UTARA –Still zealous after all these years

loading Yeong Seak Ling, Kampung Life Series (Kelantan Market) (Oil, 16in x 16in, 2010).

The Utara group ranks in local art folklore as one of the most enigmatic. After holding steady and highly appreciated exhibitions from 1977 to 1989, the group was out of the limelight for 22 years. But now, they are back for one last show.

IT HAS NO MANIFESTO, no annual subscriptions (initially RM400 fee with 15% from the proceeds of sales of works going to the group), no fixed meeting place or fi xed schedule, and no specific rules on admission although the number is kept small (how “small” is anybody’s guess). Its overarching principle and stylistic stance are also kept opaque although its bias towards “abstract” works is obvious.

We are talking about “Utara”, and as the name suggests, this group of artists is from the north of the country, as one would expect. More correctly, the group members are exclusively from Penang–Kedah. The only Perak link was that Yeong (Yan) Chee Chong (later known as Yeong Seak Ling) was born in that state.

Utara broke into onto a placid art scene with its inaugural exhibition in 1977 at the Dewan Sri Pinang (DSP) held on April 3–11. The works of Khoo Sui Hoe, Lim Chee Boon, Lim Kung Chooi, Syed Salleh Mustaff a and Yeong Seak Ling made a strong first impact, with all five divergent thrusts. Th e next year, Chong Hip Seng and Tang Hon Yin (later a Datuk) were added to the list, Hip Seng having just held a solo at DSP, while Hon Yin was just an emerging artist whose first solo would not happen until 1983.

Sharifah Fatimah Zubir (later a Datuk) and art teacher Sulaiman Jamaluddin were invited to join in 1980. When Sulaiman withdrew after two years “for personal reasons,” Judin Ahmad was roped in to replace him. The last to be admitted was Askandar Unglehrt, in 1987.

Except for the year 1983, the group had stoutly kept its annual commitments, in dual or even triple venues each time, until the last was held at the Galeri Maybank, Kuala Lumpur in 1989.

After a lapse of 22 years, the group has rounded up the ageing troops this year for one last hurrah – and hopefully more – in an exhibition at the Penang State Art Gallery on September 3–30. But the party is pooped. Two members have opted out – one, Lim Chee Boon, by default as he has long stopped painting to concentrate on religious faith-healing, while the other, the irreverent Askandar, could not join for personal reasons. And Kung Chooi and Sulaiman have passed on.

Khoo Sui Hoe,
Breaking Dawn (2011).

That leaves the “Magnifi cent Seven” – founder cum ideologue Sui Hoe (b. 1939), Syed Salleh (b. 1945), Yeong (b. 1948), Hon Yin (b. 1943), Hip Seng (b. 1950), Sharifah (b. 1948) and Judin (b. 1953). Their average age is 64.2 years!

Syed Salleh, despite his ill health brought about by diabetes, has a sophisticated body of works of intertwining tentacular patterns that harks back to the spirit of Anak Alam, although he was never a disciple; the wily Sui Hoe evokes spools of soothing drug-opiated hallucinations with his Minimalism that attempts to snuggle Man into the bosom of Nature; and Judin has shift ed from his earlier arabesque bent with Islamic motifs to an effl orescence of pastel tones.

Sharifah has moved into more structured vistas of spiritual reconnaissance and connectivity; Hon Yin while still “chasing rainbows” glacially shift s from the geographical panorama to a Colour Field patch tingling with sparse confetti dots; and Hip Seng shouts with his bold black and luminous outlines, “sculptured” configurations and odd latticed veneer.

Then there’s Yeong, the “renegade” by Utara’s unwritt en rule, with his HyperRealist larger-than-life figures evoking the halcyon kampung spirit and milieu.

Syed Ahmad Jamal (later a Datuk), writing in the Malaysian Art 57-87 catalogue, is close to target when he dubbed Utara a group that is “highly individualistic, without group philosophy, individual voices and the desire to express in unison.”

Chong Hip Seng.

Twist his arm, and Sui Hoe would not half-concede the group’s espousal to abstract art and with him even keeping his signature Shadow Man figures out of Utara, to be in solidarity with the others. Although Hip Seng, whom he is at pains to point out, “paints figures.”

A 1982 interview reveals a more blunt admission from Hon Yin that the group’s mission was to “redress the imbalanced pull toward traditional figurative in Malaysia.”

The vague general rider of the group is that it “seeks to partially fill the vacuum of contemporary art in the north, and hopes to meet the high expectations of its supporters,” but the statement in the 1989 Utara folder put it most eloquently: “…we have no desire to express in unison…Should not truth or beauty transcend cultural and geographical boundaries?...We have our dark moments of self-doubt and we have our private bridges to cross…At the end of the day…we have to find ourselves in our canvas. Ideas germinate, visions shift , and there you have it – an UTARA show!”

