Ahmad Abu Bakar and Suriani Suratman: Tanah Air (Homeland)

26 October - 23 December

Introduction


In conjunction with the Singapore Biennale 2016: An Atlas of Mirrors, The Private Museum is proud to present Ahmad Abu Bakar & Suriani Suratman: Tanah Air (Homeland)—the first collaboration between visual artist Ahmad Abu Bakar and ceramic artist Suriani Suratman, in which they explore the theme of Tanah (Land) & Air (Water) and its significance to the notion of homeland. The exhibition features a new body of clay works where the artists share a dialogue on the prominence of the natural elements, Tanah and Air.

Ahmad explores the nuances of homeland, expressing his relationship with the land as a component of his identity and embracing it as an inherited gift. His series of three distinct bodies of works, fittingly titled Tanah Ku Sayang, hints at his affection for his adopted motherland where he looks into the complexity of identifying with land in relation to nationality. Suriani addresses the importance and necessity of water in the form of rain and river—the primary source of life and creation. Her works interpret the expression tadah tangan—to cup the hand and contain—and examines expression in movement as a symbolic suggestion of one rejoicing when the rain comes.

Their probe into the interplay of Tanah and Air is an attempt to uncover the allure of the semantic duality of homeland. Through the use of clay as a unified medium of artistic expression, the exhibition reflects the artists’ exploration of the shared historical origins of the region and the conception of Homeland as a mirror to their identities drawing parallel with An Atlas of Mirrors.

 

Artists

 

Artist Bio

Ahmad Abu Bakar

Ahmad Abu Bakar (b. 1963) is a Singapore-based installation artist originally from Malacca, Malaysia. A graduate from Lasalle College of the Arts (1989), Ahmad furthered his studies at the University of Tasmania, Australia under the study grant from the National Arts Council (1995). Upon his return, Ahmad pursued his Master of Fine Arts with RMIT/Lasalle (2001). Ahmad has exhibited extensively in solo and group exhibitions internationally which includes China, Thailand, Indonesia, the Philippines, Korea and Australia. His accolades include Merit Award of the IBM Art Award (1990), Arts Award of the Japanese Chamber of Commerce and Industry (1998), Outstanding Artistic Creativity, Singapore Turf Club Art Competition (1999).

Education

2001 (RMIT) – LaSalle-SIA of the Arts, Singapore) Master of Fine Arts
1995 Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts
1989 East Ham College of Art, United Kingdom

Solo Exhibitions

2015 Siri OBJEK & OBJEKTIF, Chan Hampe Galleries, Singapore
2012 Tanah ini Aku Punya, Jendela Visual Art Space Esplanade, Singapore

Selected Group Exhibitions

2015 Secret Archipelago, Palais De Tokyo, Paris, France  These Sacred Things, Jendela Visual Art Space Esplanade, Singapore
2014 Budi Daya, Malay Heritage Centre, Singapore
Jakarta Contemporary Ceramics Biennale #3, Gallery National Indonesia, Jakarta
2013 Singapore Biennale 2013, Singapore Art Museum, Singapore
2012 Nami Island International Pottery Festival, Seoul, Korea
2011 Singapore Sculpture Society 10th Anniversary Exhibition, National Library, Singapore
2010 Mungyeong Tea Bowl Festival, Mungyeong, Korea
2009 Passion in Clay, the Artrium, MICA Building, Singapore
2008 8Q-Rate: School, 8Q Singapore Art Museum, Singapore
2007 3rd Asian Ceramics Network and Selius 2007, National Art Gallery Malaysia
Passion in Clay, Shanghai, China
2006 2nd Asian Ceramics Network Exhibition, Silpakorn University, Bangkok Thailand
2005 The WAHANA, Vargas Gallery, University of Philippines, Philippines
1st Asian Ceramics Network, Craft Culture Design Innovation Center, Korea
2003 Sculpture Biennale Symposium, Plastic Kinetic Worms Gallery and NIE, NTU, Singapore
Work in Progress – The Power Show, Singapore Sculpture Society, The Substation, Singapore
2002 PAST, PRESENT, BEYOND: Re-nascence of an Art Collection, NUS Museum, Singapore
New Sculpture Millennium: The First International Miniature Sculpture Exhibition, National Museum of History, Taiwan
2001 Nokia Singapore Art 2001, Singapore Art Museum, Singapore
1999 Provocative Things – A 3-Dimensional Experience in Singapore, Sculpture Square, Singapore
Cartblanche, Alliance Grancais’ Gallery, Singapore
1998 Perak Arts Festival, Perak Malaysia
1996 Modernity and Beyond, Singapore Art Museum, Singapore
1995 From Another Place, University of Tasmania Gallery, Australia
1994 Prefx Point Travelling Show, Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts, Singapore and Creative Centre, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
1992 Vision IV, National Museum Art Gallery, Singapore
Bread and Butter Exhibition, National Museum Art Gallery, Singapore
1991 National Sculpture Seminar, National Museum Art Gallery, Singapore
1990 Australian Art Award, National Museum Art Gallery, Singapore

