Interview with Malaysian Painter Adrian Ho

The realities between pristine natural landscapes and deforestation across Malaysia: An Interview with Adrian Ho

Interview conducted by Liani MK

L: First of all, thank you for agreeing to this interview. What inspires you to paint the natural landscapes of Borneo in the way that you do, and why have you selected oil painting as a medium to do so?

A: To answer this question, first of all I must admit I was a Kampung (village) boy who grew up in a sleepy plantation  town called  Papar in the Malaysian state of Sabah in the island Borneo. Known as the “Land Below The Wind”, this place is gifted with numerous natural wonders from the best dive spot in the world (Sipadan Island); to one of the highest in south East Asia, and for me, definitely the most beautiful mountain in the world (Mount Kinabalu). It will take a lot for me not to notice all these, that is why my beloved homeland has consistently inspired me in my art and making nature as a valid art theme has become my passion.

The way I paint has gone through years of evolution. I have tried different mediums from Chinese ink to graphic paint and I am also fluent in AUTOCAD. I like people to be able to identify with the subject matters I paint and I invite them along to my creative journey and discoveries. For me, the natural environment is having enough hard time being noticed and taken seriously by us with our daily concerns. So I am not keen in representing them in modified artistic forms to suit the latest art preoccupation and trends, therefore depicting its actual likeness is essential in my paintings and I have been doing it for a long time.

Oil paint has also being my preference for many, many years even though I have tried other mediums as I have mentioned. I feel that oil has a lot to offer and it is one of the most established art mediums in the world along with I think egg tempera since the height of the Renaissance. It is a well-researched medium, with proven reliability and if applied properly – to last for hundreds of years. Oil gives the depth I seek in my subject matters and the ability to connect with my viewers with 3 dimensional qualities but in a 2 dimensional format, so in a way less Is More. It is hard to convince with only words, so I guess the best is to simply view my paintings in person.

“Fruits of Life” by Adrian Ho (2013)

L: Growing up in Sabah has clearly moulded the themes and subjects of your paintings. How has Malaysia’s changing environment influenced your styles and themes? Having had the opportunity to meet with fellow Malaysian and international artists, has this also informed your art philosophy?

A: My experience staying in Sabah is a rich one. I have the opportunity to see the country grow and tackle numerous challenges. The land has of course experienced changes since my young days and familiar places that I used to hang out are no longer there. I know that circumstances have resulted all these changes but it is hard not to have feelings about all those places and it seems the rate of change is increasing day by day. The increasing environment issues and challenges;  on-going debates both online and on print, do get to me and my art; and the paintings that I have done for the Biennale are part of my on-going artistic agenda.

The privilege of meeting fellow Malaysian and other international artists was highly rewarding. The viewings, dialogues and appreciations of each other’s works have enriched me creatively; and interacting with them allowed us to share our artistic opportunities and challenges in our respective countries.

L: How would you describe the current art scene in Malaysia? Where do you place yourself within this context, and what advice do you have for budding artists?

A: The art scene in Malaysia is highly diverse in terms of genres and approaches practiced by artists. There are artists practicing full time and normally engaged by art galleries; with many more practicing part time holding full time day jobs such as teaching or other public positions, attached  with professional firms or running their own businesses, and etc . For the public, particularly art enthusiast or collectors, their awareness is driven by public and private initiatives to attract their attention such as: the annual “Malaysian Art Expo”; the annual “1 Malaysia Contemporary Art Tourism (1MCAT)”; the recent mushrooming of auction activities by private galleries and auction houses; and art exhibition, art fairs carried out by private art galleries, art groups or association such as the Malaysian GAPs or PSVS of Sabah. Art enthusiast and collectors also stay in touch by reading coverage by the local and international art journals.

But art in Malaysia has to compete with other activities such modern and cultural entertainment; Tourism; Sports events; not to mention it has to attract money otherwise going into professional services such as engineering, marketing, manufacturing, agriculture and etc. So it is a challenge for us artists to get Malaysians to be interested in Art when they are attracted by the other activities mentioned or looking forward to invest in the latest high end digital gadgets or other luxurious items when they have extra disposable incomes. I was told Singaporean artists are also experiencing the same problems, so I guess we are in the same boat.

