Date: November 23 – December 10, 2017
Venue: The Edge Galerie, G5-G6, Mont’ Kiara Meridin, 19 Jalan Duta Kiara, Mont’ Kiara, 50480 Kuala Lumpur (permanently closed)
Comprising over 50 works that feature drawings of intricate geometric patterns, quirky illustrations of squids as well as delicate portraits on paper and oil paintings of still life on linen, this exhibition demonstrates the Noor Mahnun’s wry observations of life.
MARCHING TO THE BEAT OF HER OWN DRUM
Tabula rasa: An absence of preconceived ideas or predetermined goals; a clean slate.
WIDELY KNOWN AS Anum on the Malaysian art scene, Noor Mahnun Mohamed, 53, may be petite but she ably juggles the roles of painter, curator, writer and educationist.
Born in 1964 in Kelantan, she graduated with a master’s in fine art from Hochschule für Bildende Künste, Braunschweig, Germany, in 1996.
After returning to Malaysia at the end of 1997, Noor Mahnun kicked off her versatile career in the arts with a job as graphic designer. In 1998, she staged her first solo exhibition in Malaysia and participated in group shows. In the following year, she took up a teaching post in several local institutions and continues to lecture on art theory until today.
From 2000 to 2001, Noor Mahnun was an artist-in-residence at Rimbun Dahan in Kuang, Selangor. She concluded the programme with an exhibition of paintings produced on site and inspired by the location. From 2006 to 2012, she worked as an arts manager at Rimbun Dahan.
The Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs then offered the artist a government scholarship to take up a printmaking course at Il Bisonte, Florence, from 2002 to 2003. Upon completing the course, Noor Mahnun returned to Kuala Lumpur and ventured into curatorial work at the Valentine Willie Fine Art gallery from 2003 to 2005. During her stint there, she organised 10 exhibitions by Malaysian and Southeast Asian contemporary artists and wrote for the shows.
She has written over 30 essays and reviews of art shows in Malaysia and, in 2015, contributed an academic paper entitled Printmaking Archive for Reference, Research, and Regional Links to a Nippon Foundation Fellowships for Asian Public Intellectuals publication called Encountering Asian New Horizon: Contesting and Negotiating in Fluid Transitions, The Work of 2012-2013 API Fellows.
Her talent does not end there. Noor Mahnun is proficient in Bahasa Malaysia, English and German, and her competence in the German language saw her participate in German-Malay translation workshops with Holger Warnk and Hedy Holzwarth — who are lecturers at the Goethe-University Frankfurt am Main Institute for East Asian Philology, Southeast Asia Science — organised by Goethe-Institut Malaysia in 2007.
Noor Mahnun also designed the book cover for a publication entitled Ingin Sebebas Burung/Flugversuch, Antologi Dwibahasa Cerpen Malaysia dan Jerman Zweisprachige/ Anthologie Malaysischer und Deutscher Kurzgeschichten, for which she was one of the translators. This project was coordinated by Goethe-Institut Malaysia with Institut Terjemahan Negara Malaysia as the publisher.
The artist’s latest solo exhibition at The Edge Galerie is entitled Disco Lombok Still Life by Noor Mahnun. Over 50 artworks comprising oil paintings and drawings will be on view from Nov 23 to Dec 10.
The show’s intriguing title is but a glimpse of Noor Mahnun’s alternative approach to staging an art exhibition.
On the surface, Noor Mahnun’s paintings appear to be European in style — still lifes featuring a single domestic object illustrated in the academic method or figurative and portrait paintings that resemble the works of German painter Otto Dix (1891-1969), who fused elements of realism, allegory and the whimsical. However, Noor Mahnun’s depiction of the human figure on canvas is devoid of emotion, focusing on physicality rather than expressiveness. Be that as it may, her time spent in Europe seems to have influenced her painting style the most.
Self-expression appears to the central idea of Noor Mahnun’s work. It is an archive of memories, an attempt to eternalise certain episodes of her life. Her choice of subjects in Disco Lombok Still Life include the ordinary coffee moka pot; butter and steak knives; dustpan and brush; scissors; white gloves; and sunglasses. Yet, the narratives of these objects are deeply personal.
For instance, in an artwork entitled Butter Knife, the knife was a gift from one of Noor Mahnun’s architecture students in Universiti Malaya, where she was lecturing part-time in 2015. Delighted yet anxious about the gift — which symbolised the severing of friendships — Noor Mahnun offered her student a token fee as an act of preserving their friendship.
