Acclaimed artist Ahmad Fuad Osman is one of the founding members of the Matahati artists’ collective which formed in the 1990s, harnessing language and cultural emblems from Malaysian society to address universal concerns such as the nature of history, faith, equality and violence.
Interview: Selina Ting
Images: Courtesy of the artist
Original Text published on COBO Social on 26 July 2019. Courtesy of COBO Social
An artist’s studio visit to Ahmad Fuad for a self-confessed “unstructured” discussion, which ranged from discussing the artist’s loyalty to long-term projects, to his views on political art. Ahmad Fuad began by welcoming an unstructured discussion as a useful tool for his own thinking, and a means of mental refreshment.
The following day, the artist is due to install This Is Certainly Not What We Thought It Was (2014), in an exhibition on Malaysia’s socio-political heritage at Museum and Art Gallery Bank Negara Malaysia in Kuala Lumpur. Malaysia is home, and where he paints. However, he also has a studio in Bali, where he works with objects. We wanted to ask about one of his best known cross border projects, the Enrique de Malacca Memorial Project, produced primarily for the Singapore Biennale in 2016, and extended this year for the Sharjah Biennale, entitled Journey Beyond the Arrow (curated by Zoe Butt). The project consists of a memorial, a portrait and a statue of an imagined Enrique, together with video documentation, artefacts and documents. The artist told us how he had read about Enrique de Malacca as a child, in a book debunking the legend of Ferdinand Magellan being the first person to circumnavigate the world, and instead presenting his slave Enrique as the most likely pretender to that title.
“I was just fifteen, sixteen. I thought: Wow, we have someone really from here.” Later, when Ahmad Fuad became an artist, the sense of responsibility towards this forgotten historical figure came to the fore: “When I thought about embarking on this project. I didn’t find it easy, because I couldn’t do justice to this character. It sounds small, he’s a slave, but I wanted to do justice to him. I could not present him in just one painting, one sculpture or a few prints. I thought, he needed to be presented as big as he was…. but I had no money!” The Singapore Biennale was a turbo charger for the project, but the artist had money, and very little time. The funding arrived with only two months to go before the Biennale. He found himself scrambling to assemble contemporary artefacts from museums, friends and antique shops and to commission replicas in the correct style. The sculpture, video and painting depended on finding the right person as a model: “I chose someone dark, looking somewhat like an aboriginal from Papua New Guinea. I wanted him to exude a mysterious character and not to be fixed in just one, specific space or place… I intentionally (chose somebody who could be) from the Philippines or from Malaysia, or from Indonesia. Because Filipinos claim him as Filipino, Malaysians claim him as Malaysian from Malacca, etc.”
The project harnesses a range of media and a willingness to experiment. We wondered what the artist’s natural medium is? The artist graduated as a painter, with a major in painting and minor in printmaking. But in the early 1990s when Ahmad Fuad was freshly out of school, there was hardly a market for sociopolitical work. “So, you had to work on something else; I worked with film, TV production and stage production.” One had to be versatile to survive. “The essence itself is the core, that is art. I always work with an essence, so it doesn’t matter whether it’s video or… your body. The medium will just help you to represent the idea. Some ideas you need just pencil and paper to realize. Why would you need a video? But there are some ideas where you need narrative. You need moving images to be able to present the idea. You have to use the right medium.”
Ahmad Fuad’s work involves fabricated history, as seen in the Enrique de Malacca Memorial Project and his Recollections of Long Lost Memories, where modern characters are photoshopped into historical photos. How can this delicate line of veracity and authorship be trodden, and is this a difficult area morally? “We have freedom to explore what we want to as artists. But I observe my visitors, because if people say “I don’t believe that,” it’s failed. We have to make sure that it’s still on this thin line. That’s very challenging. I aim to trigger some interest in the public, to get them interested in that history. Because, especially with this new, younger generation, I don’t think they will sit down and read volumes of history books for days and weeks. I think, one of the roles of artists today is to approach history.”
Books appear in Ahmad Fuad’s oeuvre, in works such as Close Up and This is Certainly Not What We Thought It Was. The book’s solidity and perceived trustworthiness as a document of historical truth seem to contrast with the computer world of deep fakes and fake news. However, the artist took his involvement with books to the next level as a response to the 1MDB scandal, which implicated previous Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak in a far-reaching embezzlement scandal. He felt the need to document his outrage at what was happening: “I compiled details of each painting (in the Prime Minister’s art collection). Each artwork and with the price that he paid for the artwork, of course with the money that he stole from our taxpayers. From the government.” At the time, he had no way of knowing whether his book could be published, and no sense that a change of government would, in fact, come. “Even if it wasn’t made public, at least I wanted this to be documented. Because, history is written by the winners. Just imagine, if the previous government (was still) here. If they had won the election, all this would really be closed down.”
Ahmad Fuad combines an urgency of response to life in Malaysia with a willingness to accept what cannot be changed. “The real world is the afterlife – I’m interested in Sufism… I remember my teacher talking to me once about sickness.” Some things must be accepted: “You just embrace it, if sadness comes. Because, you have no choice at times. We have only hope and dreams. We may plan on things, but nature works on its own.”
Everyday life is political. No artist living in this century can avoid being political. In fact, politics fuels some of the most critical and creative minds. “I’m more interested in the moral aspects of politics. I don’t want to position myself as a politically-engaged artist. I don’t want to be a video artist. I don’t want to be a painter. I don’t want to be a photographer… I want to be an artist, so today I can talk about politics. Tomorrow, I can talk about my mother. The day after that, I can talk about whatever that’s happening behind my place. I’m free.”
About the Artist
Malaysian artist Ahmad Fuad Osman, born in 1969, left his hometown of Baling, Kedah in 1987 to obtain a degree in Fine Arts degree at the then Intittute Teknologi MARA (now Universiti Teknologi MARA UiTM).
It was there that he met fellow artists Bayu Utomo, Hamir Soib, Ahmad Shukri and Masnor Ramli and formed the Matahati group. This artist collective, with an emphasis on exploring socio-political issues, has played a pivotal role in the careers of its members as well as in the development of Malaysian contemporary art.
His work has been exhibited in institutions such as the National Visual Art Gallery and Petronas Gallery Malaysia; Tacheles Berlin, Germany; The Seoul Metropolitan Art Museum, Korea; Singapore Art Museum; Gertrude Art Centre, Melbourne, Australia; Guangdong Museum of Art China; Yokohama Museum of Art, Japan; Manes Gallery, Czech Republic; and Red Mill Gallery, Vermont USA.
He divides his time between Malaysia and Bali, Indonesia.