Self-Reflection and Cultural Motifs in the Works of Awang Damit Ahmad

In the broadest sense, Awang Damit Ahmad’s gestural paintings encapsulate the abstract form of the physical world and nature’s phenomena as he experiences it. The textural and tactile quality of his paint marks on canvas; the bold demarcation of black streaks against layers of blue, red, green, yellow, and white; and symbolic forms, such as thoughtful drips, speckles, scrape marks and crackles, that bear the narrative of each painting are all signature elements of Awang Damit’s artistic oeuvre that spans more than four decades.  

His journey has been gradual and profound, consistently producing significant series of artworks since the 1970s: his first titled Intipati Budaya (Essence of Culture), created between 1985 and 1995; followed by Alun-Alun Marista (Path to Marista) from 1996 to 2002; Iraga (North Easterly) between 2003 and 2011; Payarama (Changing Season) from 2012 to 2015; and Garismega from 2013 to the present.  

Awang Damit has been exhibiting his artworks in the global arena since 1984, but his rise to international stardom came much later in his career, when his painting titled Garis Mega (Iraga Series), dated 2008, was well received at Sotheby’s Hong Kong Modern and Contemporary Southeast Asian Paintings auction in 2014, fetching US$77,338 with premium.[i] This price remains his highest to date. 

The book titled Southeast Asian Art Auction Benchmarks & Market Insights by Johnni Wong and Sarah Abu Bakar, published by The Edge Galerie and The Edge Media Group in 2018, documents how Awang Damit made it to the top 10 list of the most expensive Malaysian artworks sold at auction. At the time, his artworks performed exceptionally well in Sotheby’s auctions in Hong Kong in 2014 and 2015 and in a Christie’s auction in Hong Kong in 2015. 

Awang Damit’s impressive biography reflects his active participation in international art fairs and group exhibitions such as the Asean Art Exhibition, a travelling art show in Southeast Asian cities of Manila, Bangkok, Jakarta, Singapore and Kuala Lumpur in 1984; the third and sixth Bangladesh Art Biennale in Dacca, Bangladesh in 1986 and 1993; juried art shows in the US during his postgraduate studies in Washington DC between 1989 and 1990; several editions of the Asian International Art Exhibition in Japan, Indonesia, Singapore, South Korea, Thailand and Taiwan between 1992 and 2014;  Art Kaohsiung (2016 to 2018) and Art Taipei in Taiwan from 2016 to 2020; Meadows Personal Structure at Collateral Venice Biennale in Venice, Italy in 2017 and Salon Des Beaux Arts in Paris, France in 2018; and Mask Art Creativity Under Lockdown: UNESCO Beirut and Meadow Artists Against COVID-19 in Beirut, Lebanon in 2020, to name but a few. 

As an academician, Awang Damit lectured at the Faculty of Art and Design, Universiti Teknologi Mara (UiTM) for two decades, as a lecturer between 1990 and 1993 and senior lecturer from 1994 to 1999. He was appointed associate professor in 2000 and served this role until 2011.  

His immense contribution to arts education in Malaysia expands beyond the role of tutoring and nurturing budding art students. He also held curator positions at the UiTM Art Gallery (1993 to 1994) and as head of the fine art department (1997 to 1998). In 2011, he retired from teaching and continued to paint full-time. This culminated in his fourth solo exhibition, titled Dari Iraga ke Payarama: Awang Damit Ahmad (2003 – 2014) that was held at Segaris Art Center, Publika, Kuala Lumpur in 2014. 

In 2015, Awang Damit Ahmad established a studio and gallery named pantauIRAGA (art space) at his residence in Sijangkang, Telok Panglima Garang in Selangor, to celebrate his 38th year of artistic practice. The space is intended to be a “meeting hub for artists, students, and the art lovers in general”.[ii]

A solo exhibition titled Bioretro: Awang Damit Ahmad 1985 – 2015 was held in 2016 in conjunction with the launch of pantauIRAGA that featured a selection of artworks from four of his major series: Intipati Budaya (Essence of Culture); Alun-Alun Marista (Path to Marista); Iraga (North Easterly); and Payarama (Changing Season).