As a full time practicing artist I am represented by several galleries in Sabah and in Kuala Lumpur, as well as operate my own studio cum gallery –“Borneo Sunrise Gallery” – and ensure a full program in my yearly activities. The art world blurs the line between art that should be quality art works driven and artist branded names driven. And also art works that attract the immediate attention normally are the loudest and brightest ones – promoted in a similar way – but their attention span might not necessarily be a lasting one. My art might not necessarily be the loudest or the brightest in a contemporary art sense but I think it does have good staying power. My art offers a more nuanced viewing experience and expects you to view it repeatedly. My art encourages participation with my creative journey in the paintings.

“Full Production” by Adrian Ho (2013)

L: You have been commissioned by several private and public entities including the Sabah State Library. Yet, the threat of oil palm plantations to forests can be a sensitive issue especially when it deals with indigenous rights in Sabah and Sarawak. Has paintings such as “Fruits of Life” and “Full production” been difficult to do in light of this? What are the kinds of challenges you have faced, and how did you overcome them?

A: The paintings are painted to depict 2 possible scenarios that are created to the extreme on a piece of imaginary land. I am aware of the on-going debates ,online and on print, about the politics, economic and social impact of the depicted scenarios; but the paintings are also meant to be impartial to these debates. Instead they are created to be fragments of the realities of my homeland. In addressing possible concerns from related parties, the place depicted is purely a fictional one with all hill formation, trees, leaves, road, factories, people and etc not real but inspired by the real things that I personally experienced in Borneo.

The challenge was to create a convincing place that allows the scenarios to take place; and that I took a lot of effort by going into the actual rainforest and oil palm plantations and finding out how an oil palm processing plant looked like and how it worked. My passed frequent road trips across Borneo also revealed to me how the actual rainforest and oil palm plantation felt like; and allowed me to decide what to put in my paintings.

All the above efforts rewarded me handsomely during the launching ceremony when viewers started asking where the actual place was.

L: By placing the paintings opposite each other in the Singapore Biennale festival, you have proposed for the viewers to decide upon the fate of these jungles.There have been many difficulties in reconciling the preservation of the environment, people’s land, and development throughout the world. How have Sabahans and non-Sabahans responded to the realities you have addressed in your paintings? What hopes do you have for Malaysia? What choices and actions do you hope visitors can make upon viewing your works?

A: The paintings are impartial to the depicted scenarios and the viewers are expected to decide which painting they prefer.

So far the response has been very good with positive online art reviews, and generally it met my personal objectives. From the feedbacks I gathered, in their opinions, some viewers preferred “Fruits of Life” and some “Full production”; and most agreed that they should be together as complementing art pieces. One elderly Singaporean couple told me about their horrific experience traveling by car in Malaysia looking at the endless oil palm trees; therefore they preferred the other painting. In contrast, a young Singaporean lady executive said she had a hard time in a rainforest recently and preferred the other painting because she saw a road that comforted her because she was raised up in the city. So viewers are coming, bringing with them their personal values, beliefs and experiences and the paintings allow them to start dialogues. Those who could not attend the exhibition (Sabahan and non-Sabahan) displayed similar response pattern through online reviews, social media and forums.

As an artist I hope art will flourish in Malaysia and not just supplementary to other activities. Fine art should be considered a valid profession in Malaysia that contributes to nation building and allow the art world to know we are a rich part of it.

There are no hard decision nor imposed choices to select from, by the viewers; instead I hope that what they see inspires them and to let them reflect upon when they go home.

After saying that the paintings are impartial to the environmental debates I did include some clues that show you my preference but I guess the viewers need to know more about me first.

L: There are people painted in “Full production”, but not in “Fruits of Life”. Is there a particular reason for this difference? How might including people change the painting?

