This artist dives deep into his memories to explore mortality, his roots and the complexities of everyday life.
By Emilia Ismail
One can’t help but be curious about what inspires visual artist Hasanul Isyraf Idris’ trippy artwork. Themes and imageries of life and death, memories and fantasies, order and chaos take a life of their own in the higher-dimensional reality of his pieces.
On first look, they seem absurd, alien and confusing: shrimps trapped by spider web in a garden, men in decontamination suits cleaning up a blob-like figure, an erupting splash of half-cut poultry and fish, but study them long enough, and you’ll realise Hasanul has taken a deep dive into his memories to explore the mystery of life and the wonders of the unknown.
Clash of Pigments, 2010
Under the representation of Richard Koh Fine Art, the former teacher has held six solo exhibitions and has shown in Malaysia, Singapore, Brunei, India, Switzerland, Indonesia and the United States.
His first solo exhibition titled Clash of the Pigments (2011) used images inspired by his youth—science fiction films, lowbrow art and graphic novels—to address his personal and internal struggles as a young Malay artist. At that time, he felt there was no freedom in the local arts scene for a Malay artist as society inextricably linked art made by Malay artists to the Islamic religion.
Wiskey Selasih Invasion, 2012
His second solo exhibition was a departure from his first which served as a personal statement on the state of the art scene. In Back from Planet Luvox (2014), Hasanul shared a glimpse of his world as he dealt with his mother’s illness and her eventual demise, with the aid of a commercially available drug Luvox.
Through a weird blend of skeletons, sea creatures and garden-variety bugs and birds, Hasanul explored mortality by isolating stray thoughts and emotions from the time spent with his mother, turning them into visually puzzling scenes that show him coming to terms with her condition.
Exploring his roots
Although known for his successful solo exhibitions, Hasanul also participated in numerous group exhibitions, managed the Penang-based Run Amok collective and curated various exhibitions because “different networking means different connections and ideas,” he says.
The results can be seen in his recent solo exhibitions as new imagery and settings began to emerge alongside Hasanul’s usual marine life inspirations.
Intense Light to Lena, 2017
In his HOL Chapter 2.3, Wound : Environment of Naga and Doubt (2018) exhibition, the Perak native draws from an eerie remove, illustrating a distant but familiar post-apocalypse future, where groups of people are divided into departments in charge of border control, medical aid, conservation and preservation.
He sourced the visuals and stories from his parents who lived through the 1959 riots in Pangkor island. It was two years after Malaya gained independence from the British and tensions broke out between the Malay and Chinese communities on the small island.
‘It was a time of chaos and alienation—buildings were burned, no boats were coming in, no one could leave the island. It was a particularly traumatic time for my mother, who is a Chinese,” says Hasanul, whose father is Malay.
Exploring the complexities of everyday life
Even ordinary daily activity takes on new shapes and meanings in Hasanul’s world. In his latest exhibition HOL: Scab: Crying Tiger In The Night Market (2019), Hasanul presents familiar subjects commonly found in the kitchen, such as cooking paraphernalia and ingredients in vividly pleasing colours. This body of work focuses on the chaotic and brutal cooking process to draw parallels to the complexities of everyday life.
Air Door Marinate, 2019
‘For me, the heart of a house, which nurtures the growth of the house’s occupants, is the kitchen. The kitchen is like a place of metamorphosis for the ingredients. Cooking can be quite chaotic. Hasty chopping, mincing, slicing, worm probing, gut ripping, meat sizzling, boiling, simmering and so on are part of cooking processes I dealt with almost every day which felt brutal to me. Changing the structure of once-alive poultry, meat, crustacean, fruit and vegetable into edible matter is a contemplative process to the mind, heart and senses,’ he says.
Having gone through the most emotional and universal human experiences – fatherhood, the loss of his mother, his brother’s battle with cancer – Hasanul masterfully translates his anxieties and inner struggles into equally complex works, not only sharing what it was like to live through them but also lessening their hold on him.
As his psychedelic colours become increasingly vibrant, his themes get darker, showing his propensity for playing with opposing ideas in his artmaking. Through Hasanul’s clear sense of wicked contradictions, he reminds us how artful existential dread can be.
All images courtesy of the artist
Emilia Ismail is a writer and publisher. Her articles can be found in The Star and Penang Monthly. Her publishing company, Flatplan Publisher, worked on artist Thomas Powell’s debut book Chinese Zodiac and More.