Awards

2010 Very Special Award, 2010 Ulsan International Onggi Competition
1999 Outstanding Artistic Creativity, Singapore Turf Club Art Competition
1998 Arts Award, Japanese Chamber of Commerce and Industry (JCCI)
1990 Merit Award, IBM Art Award

 

Suriani Suratman

Dr. Suriani Suratman (b. 1959) is a Singaporean potter and an active member of the Jalan Behar Clay Studios. Suratman received the tutelage of master ceramist, Iskandar Jalil since 2001 and has held her first solo exhibition in 2013. Her works have been showcased in numerous group exhibitions at local institutions such as the Japanese Creative Centre (2013), National Technology University Museum (2013) and the Malay Heritage Centre (2008). Suratman’s works has also been commissioned by various governmental and corporate organizations which include Ministry of Law (2012), Singapore International Foundation (2009), National Heritage Board – Patron of the Year Award (2007) and Temasek Holdings (2003).

Solo Exhibition

2013 Alam – a pottery exhibition by Suriani Suratman, ART2 Gallery, Singapore

Selected Group Exhibitions

2015 Tribute to Local Clay: A Pottery Exhibition, Maya Gallery, Singapore
2013 Iskandar Jalil Ceramics Exhibition – A lifelong Passion for his craft and his teaching, Japan Creative Centre, Singapore
Bank Art Fair, with Maya Gallery, Island Shangri-La, Hong Kong
éncore! (Maya Gallery’s 1st Anniversary), Maya Gallery, Singapore
Firing a passion: History and Pottery Practices in Singapore, NTU Museum, Singapore
2008 Inspirations from Kampung Gelam, Malay Heritage Centre, Singapore
2007 Pots, Pipes and other Pieces, in conjunction with the Singapore Art Show, National Library, Singapore
2006 Starting with Clay …, ART2 Gallery, Singapore
3rd Ngee Ann 3D Art Exhibition, Ngee Ann Cultural Centre, Singapore
Opening of Jalan Bahar Clay Studios Exhibition, Singapore
2005 Ceramivitiy – The Third Statement, NUS Centre for the Arts, Singapore
2nd Ngee Ann 3D Art Exhibition, Ngee Ann Cultural Centre, Singapore
2003 Discovery Phase, ART2 Gallery, Singapore
2002 Ceramitivity – The Second Statement, NUS Centre for the Arts, Singapore

Commisions

2015 National Technology University, Singapore
2012 Ministry of Law, Singapore
2009 Singapore International Foundation
2007 National Heritage Board, Patron of the Year Award, Singapore
2006 The Sentosa Resort and Spa, Singapore
2003 Temasek Holdings, Singapore

Documentation

Thoughts on an Exhibition of Recent Works in Clay by

Ahmad Abu Bakar and Suriani Suratman

by T.K.Sabapathy

 

I

Preparations for writing this brief account of an exhibition of recent works by Ahmad Abu Bakar and Suriani Suratman commenced with visits to their studios. This is to look at works they have been producing, seeing especially pottery or ceramic productions created for the present show and to talk about what they do and make.