As for the painting of a pair of white gloves, the artist referred to it as the Tiara and said it signified cleanliness and professionalism. Apparently, on her travels in Japan between 2012 and 2013 as a senior fellow of the Nippon Foundation Grant for Asian Public Intellectuals, Noor Mahnun noticed that a lot of people in different professions wore white gloves — from police officers and taxi and bus drivers to bellboys.
“Apparently, when The Beatles came to Japan in 1966, the police in charge of security came up with the idea of wearing gloves to add a level of ‘propriety’ between their hands and the fans as it was the duty of each officer to hold back the enthusiastic crowd,” she says.
Interestingly, an article entitled White Gloves by Alice Gordenker was published in The Japan Times on March 19, 2013, about a fascinated reader who wrote to Gordenker to express his curiosity about the white glove phenomenon in Japan1.
Noor Mahnun’s depiction of domesticity is presented in a small, rectangular format — a reflection of a woman with a paintbrush — dainty and ordered. Evident in her work is her obsessive fascination with geometric patterns, perhaps, a therapeutic means to escape the chaos of her daily schedule of organising art events, teaching and/or writing about art.
“When I first arrived in Berlin in the early Eighties and visited the Neue Nationalgalerie, I was in awe of the architecture of Mies van der Rohe: the iron pillars, beams, columns. The building is much better seen and experienced in real life. My interest in patterns and tiles started then,” she explains.
In Dustpan & Brush, Noor Mahnun employs repetitive geometric patterns as a backdrop to the good old brush and dustpan, which is presented as a triptych. The task of creating the composition from basic lines came from her interest in architecture.
“I chose basic homeware as subject matter because I enjoy domesticity and doing chores like cleaning, sewing and ironing. I like being at home, perhaps that is why (incidentally) my work studio is located above my apartment, which is convenient,” says Noor Mahnun.
In an artwork entitled Rooster and Head, Noor Mahnun uses the image of the head of Buddha in Gandharan style paired with a rooster in a box.
“The Gandharan Buddha is culturally significant because it is an artistic manifestation of early Buddha statues — the Gandhara region was a meeting point of the classical Greek style and Buddhist art, a cultural crossroads of influence that I find interesting,” she says.
“But when I started the painting, pairing these two objects was purely a random (visual) act. The head was seen in Singapore in an art of ethnographic museum display exhibition. The rooster was sighted in a newspaper article. Somehow, placing the two together on a picture plane seemed apt. The readings were formed later. Could go in many ways and tangents …”
“My master’s degree paper was about Leon Battista Alberti, his idea of ‘Disegno’, written under the subject of aesthetic philosophy. He is definitely a typical Renaissance man. A humanist, author, artist, architect, linguist, mathematician, poet, priest, philosopher and cryptographer,” adds Noor Mahnun, who is a fan of the Renaissance period.
In another painting entitled Postcard from Tumpat (40cm by 120 cm), she illustrates the iconic sleeping Buddha in Wat Photivihan, a temple located in Kampung Jambu, Tumpat, situated north of Kota Baru, Kelantan. Spanning 40m, the statue is said to be the longest in Southeast Asia.
“I was trying to capture the naivety of the sculpture. Of being at peace or resting. Which brought to mind Goya’s Sleep of Reason, a favourite artwork. I was also thinking of a painting I saw in Tokyo by Takanobu Kobayashi. But of course the ‘recline’ theme recurs in the arts, the Etruscan (tomb) murals and the figures on top of their sarcophagi, for example. I find it all intriguing.”
“All of my past solo exhibitions have been associated with a musical performance. I like singing and dancing. Music plays an important part in my life,” says Noor Mahnun.
Thus, disco in this show represents her student days. “The mid-Eighties through the early Nineties were spent in Germany at the height of the rave culture there,” explains the artist, who witnessed the fall of the Berlin Wall as a student in 1989. In the spirit of egalitarianism, techno music unified people from East and West Berlin.
The significance of Lombok in this exhibition relates to the collaborative effort between Noor Mahnun and Dina Zaman, the writer of the book I Am Muslim. The Very Clever King of Lombok is a short story derived from a folk tale about a king on the Indonesian island of Lombok. A number of drawings displayed in this exhibition are part of the complete compilation, a work in progress as Noor Mahnun is still documenting visual research/ images to correspond with the text.
“I am hoping to use the sales proceeds of the Lombok series to visit the island as I continue to research illustrations for the short story. The Very Clever King of Lombok got me in deeper, into wanting to know more, about the Wallace Line between the islands of Lombok and Bali. I have always been a fan of Alfred Russell Wallace, so it was a good and happy coincidence when Dina approached me with the project. In Volume One of Wallace’s The Malay Archipelago, the land of the orang-utan and the bird of paradise, Chapter XII was solely about ‘Lombock: How the Rajah Took the Census’. The book itself was dedicated to Charles Darwin,” chirps Noor Mahnun.