Without losing any momentum, Awang Damit presented another five solo exhibitions between 2017 and 2021, namely Special Tribute – Awang Damit Ahmad at Art Expo Malaysia in Kuala Lumpur (2017); Garismega… New Journey at Art Stage Singapore (2017); Garismega at Artdoor Gallery, Taipei, Taiwan (2018); Garismega at Art Moments Jakarta, Indonesia, (2019); and Dari Payarama ke Garismega: 2013 – 2020 (From Payarama to Garismega: 2013 – 2020), organised by Galeri Prima and Henry Butcher Art Auctioneers at Galeri Prima, Balai Berita Bangsar in Kuala Lumpur in 2021.  

Dr Muliyadi Mahamood – a retired professor of history and cartoon studies at the Faculty of Art and Design, UiTM – contributed important essays that document Awang Damit’s artistic development for the catalogues of three of his solo exhibitions: Dari Iraga ke Payarama: Awang Damit Ahmad 2003 – 2014 (2014); Bioretro: Awang Damit Ahmad 1985 – 2015 (2016); and Dari Payarama ke Garismega: 2013 – 2020 (From Payarama to Garismega: 2013 – 2020) (2021). 

He observed that Awang Damit’s themes are “directly related to the lives of farmers and fishermen who formed the background of his childhood, showing thus a consistent focus in his artistic endeavour and a creative process which reflects nature, life, humanity, culture and God. Awang Damit’s works do not only enrich the expression of contemporary Malay-Islamic art, they also strengthen abstract expressionism which is inspired by a local iconography and identity, besides becoming a window of manifestation of inner vibrations and feelings.”[iii]  

In 2020, Awang Damit became one of the mentors for Gumum+ism, an international art camp that was held over three days and two nights at Tasik Chini in Pahang, organised by Persatuan Seni Rupa Malaysia (Perupa) in collaboration with Pusat Penyelidikan Tasik Chini, Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia, National Art Gallery Malaysia, Ministry of Tourism, Arts and Culture and more.  

At the event, which served as a convention for local and international artists to exchange knowledge and appreciation of nature – particularly to raise environmental awareness on biodiversity in Tasik Chini through the arts, Awang Damit participated as a speaker in a forum to share his experience on the process of art making. 

Awang Damit continued to produce new artworks throughout the pandemic, which resulted in the documentation and publication of the latest monograph to celebrate the new series of artworks using a newly developed technique he terms Eastern Aesthetics.  

As an advocate for the development of Malaysian art, his commitment to sharing his wisdom and experience with young artists and his tenacity for personal growth are admirable. His humility and down-to-earth personality make Awang Damit one of the most highly regarded icons of the Malaysian art fraternity.   


Ways to see


On the surface, Awang Damit’s paintings are perceived as abstract expressionist: spontaneous, gestural, and abstract. It has been widely discussed that the idea of “spontaneity or the impression of spontaneity” in the abstract expressionism movement contributes to the characteristics of abstract paintings. However, on the contrary, the creation of most abstract paintings involves careful planning, particularly those rendered on a large scale. Generally, abstract art represents the expression of “ideas concerning the spiritual, the unconscious, and the mind”. [iv]

In Awang Damit’s oeuvre, a great deal of thought and coordination comes into play. His wisdom and ascetic thinking are unravelled in his symbolic paintings that form the expressions of flora and fauna, the surrounding landscape, and cultural motifs personal to him that are composed in a particular manner and distinct colour palette.  

An example of such an interpretation is this mesmerising artwork, Estetika Timur, 2021. In describing the process of painting, Awang Damit said: “When working on a large-scale canvas, I will create a ‘mind map’ that is basically a mental grid of squares and analyse each box to ascertain the wholeness of the artwork”.  