Such visits are not unusual. They are made by those wishing to examine creative practices closely and as they are developed in spaces and habitats that are especially set aside. In these respects artists are hospitable. They may not say and reveal all one might wish to hear and know; but, having extended a trusting hand, they are generous in permitting access to their work places, in conveying information, in showing what they do and in dealing with their thoughts.

The visits entailed conversations that are published (citations are from pages as they are numbered here). Readers who are familiar with my writing will recognise this as a trait or feature in publications bearing my involvement. Why do this? It is useful to pause over this question and propose answers for it.

Chiefly it is to deepen foundations for furnishing frames or generating approaches for appraising art and art practices, and to do so continuously. Lives of artists, circumstances in which they develop and publicise their art, their thoughts, the make up of their art works, what may have been said of what an artists does, are formative building blocks for interpretive enterprises. In Singapore and Southeast Asia we know little of these matters; and when we are acquainted with them, we know them fitfully, occasionally and tend to leave somewhat content with bits-and-pieces picked up from here-and-there. Yet, as matters they are significant for explicating art deeply and enduringly.

Knowledge of art stems, partly, from such wellsprings that are channeled into forming resources and stored as archives capable of yielding varying interpretive principles and strategies. In situations where archives and archiving are advanced, resources such as these enable formation of discourses. As resources they are internalized, woven into the fabric of discourses to extents where they are no longer recognizable in their founding states. They have assumed different, other configurations. Some of these discourses are historically or critically or theoretically accented; some others are fueled by subjective or political or pedagogical or populist ambitions. And so on.

In Singapore and Southeast Asia, materials on the modern and the contemporary in art are not sufficiently secured as resources and not adequately stored as archives that are accessible. Consequently, the material base for advancing knowledge on art is unstable, even unreliable. The effects of this on constituencies that make up spheres of art here are immense. This is an enormously complicated situation. For the present I mention it and go on dealing with matters related to publishing conversations with artists.

They are aimed at shoring up the material base for developing any number of interpretive interests. They are published as textual material, laid out as running parallel with historical profiles of individual art practices and critical accounts of art works; at times the two intersect, without one overwhelming the other. As with all texts, these published conversations are not neutral; neither are they privileged on account of them relaying voices of artists – hence, voices bearing unquestioned authority and authenticity. They may provide information that is historically salient and of psychological interest; they may spur insights into subjective currents and motivations. Such outcomes are not given or self-evident; salience, interest, insights are brought to light only when these conversations-as-texts are scrutinized intently; such texts bear interpretive pertinence when they are read with purpose.

It is in this vein that what Ahmad Abu Bakar and Suriani Suratman say in conversations with this writer are published. We encounter at once an added complication in the make up of these conversations, namely: the voice of this writer as an interviewer and interlocutor. The voices are no longer only of the artists; there is a third voice. Yes, the situation is wonderfully entangled – as are most situations.

 

II

The impetus for a joint exhibition sprang from Ahmad and Suriani wishing to show together; it is the first twinning exposition for the two. Their lives have intersected on a number of occasions; not intentionally in all instances, though. That is to say, their paths have crossed not necessarily of their bidding and not congruently; yet they have crossed. For instance, let us consider the following, which is of immense significance for the two of them although in dramatically different, even opposite ways.

Ahmad and Suriani have been closely linked with Iskandar Jalil.

Ahmad Abu Bakar completed undergraduate and graduate studies in studio ceramics in institutions in Australia. Additionally, he worked with Iskandar, aspiring to be an assistant to “the master potter”. This did not materialize; there was, subsequently, a falling out between them, an effective parting of the ways. Ahmad recalls what transpired; let us listen to his account.

“I had the opportunity to understudy with Iskandar for a couple of years. I appreciate that I have experienced quite a lot under his guidance. I was hoping to be his assistant. But on that day he said it is now time for me to move on. He told me that I had to go out and find my way. I was quite upset as I was hoping to be an assistant. I immediately went out of his studio for coffee nearby and thought to myself that I had to move on. So of course I did find my way.” (p.21)

To move on, to strike out along a way of one’s choosing are injunctions that teachers/gurus/masters enjoin, insist of those who study with them. In themselves they are not new; and Ahmad is not the only one that Iskandar has advised among many individuals who have studied and apprenticed with him, to do so. Suriani says as much, although differently and we will hear from her a little later. What might we make of this recollection besides reading it for information? I speculate on ramifications along two routes.