Syed Salleh Mustaffa


The selection to be an Utara-n is another mystery. Even some of the best buddies of Sui Hoe never got invited into its sacred “knights of the round table” sanctum, while “eligibility” is also a secret perhaps best known to Sui Hoe, its chief progenitor.

The wondrous ways of relationships do count. Sharifah and Kung Chooi were already on Sui Hoe’s radar when he invited them to show at his Alpha Gallery in Singapore in 1972/1985 and 1974 respectively, although Sharifah joined only in 1980 because of her studies overseas.

Such was the emphasis on the standards of the works done in the present that no distinction was obvious among the group between those with formal training (Sharifah, Sui Hoe, Judin, Syed Salleh) and those without.

For all the stringent standards, an uncharacteristic crack in 1987 saw the inclusion of two guest Dutch artists – Joop Hulskamp and Rity Jansen Heijtmajer, a practice followed by an invitation to Singapore collagist Goh Beng Kwan in 1989.

Selection is one thing, but once having selected, the group faced the “ignominy” of having their works being screened by their peers for quality and to make things more manageable. Open, give-and-take may be the official attitude, but being humans, and artists at that, there is bound to be jealousy, griping and sniping, the cavalier “my painting is better than yours” attitude, and competitiveness.

Tang Hon Yin, Silk Road #34 (142cm x 142cm, 2009).

...We have our dark moments of self-doubt and we have our private bridges to cross… At the end of the day… we have to find ourselves in our canvas.

Clashes there were, but obviously not explosive or dramatic enough to create a World War III scenario. Maybe, tolerance and prudence won the day, as the group members were very close, and at that time of scant exposures and opportunities, Utara’s offer of two to three exhibitions at different venues in Penang, Kuala Lumpur and Singapore was a godsend.

After 34 years without what one could label an Utara style the way one would think of the Nanyang Style, the Utara artists are all, at best, a menu of contemporary dances of narcissism. While it may be hyperbolic to say that Utara is Sui Hoe and vice versa, Utara does have its strengths in the artists selected, which indirectly points to Sui Hoe’s sagacity.

The artists do explore the various abstract permutations of Hard-Edged, Symbolism, Colour Field, Lyrical Abstraction and Post, Post-Painterly Abstraction, Asian-tinged philosophy of I-Ching and Hexagrams, the geometric to the organic and the lyrical.

When Sharifah coos her mantra: “I relate space and forms in space through colours,” she could well be speaking of the ways of say, Sui Hoe, Hon Yin or even Kung Chooi. But painting is but skin-deep. Th ere may be a congruity of colours among the artists, but it is as one would speak of tropical light, and colours are something no artist can rightfully claim paternity to.

Datuk Sharifah Fatimah Zubir.

An indirect force to the group would be Datuk Seri Lim Chong Keat, the architect-collector-agitator whose perceptive and trenchant commentary was a stabilising and motivational influence on the artists in the early years. It was at his Jalan Macalister house where many a meeting was held and the paintings stashed, while his Galleria gallery at Hutt on Lane provided useful cameo solos for most Utara artists.

So what happened to the group in the 22-year hiatus? It seems that the members started drifting apart, wrapped in their own extraneous commitments, and especially with Sui Hoe being based in the US for long spells and the others unwilling to take the initiative (maybe for fear of off ending him somehow), while there is also a claim on a dereliction of the quality of works.

The formation of ArtGrup in 2003 with Yeong, Hon Yin and even Sui Hoe involved in it, may seem like an attempt to clone Utara, but it certainly heralded Sui Hoe’s reconnection with the region when he set up the Alpha Utara Gallery in Penang in 2004, which links up the Alpha Gallery he set up in Singapore with seven others in 1970.

Although the stalwart Yeong strangely stayed away from most of Utara’s exhibitions in the 1980s while Sui Hoe was only showing the “abstract” facet of his repertoire, the annual Utara fare can be taken as a good barometer of the artistic development of the respective artists. For its verve and artistic accomplishments, Utara has inadvertently challenged the “centre” like no other, and while the voices are a babble, they have their distinctive timbre and resonance.

The exhibition, Utara – After Three Decades, will be held at the Penang State Art Gallery, Penang, from September 3–30. It will be officiated by Datuk Seri Lim Chong Keat on September 3.

Ooi Kok Chuen has been writing on the art scene at home and abroad for 28 years.

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