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.
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.
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.
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