in the art scene feel they don’t put the right work in the right perspective.
They have been promoting art outside Malaysia since late last year, and hopefully, there will be consistent efforts every year. We promote everything on an ad hoc basis. Consistency is important if we want to make an impact. All you need do is to consistently promote our work for five years, and you will see results.
We have put up many exhibitions, most showing local art to the locals. We feel good about ourselves. Other Asian countries like Indonesia and the Philippines are showing off their art abroad. We don’t even showcase our work in this region. When people think of an art hub in Asia and finding new talents, they don’t look at Malaysia. Most of the time, they go to Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand and Singapore.
It is important to take the work of our artists elsewhere so that there will be a platform for new artists to emerge. If you look in a small pond, you will find the big fish eating the small fish. For the small fish to grow, effort must be made to take the big fish out of the pond and put them in the ocean.
The same principle applies in the art world. For young artists to grow in Malaysia, established artists must be given a different market to conquer. Of course we cannot place the whole responsibility of introducing our work to the world on the government’s shoulder.
In Indonesia, artists know the government cannot help much to promote their art, so they do it on their own. You find Indonesian art galleries, collectors and buyers so confident that Indonesian work will have international appeal, that they take the initiative to showcase artists and collections all over the world. That adds more value to the collections and the artists get exposure, too. Sometimes, I find Malaysian artists don’t feel the urgency of the need to take their work elsewhere.

Do we have work with international appeal?

Yes, but we don’t have to be super good to be noticed. People who look for art from other countries, are usually looking for something different – something they cannot find in their country, but something they can still relate to.

Some artists consider the National Art Gallery (NAG) a white elephant.

I have done a few projects with NAG and they are helpful and keen. But as a government agency, there is still red tape to adhere to. For me, if NAG is lacking in some way, the artists should come forward and make comments and suggestions, so that the gallery can run more efficiently. NAG is like one big umbrella and like it or not, Malaysian artists come under it. NAG and our artists have a father and son relationship. The father should do whatever’s best for his son, but if he is doing something wrong, the son should tell him and work with him to make things right. Yes, there is some limitation there, but don’t make that a fence that prevents things being done. NAG has the power to shape the art scene.

What change would you like to see at NAG?

NAG staff and curators should get more training. I am not asking for world standards; if they can be as good as the Singapore Art Museum (SAG), I would be happy. At SAG, the curators often present well-researched art exhibitions. Often you find relevance and the connection between one piece and another. Sometimes NAG has too many exhibitions, which leads to lack of research and depth. But I believe they realise that and want to improve.

Some say art in Malaysia caters to the elite.

I don’t agree. The public can access art in this country. NAG is open to the public. Perhaps art is owned by the elite – it doesn’t matter who owns it. Manchester United may be owned by one person. But MU has fans all over the world who admire the players and feel they are part of the team as fans. Same goes with art. Look at the Mona Lisa – maybe one museum owns it, but everyone in the world sees and appreciates it.


What change would you like to see in the art scene?

I’d like to see artists working together to achieve bigger goals for Malaysian art. For example, we know Malaysians prefer realism work such as landscapes, figures, portraits etc. Artists should come together to get Malaysians to appreciate different types of visual art that are less popular such as abstracts. I know some will blame the education system for not educating students on art. But I believe the era of blaming the system is over. We, as artists, should take the initiative to educate Malaysians.

Why is it that artists don’t work together towards this end?

In most other art fields, they have to interact with others to get their work done. They cannot work alone. For example, a film maker must work with his cast and crew to complete his film. A choreographer needs to work with his dancers to present his dance piece.
But a visual artist has the freedom to work alone. He can be in his studio alone and create his pieces. Artists are very individual and comfortable being alone. This is why I feel they should work together. They need a bigger voice to be heard; they need to be united to be seen.

You love creating work dealing with figures. Why?

I don’t have the answers to that. I think it’s better not knowing why you like something. I believe if you overanalyse, you might end up not liking it and stop doing it.
In art, an artist deals with something he does not understand. His search is what makes him keep doing it. The day he understands why he paints a certain theme, he stops doing it and moves to another. I believe the biggest difference between sciences and the arts is that science wants to be discovered, and art does not.

Islam forbids the painting of figures and portraits. How do you deal with this as a Musli

From what I understand, you should not produce work that will be worshipped like God. I have always been comfortable with what I have been doing. The day I feel uncomfortable doing figures, I will stop painting them. I have many young Muslims artists who come to me for advice on whether they should do figures and portraits, and I simply tell them: “Follow your heart. If your heart says don’t do it, then don’t. It is between you and God.”

Some say you are not versatile and adventurous with your themes.

An artist must do what is in his mind and heart. I have an artist friend who constantly changes his themes and techniques; he cannot do the same thing. He is simply following what is in his mind and heart. I want to change, but at this moment my body and my heart won’t allow me to. I still have so much more to discover in what I am doing now. I also don’t want to be forced to do something for the sake of showing my critics that I can be versatile.

Are there messages in your work?

These days, I am more interested in capturing emotions than having messages in my work. I am more interested in seeing the audience’s emotions when they see my work.

What is your advice to young artists?

If ten people graduate as doctors, you can bet almost all will become doctors. If ten people graduate as visual artists, you will find only two or three earning a living as visual artists.
Life as an artist can be tough; it cannot promise you an easy, comfortable life. Sometimes people buy your work and sometimes they don’t. But an artist must continue to paint in whatever circumstances.
Like everyone else, an artist’s life has its ups and downs. As an artist, you can really count the number of days when you are up. There are more down days than up, but those experiences shape and make you. To sustain yourself, you must be stubborn and follow your heart; you must really have a passion for art, which is a difficult thing to do.