Charcoal on his fingertips

A quick scan of the exhibition catalogue shows me an impressive list of major cities in the world where Johor Baru-born artist, Ahmad Zakii Anwar’s work have been shown – and appreciated – before being finally presented to art enthusiasts in his hometown.

Ahmad Zakii Anwar [holding mic] in a dialogue with art
historian Sandra Krich [standing] in the presence of art
enthusiasts during the Medini Live! art fest
When the artist sat down with me for a chat during his first solo exhibition in Johor Baru, he agreed that the recently launched White Box of MAP@Nusajaya in the Mall of Medini, is the ideal space to showcase a collection of his inspiring charcoal drawings.  Just as I did earlier on, visitors to the gallery pause to gaze with awe at his large, intensely charged, charcoal drawings curated in the theme, Arang – the Malay word for charcoal.

Looking Back

As he settled himself more comfortably on the sofa for our chat, it crossed my mind that Zakii must have had hundreds of interviews around the world.  Born in JB in 1955, Zakii worked in graphic design and advertising before becoming one of Malaysia’s foremost contemporary artists with a huge following outside of his own country.

Standing Figure 1 [2006]
In 1991, he started to do art fulltime but success was not immediate.  Zakii tells me that like actors, artists also struggle with their careers and have to do part-time jobs just to survive.  But if they believed in their own talent, they must have the courage to persevere in the face of frequent rejections and patiently wait for that first break.

Adjusting his black framed spectacles and brushing back his trademark shock of white curls, Zakii fondly recalls his big break in the early 1990s which happened at a group exhibition held in the Kuala Lumpur National Art Gallery.  He had joined the Malaysian Artists Association and was among other young artists in that particular show.  The face of this complex and compelling artist lit up with a rare smile when he pointed out that it was a journalist who first wrote about his work and then other media picked it up!

As Zakii’s work received critical acclaim and gained a strong reputation in international art circles, his work started to sell.  His imageries have been described as strong, arresting and unpretentious and can be understood at many levels, not just visually but also intellectually.  

The minute details of fingers and
toes can be seen in Silat 1 [2005]
At age 32, he broke away from the nation’s arts mainstream by leaving KL and the most influential art scene and returned to his hometown where he built a studio and gallery into his family home at Jalan Haron.

Arang, the show

The show is a selection of some of Zakii’s most compelling charcoals on paper that span over a decade of work, chosen by the artist for his first solo exhibition in JB.  He chooses images that embody reality and gives it a rendered process to show us the essence and soul of what he sees through his unique brand of realism.

“What can be more fascinating than the human body?” he asks rhetorically because his recent and most memorable catalogue of drawings are male nudes portrayed in a blend of beauty of strength and introspection.  When I commented on the minute details even in the toes and fingers of his images, Zakii admits to an obsession to details.  We talked about his fascination about human activity, especially devotion and how people will do all sorts of things in the name of god.

Devotee [2007]
Referring to Devotee, his realistic drawing of the figure of an Indian man, Zakii said he goes to watch the annual Thaipusam procession for inspiration.  And when an image such as this is recreated in charcoal on paper, he explained that it takes a special skill to make the drawing come alive.  “Can you feel his sweat?” he asked me.  But before I can agree with him, he added with a laugh, “I can almost smell his armpits!”

“Charcoal drawing is one of the most unforgiving methods of artistic expression because mistakes cannot be hidden under layers of paint and hesitations cannot be concealed under thick brush strokes,” said art historian, Sandra Krich, who held a dialogue on charcoal drawing with Zakii in an interactive session in the presence of art enthusiasts as part of the Medini Live! art festival.  

She explained that Zakii draws with his finger as a brush, sometimes with the whole hand, in gestures that are sometimes quick, slow and even caressing.

Looking Ahead

Zakii, an internationally acclaimed local artist who has exhibited his work in group shows and solo exhibitions in major cities throughout Asia, Europe and America since 1975, took so long to hold his first solo show in his hometown simply because the city lacks suitable art spaces.

The cinematic framing and composition in Kota Sepi 2
[2012] give a sense of isolation that separates two figures
He lamented that JB has lagged behind for far too long and should learn from Singapore, a city separated only by a causeway, but has a vibrant art scene.  He said the opening of MAP@Nusajaya at the Mall at Medini in partnership with developer, Medini Iskandar Malaysia, is a long-awaited initiative and hopes that a programme of regular arts events will be put in place to educate and entertain the community here.

Ahmad Zakii making a point during
the dialogue session held
in the White Box, MAP@Nusajaya
While Johor is being developed into a modern metropolis, the city must enhance the quality of life for residents by engaging them through art and culture.  Besides building an international city for Malaysians and global citizens, Zakii reminded the city planners and developers to set aside spaces for parks and playgrounds, and art spaces for visual and performing arts because any living space needs soul and character to make it an attractive place to work, play and live in.

“Talent is not enough,” said Zakii whose advice to budding artists is to work hard and be prepared for rejection and disappointment.  Speaking from experience, he said some galleries may not even accept your work but in most cases, it may take up to 10 years before artists start to sell their work.  His journey to success was long and hard but no matter what it takes to achieve it, his advice to young artists is to do it on your own terms.

Entrance is Free of Charge to Arang, Zakii’s solo exhibition held in the White Box of MAP@Nusajaya, in the Mall of Medini, Nusajaya, on now till July 5.

A version of this was published in The New Sunday Times, Life & Times on 28 June 2015

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