Off Walls Off Pedestals

The Use of Traditional Malay Art Images in the Paintings of Mastura A. Rahman

Posted in Mastura's Works by tsabri on March 2, 2010

I am an admirer of Mastura’s paintings. Her paintings are excellent examples from a period-style of what we may called as the ‘Identity Consciousness ‘ in Modern Malaysian Art , that happened during late 1970s to early 1990s. Mastura looked into her traditions and began adapting what she discovered, making references on other artistic styles elsewhere, and developed her own distinct style derived of the Malay decorative arts and architecture. Its an example of how exciting things will be when traditions are rightly blended with modernity. At least, thats what I first thought of when encountering Mastura’s works.

Following is an essay which I wrote sometime in 1998 or 1999, as a class exercise during my studies:



Contemporary Malaysian Art develops from a variety of historical and cultural backgrounds. The Western colonials, starting with the Portuguese, Dutch and finally the British, brought western influences to the then Malay states of the Malay Peninsula through their policies in administration, education, social and economic systems. Traditional cultural systems of the malays were no longer able to withstand what was called as modernization and changes. The royal courts have lost their responsibilities as patrons to the traditional intellectual and artistic activities. Traditional artists, craftspersons, story-tellers, performers and musicians began to disappear to lead the normal life of a farmer, a rubber-tapper, a fisherman or a carpenter.

In early 20th century, western art forms of drawing, painting, sculpture and graphics appeared as western educated artists and art educators started the Modern Malaysian art ( Sabapathy, 1994). Traditional Malay visual arts are left to a handful of master craftspersons, who quietly practice their art learned from older generations. Some developed small cottage industries to produce what are largely known as crafts for household uses and souvenir objects. Traditional Malay visual arts are also developed in vocational institutions for youth entrepreneurship training programs.

From 1970s onwards, the issues of identity and quests for a cultural unity become prevalent topics in Malaysia;s political and cultural scenes. Racial prejudices and tensions that caused the 13th May riots in 1969 were very well-learned. The need for a national identity of a multi-racial and multi-religious society seemed imperative and most immediate (Piyadasa, 1998).

As a contributing effort to the search for a national identity, a number of Malay artists, writers and dramatists began to look into their heritages and traditions for inspirations and resources. Art institutions, such as the ITM’s School of Art & Design, lend supporting hands by encouraging students to explore and experiment with the traditional Malay visual arts. The art seminar ‘Akar Peribumi’ (Native Roots), organized by ITM’s School of Art & Design in 1979 created great enthusiasm amongst Malay art students and artists to look back into their roots (Zakaria, 1991). Visual images found on the traditional arts are rediscovered, studied and used in modern artworks.

The endeavor of looking back into the traditional roots produced a distinctive artistic style in the development art in the 1980s. The style is basically an incorporation of the traditional Malay art images into modern or contemporary artworks (Muliyadi, 1992). Traditional Malay art images could be understood as the visual depiction of motifs, patterns and symbols found on the traditional Malay forms of wood-carving, textile art, weaving, ceramics, metalworks or weaponry.

I choose to study the use of the traditional malay art images in the contemporary paintings of Mastura A. Rahman. Mastura is a Malay woman artist who emerged from the 1980s ‘identity consciousness’ of the Malaysian art history. Her paintings, the ‘Interior Series’, are considered successful in establishing the style of using traditional Malay art images in contemporary Malaysian artworks (Muliyadi, 1995).

Mastura was born in Singapore in 1963 to a Malaysian family. Her father was a military police serving the British Army. Mastura’s early exposures to art and crafts were the bird cages and cane-crafts made by her grandfather and uncle. She also learned sewing from her mother. She remembered drawing flowers, houses and family scenes as a small girl.

Mastura developed her interest and played an active role in her school’s art club. Encouraged by her art teacher, Mastura enrolled the ITM’s School of Art & Design in 1982. She studied Fine Art and took up painting as her major. She represented Malaysia at the 3rd ASEAN Youth Painting Workshop, held in Yogjakarta, Indonesia while doing her third year ITM’s studies. She won the major award in the Malaysia’s Young Contemporaries Art Competition, upon graduating in 1986. Since then her paintings were exhibited extensively in Southeast Asia, following touring ASEAN art exhibitions and programs. He works were also exhibited in Australia, Canada, Germany and Britain. Mastura re-enrolled ITM for her Art Teacher’s Diploma in 1992. She worked as an art teacher in a government school for about five years. She quitted teaching in 1997 to take up painting full-time.

This study will be divided into two main parts. The first part will discusses the concepts, origin and design aspects of the traditional Malay art images. It is important to understand the conceptual framework into which these traditional art images were created before we attempt to interpret or discuss their usage in contemporary artworks. The second part deals with Mastura’s Interior Series in which the traditional Malay art images are extensively used. A conclusion of whether Mastura succeeded in using the traditional Malay art images in her paintings to promote an identity of Malaysian art will be included in the final part of the essay.

Traditional Malay Art Images

Traditional Malay art images are found on traditional Malay visual art forms. They are designed to decorate the art forms which are usually functional. Though it seems that their main purpose is to decorate, some of these images are symbols with meanings often associated with religious and societal concerns. A traditional Malay scholar, Ustaz Abdullah Mohamed or also known as Nakula (1982), mentioned that to understand the arts of the Malays as muslims, one needs to understand the ‘zat Allah‘ (Essence of God) for from zat Allah comes all including nature and humans. Nature and humans are proofs to the existence of God, Allah.