A: In “The Fruits of Life”, when the land is still free from human habitation, nature reigns and there are no economic processes. The concerns are the distribution of nutrients by the trees and vegetation; the capturing of sunlight, especially the undergrowth; retention of needed water and channeling of excess water; and of course for the wildlife, not to get eaten or attacked by diseases; and all the other natural processes that is needed for survival. The orangutans being the original inhabitants would consume the fig tree fruits in a familiar location, returning repeatedly throughout their life of about 50 years. But the orangutans have a symbiosis relationship with the rainforest because the seeds of the fruits that they ate would be redistributed to allow new growth of fig trees and their excrement would provide nutrients for redistribution. So there are a whole lot of activities in the rainforest before the arrival of human beings that happen in a symbiotic and natural way.

In “Full Production”, the land is firstly deforested with the trees being the main product; followed by the removal of tree stumps and other undergrowth remains; after that earthworks and infrastructure works take place; eventually followed by the planting of the oil palm trees and the construction of the oil palm processing plant. These processes take place because of a human’s economic need and having power to do so when the land is taken possession and owned. These activities are not part of the natural world and there is no dialogue between the human and the original inhabitants of the rainforest because in our world nature has no right – except whatever laws we enact without their involvement, to govern them – and everything in nature seems to be owned by somebody. We are part and parcel of the micro-economic scenario, when we consume the oil used to make vegetable oil, margarines and etc; when we utilize the public facilities provided by the fund generated from the income tax contributed by the oil palm business; and when we are connected in other direct and indirect ways.

So you see the inclusion of people on the piece of land does change things. The 2 paintings allow you to see and speculate all the possible connections highlighted above and raise questions; should we leave the rainforest alone; should we continue the way we plant and cultivate oil palm trees; should we stop eating margarines; or should we have a whole new way of doing things – the choices are ours.

Interested readers can follow updates from Adrian Ho and his gallery through: Facebook: Ho Fine Art


Articulations of Southeast Asian Art – Liani Manta-Khaira

Articulations of Southeast Asian Art: Reflections on Visits to SAM, ACM and Bugis Street

by Liani Manta-Khaira

It is hard not to marvel at the majestic displays of archaeological objects at the Asian Civilisations Museum (ACM). Many of these objects appear as complex but spiritually-charged items that must have held many layers of meanings in the past. To understand these displays, it felt almost imperative to read the descriptions that would inform us of the kinds of cultural traditions and beliefs that surround the striking artifacts. One is impressed by the amount of research done on the objects through these captions and panels of descriptions. For instance, in the exhibition, “Devotion & Desire: Cross-Cultural Art in Asia, New Acquisitions”, we learn from captions and guided tours about cross-cultural contacts in Asia and comprehend such movements through the Sinic-influenced dragon designs that encircle one “’Alam” (early 18th century), a processional standard of the Safavid dynasty. It was easier to make sense of the displays and to locate the context the objects through such explanatory notes. One is then guided to ponder on the themes underlined in the exhibitions in more depth.

As I paced through the subsequent halls however, I began to feel disconcerted. Perhaps there were simply too many displays to look at. Every time I decided to leave, I would stumble into yet another hall, describing more cultural transformations, narrating the story of another region of Asia that was necessary to explore and implore over. Yet it was also the immense amount of facts at each exhibition that seemed to demand attention and time, both of which were fast dissipating on my end. The captions suddenly became distracting, almost intrusive to my thoughts, as I became confused. Should I study the displays first, then read the captions, or vice versa? Should I simply glance through the captions, or the object, as I seek to maximise my short time left at the museum, in gaining more information or insights into the past?