Imbued with principles deriving from both architecture and painting: structure, composition, and spatial arrangement as well as light, depth and circulation, the “Nine-Square Grid” is a self-referential method employed by architects and artists alike. Sixteenth-century Italian Renaissance architect Andrea Palladio is known as one of the most influential architects in Western architecture who applied the nine-square organisational device in his buildings. His architectural works have “been valued for centuries as the quintessence of High Renaissance calm and harmony”.[v]  

The significance of the Nine-Square Grid in “seeing” Awang Damit’s work – or any work of art in that regard – is a visual revelation. In John Berger’s 1972 documentary Ways of Seeing, he mentioned that the image in a painting is “silent and still” and that the transmittable nature of its meaning can transport the image to the viewer like a corridor, making it easily manipulated. “The most obvious way of manipulating them is by using movement and sound.”   

As exemplified in Venus and Mars by Botticelli (1445 – 1510), Berger said: “The camera moves in to remove a detail of a painting from the whole. Its meaning changes. An allegorical figure becomes a pretty girl anywhere.” [vi] 

Taking Berger’s idea of seeing and manipulating the meaning of an Italian Renaissance painting into practice – by removing a small section on the lower left of Awang Damit’s abstract painting – we see a representation of a tree – a perpendicular strip of broad white line with oblique rectangular shapes branching out on each side composed of pieces of canvas collage.  

As we move our gaze across the plane to other areas, particularly the middle section, we see a mosaic of collage work in white against the blue and black background – evocative of Borneo textile and basket weaving.  

Similarly, in the top left-hand corner, it is suggestive of the traditional fish trap motif typically handmade with rattan and bamboo. Could this be Awang Damit’s approach to documenting and immortalising his visual memory from the past that was once familiar to him?




How does one attempt to define Awang Damit’s style of painting? An arresting painting titled Estetika Timur (2021) illustrates complex emotional and spiritual aesthetic forms expressed through the intensity of brushstrokes and the artist’s gestural force, coupled with the opacity of the layers of thick oil paint slathered liberally and consciously across the plane.  

The final work of art radiates a sense of “primitivism” – despite its Euro-centric[vii] term – by way of style, form, structure, composition, and colour palette. It is a manifestation of self-awareness: native background, cultural motifs, Malaysian tradition infused with stylised folk imagination and tribal essence – relevant to the traditions of Borneo.  

Awang Damit’s cultural wisdom plays a part in his pursuit of divine aesthetics. Absent from political, figurative, object-oriented, and realistic inclinations, his primary leitmotif in his approach to artmaking is to illustrate the fertile soil as he perceives it at its purest and to embrace Mother Nature as God’s creation, particularly in his major series of work.    

In this work titled Estetika (Sculptural Painting) (2021), the red hue that dominates the surface immediately stands out. But its indiscernible form commands our attention. As our eyes trace the black outlines for an indication as to what the motif may be, we notice the silhouettes of totemic-like statuettes begin to appear. In the darker image at the centre of the canvas, the shape of the hilt of a keris begins to form. This painting exemplifies the non-Occidental culture in Awang Damit’s work – a reference to tribal art that embraces indigenous traditions of Asia, Africa, North and South America and Australia, particularly of Borneo in this case.

In terms of subject matter, Awang Damit’s work is parallel with Philippine-American artist Pacita Abad’s (1946 – 2004) oeuvre. A globe-trotting painter, she was best known for her trapunto paintings – a quilting method combined into her canvasses, which were then layered with objects on top of her quilted material: stones, sequins, glass, buttons, shells, mirrors, and printed textile. Although Awang Damit’s work is predominantly abstract paintings, some of his mixed-media paintings include collage work with pieces of painted canvas that he dubs “sculptural paintings”.  

“I have been exploring with what I call sculptural paintings since the 1980s by incorporating pieces of canvas collage. I am revisiting this technique in the Eastern Aesthetics series,” said Awang Damit.


Eastern and Western thought


Awang Damit began to form his own identity while pursuing postgraduate studies in the US in 1989 and 1990. Under the guidance of Emeritus Professor Tom Nakashima at the Catholic University of America in Washington DC, Awang Damit found his signature style of painting through rigorous practice. 

