Digitalising woodcarving motifs in the works of Tomi Heri

Digitalising woodcarving motifs in the works of Tomi Heri

An abbreviation for Sungai, or river, SG. – gesturing to a return to roots – metaphorically represents life. Tomi Heri’s inaugural solo exhibition is a celebration of homecoming: All rivers have a starting point where water begins its flow. For Tomi Heri, the ribbon-like journey begins here and now.

Flows / Aliran

A multidisciplinary artist Tomi Heri, explores socio-cultural contexts by documenting events, objects, spaces, people and circumstances – the encounters in his daily life environment.

These critical observations on the quotidian become the fodder upon which Tomi Heri builds into digital media, sculpture and installation visual narratives. There is an enduring fascination with iconography, motifs, and patterns: geometric symbolic patterns are carved out acetate sheets, stencilled onto wooden panels, manipulated into digital media.

In the artist’s hands, heritage coalesces with technology, form and representation are employed in distinct fashions to represent episodes of his life.

Tomi Heri’s digital approach in creating patterns in his way of paying homage to the generations before him who have skillfully handcrafted these motifs. Traditionally, these motifs were influenced by nature such as flora and fauna. Tomi Heri’s interpretation of symbols and patterns are based on urban living. He designs his “kamus hidup” or dictionary of life that reads like a visual manuscript; this is a project of building a visual lexicon that bends the strictures of form and time.

SG. Data features a digital projection of cleverly designed logos projected onto white fabric constructed on totem-like pillars with bubu-inspired bases on each side – handmade by Tomi Heri – using giant bamboo or buloh betong collected from Sungai Dusun.

The installation flirts with the idea of “material”, “authenticity” and origin” by manipulating natural materials while removing them from the cultural backdrops that provide context. By placing the locally sourced materials in a new environment, the piece engages with the politics and aesthetics of ‘locality’.

Every detail forms part of this engagement. Even in weighing down the projection cloth, teardrop dropshot weights traditionally used as fishing tackle equipment are used to embellish the fabric. Meanwhile, digital media illustrates moving images of the characters in SG. accompanied by an endless static sound, or the sound of rainfall. Other stylised motifs are rendered in wooden panel cut-outs that feature amphibian, biomorphic shapes, silhouettes also featured in the video projection.

What is created is a tapestry that blends the old and new, fracturing the tightly segregated categories of heritage versus modern life, and provides the roots upon which many of the other works grow. The moving image in the video is made manifest; the digital pushed into the realm of the tangible. There is K-11, the wooden cut-out painted in black which features the motif of the protagonist. Then there is M X P an acronym for motif and pattern featuring a wooden frame measuring 33cm in diameter and a canvas cut-out that suspends beneath it. Inspired by Matisse’s cut-outs, it is an illustration of the patterning of the flora and fauna.

A stencil on wood tiled M.I.A., depicts the disappearances, big and small, that we go through in life; those which are lost to us, missing in action. Another motif eternalised from ‘life’ is a wooden cut-out wall sculpture titled Layang, which is an amalgamation of a kite and an amphibian. Measuring 131cm by 75cm, this is unique wall sculpture in this show rendered in stark black and white.

Latent in this travel of the images from daily life, to journal, to digital media, to physical art, and back to daily life is the grand cycle with which Tomi Heri is preoccupied with – the circular economy of life. To re-cycle, to flow, to go forth and to return. His medium, regardless of digital or physical, is the symbol, the icon, the sign – that most potent distillation of history, idea, memory into a singular image.

The Back Room at The Zhongshan Building invites you to contemplate SG. From December 12, 2020 until January 10, 2021. Developed during his stint as a beneficiary of the third cohort for the Khazanah Nasional Associate Artist Residency Programme at Acme Studio in London in 2019, SG. is a culmination of Tomi Heri’s five-year milestone as a professional artist and a moment of introspection. Yet, as with how water must flow, so we honour the roots of the artist.

Sources / Sumber

Born on September 28, 1991, Tomi Heri spent his childhood in Sungai Dusun, Kuala Kubu Bharu, Selangor. Raised by his maternal grandmother, his carefree days as a young boy were spent outdoors filled with fun activities such as fishing or playing by the river.

One of his earliest memories of a school art project was a campaign to keep the Malaysian rivers clean. Initiated by the Ministry of Environment and Water (Jabatan Perairan dan Saliran) in 1993, “Cintailah Sungai Kita” (Love Our River) is nationwide campaign to cultivate the interest of the local community towards loving the river.