This experience made me think of the ways captions in museums have the potential to inform and guide, but also to interrupt one’s explorations of art, or the displayed items in  museums. In both my visits to the ACM and Singapore Arts Museum (SAM), captions follow each art piece. Each object is to be labelled, dated, and explained. It informs and contextualises the pieces for the viewer. In the ACM, Jakkal Siributr’s tiered Buddha-piece, “Shroud” (2011), is accompanied by a panel that asks, “Are stupas really what they seem to be, or what people believe them to be? The fragility of materials and of belief is also suggested by the thin threads that support the Buddhas”. The multiple Buddhas arranged in a stupa-like design can suddenly be more than just visual imageries, and one begins to linger a little longer on the object to make sense of such ideas of form, art and symbols.

With captions, the pieces on display becomes meaningful, or is easier to be interpreted. In some ways, it made me recall a reading from class of Martin Heidegger’s “The Origin of the Work of Art” (1950) as he describes the thingly aspect of an object. “Once perceived by the senses, [it] is assigned a feature” (26). In similar ways, once the object is labelled, framed and explained, it is assigned to a particular interpretation and a feature not visible before. With the captions, a narrative force develops and transmits from the captions to the art, and then to the observer. The observer is then, upon reading the captions, urged to revisit the visual aspects of the particular piece. A dialogical journey thus occurs between the artwork, text and observer.

Captions, guided tours and pamphlets aids in the educational function of museums. However, it also frames the interpretation of the artwork, its history, and culture in a particular way. It changes our approaches to the displays through the titles, information, and questions it poses. In the ACM, the captions contained more historical details to provide context to the objects, such as the dates and functions of the objects. With artworks at the SAM, the descriptions contained information about the artist and the outline of his/her purposes behind the piece. Often, the texts ended in questions that urged the viewer to deconstruct ideas and terms related to art.

In the Singapore Arts Museum (SAM), the exhibition, “Not Against Interpretation: Untitled”, sought to reduce this almost-imposing narrative nature of captions by displaying the objects without titles. Yet, while it aims to do away with such labels to promote individual interpretation, it still placed tags with the artists’ background and influences right next to the piece. Some of the artworks also contained descriptive titles in parentheses, such as “Untitled (Chair)” by Ahmad Abu Bakar (1992). Additionally, activity sheets were provided to guide viewers to “understand the different characteristics of these artworks”. The set of questions posed in their activity sheet moulds a particular way of approaching and seeing art. For instance, it asks visitors what their interpretation of the art is, and what titles would be appropriate based on these interpretations. We were then given empty papers to write these titles to be stuck on the wall next to the pieces.

Some of the pieces reminded me of an image or memory, and I found myself conjuring titles for them in my head. They were certainly different from the titles given by other visitors, and it made me conscious of my role as the observer and active recipient of art. With other artworks, however, I could not place them anywhere and felt that some pieces speak for themselves – even without necessarily holding any meaning for me. It made me wonder if I was looking at these pieces wrongly – perhaps not “nuanced” enough – or if art was something to be titled, interpreted and always be made sense of. Should art itself be represented by titles, values and explanations? One cannot help but reflect if art is then to be broken down, or be based on the “what” and “why” questions. Do we always need to ‘make sense’ of everything – art or not? Can we – and don’t we sometimes – let objects or beings ‘be’ as they are, and still allow it to offer us a different way of thinking, living and doing?

Museums thus can be disruptive by implying that it is necessary to know the objects comprehensively in order to understand the past or present – be it from the interpretation of others or one’s own. It has a way of placing the objects in a particular timeframe, place or idea. This does not mean that one should overlook the functions of museums as an educational medium for communicating knowledge about the past and across cultures, or as an avenue to view works from various parts of the world. The museum provides a language for us to understand about these different worlds that may otherwise not be accessed as outsiders to these cultures.

Perhaps one should instead be aware of the ways museums have attempted to reach these goals. In classes, we have discussed the importance of contextualising art in response to a long history of decontextualisation in colonial Southeast Asia. The museum visits gave me insight into how contextualisation can and has been done in museums. The labels and interactive forms of display are meant to contextualise the works by providing information in various forms. Yet, the ways these multimedia and description have been used together appear to focus on aspects that removes these works from how it was first understood in the culture it came from, or to reinforce assumptions and ways of conceiving Southeast Asian art.

