Wandering Souls in a Forbidden Land

loading Di Ruang Tamu.

The early-departed art prodigy Zulkifli Mohd Dahalan portrayed Paradise as lost after May 13, 1969.

Ruang Dapur (collection of Universiti Sains Malaysia). Note: Work shown is a replica, as original is on loan to a Singapore exhibition.

Realiti Berasingan – Satu Hari di Bumi Larangan.

Humans were shown in large paintings like bare-forked animals, genitals et al on the fringe of development in one, and in another, living a hedonistic hurried lifestyle in an urban setting with bikes and cars vrooming in on jaywalking pedestrians.

Done in the first half of the 1970s, this travesty of frail, emaciated human forms bereft of clothes were stunning, shocking departures from the Malaysian painterly oeuvres of idyllic landscapes, staid portraitures, and then-new Abstract permutations and even the Conceptual Art underpinnings of the 1974 Towards A Mystical Reality.

It was way out, far out. And “cool”.

Radical, revulsive, ribald and revolting works come from the brushes of the then-unheralded art prodigy Zulkifli Mohd Dahalan (1952-1977), a founding member of the loose cooperative Anak Alam (Children of Nature/Spirit of the Land). The group formed by Latiff Mohidin, Zulkifli, Mustapha “Tapa” Ibrahim and in his absence Ali Rahamad @ Mabuha in 1974, espoused a trajectory different from the figurative tradition of the Angkatan Pelukis SeMalaysia (APS), of which Zulkifli, Tapa and Ali were also a part of, although membership in both art coteries were informal.

Forty years after his death, Bumi Larangan, on show at the Kuala Lumpur National Art Gallery (NAG) until July 2, reprised the 1978 posthumous tribute exhibition with works from the family collection and those from the NAG. The hardcover book of the exhibition, complete with a video and curated by Nur Hanim Khairuddin, is complete with interviews with core Anak Alam members and family members.

Ruang Tengah Sebuah Rumah.


For precocity, Zulkifli, fondly known as “Jo”, can be compared to the inscrutable Japanese ukiyo-e artist (Toshusai) Sharaku, who was active in a heady 10-month period from 1794-1795 and disappeared as mysteriously as he emerged. Like Sharaku who, however, depicted kabuki actors, Zulkifli’s figures in a living purgatory all have their faces in profile, never staring at the viewer, who is instead given the role of a voyeur.

In only 10 years of active painting – his scatological figures are surmised to have emerged around 1971 – Zulkifli left two of the most iconic masterpieces in Malaysian art among his legacy when he died of Hodgkin’s disease on August 23, 1977:

1. Shops (1973, acrylic on canvas, 157.5cm x 267cm)

2. Realiti Berasingan – Satu Hari di Bumi Larangan (Separate Reality, 1975, enamel paint on board, 244cm x 366cm)

These are huge-sized works, with the Bumi Larangan triptych done boldly in monochrome. Both are in the collection of the NAG, which has five of his works (in a 2003 inventory).

Because Zulkifli, the son of an ustaz from Klang, sported long hair and a moustache he was surmised to have derived his inspiration from hippie culture and Woodstock. Seeing that he was self-taught, critics of the day branded his art “caricature”, “naïve” and “child-like”. All these are off the mark, and it doesn’t help that most of his works – the smaller paintings and his drawings – are marked simply as Tanpa Tajuk (Untitled), thus making interpretations open ended.

There were perhaps deeper, more sardonic concerns at play at a time thought of as a vacuum, a psychotic national inertia, in the wake of the internecine May 13, 1969 racial strife which impacted KL the most. Many lost their lives and properties were set ablaze in mayhem that singes the Malaysian consciousness even today.

It was Paradise Lost!

When Malaya won Independence, presumably on a platter, from the British in 1957, artists went on a delirious binge celebrating the country’s beautiful landscapes and multi-cultural ethnic charms. Many were thus shell-shocked by the racial conflagration.

Poster of the 1978 posthumous exhibition at Lincoln Centre, KL.

In Shops, figures male and female are clothed in fiery red, creamy hues, lightly peppered hash-brown and dark brown, but these are unlikely to be racial profiling. They are all shown barefooted, even those coming out from the shoe store. There are hints of Chinese businesses in prominent signboards and people passing and milling around the “Bar” with its inviting images of frothy beer. It was one of the few works then to cross racial stereotypes, especially in the wake of the 1971 National Culture Congress that placed Malay culture and Islam at the core of the newly guided cultural policy. But Anak Alam was impervious to such “Seni untuk Masyarakat” mantra, just like the Asas ‘50 (Angkatan Sasterawan ‘50) had no truck with them.

The denizens of Shops seem to be wandering aimlessly like lost souls, some trying to cross the busy-looking roads. Everyone seems to be in a tearing hurry, although there is the odd person sembang (loitering) in front of a shop and a beggar who seems invisible to passers-by. Some are probably having their teh tarik at roadside stalls under makeshift canopies and tree shades on the top left edge of the picture. At the left bottom end, a man with goggles and a crash helmet on a bike, probably a Triumph with registration plate B9760 (for the 4-D punters), has a maniacal look as he cuts into the picture, with a pillion to boot.

 Even when full frontal, the people are depicted either looking to the left or to the right.

In 1974 there was also the peasant revolt in Baling headed by student leaders Anwar Ibrahim (later deputy prime minister) and Hishamuddin Rais, who fled to Belgium to evade arrest.

Zulkifli must have had empathy if not sympathy for the plight of the lower classes, and was known to be intolerant of Big Brother oppression and suppression, and hypocrisy in general.