Along one, we discern Ahmad’s deep disappointment, his dejection and a sense of loss. He esteemed prospects of working with Iskandar in his studio highly, fervently, as it provided facilities as well as professional and social milieus. So much so, to be denied entry into and a position it them, to be told to move on, is to be cast into a kind of wilderness, akin to be disowned.

He says he mixed around a lot; he connected with those in the newly formed Artist Village. “That’s where my journey began”, he declared exultantly. He dealt with materials other than clay and mediums other than ceramics. “That was the beginning when I started narrating my story with non-ceramic materials. I just flowed.” (p.21) He no longer regarded himself as a potter or a ceramist; he is an artist, a visual artist who employs clay. Even as clay is his primary and preferred material, even as the wheel is a defining apparatus, he also steps outside and beyond these spheres when conceptualizing and producing his work. He transfers clay from its customary sites and from having its conventional appearances to unorthodox locations and into behaving surprisingly. In his studio, what he produces are not, ostensibly, pots or vessels.

Along a second route, speculation springs from thinking on Iskandar. In saying to Ahmad that he should leave to chart his own way, he is acting on an age-old principle binding masters and apprentices, teachers and students and sundering these bonds. Could it also be the case that Iskandar says what he says because he discerns in Ahmad tendencies or proclivities that are somewhat unusual and that may not neatly fit into being a conventional studio potter? Even as such a prospect is filled with anxiety for setting out on one’s own way does not translate as doing your own thing!

At the time when Ahmad was exploring new materials and medium, when he was expanding the base for his creative practice, Iskandar met with him. “He saw my work evolving as non-ceramic and he was disappointed. He talked to me about ‘bread and butter’ issues. By then I had already developed my own opinions and we talked. I told him that it does not necessarily relate to art making. The whole journey is about the thinking process, of making and executing what I wanted to show and narrate. Eventually it will sell. Somehow this led me to be very different from Iskandar.” (p.21)

What Ahmad says is compelling as testimony; even so, it needs to be verified by, say, hearing Iskandar as he recalls these encounters and substantiated by examining milieus in which Ahmad was recasting his practice and consolidating his thoughts, closely. For the present we note a decisive parting of ways and an emphatic declaration marking a practice in art (and clay!) that is different; “this led me to be very different from Iskandar”.

Suriani Suratman began her study of pottery with Iskandar Jalil and has remained largely within his creative compass; she is regarded as his exemplary student. Suriani has maintained and cherished her affiliation with her teacher until the present. So much so she refers to Iskandar as “still chegu, the teacher”, a status bestowed as a life-long distinction (p.26). The Jalan Bahar Clay Studios in which she has her pottery studio is also home to Iskandar who was among those who secured the precinct as a creative locus. The two of them, along with others who practice there, seek to safeguard the premises and its environment in the face of tides of redevelopment by publicly and prominently voicing their demands and requirements.  They are holding on, somewhat precariously.

The following matter needs to be noted. The Jalan Bahar Clay Studios is a communal space even as everyone practicing in it has her/his studio. Many other salient facilities are shared; schedules for their use have to be agreed upon and drawn up. Spaces are commonly utilized; there is a gallery with displays of clay objects. The public has unimpeded access to the precinct. Suriani pursues her studio pottery in such an environment.

In contrast Ahmad works from home. He has converted a room in his public housing board premises into a ceramic studio in which are installed a wheel and a kiln. Pottery studios are perennially dusty and choked with materials. In Ahmad’s flatted dwelling (his family resides in it) a room is set aside as a container for special use; its door is mostly shut and he holds paramount access to it. He retreats into it. Domestic spaces are not public spaces; one enters them by bearing familial relationships and by invitation. Ahmad’s studio nestles in such a domain.

The privacy sanctioned within domestic spheres affects Ahmad’s creative practice. He safeguards and protects it; he discloses and shows discreetly. This is not to say that he shuns public exposure and engagements. He is a teacher; he is a mentor for individuals in prison and their families.