“I had participated in art competitions in primary school to illustrate the ideal poster of a clean river,” says Tomi Heri.

The pre-university examination for the Malaysian Higher School Certificate prepared Tomi Heri for his tertiary studies at the Universiti Malaysia Kelantan (UMK) in Bachok, Kelantan for a degree course in Creative Technology and Heritage from 2011 to 2014.

The course offered “knowledge of heritage, culture, humanity, thinking, lifestyle, community art, management and more learning that focuses on the culture and heritage of the local community.”1

Tomi Heri’s background in creative technology combined with heritage studies found to be essential in the development of his practice as a young artist since graduating in 2015.

It was in university that Tomi Heri’s interest in traditional Malay woodcarving and ornamental motifs was sparked. Pursuing a course in Creative Technology and Heritage at Universiti Malaysia Kelantan, his education foreshadowed his engagement with the worlds of artisans and digital designers. Brimming with history as part of the ancient Langkasuka Malay kingdom, Kelantan becomes Tomi Heri’s historical learning ground.

“I began poring over books written on Master craftsmen and traditional woodcarving specialists like Adiguru Norhaiza Nordin’s Menelusuri Karya Seni Norhaiza; heritage researcher Azzaha Ibrahim’s essays on Langkasuka; historian and cultural researcher Farish A. Noor and Eddin Khoo’s Spirit of Wood: The Art of Malay Woodcarving: Works by Master Carvers from Kelantan, Terengganu, and Pattani; to name a few.”

“I had not realised it then but when I was residing at Acme Studios in London, the only book I had brought with me was Abdul Halim Nasir’s Ukiran Kayu Melayu Tradisi,” recalls Tomi Heri.

He became so intrigued by the abstract motifs and philosophical meanings behind traditional Malay patterns that upon returning home from London, he decided to return to Kelantan to meet with various traditional woodcarving master craftsmen.

The appropriation of traditional craft motif is evident is Tomi Heri’s creative oeuvre. A fine example is a digital media work titled E-tik Pulang Petang dated 2020, featuring a series of monochromatic stylised duck icons moving in a single file from left to right in an ornamental panoramic frame accompanied by “sci-fi” sound effect.

“The duck motif originates from the traditional woodcarving and weaving motif called ‘itik pulang petang’ (ducks returning home in the afternoon). The philosophy and meaning behind the motif are the duty to obey the leader in matters of knowledge,” says Tomi Heri.

The work was a fine demonstration of the artist’s sensibilities: a nod towards the precarity of the electronic, a collapse between the digital and traditional, and a re-orientation of age-old symbology into sometimes jarring, provocative contexts. And always, the idea of return.

Current / Arus

Between September and December 2019, Tomi Heri participated in his first residency programme outside of Asia at Acme Studios in London supported by Khazanah Nasional.

“It was an exhilarating experience and the idea for SG. was conceived there. There was so much to take in from their way of life, history to food and culture. Everything is documented from the day I arrived until my last day in my journal, which I have named SG. Data,” says Tomi Heri.

Coincidentally, his studio was located close to River Thames, where he would cycle around the city everyday to absorb the city’s fast-paced vibe and cityscape aesthetics.

“Being near a river in London reminded me of home. For this show, I have created a new digital media work with my interpretation of the river and to incorporate traditional motifs to symbolise life of human being,” says Tomi Heri.

As a digital media artist, Tomi Heri was elated to have had the opportunity to witness visionary artist, Nam June Paik’s (1932–2006) major retrospective exhibition that featured over 200 works spanning a career of five decade at Tate Modern in London.

“It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience for me that could not have happened at a very opportune moment. I have always admired Nam June Paik’s work in new technology and video art. The exhibition allowed me to conduct my research on his timeline,” says Tomi Heri.

When asked about Tomi Heri’s hopes for this debut solo exhibition, he answers: “My hope is that for my ideas and creations will continue to flow like water from river to river.”

Indeed, the beginning of a river can often flow rapidly into a waterfall – slowing down into the middle course and meandering along a winding path then finally ending its journey at the mouth – a journey that emulates life, which in turn imitates art.

Sarah Abu Bakar

Link to Digitalising woodcarving motifs in the works of Tomi Heri‘s catalogue

  1. Bachelor of Heritage Study with Honours (Cultural Heritage),