“During my first semester in Washington DC, Professor John Figura critiqued my work. He asked me: ‘what are you trying to convey with this work?’ He said that my work did not show him anything. His remarks made me realise that I needed to do better. So over summer, I took the opportunity to improve my work,” recalled Awang Damit. 

The result is a never-been-shown painting titled Gubang Bigul from the Intipati Budaya series dated 1989, created as a body of work assessed by Professor Nakashima. This work was well received, and he passed with flying colours.

“I presented him with this work, and he responded positively. I found my signature style when transitioning from Intipati Budaya to Alun-Alun Marista.”  

Tom Nakashima is the nephew of George Katsutoshi Nakashima (1905 – 1990), an American woodworker, architect, and furniture maker who was one of the leading innovators of 20th-century furniture design and a father of the American craft movement. An artist himself, Tom Nakashima’s artistic practice is inspired by George Nakashima’s incarceration at Camp Minidoka in Hunt, Idaho, in 1942. 

The work of Brazilian post-war artist Calasans Neto (1932 – 2006) resonates with Awang Damit’s practice from a subject matter and stylistic standpoint as well as through medium, such as acrylic painting, woodcut, and printmaking work. Calasans Neto’s graphic engraving work depicting creatures such as goats, whales and birds is symbolic of culture and universality.  

Awang Damit’s printmaking work is equally exceptional. He has excelled in this technique since the early 1980s. While his subject matter varied between 1980s and 1990s: exploring the global socio-political landscape such as issues in Palestine, his focus in pursuit of “the meaning and value in life” persists. In his earlier works, he occasionally employed Arabic calligraphy and Jawi script – a homage to his Islamic faith.  


The profound journey


The Intipati Budaya series (1985 to 1995) is seen as the leading impetus for Awang Damit’s ensuing creative output. Regarded as one of the significant bodies of work in his prolific career, the Intipati Budaya encapsulates tropical flavour and natural aesthetics that liberates him from life events. Its raw form and native characteristics, coupled with the aged patina of the painted surface, make the series visually tantalising.

The artist’s statement reads: “It is a breathing space in which I feel so much freedom – free from pain, confusion, agony, and all the events that suffocate life.”

Dream of a Warrior (1988) is a fine example of native qualities subtracted to its basic elements. It comprises a colour palette that sets the barometer for Awang Damit’s later works.

As we examine Alun-Alun Marista series (1996 to 2002), a striking progress is reflected in the execution of expressions.

In Marista “Peninggalan Semusim” (2002), every mark and paint layer depict self-assuredness that corresponds to the theme’s framework. Awang Damit’s bolder application of vibrant and darker colours begins to unravel towards the end of the series.

“Contextually, the Marista series is a journey of the self, searching for an active, constructive, and progressive aspect of a culture. It reveals a complex and ambiguous yet controlled painting within the duality of figuration and abstraction, being both intimate and expressionistic. Imagery from everyday life essence of childhood experiences become integral and determine the potential visual structures,” reads his statement.    

His quest for self-discovery has arrived at a philosophical juncture that explores life’s unpredictability, as summarised in the Iraga series (2003 – 2011). The paintings’ tactile quality is more pronounced: rough surfaces, deliberate scratch marks, and translucent drip marks are the makings of thunderous compositions.

Iraga “Awal Musim” (2003) exemplifies nature’s changing season through the dark skies and a glimmer of hope. 

In this series, Awang Damit shifts his emphasis to his surroundings. “Nobody can predict and interpret God’s warning even with great knowledge or great sensitivity, and nobody can protect themselves even with great physical strength,” described Awang Damit in his statement.

The following series named Payarama (2012 to 2015) unravels structured compositions that depict complex expressions. As illustrated in Payarama Baru “Tentang Ubi Kayu” (2015), lighter shades of blue are introduced that effectively uplift the soul.

Awang Damit continues to capture the dynamics of natural forces through an unrestrained approach.

