Letting Sound Play on Sight, and Vice Versa

TO PARAPHRASE SHAKESPEARE, “If music is the food of love, paint on.”

Visual artists in Malaysia are faced with a widening spectrum of creative expressions, many of which are combinations of media. Some of them have been attuned to synthesising music into their art, achieving an intriguing cross-pollination of sight and sound. Their art-music collusion has over the years been producing fascinating patterns and spools. On one side, you have artists being inspired by music and incorporating that into their works and of musicians doing paintings; and on another, you see a duopoly of art and music.

Rachel Lee has gained traction in the Chinese music world with her heart-tugging ballads.

Most prominent in this latter promiscuity are Datuk M. Nasir (featured in Penang Monthly September 2014 edition), S. Amin Shahab, Maamor Jantan, Ajim Juxta (Raja Azheem Idzham) Rachel Lee Lin Chee, Ismadi Sallehudin, Adnan Othman and Lim Kean Huat.

In world art, we know of Wassily Kandinsky with his Synaesthesia of colours and musical notes, with even a colour code of sorts – yellow (trumpet), red (tuba / kettle drum), blue (cello / organ) … He was greatly inspired by composer-musician Arnold Schoenberg, who although he also painted himself, hired portrait painter Richard Gerstl (who eventually seduced and eloped with his wife).

J. M. Whistler and Polish composer Frederic Chopin were on the same wavelength in their Nocturnes, of which Chopin’s was used in vivifying Vincent van Gogh’s Starry Nights. Then there was Paul Klee being inspired by Bach’s Fugue in E Minor, while British painter-sculptor Idris Khan famously meshed and compressed Ludwig van Beethoven’s piano sonatas into mesmeric compositions. Barbara Ess, photographer of the pinhole, was also a musician, having played with bands like Ultra Vulva (she died on March 4, aged 76).

Maamor Jantan (right) and his wife Norfadila Ahmad on the mic, in one of their gigs.

Super talented Datuk M. Nasir and lyricist S. Amin Shahab both studied at the Nanyang Academy of Fine Art in Singapore, graduating in 1978. M. Nasir is a colossus in local music, as singer, songwriter, composer, musician; and in films, as actor, director, producer. In art, Amin Shahab is known for his surrealist works and his record kilometric scroll painting of world landmarks.

The full Orkes Keroncong Arif Lukisan (OKAL), with Maamor Jantan (seated) and his wife Norfadila Ahmad standing behind him.

Maamor, a protégé of Khalil Ibrahim, came into his own with his kampung paintings of dragonflies, and thus his Cakcibor moniker. He is the prime mover behind the Orkes Keroncong Arif Lukisan, which since November 2014, has had gigs at weddings and other functions in the Klang Valley, belting out standards such as Begawan Solo and Broery Marantika’s Widuri. It has also guest-performed in Indonesia, in the Solo Keroncong Festival and the Silaturahmi Nusantara Keroncong Festival in Yogyakarta. With Maamor Jantan as leader and double bass, the orchestra has his wife Norfadila Ahmad as singer, Syahmin “Pak Atan” Sukimin (violin), Mohar (flute), Sahrom Nordin (guitar), Shukri Nordin (cello), Mohd “Berg” Radzi (ukulele), artist Mohd “Cekri” Rizal (ukulele), fellow artist Adi Putra as singer, with Fadzrin and Syamim Shawal also as singers.

Ajim Juxta, 38, has been getting a lot of traction of late for his Arcology Series combining architecture and the environment in his art, and for winning Taiwan’s Young Artist Award in 2016. Trained as an architect (which he practised as for only three years), he concentrated on being an artist and a musician, fronting the Indie band, JuxtaposeD, featuring four of his brothers. He was Khazanah Nasional’s resident artist at the Acme Studios in London (2017), and a co-founder of the TitikMerah collective and gallery. He has his own gallery, Ajim Greydea Studio, at Taman Tun Dr Ismail in KL.

Rachel Lee (centre) with the original Messenger band, with Tan Jit Chuin on guitar and Yong Chai on drums.

Lim Kean Huat on classical guitar.

Painter-musician-composer-singer Rachel Lee Lin Chee, also known as Sky LC, is known in the Chinese-speaking entertainment world for her albums and performances with the Messenger band, especially after their first EP, Falling Asleep With My Guitar. Rachel Lee plays the guitar and the ukulele, and also teaches. She broke into the art scene big-time when she won the Malaysian-French Young Artist Award in 2015 with her suit of lyrical paintings about the wind and the passing of time, with accompanying original music composition. It was a joint Malaysian National Art Gallery-French Embassy event, offering the grand prize of an all-expenses-paid trip to Paris. She reprised her art solo and musical performance called Emotional Memories in KL on August 3-4, 2019.

Painter-printmaker-academician Ismadi Sallehudin plays the saxophone and violin, and his Manjalara Series fused painting and music. “Colours are like the music of the reed,” he had intoned.

