The Tale of Malaysia’s Diversity Told Through a Brush of Paint
- No object is placed in the painting on purpose. Each and every brush stroke carries a meaning. -
Paintings are more than just nice pictures in a frame. More often than not, a story unfolds as you look closely. I met with the painter Amirudin Ariffin. He told me his story about how his career developed and how art contributes to the society.
“Some people think artists only paint for themselves. That is not true. Our art contributes to the society in so many ways. On one hand we preserve traditions and culture, on the other hand, we inspire and provoke innovations in many other fields.”
Read more about the painter, who captures Malaysia’s diversity in his paintings…
How did you get into art? What made you want to become a painter?
I am not one of those who knew from a very young age that he wanted to become a painter. I wasn’t even aware of my artistic talents. All I knew was that I liked to watch the Chinese watercolour plein-air painters near my school.
It was my teacher who discovered my artistic side. One time I got punished - I never found out why. The punishment was to do a mural for the school. It wasn’t easy but I finished it.
Additionally, during secondary school, I seldom attended art lessons but my very close friend did. It was through him that I submitted my art according to the painting assignment given by the teacher. My painting was selected every time to be exhibited in school.
After completing secondary school, I joined the Air Force. Soon after recruiting me, they discovered my artistic talents and I ended up drawing engine parts and guns for hand out notes for the students of the School of Aircraft Engineering. I also had to write names on certificates. Later, I was also in charge of creating dioramas of tragedies, happenings and important encounters for the air force museum.
9 years after joining them, I decided to leave the Air Force because I was able to get admitted to the University of Ohio to study art. Unfortunately, I could not go in the end. Instead of moving to the U.S., I moved to Johor Baru with my wife and newborn child.
There I became the first artist to work on the pavement. Many people including Singaporeans asked me to do portraits for them. That allowed me to earn enough money to enrol in a graphics course which led to a job in an advertising company for 1 year and a half.
It was only after that, that I got into painting scenes of things happening in Malaysia and big portraits. I’m glad I am finally doing that.
What are your favourite objects to paint? Or is there a theme/ topic that you like the most?
I particularly enjoy painting portraits of people in Malaysia. It is so interesting because every person has his or her own story to tell, relationships to work on, challenges to overcome and dreams to pursue. They don’t have to tell me their story verbally. They express most of it through their body language, facial expressions and the way they dress.
"You just have to look closely and observe.
Another thing I like to paint is scenes from the social life in Malaysia. When you travel through this country, you will see how different and diverse each state is. Every region has its own traditions, ways of life, ways to dress, ways to entertain themselves and work. The day to day life in Malaysia offers a lot of inspiration for my paintings.
Among my first paintings were portraits of Hawkers, Indian ladies selling flowers near Hindu Temples and a Malay lady selling Nasi Lemak at a street stall – it is the daily life in Malaysia that I like to paint.
What is your working process? How does it start and where is the end, if there is any?
I don’t wait for inspiration or the mood to come to me before I start a painting. I actively create an environment that allows me to bring brush to canvas and paint to the best of my abilities. The rest will come from the creator. I believe that he will help me to create great paintings.
Where do you find inspiration that helps you creating such spectacular pieces of art?
Sometimes I take pictures, but I never just copy what you can see in the photo. That is not what a painting is for. One time, for example, I took a picture of a milkman waiting at a traffic light on his scooter which was packed with bags and and a big milk can. I liked that image and wanted to paint it.
Have you travelled with and through your art?
Yes, fortunately I got the opportunity to travel a few times including to Korea, Japan, all over Malaysia, India, China, Mauritius and Macedonia. I met amazing artists along the way.
A few years ago, in Beijing for example, I was part of a group exhibition organised by the Malaysia China Friendship Association. The exhibition was about Admiral Cheng Ho (Zheng He), who during his voyages came by Melaka. The theme of the exhibition was "Where Friendship begins - The Strenghening of the Maritime Silk Road Connectivity". It was held in conjunction with the 42nd Anniversary of Malaysia-China Diplomatic Relations.
Another time, I was chosen to interview 12 Japanese artists for a prestigious journal in Japan. I got chosen despite my lack of formal learning in art.
What do you think people in other disciplines can learn from artists?
I see art as an infinite pond of inspiration that many people in other fields are drawing from. Make-Up artists, interior designers, furniture designers, even movie makers find ideas and motivation to create new and innovative designs and effects or to approach challenges and scenes from a different angle through art.
How much of your working time goes in the first part: preparation, drafting, deciding etc., and how much of your time goes into completing your painting?
I am lucky to have something like an inner vision. All I need to do is getting that image in my head on a canvas.
Which painter did influence you and your style?
There is a number of painters who have influenced me over the years. One of them is the Dutch painter Rembrandt. I am fascinated by his ability to use lighting to bring his painting s alive. Another painter that I like is the French painter Degas. His stroke style is simply unique. It is almost as if his objects are alive in his paintings. I also like the painter Johannes Vermeer who painted the famous painting of the lady with the scarf. It is amazing how he depicts the eyes of his objects.
The cultural diversity in Malaysia is often reflected in your art. What aspects of the Malaysian culture fascinate you the most?
I like to tell a stories through my art and provoke some thoughts. One of my favourite paintings for example depicts a young Orang Asli girl wrapped in a batik cloth. She lays on her bed in a provocative position and smokes a cigarette. Her face is dirty. She used to be an innocent girl.
She lost that innocence however when loggers came to their forest to cut down their trees. In the process they are also influencing the culture of the Orang Asli community.
Through this painting, I would like to point out how the live and culture of the Orang Asli is getting interrupted, even disturbed by outsiders who are all about profit and not at all about respecting culture, traditions and nature.
In another picture, I am talking about the culture clashes between the older and the younger generations. In the image you can see two older women wearing head scarfs and long dresses sitting on a bench. They are looking at a young girl wearing Western clothes which is a culture that she borrowed from Western countries and is not something that developed within this society.
What is the painting about that you are currently working on?
I am currently working on a picture of an Indian-Malaysian shop owner. I like to paint people of all races. What better place to do that then in Malaysia where we have Malays, Chinese, Indians and more all being part of our society and all shaping our traditions and culture.
What's in store for the future? Where is your art heading? Any upcoming exhibition?
I will continue teaching art classes in my little studio. I really enjoy this. In terms of exhibitions, I am currently participating in the Southeast Asia Watercolour Exhibition in Langkawi. The Exhibition can be visited in the national art gallery in Langkawi.
Other exhibitions are currently on hold. One that I am particularly looking forward to is the Korea-Malaysia (2020) International Exhibition organised by Asia Art Union.
Interested in an art class with Amirudin Ariffin? Call Zai 0133365523.