The Bomoh’s Stare

Take a journey into the primeval Malay heartland of myths, supernatural beliefs and superstitions with artist Jalaini Abu Hassan. His latest series of drawings, Mantera, is showing at Valentine Willie Fine Art until Saturday June 12.

The Malay word mantera is derived from the Sanskrit mantra which translates as “a special word used in meditation, a sacred message or text, or charm, a spell and counsel; a prayer, an invocation or a religious formula; an instrument of thoughts.” Depending on viewpoints and definitions, the animistic practice in traditional Malay culture, with its belief in spirits, charms and black magic, where bomoh and pawing serve as oracles, spiritual guides and healers, may not sit comfortably with its Muslim-Malay identity.

Similarly, the issue of direct representation of the figure, to an extent, still holds an uneasy position in the visual arts. Heated debates over the exact nature of Islam’s prohibition of the figure in art – when it is acceptable and when it isn’t – has stirred polarised viewpoints and actions amongst practitioners in the 1970’s and early 1980’s. This was partly the result of the National Cultural Congress of 1971 that attempted to unify the cultures of Malaysia in the aftermath of the 1969 riots. As a young undergraduate of UITM (Universiti Institut Technologi MARA) in 1981, Jalaini, or Jai, as he is more commonly known, would have undoubtedly been exposed to the polemics surrounding the issue of figuration.

Jai’s Mantera signals a refreshing exploration into figuration and the artist’s traditional roots. The decision to return to figures, not since his Bondage Series in 1987, is a conscious one. It had simply arisen out of a personal challenge, “to prove that I can draw”; though the struggle to regain his “form” has been gruelling. As Jai admits, “I have not done proper figure drawing since Slade (School of Art) – and that was in the late 1980’s!”

Jai also found the need to reacquaint his working process with the physical qualities and temperament of paper. Conceived over several intensive months of work, much of the new drawings reveal various stages of experimentation with media and forms. ‘Working Drawings’ are records of the artist early process. The most successful among these works are enigmatic, evocative and dark. Two of the earliest drawings explore spatial arrangements and moods. The illusory depth of an empty court or stage surrounded by a configuration of rocks from ‘Working I & II’ offer a compelling departure into the spiritual world of ‘Working Drawing V’, with its floating pebbles mysteriously drawn into a deep vortex as a concoction of selected charms, insects and leaves suggests key ingredients for a spiritually cleansing brew (Kumbang).

The overlaying of marks, media, text and images in some of Mantera‘s major pieces namely ‘Mantera Buka Gelanggang’, ‘Tok Batin’, ‘Tuah Jalak’ and ‘Batu Serai Wangi’ reveal Jai’s early training as a print-maker. Initial layers in bitumen and charcoal are strategically masked off to accommodate new drawings and texts extracted from traditional myths and chants.

The all powerful ‘Tok Batin’ casts an arresting stare at the audience, gentle yet mysterious. In this painting, the artist pays tribute to the legendary Long Bin Hok from the Jah-hut tribe of Sungai Krau in Pahang, who was declared the late Sultan Abu Bakar’s official state bomoh, penglipurlara (storyteller) and puyang (powerful shaman).

The symbolic rooster sacrificed as blood offering is the highlight in ‘Charms’ and later reappears in ‘Tuah Jalak’ as the bearer of luck. ‘Mantera Buka Gelanggang’ pictures an elderly bomoh performing the once popular ritual of “opening the stage or court” before the commencement of a game or performance – he is seeking permission and blessings from the spirits for safety (of the players) and success (for the event). The lines of years etched on his face, his toothless grin and his wiry frame suggest an endearing wisdom and warmth. It is also a poignant reminder of his obsolescence in today’s society.

‘Mitos Batu Belah Batu Bertangkup’ conjures up the myth of the prodigal son in its climatic end as Si Tanggang turns to stone upon the final breath of his mother’s curse, symbolically represented through a crashing column and an ominous grouping of stones.

A personal favourite, ‘Bomoh Hujan’, draws attention to the celebrity ‘rain doctor’ who is commonly contracted to control the forces of nature prior to any major outdoor parties, kenduri, on-location shoots or football games. In this drawing, the artist fashions himself in the role of the bomoh hujan. As he looks out/down at the audience, his baju melayu and the rakish arrangement of the songkok recalls the nostalgic silver screen era of P. Ramlee. This self-assured, charming – almost cocky – bomoh hujan is aware of his prized services. His power is made even more convincing by a celestial arc held in place by two dried chillis on each end – the most vital ingredient in the business of rain postponing – shielding his aura from the threat of a downpour.

This drawing, along with its quieter counterpart, ‘Tok Bomoh’, proves charcoal is indeed the artist’s métier. The well-worn sarong, snugly wrapped around Bomoh Hujan’s waist, and Tok Bomoh’s shirt collar, weathered through the years of laundry, have been so sensitively captured that one almost feels the softness of the fabric. The stubbled-goatee on Tok Bomoh’s chin and evocative light cast against his finely rendered profile contributes to the image’s emotional resonance while the appeal in ‘Bomoh Hujan’ is further accentuated by its striking contrast of light and dark, and an agile layering of line qualities and marks.

My only regret is not to have seen more of Jai’s new found direction; this show, while intimate, is made up of only 15 drawings. From the remote view of cosmopolitan Kuala Lumpur, Mantera reminds us that there are forces greater and more unimaginable than our mortal existence. It gently advises the importance of humility, and respect, for the world’s energies and presence, even as our grandmothers cautioned us “to ask permission before passing” should we ever find ourselves in the wilderness or bushes after dusk. Jai’s picturing of the legacy of his Malay roots also sends a bleak message of its decline. If indeed culture cannot be eradicated, then the quiet stares of our bomoh and tok batin from their diminishing world are telling us that theirs may soon slip away. In our attempt to preserve, document and continue the passing of our cultural heritage to future generations, we must never let go of the authority over our own stories, and the means to tell it.

First Published: 09.06.2004 on Kakiseni

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