Daring to be Different

Ceramic artist, sculptor and painter Umibaizurah Mahir Ismail is probably the most exciting Malaysian contemporary artist today. The biting installations at her solo show, Fragile, at The Edge Galerie reflect her views on global, regional and national issues.

Contemporary ceramic artist Umibaizurah Mahir Ismail’s whimsical works are widely recognised in the art fraternity but her latest installations convey a serious tone. They highlight the fragility of human life and coexistence in the context of common issues.

Inspired by children’s toys, her figurines are playful in nature and experimental in presentation. Bold and adventurous, the works include hand-painted, ceramic and terracotta figurines or zoomorphic figures that rest on steel discs, plinths or mini shelves. Her idiosyncratic accessories match the quixotic installations.

Umi’s insightful works, especially her ceramics, reflect her thoughts on global issues. Her upcoming third solo exhibition, titled Fragile by Umibaizurah: Recent Works 2015–2016, to be held at The Edge Galerie from July 21 to Aug 5, will feature 17 sculptures including ceramic wall hangings, four paintings and a set of 10 collage works on reproduction photogravure images by famous European artists.

The idea behind Fragile came to Umi when she was taking part in a residency programme in Amsterdam between 2013 and 2014. While she was in Europe, she also participated in an exhibition at La Galleria, in Pall Mall, London, in 2014. The show, Diversity – Malaysia Art, was put together by British contemporary art writer and curator Tony Godfrey.

“Fragile’s theme is an observation of life and humanity — touching on issues like love, honesty and loyalty — and in the context of honour and principles in politics as well as in the economy. It is not so much about the fragility of the medium,” explains Umi.

“For instance, The Orchard is a depiction of willpower. The giraffe represents an individual or family facing financial difficulties that is willing to sell its valuable possessions (in the form of vegetables) in order to survive.”

Umi explores the human condition within the layers and depths of modern society, pondering issues like coexisting in a community, emigration and the constant conflict between man and nature. Her designs are derived from imagination and inspired by vintage toys found at European flea markets.

“This exhibition is a challenge that I gave myself in terms of skill and scale. I have adopted the modular concept in my work, to add or subtract a piece to create a whole new composition and dimension.”

The laborious process is evident in works such as The Giver, The Lady “Smoky Haze”, Yes Sir!… On Duty and Famous Five.

The central figure in The Giver installation is a doll-like figurine inspired by Kewpie — a cherubic cartoon character created by American illustrator Rose O’Neill in 1909 that was later developed into bisque figurines in Germany in 1912. The figurine stands on top of a pile of laboriously-assembled four-tiered circular ceramic forms that resemble vintage biscuit canisters.

The cylindrical ceramics are decorated with a floral and cherry motif using the pattern-transfer technique. Six glossy blackbirds and eight bronze pears are perched on the tiers.

“The Giver is based on the idiom ‘charity begins at home’. I have appropriated Kewpie as the main character because I am interested in its long history. It has been used to promote household products in the US and also on the Japanese Kewpie mayonnaise brand since 1925,” says Umi.

Umi’s preliminary ideas are expressed in the form of paintings before she moulds the characters out of clay. In Fragile, the four paintings titled Friendly Haze, Kita, Yes Sir!… On Duty and Ocean are closely linked to her sculptures.

For instance, The Lady “Smoky Haze” consists of 15 miniature masked busts assembled in a pyramidal form. Each female figurine is distinctive, with the eyes, hair, face mask and plinth painted in various colours.

“Friendly Haze is the genesis of The Lady “Smoky Haze”. I was documenting the bad haze in Southeast Asia while in London last September. I have even included the date here (on the painting),” says Umi. A calendar page for September 2015 on which Umi has outlined her travel itinerary is adhered to the painting.

Her paintings are influenced by the places she has visited. For instance, Kita has a Japanese ambience as seen in references to Japanese ukiyo-e artist Hokusai’s iconic The Great Wave off Kanagawa, a Koi fish and an origami cube.

“The word ‘kita’ has two meanings. In Malay, it means ‘us’ and in Japanese, ‘welcome’. It’s a cross-cultural reference inspired during my stay in Japan,” says Umi.

Yes Sir!… On Duty is an assemblage of 32 green soldiers holding the salute. They are placed on stacked cubes painted in pastel pink and army-green and adorned with a pink floral decal motif. The politically-inclined work explores the concept of government leadership and the loyalty and trust of citizens.

“For this piece, I am interested in the meaning of ‘enemy in the blanket’ besides exploring political affairs, leadership and loyalty,” says Umi.

English writer Anthony Burgess, who was a teacher and education officer in Malaya, wrote the novel The Enemy in the Blanket (1958) as a part of The Malayan Trilogy. The fictional story is set during the de-colonisation of Malaya.