For the present I draw attention to differences between practicing in Jalan Bahar Clay Studios and in a room in one’s residence. These differences need to be examined closely in order to ascertain their impact on Suriani’s and Ahmad’s respective studio practices, beyond what is hinted here. It is not possible to do so in this essay and I leave the matter to researchers/writers to deal with it as a topic.

When underlining Suriani’s affiliation with and sustained esteem of Iskandar, I am not insinuating that she is a clone. As with Ahmad, she too points out that chegu reminds his students that each has to set out along individual creative routes, to “find your own identity” and that pottery “should come from within” one’s self (p.26). Creatively she sets herself apart. Yet, like Iskandar, Suriani too adopts a moral stance when propagating the value of pottery and when advocating for safeguarding its endangered status. In this respect the lineage is clear; she says unequivocally, “I know his expectations for his students and for pottery in Singapore. So in that sense, I feel that there’s a certain responsibility that I have, in terms of making pottery gain more space in Singapore’s arts sphere.”  (p.26) Suriani’s relationship with Iskandar continues complicatedly and is entangled.

III

I round off this account by briefly talking about the exhibition in The Private Museum. The topic for the show is Tanah Air, translated from Malay into English as land and water, respectively. It has greater significance and potency than merely naming two elements in nature. As a compound it signifies primordial claims to territory and territoriality; to ownership and to inalienable sense of belonging. As undercurrents these are lived and recalled differently by Suriani and Ahmad; they are vividly represented in the conversations. I refer readers to what they say.

Suriani frames her thoughts lyrically, at times nostalgically, and through the filters of childhood memory. Ahmad wrestles with acute tensions precipitated by, on the one hand claims of ownership through inheritance and on the other hand actualities of displacement through his long residence in Singapore which is not his birthplace and where owning land is virtually impossible. The works do not, of course, illustrate these thoughts and situations. They are transformed subtly and discreetly into assuming forms that are new (in the case of Suriani) and representations that emerge from an evolving practice (in the case of Ahmad).

During visits to their studios I have seen works that are in varying states of completion; hence my remarks are tentative and impressionistic. Readers are urged to view the display closely and form their opinions of the productions.

I was struck by a group of forms created by Suriani that are largely sculptural in their disposition. In each of them we discern a vessel as a nuclear entity; it does not, however, remain as a vessel as its rendering determines volume and mass in each object, expansively. These attributes are pulled upwards where they taper and assume wafer-thin shapes, curling and twining in space. The transition from one set of configuration to another is abrupt, sudden. It is possible that as Suriani develops greater capacities for dealing with sculptural principles, she is able to choreograph passages of transition from one formation to another, coherently. The potential to realize such outcomes is promising in these forms. They display Suriani’s endeavours to expand her pottery practice so that it reaches beyond the conventional scope of the vessel or pot. This is not to imply that she is abandoning the vessel or the pot!

While visiting Ahmad’s residence and studio, I have seen a group of objects with svelte profiles and measured forms; even as each is wheel thrown, it is precisely shaped and configured. Here too, the vessel is a primary formative entity; it bears a distinct neck on which is placed a pointed top. Each is elaborately pigmented with bands of colour circling the object; the bands are varied in breadth but each one is laid out exactly and meticulously. When seeing these, we are drawn into vertiginous orbits. Even as these are shaped and formed by hand, Ahmad brings to bear perceptions of geometry as ordering principles in his work. Each one of them is stamped by clarity, precision and firmness. He intends to assemble them in the exhibition so as to simulate the viewing of a cityscape, as in Singapore.

The approximate sculptural forms in Suriani’s works are seen as counterpoints to Ahmad’s finitely shaped productions. There are, of course, other kinds of relationships discernible in the works by them in this exposition.

 

2,619 words

Press

Reviews

Ahmad Abu Bakar and Suriani Suratman: Tanah Air (Homeland) – Berita Harian – Oct 2016

Listings

Ahmad Abu Bakar and Suriani Suratman: Tanah Air (Homeland) – Arts Republic – Oct 2016