Pop Yeh Yeh legend Adnan Othman has cut several albums (including with US label Sublime Frequencies) with The Rhythm Boys. Trained as a shoe designer in London, he paints in charcoal, oil, acrylic and pastel. Artist-photographer Lim Kean Huat plays the classical guitar and is the principal of the Connaught Academy of Art and Music Centre. He produced an album with his own compositions in 2007.

Another personality with an art-music background is Nicholas Choong, known for his experimental and conceptual art and recently, had his solo, Surface Tension, at G13 gallery in Kelana Jaya; in music, he has been a producer and sound engineer.

Pop Yeh Yeh star Adnan Othman with one of the record covers he cut with The Rhythm Boys.

Penang-born M. Shafarin Ghani has a way with brushes and stringed instruments such as the violin and the guitar. He learnt to play the violin from a friend in 1998. His recent solos are with Core Design in Selangor, in 2010 and 2012. Another violin enthusiast is John Oh Jyh Neng, a co-founder of the Malaysian Watercolorists Association, who learnt violin three decades ago under the tutelage of Datuk Woon Wen Kin (Penang’s Conservatory of Fine Arts) and Mr. Lum (PJ Music Centre) irregularly over a period of three years, reaching Grade 5.

“Violin was my first love,” said John Oh, 53, known more for organising art events like in the Sky Gallery Atmosphere 360 and the Kajang Art Heritage Gallery, and more recently has started a series of paintings on nudes. Veteran Chia Hoy Sai, 72, known for his portraitures and still life, can play the er hu, which he has demonstrated in his idyllic Tanjung Sepat home-cum-studio.

Veteran Sarawakian artist Lam Siong Onn, 84, was a concert violinist who had performed with the Sarawak British Police Orchestra, while Ahmad Omar, 78, who established the Perlis Art Association in 1995, taught English and Music in school.

“Violin is my first love,” says John Oh.

World-class art-photographer Eric Peris interpreted Beethoven’s Pastoral by hand-colouring his photographs of Kedah rice fields with a nostalgic touch. The orchestration of colours in landscapes as musical interludes is evident in the unique watercolours of Tham Siew Inn, while equestrian artist Lim Ah Cheng has also explored the sonorous rhythms of the symphony orchestra.

Among deceased artists, Idris Salam was the leader of his own jazz band and could play the clarinet and guitar, while Mansoor Ghazalie was never without his trusty harmonica: On the Malaysian Watercolour Organisation’s painting expedition of India in 1999, he regaled his fellow artists on the bus with his jovial tunes. Artist R. Jeganathan, one of the most unique Malaysian artists who incorporated Vastu Shastra of spatial geometry into his art repertoire, studied Indian classical music (“Vithvan” Veennai Arjunai), Tanjore Art and sculpture in Chennai. He died suddenly on February 23, aged 58.

A Jane-of-all-arts is Janet Teo, who conjures peonies of exquisite hues, on rice paper and Chinese fans. She can play the traditional Chinese zither, guzheng, and the harmonica, which she learnt from world harmonica champion Chong Ah Kow. Janet has even collaborated with Chong twice, she painting her peonies with Chong blowing mellifluous tunes about the peony on the harmonica.

The Peony Duo. Janet Teo conjuring up peonies on rice paper to the tune of peonies being played by world harmonica champion Chong Ah Kow.

Janet Teo plays the guzheng. She can also play the harmonica and Chinese drums.

Yudi Yap, who is trained in art and music at the Malaysian Institute of Art, is a popular chanson of the shi dai qu, the Shanghai pre-War genre.

Kamal Sabran, who dubbed himself a “noisician” with the Space Gambus Experiment (SGE), fuses traditional indigenous sounds with modern electro-acoustic instrumentations while Goh Lee Kwang is a sound artist-cum-composer.

Ipoh-born Eric Keoh Kee Chong, 58, the director of Vocal Talents Music in KL, took up painting seriously from 2005. He has a Fine Art degree from the University of Central Oklahoma and had his first solo, Roots, at Galeri Seni Mutiara in Penang in August 2009.

Penang-born artist-violinist-conductor-composer Kam Kee Yong, 84, who has migrated to Singapore, led the Singapore String Orchestra and the People’s Association Orchestra during the 1970s and 1980s.

Knowing how to strum the guitar is a great asset for artists during international art workshops. Among the notables are Long Thien Shih (who busked to make ends meet while studying in Paris), and on the harmonica, Goh Beng Kwan, the Peter Pan of Singapore Art, at 83.

Others who could snatch a few tunes with the guitar include Voon Kim Cheong (classical), multimedia artist Hasnul J. Saidon, Chinese brush artist Cheng Peng Sia, abstract artists Norlisham Selamat, Jack Ting, and caricaturist Yeop Mie.

Walter Pater, in his Studies in the History of the Renaissance (1873), posited that all art constantly aspires towards the condition of music. In the theory of colours attributed to Joan Miro, colours are “like words that shape poems, like notes that shape music.”

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

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