In Garismega series (2013 to the present), Awang Damit circles back to self-contemplation that extends beyond the introspective mind. “The paintings are based on a ‘reflective self-referential experience’ – encapsulating a journey and traces of a humble livelihood as a farmer as well as the plight of fishermen facing the challenge of time and nature. The art is based on the concept of simplicity, harmony and balance demonstrated through figuration and abstraction, with qualities veering between intimate and expressionistic, and intellectual and intuitive. It speaks of the essence of human value, society, culture and environment through research, experiences, and memories. In its entirety, it is a continuous art journey that searches the meaning and value in life,” according to his statement.

As illustrated in Garismega “Tribute…Tentang Ubi…Ingatan Buat Arwah Bapaku” (2016), the colour palette of green, red, black, and white is identical to Dream of a Warrior (1988) from the Intipati Budaya series. Yet the intensity of gestural expressions has matured through time.


Sketching harmony and balance


Within the body of work in Oriental Aesthetics, Awang Damit has produced ten oil paintings that are based on a selection of the many sketches created throughout his artistic career. “I make sketches and drawings in a sketchbook before applying my ideas onto canvas,” said Awang Damit. 

Titled From Sketches to Sketches, the series depicts simplified compositions with linear structure and a minimal colour palette, such as vast white space to achieve the “unfinished” quality of a sketch. He highlights the process of drawing and sketching ideas as highly significant and says it is as important as the finished work.  

Swiss artist Emma Kunz (1892 – 1963) emphasised the act and process of drawing geometric abstraction “not as formalism, but as a means of structuring philosophical, scientific, and spiritual ideas”. Catherine de Zegher wrote: “Emma Kunz generated her own form of thinking through the physical activity of drawing. Her drawings are acts of successive approximation, a vigorous search to find the parts and connections of an unseen whole.” [viii]

Similarly, for Awang Damit, who is searching for artistic closure – a conclusion – explained: “I am at the end of the road, and I am looking for a decision. I have arrived at a confluence of bridging East and West – the meeting of Malay Muslim thought and Western art. I would like to think that Oriental Aesthetics is a holistic attempt in viewing my work in totality.” 

Awang Damit’s calm and gentle demeanour is reflected through his work that strikes the right chords of harmony and balance. He maintains a peaceful state of mind before confronting the blank canvas as he works on one painting at a time.  

Through this systematic approach, each painting gets his undivided attention. He remarked: “There is no repetition of composition in my paintings. The characteristics vary as I spend adequate time on one canvas at any one time.” The result is a fulfilling visual delight that satisfies the elements of spiritual expression and adornment.  


Eastern charm, western style

In 2019, Awang Damit conceived a captivating painting titled “……..” that features layers of succinct palette knife and broad-brush marks composed of blue, yellow, grey, white, black and streaks of red.   

On the top left of the canvas, an incision through the canvas is deliberately preserved, echoing Lucio Fontana’s (1899 – 1968) slash series based on his Spatial concept. Here, Awang Damit’s heavy impasto creates a sense of controlled chaos that forms two-dimensional sculptural quality through its surface treatment.             

This vibrant painting titled Estetika Timur (2021) emanates an infectious energy unsurpassable from any other in this series of work.     

The gestural strokes of red, yellow, blue and streaks of white and black in all directions reveal the physical act of painting itself. 

To define Awang Damit’s style as “action painting” may be conflicting with the earlier assertion that his work involves careful planning, as the paintings of the action painters were not meant to portray objects intrinsically or even specific feelings. Instead, they were intended to “touch the observer deep in the subconscious mind, evoking a sense of the primeval and tapping the collective sense of an archetypal visual language through the artist painting unconsciously, and spontaneously, creating a powerful arena of raw emotion and action, in the moment.” [ix]

American art critic Harold Rosenberg (1906 – 1978) coined the term “Action Painting” in a “groundbreaking article” titled The American Action Painters published in the December 1952 issue of ARTnews that “defined a movement and a moment”. [x]

He wrote: “The painter no longer approached his easel with an image in his mind; he went up to it with material in his hand to do something to that other piece of material in front of him. The image would be the result of this encounter.”  

He further opined: “A sketch is the preliminary form of an image the mind is trying to grasp. To work from sketches arouses the suspicion that the artist still regards the canvas as a place where the mind records its contents – rather than itself the ‘mind’ through which the painter thinks by changing a surface with paint. 