In the highest floor of the ACM performance gallery, a set of gamelan music instruments are arranged, and a wide screen behind the ensemble shows a recording of a dance performance that focusses specifically on the dancer. One sees a faint connection between the musical instruments and the dance being screened because of such different focus, but also due to the stark contrast between the visual movements on the screen and the emptiness and dullness of the physically-present musical instruments. It occurred to me that this was the case with the other objects in the museum where the actual objects were merely displayed, but the movement, auditory and visuals in videos would contain stories about it.

In the case of the gamelan/dance exhibition, the “performance” was not brought to life as it was missing several elements, one being the human interaction with the instruments and events. Visitors are not allowed to touch or experience sitting next to the instruments, nor are there anyone involved in these artforms there to guide. This made me question the purpose of placing the musical instruments there as opposed to merely displaying a photo of it, if it were only allowed to be seen but not played or felt. Who plays them then, and will they ever get played, or be forever museum-ised? And is art meant to be a final product, or a process, as with music performances? The very fact that these museums direct their spotlights at the art exhibited while dimming the rest of the room is telling of the importance placed on the object than the observer or environment.

Although the gamelan set is positioned at the center of the gallery, the background music in the hall was not gamelan, but classical Thai piphet music. This was confusing and appeared to highlight the misinformation or the indecision of the curator to meld all the Southeast Asian artforms into one small hall. On the right side of the center “stage”, visitors could watch an informational video that acted as supplementary aid to the exhibitions. The videos however, were focussed only on different mask-making traditions in Southeast Asian performing arts, and was limited to simply stating the tools required to make a mask (such as wood and knife) and steps to making it. Just as the Balinese mask-maker mentioned the ideas behind masks, and making it unique to each dancer, the video cuts off to another segment of the mask-making process. One gets a very restricted idea of masks in Southeast Asian performances as props to dances, rather than the relevance it may actually have to the culture before, during, and after it is made. Such examples thus calls attention to the need to rethink how we contextualise art rather than only seeing what is contextualised.

Thus, it appeared fitting to visit Bugis street after the museums. Here, one sees art outside frames, without explanatory captions or hints to constantly look out for meanings. One cannot help but be enamoured by the lavish designs of the batik cloths sold at several shops along the architecturally-rich areas of Bugis street. In some ways, moving out of the museum helps to contextualise the art and its purpose in a community. By selling batik, the shops contextualise batik as a Southeast Art that is to be felt and worn as it often is in many communities in the region and beyond. Some of these shops have used batik as materials for fashionable dresses and flair skirts, while others are sold as it was – cloths for sarong wraparounds. Art is now not just about seeing or evaluating – it can be felt, kept, and used.

However, it also poses the danger of completely removing and disregarding the historical and cultural significances of these objects. It restricts the batik to an item that is to be bought and one that is judged for the attractive designs than what meanings it has. The commodification of art has such an effect by placing these objects at a market where it is promoted for its aestheticism and value. Purchasing it at a price places a value onto the art, and owning it changes the experience of art. The stories behind the textiles can thus be lost. The advantage of having no captions can precisely be the problem for consumers when there is no researched information into these art on what it represents, its history and links to colonialism, and what the processes of these productions entail.

Different experiences of art can be reflected in the kinds of location, motivations and the roles the observer plays in his/her encounters with art. Visiting these museums and streets made me conscious of how I have and can receive and think about art and the ways in which art can always be viewed differently when approached with such different aims.  As I constantly return to the kinds of “art” that surround me – whether playing the gamelan or visiting the museum, I realise the dynamism at play in viewing, feeling and responding to the art in Southeast Asia.

Liani MK graduated from a double majors in Southeast Asian Studies and History. Of Dayak and Punjabi heritage, she has always been curious about issues of identity, indigeneity and language. Liani has worked as a translator and editor, and is currently a writer based in Kuala Lumpur. She enjoys Javanese gamelan, jewellery-making, illustration and capoeira, an Afro-Brazilian martial arts.