Form the conception of zat Allah, the malays consciously produce their arts to portray the greatness of Allah, and to convey messages pertaining to their beliefs and social systems. The situation forms an order of design that influenced the production if the art images and forms. In the context of this discussion, the word ‘order’ or in Malay, tertib, can be understood as basic guidelines in which the artist’s intentions, methodologies, disciplines, creativity and techniques are organized to achieve desired images or forms.

There are two types of tertib in which most traditional Malay artists and craftspersons observed. The first one is called the tertib tersirat or the ‘hidden order’. Terttib tersirat deals with the artist’s consciousness towards his or her religious obligations. The artist should always consider his or her activities as an ibadah (to work for Allah). The artist should try to dakwah or convey messages for the good of his or her society. These endeavors are to obtain the ‘inner beauty’ for both artists and audiences. The ‘unhidden order’ or tertib tersurat, on the other hand, deals with aspects of design, materials, techniques and craftsmanship. Artists and craftspersons are expected to master all these aspects to achieve what may be called as ‘surface beauty’.

Almost all traditional Malay art images are derived from the Malays’ natural surroundings. Plants are most prominent whilst there are also derivations from other natural elements such as clouds, rainbows and mountains. These images are all decorative in nature and the human figure was clearly absent in most art forms of the traditional Malays. Though the teachings of Islam seem to the main reason behind these visual characters of the traditional Malay arts, influences from the pre-Islamic periods such as the Hindu and Buddhist influences should also be mentioned. The lotus motif for example, which is often used in traditional Malay arts, can also be found engraved on the walls of Borubudor, a Hindu temple comlex of the ancient Java (Arney, 1987).

Nature is derived to be the traditional Malay art images through the process of stylization or denaturalization. The stylization resulted in abstraction of the subject-matter which in one way or another till resembles it’s natural origin. Most of the images are designed in symmetrical ordered patterns and have the qualities of geometric design arrangements. These aspects of design can be associated with the Islamic Art’s basic design principles of abstraction, stylization or denaturalization, and infinite patterning (Faruqi, 1984).

The Interior Series

The Interior Series was a name given by Mastura to her paintings which are basically the interior scenes of traditional Malay house. The paintings developed from studio projects which she undertook during her ITM studies. Her lecturers, notably Suleiman Esa, Fauzan Omar and Ponirin Amin, who temselves are active contemporary Malaysian artists, encouraged students to refer to other resources other than the traditional Malay arts to enrich their understanding and sensitivities. The other resources mentioned are the 14th and 15th centuries’ Persian and Mughal miniature paintings, the Japanese’s concept of spatial arrangements as in their Ukiyo-E prints, and isometric projection drawings.

To meet her studio assignments, Mastura chose the family life as her major working theme. She became passionate with the theme and continue to develop it until now. She used the architectural interior settings of traditional Malay houses for her compositions. The walls and floors of the interiors then were decorated with motifs and patterns borrowed from traditional Malay art images, particularly the images from textile art, wood-carving and weaving. Mastura then filled her interiors with domestic objects  such as clothes, furniture, ceramic wares and other household objects.

Mastura’s early compositions were done according to her understanding in the pictorial and spatial arrangements of the Persian, Mughal and Japanese art,. These arts do not use the linear perspective drawing systems which originated from the Western Renaissance and are widely used in Western Art. The Persian, Mughal and Japanese arts instead adopted an open perspective view where there are no converging lines to meet at a focal or vanishing point. All lines are parallel with each other, opening almost all hidden spaces by creating top or frontal elevation views. These methods are popularly known as ‘isometric perspective’ to art students of Mastura’s generation. The compositions are more the illustrations of what are understood rather than what are seen by the artist.

Mastura, however, changed her ‘isometric’ compositions to the linear perspective systems. She uses the one-point perspective system in most of her after ITM works. She recently started to use multi-points perspective systems in her newer works. The change signify Mastura’s willingness, as a contemporary Malaysian artist, to adapt to changes in finding new ways and approaches to express her creativity, but yet still maintains the continuity from her rich traditions.


The comparative nature of this discussion enables us to understand the differences and perhaps some similarities in the way traditional Malay artists or craftspersons and Mastura, as a representative of the contemporary Malay artists, manipulate the art images in their artworks. Like her traditional counterparts, Mastura is also aware of the ‘form’ and ‘content’. Whilst the traditional Malay artist may be thinking about his or her tertib tersirat, Mastura is also trying to promote her ideals about healthy and harmonious living.

Mastura’s techniques, though ‘modern’ in some ways, are reflections of the traditional Malay’s tertib tersurat. Her fine painting techniques, which recently include collage, beads and needle works, are qualities of the halus buatan or ‘finely crafted’. The traditional Malay art images that Mastura uses may not represent the true traditional Malay ambience anymore. Meanings change with times and places. The art images used by Mastura are reminiscences of her past great traditions.


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... a green painting for her son, Iskhandar.

... detail from one of her paintings.

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