POSTCARD, BLOOMS AND SQUIDS
Measuring 57cm by 76cm, Postcard from Delhi is a graphite drawing with a watercolour wash on paper. The postcard-size work was received by Noor Mahnun from her friend Lim Oon Soon, a graphic designer. She illustrates realistically the card as well as the message written on it in watercolour.
In its actual format, this work demonstrates Noor Mahnun’s impeccable skills and her aptitude for detail. Divided into two parts, the front of the postcard — “a reproduction of an old miniature painting” — is depicted on the left side of the paper, composed at the centre of a laborious grid pattern in graphite as background. On the left side, the artist illustrates immaculately the reverse side of the postcard, which features a handwritten message — complete with stamp and the sender’s drawing.
Also featured in this show are six watercolour paintings of females adorned with flowers, such as lady’s slipper orchids, tiger lily, frangipani and camellia. Noor Mahnun portrays herself in six personas decorated with various blooms and wearing different hairstyles. The artist jokes that being a model for her own work is easy because “my model is always punctual”.
Another quintessential theme of Noor Mahnun’s creative oeuvre is the depiction of squids and insects such as beetles, wasps and moths. Insects have been a favourite subject alongside geometric patterns since her days in Berlin.
In Disco Lombok Still Life, Noor Mahnun also showcases eight drawings of squids on paper. “The squid, against a repetitive pattern rendered in pencil, works on paper. My obsession started when I took part in My Story, My Strength: Doodle for Change, an exhibition in aid of the WCC (Women’s Centre for Change) in George Town, Penang, in 2015. At first, I wanted to convey the perseverance and patience of those women whose lives are affected by abuse,” explains Noor Mahnun.
“But in the process of doing the work, the rendering became an obsession, and I got addicted to drawing not only cuttlefish but also the patience-testing, long attention span this series demanded. I have always done patterns but not in minute detail. What was supposed to be an arduous and challenging task became a delightful occupation. I could go on rendering for hours. The ‘squid’ backfired, I suppose. It was chosen because it is languid in the way it moves. It’s smooth, slippery. But it can also swim speedily. Passive. Aggressive. The shape, phallic, has connotations. Being a printmaker, I have always admired Hokusai’s work and one of them featured an octopus and a woman. It is sensual, and I think sensibility is the right word to describe it.”
Here, Noor Mahnun is referring to The Dream of the Fisherman’s Wife, a woodblock print created in 1814 by renowned Edo period Japanese artist, ukiyo-e painter and printmaker, Hokusai (1760-1849). The image depicts a woman wrapped in the limbs of two octopuses performing erotic intercourse with her. Inscribed above the image in Japanese calligraphy is a text, which expresses the woman and the creatures’ mutual carnal pleasure.
FROM CHARITY TO COMMUNITY
As a devoted cultural ambassador, Noor Mahnun has dedicated her time and energy to education and to spreading social awareness by collaborating with organisations such as the Malaysian AIDS Foundation, Women’s Centre for Change, Penang, and Sisters in Islam.
She has curated several art exhibitions to raise funds for charity, such as Art for Nature for WWF Malaysia, ArtAid16 Love for Sale last year and ArtAid17 Bebas (Freedom) this year in support of the Malaysian AIDS Council.
In November, Noor Mahnun will curate and participate in a group exhibition of 21 artists entitled Hell, Heaven at Cult Gallery in Kuala Lumpur in collaboration with Sisters in Islam, an organisation that promotes women’s rights “within the frameworks of Islam and universal human rights”.
Her latest endeavour is as a curatorial consultant for Think City Johor Baru, working for the Iskandar Malaysia Community Public Art programme — a joint initiative between the Iskandar Regional Development Authority, Think City and Bandung Creative City Forum — which requires her expertise in residency programming gained from her experience at Rimbun Dahan.
With all these activities on her plate, one wonders how Noor Mahnun manages to find time to produce artworks or to relax. In the run-up to Disco Lombok Still Life, I had the privilege of visiting her studio and having numerous discussions over lunch, and I found that Noor Mahnun never leaves her studio without her schedule book, sticky notes, notebooks and writing tools, scribbling down every important detail (dates, appointments, to-do lists, ideas and sketches): a habit that keeps her prompt for our meetings.
Noor Mahnun is indeed a brilliant and independent woman whose career is not confined to art but also includes educational and cultural endeavours, a challenging task not many artists can accomplish.