In her preparatory painting, Umi illustrates a female figure dressed in green military uniform. She playfully incorporates familiar images like Donald Duck’s beak and Minnie Mouse’s face in the background together with dogs and flowers as well as a human heart and a boxing glove painted in red.

“For paintings like Friendly Haze and Yes Sir!… On Duty, they are Western-inspired, in terms of objects and colour palette while Ocean and Kita are more Eastern-oriented. I enjoy exploring the idea of juxtaposing East and West, old and new, reality and imagination in my work,” explains Umi.

Famous Five represents the Rukun Negara, consisting of five child-like figures sitting on a row of chairs mounted on wheels displayed on a wooden plank affixed to a custom-made pedestal.

“Each figure signifies a principle (from Rukun Negara) and the presentation is intended to mimic schoolchildren. The principles are recited weekly during compulsory assembly at primary and secondary schools in Malaysia,” says Umi.

Another intriguing body of work is a set of 10 collage works rendered on reproduced photogravure by European masters from 1400-1800. Titled The Others #1 – #10, each work is Umi’s interpretation of transforming something old into something new.

The Others #7 illustrates the work of Hans Holbein (1497-1543), Portrait of the Merchant Georg Gisze (1532), in the background. Considered one of the greatest paintings of the early 16th century, the original oil on wood painting is currently displayed at the Gemäldegalerie Staatliche Museen Preussischer Kulturbesitz museum in Berlin, Germany.

Umi adds a touch of humour to Holbein’s work, giving Gisze a broad smile.

She has also created relevance by incorporating 21st century technology such as the collage of a laptop and placing a child’s body with a cat’s head in the act of perhaps surfing the internet.

Finding her passion
Umi has chalked up 18 years of experience in ceramic-making. She became a full-time sculptor at 30 after she taught ceramic art at her alma mater, Mara University of Technology in Shah Alam, from 2000 to 2004.

“I have always been interested in fine art but when the time came to choose my major as an undergraduate student, ceramic art chose me,” remarks Umi, calling it the most important decision in her life.

“I am drawn towards the unpredictability of clay and ceramic as an art form. For example, if I envision a red duck, it may turn out pink for reasons like the type of clay used or the temperature level during the firing process. I love the element of surprise in ceramic-making.”

Adds Umi: “One has to be very patient and disciplined to work with ceramics. The experience is filled with mixed emotions. It’s the excitement of making [the pieces], and the anticipation of opening the kiln door that is nerve-racking.”

“Once the kiln door is opened, I will either be ecstatic or disappointed with the outcome,” confesses Umi. It either turns out perfect or broken into shards.

Among the ceramic artists who have inspired Umi is Turner Prize 2003 recipient Grayson Perry, who had expressed the same sentiment about opening the kiln door.

Umi recalls attending classes of art lecturers who are also accomplished artists such as Yusof Ghani, Jalaini Abu Hassan and Ahmad Shukri Mohamed, whom she later married.

Since then, Umi and her husband have collaborated and exhibited their works together. In 2003, they presented a show titled Incubator Series at Rimbun Dahan, an arts centre established by architect Hijjas Kasturi and his wife Angela Hijjas located in Kuang, Selangor.

Later, they presented Virus at the Art Season Gallery in Singapore and in 2006, Toys at Wei-Ling Gallery in Kuala Lumpur. The following year, they presented Grand Opening – Warning! Tapir Crossing at their work space Patisatustudio in Puncak Alam, Selangor. Patisatu (which means “uniting essence”) is not only a studio but also a creative space for visiting artists.

“We have been organising international exchange programmes for artists since Patisatu’s inception in 2007. Over the years, we have welcomed friends from Indonesia, Japan and Europe,” explains Umi about the self-funded programme. The non-profit initiative aims to build a network for international ceramic artists to share knowledge and culture through art.

Since her last solo exhibition, Tag, in 2012, Umi has developed a different way of presenting her work. By incorporating the “repetitive-stacking”, or building-block technique, and custom-built plinths (painted grey to resemble Roman concrete pedestals) that form each artwork, Umi has expanded her creative horizon beyond producing imagined characters that are the essence of her art.

“I draw a reference to Brâncuși’s Endless Column dated 1938, in which he used a single form repetitively to create a different meaning altogether, and it works,” explains Umi. The outdoor sculpture — located at Târgu Jiu in Romania to commemorate fallen soldiers in World War I — comprises 17 rhomboidal cast-iron modules, with a half unit at the bottom and another at the top to suggest infinity.

Umi has also been inspired by ceramic, visual and performance artist Theaster Gates, who is also an urban planner based in Chicago.

“Just because there are not many artists working with ceramics, especially locally, that does not mean I am free from competition,” says Umi about the challenges ahead.

“I am constantly competing with every artist working in all media, which is why I often study the works of other sculptors who work with everything and anything. The possibilities are endless. That is where I would like to take my work.”

This article was originally published by The Edge Communications Sdn Bhd in July, 2016.

Link to pdf