Barking Up the Right Tree


Her accomplishments using colour and her unique incorporation of eucalyptus bark in her works are among the qualities that set Datuk Sharifah Fatimah Syed Zubir apart as an artist.

In the finest example of Nature in painting, Datuk Sharifah Fatimah Syed Zubir has “bud-grafted” the bark of the eucalyptus onto her canvas, with its rusty-reddish brown permutations, uncanny textures and raffish edgy tendrils.

The barks, tempered, treated and tenderised, are blended seamlessly with acrylic paint – sometimes with a little modelling paste for good measure – and an assortment of other small strips of plaited pandan, papyrus and handmade paper as collages to create visions of imaginary blotches that could even resemble figures or vistas of mock lofty landscapes or sceneries. In these, the irregular bark flanges simulate certain forms or shapes reminiscent of her earlier more lyrical abstractions and divine meditations.

The new series, dubbed Song of Eucalyptus, celebrates 50 unbroken years of iconic art-making by the artist many know as the “First Lady of Malaysian Modernism (and Abstraction)”.

Sharifah, 69, is a pioneer art student from the Mara Institute of Technology (now a university), graduating in 1971 with the Best Student Award. She pursued her BFA at Reading University (with 1st Class Honours and Best Student Award) and MFA at the Pratt Institute under the John D. Rockefeller III fellowship, clinching the Studio Scholar Award.

In a brilliant career, she has snared the Minor Award in Malaysian Landscape exhibition (1972) with Brown Landscape (acrylic, emulsion), and one of the three major awards in the hugely prestigious Salon Malaysia in 1979, with her works, Angin Mawar (Rose of the Wind, 1978) and Tribute to Rumi (1977). She won the Minor Award in the Young Contemporary Artists (BMS) competition in 1981, with her work, Meditation. In 2003 she bagged the 3rd Prize in the 2nd Biennial of Contemporary Painting of the Islamic World in Tehran in Iran.

For her tremendous contributions to art, Sharifah was conferred the Anugerah Darjah Dato Setia Diraja Kedah, which carries the title “Dato”, by the Sultan of Kedah in 2006.

For outstanding achievements (Arts, Culture and Entertainment), she was given the Women of Excellence Award Malaysia (WEAM) in 2014.

An artist’s worth is validated by the type of institutions having the works, and Sharifah’s provenance include the Museum of Modern Art (Moma), New York; the National Art Gallery of Fine Arts, Jordan; the Museum of Contemporary Art, Dubrovnik, Croatia; the Sharjah Art Museum, United Arab Emirates; the Singapore Art Museum; and the Brunei Museum.

From her ITM days and even as she worked as curator at the National Art Gallery until quitting to go into art full-time in 1990, Sharifah has been spinning her abstract works about intimations of life in poetic cadences of reverie and imagination in vibrant colours.

After her subdued organic forms at ITM, she relentlessly reeled into one series after another, the devotional Nursiyah (Black Light), the ethereal Chasm of Light, the meditative Mindscape, Joy Is The Theme, Celebration, Pancawarna…

The works of this supreme colourist delve into the quintessential space of Nature, of the divine, revolving around the reciprocity functions of “unifying bonds of colour and the mystifying bonds beyond colour…”

Her eye-opening Pancawarna exhibition at the NAG in 2012 is a mini survey of her career since 1990.

Whatever the “influences”, she just absorbs and imbibes, never imitating. She is unafraid of change. Just when her followers were lulled by her aromatic cadences of colour spectrums, she launched into using modelling paste combined with acrylic for a tactile veneer in Touch The Earth in 1992, and then reprised it in 1996, using palette knife.

After this tour de force came another – more impressive – panoply of pageantry and divinity: Garden of the Heart (2005- 2011), sans the gestural for the first time and incorporating telepuk gold-thread embroidery and dyes, creating mock minarets of majestic beauty, and with the objectification of the shahadah as an Islamic sacrament. It is also a recourse to rich Malay traditions and roots; memories of palace tenun arts practiced by her mother Rokiah Hassan in the 1930s-1940s.

Then came the fortuitous meeting with the eucalyptus at the Rectory Art Space in Guangzhou, China, in March 2014 while she was preparing for her solo at Pipal Fine Art’s Canton Place in China. On her second visit, she “shanghaied” a full suitcase of eucalyptus barks back, and the rest is bark-story.

With the innate skills of a Kurt Schwitter, Sharifah combines compositional flair and astuteness in homogenising the obtrusive barks and other alien strips to make her work a fascinating cartography of discovery: threadbare mesh like a Saunier print, a spatter of silvery white paint, ribbed lines across layered colours and gorgeous peeks of underpainting, a pinch of mengkuang weft, frayed edges, and sticking bristles in the centre of objects left intact for added dimensionality…

Raw beauty with the bloodwood strips used as symbols, signifiers, shapes, objects and aesthetic elements in an ambiguous space to create a visual exploration of great relish; a tight pirouette between the painterly and the readymade, the natural and the artificial, the intuitive and the intentional, illusions of the static and movement.

The layers of the bark have appealing nuances of colours but what is also appealing is that the bark is impervious to insects. Known locally as pokok kayu putih, eucalyptus oil is used as a preservative insect repellent. Sharifah glosses over the barks for extra tenacity and a satiny sheen.

The dominant browns exude a sense of stability, earthiness, warmth and strength. New colour permutations are also discernible for a wider palette repertoire. In some works, they resemble mountains in Chinese ink paintings.

Besides, the barks give the works an aura of antiquity.

The series was first partly unveiled in limited range in an exhibition entitled Recent Works at The EDGE Galerie, KL, in May-June 2015, before the fully dedicated show, Song of Eucalyptus, at the Segaris Art Centre, Publika, KL.

Song of Eucalyptus marks again Sharifah’s daring to change and traverse new terrains, with the bark representing Nature in all its complexities and beauty, the resilient sediments of time, a mock impasto epidermy, and the paradox of transiency as well as perpetuity.

That she dared get out of the comfort zone – that she dared and knew how to break convention, yet retain the spirit and substance of her stylistic and aesthetic oeuvres – shows how biologically ingrained and attuned she is to the dynamics and internalised ecosystem of art-making, and more importantly, the innately expressive and imaginative quality.

She has travelled far and wide, literally and spiritually – a most fascinating journey. Flashback to a little 12-year-old who sold her first painting for RM30 to a schoolteacher in 1960, and who at the age of 24 (1972) was given her first solo exhibition at the Alpha Gallery in Singapore. For Sharifah, it’s a Eureka-lyptus revelation!

Dato Sharifah Fatimah Zubir’s Song of Eucalpytus is on show at Segaris Art Centre, Lot 8 Level G4, Publika, Solaris Dutamas, KL, from September 5 to November 1, 2017. The gallery is closed on Mondays.

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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