Anuar Rashid is back... again... for now

loading Anuar Rashid: not a poet who is adept at arranging words.

Malaysian Art’s prodigal son, Anuar Rashid, is back. Again, big time and with a vengeance, a new passion and the same kick-ass attitude. Behold his magnum opus aptly dubbed Where myth, divinity and logic collide in a major defining exhibition, “Mihraj: A Flight Into Space”, with the mock self-deprecatory subtext, “I Am Just a Story-Teller”.

“Mihraj” proves to be more than a vindication. It is a feat that has gone beyond painting, a far cry from “Phatanum”, his actual comeback in 2006 after a 20-year hiatus which received only a whimper of a reception. Framed as a twin-pronged “The End of the Beginning” and “The Beginning of the End,” “Mihraj” has catapulted the now-you-see-him-now-you-don’t Anuar back into the top echelon from his 1978 precocity when, at 20, he was declared by none other than Syed Ahmad Jamal (1929-2011, later a Datuk) as “the new sensation of the Malaysian Art scene, perhaps its brightest star yet.”

“Mihraj” with its magnificent luminescent hues has a double meaning of an illusion, a deception, as well as, in Arabic, the “Ascension to Heaven”.

Anuar was to have “returned” in 2004, but massive floods in Kedah claimed his paintings, materials and research dossier. That was an unwelcome déjà vu – some 20 of his paintings left in the custody of a friend many years ago were also inadvertently destroyed.

A work from the Inderaputra series.

“Phatanum”, which is Greek for “genesis” and a kind of hermaphrodite frog, was held at the Alpha Utara Gallery in Penang in 2006 and revisited his Inderaputra epiphanies – his series welding Malay mythology, magic, power and beauty, and creation and destruction. The centrepiece is The Birth of Inderaputra (1978), from the Hikayat Inderaputra (Akayet Inra Patra in Jawi). The series was unleashed in its entirety in his solo, “Wind, Water and Fire”, at Hotel Equatorial, KL in 1982.

“Mihraj” is the transcendental triumph of spirit over life’s vicissitudes over (other people’s) meanness, greed and treachery, what with a hellish incarceration in Pondok Inabah in Kuala Nerang and Anuar smiling his way through them all with innocence, compassion and humanism.

The mythical legend of Inderapura parallels Anuar’s own earthly experience, with the complex infusion of esoteric Quantum Physics – “We are actually space. Nothing is solid,” he said, conscious of the cyber-age and the etymological origins that mark Man’s self-destruction.

It is also a wormhole foray into another dimension in time and space, and the foreboding of Armageddon and a cataclysmic crescendo of tsunami-like and diabolical ecstasy.

And how “The Bird That Witnesses” lodged in the lintel of the Wat Nikhodaram (in Alor Star) is not there anymore, having “flown” away, evoking a sense of illusion, liberation and nihilism.

Finally, in “Mihraj”, Anuar has found closure of sorts at the age of 56 in a grandiloquent obeisance to the infinite power and beauty of the Almighty, Yang Maha Esa, the elixir of the Firdaus paradise, with symbolic ascendance returning of the 99 appellations of Allah, the Al-Hash and the Assamualikum Ya Bani Adam.

Anuar often protests that he never set out to be the rebel that many branded him to be. Only, he’s a little different. He is more a non-conformist to popular thought or “accepted” norms of behaviour.

When studying at the Mara Institute of Technology (graduated 1979), he was the target of lecturers, with even Redza Piyadasa blacking out a large section of Anuar’s painting, Kota-Kota, making it his (Piyadasa’s) Art Proposition (1978), stating in stencilled letterings that he bought it for RM130 and was offering it for RM500.

Another lecturer, Sulaiman Esa, derisively dismissed Anuar as “a tukang cerita” (storyteller).

The Tales of Inderaputra: The Craftsman's Bird Lands, A Man-made Bird.

Works from Wind, "Water and Fire: Asma Al- Husna".

In 1979, Anuar clinched the Minor Award in the hugely coveted Salon Malaysia national art awards, beating many of his lecturers. By then, he was toasted in solos in KL, Singapore, Johor Bahru and Penang. His work was selected for the Asian Art Show in Fukuoka, Japan in 1980, and the major 25 Years of Malaysian Art exhibition in 1981.

Then in 1982, Anuar suddenly “disappeared.” But he was actually on a “high” with fellowships and travel grants, artist’s residencies and solo exhibitions all over Europe – in Romania, Switzerland, Italy, Russia and Yugoslavia – and accepting an unprecedented offer to “work” in a leading art institution in France. In 1986, he won the Starr Foundation fellowship of the Asian Council of New York to visit the US. Among others, he had solos in Ferrara (Italy), London (Britain), Yugoslavia and Prilep (Macedonia).

Years later, he was to confide about his “lost” years, how he was struggling to “come to terms with myself,” and how he was searching for something: “Perhaps, my lost soul.”

On his return in 1986, he was commissioned to do a mural entitled Wind, Water and Fire in Central Market, the KL cultural hub, but it was unceremoniously knocked down during major renovations.

Then, Anuar did a self-vanishing “David Copperfield” again. He hightailed back to Kedah ostensibly to lead an eccentric anti-social life, spending a lot of time in mosques and suraus, sometimes doing interior decorations and also running a tourist-product business which folded.

Close-up of one of the works from "Wind, Water and Fire: Asma Al-Husna".

The Spider.

Anuar Rashid and his work, Jin.

The Bird That Witnesses: Wat Nikhodharam.

“I walked off the art scene,” he said with deadpan face. “There was too much suffering,” he said in a tone reminiscent of Kurtz in Joseph Conrad’s 1899 novel, Heart of Darkness, as if mumbling, “The horror, the horror.”

“Some people thought I was dead.”

His other “affiliation” was to Anak Alam (active 1973-1984), the bohemian independent-spirit artist’s coterie and colony, which was tragically marked by the suicide of fellow Anak Alam acolyte, Sahiri. He accompanied the body in its long journey back to Johor for burial (1979).

“No one understands the beauty of a mad man’s world except the mad man,” he had said ambiguously.

Yes, Anuar is back at his former ebullience, only much greater and with sublime consciousness: “Using my sense of touch, I grope my way into the darkness of the night, searching for answers. With my sense of sight, I observe the various sand shapes of the beautiful world created by Him. With my sense of smell, I could distinguish a heap of faeces from a sandalwood flower, a cempaka flower or a pink rose. With my sense of hearing, I could listen to my heartbeat and know that I am still alive.

“I am not a poet adept at arranging words nor an intellectual in an ivory tower… I am not an ulama with in-depth knowledge about religion, about Heaven and Hell.” Anuar may not be a Latiff Mohidin, but his candour certainly stirs and soothes.

Is this ingénue of a dervish back for good, or will this be another mirage? Man is just like the atoms hurtling in the huge universe.

“Mihraj: A Flight Into Space” is held at the National Visual Arts Gallery, KL from June 21 to October 10. It is curated by Ameruddin Ahmad.

Ooi Kok Chuen has been writing on the art scene at home and abroad for 30 years.

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