If a painting is an action, the sketch is one action, the painting that follows it another. The second cannot be ‘better’ or more complete than the first. There is just as much significance in their difference as in their similarity. 

Of course, the painter who spoke had no right to assume that the other had the old mental conception of a sketch. There is no reason why an act cannot be prolonged from a piece of paper to a canvas. Or repeated on another scale and with more control. A sketch can have the function of a skirmish.” 

With this, we can argue that Awang Damit’s predisposition lies within the abstract expressionism/folk art genre rather than action painting. As a conclusion, in this painting titled Estetika Timur (2021), Awang Damit depicts linear strokes that suggest luxuriant foliage.  

This imagery is the opposite of Cambodian contemporary artist Sopheap Pich’s (1971) two-dimensional paintings of symmetrical composition using bamboo sticks, burlap, and dye. Yet similarity can be drawn from both Awang Damit’s and Sopheap Pich’s focus on preserving their cultural heritage in their own right. 

Known for his bamboo and rattan sculptures, Sopheap Pich’s artistic practice echoes a strong cultural resonance within Cambodian culture and personal significance for the artist. Primarily working with unassuming materials such as rattan and bamboo obtained from indigenous sources, he uses the traditional weaving technique to produce his colossal sculptures.  

Through this perspective, Awang Damit’s work embodies the Southeast Asian region, its landscape, and cultural traditions. It is high time that Awang Damit’s artworks receive universal appreciation and global recognition. A prolific artist, Awang Damit’s culturally sophisticated paintings are memorialised in time capsules to commemorate his intangible world.  



Sarah Abu Bakar 

31 May 2022 






[i] Southeast Asian Art Auction Benchmarks & Market Insights, Johnni Wong and Sarah Abu Bakar, The Edge Galerie and The Edge Media Group, 2018, page 47.

[ii] Bioretro: Awang Damit Ahmad 1985 – 2015, pantauIRAGA, 2015, page 4.

[iii] Dari Payarama ke Garismega: 2013 – 2020 (From Payarama to Garismega: 2013 – 2020), Manifestations of Inner Vibrations and Feelings in Awang Damit Ahmad’s Works, Dr. Muliyadi Mahamood, Henry Butcher Art Auctioneers and Galeri Prima, 2021, page 26.

[iv] 3 x Abstraction: New Methods of Drawing by Hilma af Klint, Emma Kunz,and Agnes Martin,The Drawing Center New York, Catherine de Zegher and Hendel Teicher (eds.)., Yale University Press, 2005.

[v] A History of Western Architecture, Fourth Edition, David Watkin, Lawrence King Publishing, 2005.

[vi] Ways of Seeing, John Berger, BBC documentary, Episode 1, 1972.

[vii] My intention is to generalise the description of style through its similarity and by no means attempting to categorise Awang Damit Ahmad’s artwork as such.

[viii] 3 x Abstraction: New Methods of Drawing by Hilma af Klint, Emma Kunz,and Agnes Martin,The Drawing Center New York, Catherine de Zegher and Hendel Teicher (eds.)., Yale University Press, 2005 pg. 137.

[ix] The Easy Part of the Hard Problem: A Resonance Theory of Consciousness, Cognitive Neuroscience, a section of the journal Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, Tam Hunt and Jonathan W. Schooler, 2019.

[x] Top Ten ARTnews Stories: Not a Picture but an Event, Barbara A. MacAdam, 2007,



Awang Damit Ahmad – Estetika Timur, 2021, Mixed media on canvas 225cm x 225cm
Awang Damit Ahmad – Estetika Timur, 2021, Mixed media on canvas 210cm x 210cm
Awang Damit Ahmad – Estetika Timur, 2021, Mixed media on canvas 210cm x 210cm
Awang Damit Ahmad – Estetika Timur, 2021, Mixed media on canvas 210cm x 210cm
Awang Damit Ahmad – EOC Gubang Bigul, 1989, mixed media on canvas, 180cm x 150cm