Off Walls Off Pedestals

What Is Expression, Expressive, Expressionist(s) and Expressionism? (or How I Bought a Book that Niranjan Rajah Wanted)

Posted in My Artist-Friends by tsabri on March 23, 2010

I wrote a note and titled it, ‘Expression, Expressive, Expressionist and Expressionism’, in 2001 when Niranjan Rajah (Ranjan) included me in his 2001’s Bara Hati Bahang Jiwa: Expression & Expressionism in Malaysia. I supposed it was one of an exciting if not important exhibition that Ranjan curated in the early 2000s at the Balai Seni Lukis Negara, apart from his E-ART ASEAN ONLINE and Electronic Art with Hasnul Jamal Saidon. It was exciting as he succeeded to gather most Malaysian artists (and their works) of the 1980s, working with ‘expressionistic’ styles. And it was a well-curated exhibition.

I knew Ranjan sometime in 1989 through Ahmad Shukri Elias (Shook). Shook was operating an art class and a gallery, called the Kiara Art Gallery, with his wife, Rositah, in Taman Tun Dr. Ismail, Kuala Lumpur. Ranjan was living in the area and eventually came to know Shook. If I’m not mistaken, at the time, Ranjan was studying law and was thinking into the arts. He wrote a short essay for Pameran Motivasi‘s catalogue, which Kiara Art Gallery organized in 1988 at the Balai Seni, Menara Maybank, Kuala Lumpur, showcasing some 24 of ITM’s fine art graduates.

The essay that Ranjan wrote, dated November 1988, was without a title (or was it there but misprinted?) He began the essay as thus; Beginning with Neo-Classicism and Romanticism, two streams flow through to the art of the present day – the Rationalist-Formalist current and the Subjective-Expressionist current. These flow alongside each other, crossing, merging, separating once more – from Realism and Impressionism to the many branches of Late and Post-Modernism. And he continued; …the practice of Modern Art outside of Europe is a symptom of the political, economic and cultural dominance of the Western civilization. When western genius blends it’s own with other cultures new Western forms are created – the fusion of appropriated African sculptural elements with developments from Cezanne, gave us Cubism. It is, however, tremendously difficult to create valid Modern works in non-western contexts, as our artists are students of this tradition and not its originators… (Pameran Motivasi Catalogue, 1988, Kuala Lumpur: Kiara Art Gallery, unpaginated)

One day after lunch, me, Ranjan, Shook and someone else I couldn’t remember, went into a bookshop somewhere near Kiara Art Gallery. We browsed through the books in the arts section, I discovered an interesting book, which came in two volumes, “Primitivism” in 20th Century Art, edited by William Rubin and published by the Museum of Modern Art, New York in 1984. I believed that the book would be important references for the things we were doing, and I was looking at primitive sculptures for my new works, the Warga Gunung Daik, then _ I bought the book.

‘Hey man, you have bought the book that I wanted! Really… I have been thinking to buy the book. It’s a good book, you know_ good for you! Ha. Ha…’ Ranjan said as we walked back to the gallery. Later that day, Ranjan invited us to his house. He showed us his paper-tape construction. It was quite huge_ a wall piece with some dark colors.

Following is the note that I wrote:

  • I was curious when the curator included me (read: my works) in the exhibition. Am I an expressionist? This reminded me of German Expressionism, especially the paintings and woodcuts of Kirchner, Heckel and Die Brucke, Kandinsky and the Blau Reiter, and others that were discovered in the ITM studios and the art history classes of the 1980s. They brought along the sadness, sufferings, revolts, anger as well as confusions through the fast, sharp and bold brushstrokes.
  • The works of A Latiff Mohideen, especially the Pago-Pago series, were fascinating and somehow inspired us students. How Latiff painted the Southeast Asian’s nature and images with his expressionistic style became topics of discussions. We also looked at the works of the Indonesian’s maestro, Affandi, who painted in his own style of expressionism (?)
  • Towards end 1980s, the style of American Abstract-Expressionism became popular with the works of Yusof Ghani. And my friends, especially Riaz, Shukri (Shook), Suhaimi and Hanafiah, were painting quietly in our own expressionistic styles – me too was digging into the expressive quality of the tribal and primitive sculptures. I was also producing some charcoal and ink drawings then.
  • Sometime in mid 1990s, I began to move into installations, experimental pieces and conceptual forms. I would say, if it were from the form (of fast, sharp and bold strokes), then my works could not be expressive forms (?)
  • Form? What could be seen? What’s the definition of ‘Expression, Expressive, Expressionist(s) and Expressionism’? Anger, vengeance, the shouts, hard, sharp? Fire?
  • Was not my father as expressive as Kirchner?

And, after almost a decade, Mohd Nasir Baharuddin responded to Bara Hati Bahang Jiwa: Expression & Expressionism in Malaysia in his blog:

Note: Niranjan’s photo was from

Addendum: A 1993 poem that I wrote about ‘expression, expressive, expressionist(s) and expressionism’. Following;

…sajak tiada bertajuk / …a poem without title

Mulut terbuka… luas… / The mouth opens… wide…

Sedang mata tertutup… rapat dan awas / And the eyes. Closed… tight and alert…

Dan tenaga, cemas dan senyap, berkumpul dan bersedia / And the energy, tense and silent, gathered and ready…

Tiba-tiba, akulah api! / Suddenly, I’m fire!

April 1993

Primitivism in 20th Century Art: Volume 1

The Pameran Motivasi Catalogue's Cover


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