Zulkifli may also have been influenced by an international cartoon exhibition at the NAG in September 1973 featuring works from nine countries but unconscionably, his stripping-down of Man to his barest and most vulnerable state may have to do with a Post-May 13 ennui and hints at the advent of consumer decadence, of inconspicuous consumption.

Penjual Kueh.

The scene is more relaxed in Bumi Larangan (Forbidden Land) with a proliferation of tree ferns, and where groups of people perform various activities in a park on the fringe of the city, with a menagerie of chickens, ducks, dogs and cats filling in empty spaces with people chatting, having a picnic, and four friends eagerly watching one prising open a durian, said to be an aphrodisiac.

The scene is reminiscent of The Garden of Earthly Delights (c.1495-1505), one of Hieronymus Bosch’s (c. 1450-1516) 16 triptychs. Incidentally, according to Yusoff “Volkswagen” Osman, the title “Separate Reality” could have been taken from the eponymous second novel of Mexican anthropologist Carlos Castenada (1925-1981), on the myths of the Yaqui Indians. (Yusoff also posited that Zulkifli’s work was closer to Pieter Bruegel the Elder, c.1525-1530 to 1959, than Bosch).

Another work, also in the NAG’s holding, Halaman Rumah Kami (1973, enamel on canvas, 75cm x 125cm), uses more flat Pop colours. It won the Best Artist Award in the inaugural Young Contemporary Artists Award (Bakat Muda Sezaman) in 1974. The award, by invitation to 13 artists with 37 works submitted, came with a RM2,000 travel grant, which the family sent to Zulkifli who was on a tour of West Asia and Europe. He covered India, Pakistan, Nepal, Iran, Turkey, Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, Greece, Frankfurt, Austria, Bulgaria and Yugoslavia.

In 1973 he also won a Special Award in the Man and His World competition.

His works depicting animals, plants and machines also have a surrealist bent with mutations of the human forms sprouting branches or morphological forms. Later works by Chan Kok Hooi and Noor Azizan Rahman Paiman develop such trajectories differently, while Ali came up with grotesque figures in his later works railing against war, and Zulkifli Yusof’s parody of human foibles is seen in his lecherous Ahmad and Professor Kangkong’s oeuvre.

The Burung Merpalang sculpture (reconstructed), based on a hybrid of an eagle and a pigeon.

Untitled (linoprint on paper).

On Zulkifli’s sudden death, a Memorial Tribute exhibition was organised at the Lincoln Centre, Jalan Ampang, KL, from June 23, 1978 to July 1, 1978. It was as good as a “retrospective” with some 127 works comprising pencil and ink drawings (sketches); paintings in watercolours, oil and acrylic; sculptures; linocuts and an etching, shown. The works were priced from only RM100 to RM600.

It moved poets Latiff Mohidin, Datuk Baha Zain and Pyan Habib to pen elegies for him on his death, the excerpts shown below:

Pyan Habib’s Tentangmu – Elegi Untuk Jo,

May 1979
Tentang mu
Teman-teman masih bercerita
Tentang burung merpalang
Yang pulang

Latiff Mohidin’s Akhirnya Kau Lepaskan
Jua (mengingati dzul d)

Darahmu tidak lagi mengalir
Dari hujung hujung berus
Kau telah jauh mengembara
Dari ‘taman di bumi larangan’

The Anak Alam coterie based in an old mansion near Padang Merbok (the present-day Akademi Seni Budaya Dan Warisan Kebangsaan [Aswara] complex) was a veritable crucible for some of the finest artists – the founders Ghafar Ibrahim, Siti Zainon Ismail, and later, the precocious Anuar Rashid, Yusof Gajah, Apai and K. Thangarajoo, the only non-Malay.

Zulkifli was said to be active at age 16, when he took part in a Young Artists exhibition (1968). That year, he joined the Angkatan Pelukis SeMalaysia (APS), formerly Majlis Kesenian Melayu and Angkatan Pelukis Semenanjung (formed 1958). He was virtually a resident artist at APS from 1973-1974. In 1971 he stayed with Indonesian artist Mozes Misdy in Medan together with Mustapha and another artist, Bakhtiar.

From 1958 to 1972, he was educated at the Petaling Jaya School and the Bukit Bintang Boys School. He never had a dedicated solo when alive, only a two-man show with Yusoff at Taman Jaya, Petaling Jaya in 1974, and he also took part in the Anak Alam graphic art group exhibitions from 1974 to 1976 at three different venues.

He would have been mighty pleased to know that his Bumi Larangan was among 55 works of 31 artists in the major Malaysian Art 1965-1978 exhibition at the Commonwealth Institute, Kensington High Street, London, on November 2-30, 1978 – the second time a major Malaysian art exhibition was held there, the first being in February 1966, featuring the works of 25 artists.

The painting was also featured, among others, in the Contemporary Paintings of Malaysia exhibition at the Asia-Pacific Museum, Pasadena, the US, in 1998, and the Between Generations (50 Years Across Modern Art in Malaysia) exhibition at Universiti Sains Malaysia, Penang, in December 2007.

Zulkifli was one of the 26 artists featured in the book, Modern Artists of Malaysia (Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka, KL, 1983, T.K. Sabapathy and Redza Piyadasa), 16 of whom have since died, as well as in the book Imaging Identities: Narratives in Malaysian Art (Volume 1) (Rogue art, 2012).

Ooi Kok Chuen, art-writer and journalist, is the author of MAHSURI: A Legend Reborn (Ooi Peeps Publishing), an adult contemporary ‘movel’ (a novel conceived as a mock movie) fantasy spun from a local legend.

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