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West by Southeast

For the reader with children who is planning an itinerary for the June holidays (or those without, but just want to relax somewhere outside of our exceedingly sunny isle while other people’s children run amok), let us suggest a destination: Langkawi, otherwise known as the Jewel of Kedah, the Malaysian state it is part of. A UNESCO designated World Geopark, Langkawi is an archipelago consisting of 99 islands 30 km off the shores of northwestern mainland Malaysia, accessible by sea and air.

Lush, idyllic Langkawi the place. Credits:
Lush, idyllic Langkawi the series. Credits: Chan + Hori Contemporary

As exquisite as its namesake, “Langkawi” is also the title of a series of works by the acclaimed Malaysian multi-hyphenate artist Latiff Mohidin soon to be showcased in the upcoming exhibition From the Studio by Chan + Hori Contemporary as part of D/SINI.

Hot on the heels of his ground-breaking Pago Pago exhibition at the Centre Pompidou’s In-Focus Gallery, From the Studio dusts off the Langkawi series that has not been exhibited for the past four decades. Similarly in Paris, Latiff’s seminal Pago Pago series (1960-1969) was unveiled to the French public 50 years from its inception, as an extension of the 217-work exhibition Reframing Modernism: Painting from Southeast Asia, Europe and Beyond held at the National Gallery Singapore in 2016. A first for an artist from Southeast Asia, his exhibition at the esteemed French institution is a mark of the Malaysian modernist’s success, but also the way in which he was able to create a distinctive way of thinking about the region.

Latiff Mohidin: Pago Pago (1960-1969) in Paris. Credits: Centre Pompidou

Proclaimed by Dr Eugene Tan of the National Gallery Singapore to be “one of the first artists from the region to imagine ‘Southeast Asia’ as a distinct aesthetic realm”, Latiff’s story is one that, interestingly enough, has always been a curious melange between Southeast Asia, where he grew up and eventually chose to base in, and Europe, where he spent the bulk of his formative years as an art student.

Born in Seremban, Negeri Sembilan in 1941, Latiff was marked by artistic precocity as a child. He created several oil paintings when he was nine, had his first international exhibition at the Bangkapi Gallery in Bangkok when he was ten, and sold his first work (a painting of an aubergine to Sir Malcolm MacDonald, the then-British High Commissioner to Singapore) at eleven. Not bad at all for a tween.

It wasn’t long before the boy wonder would be awarded a scholarship to study at the Hochschule für Bildende Künste (the University of the Fine Arts) in West Berlin where Latiff’s fascination with the Dahlem Museums’ collection of Asian art and artefacts would prove formative to his practice—watching the East from the West, so to speak. Following his graduation in 1964, Latiff embarked on a long tour of Southeast Asia, before winning two more scholarships to further his studies on printmaking with stints at the Parisian Atelier La Courrier and the Pratt Institute of New York.

The Dahlem Museums’ ethnographic collection. Credits: Wikimedia Commons

At art school in Berlin, Latiff was taught in the distinctly European tradition of academic painting which meant that artists would rigorously copy, draw and paint from “all the famous artworks from the Old Masters – from the classical to modern”, as Latiff describes. In a place where technique was refined through the motion of mimicking, Latiff immediately understood upon his arrival in Berlin in 1960 that he was lacking in the technical aspects although he had been painting for a decade prior to university.

While he insists his training was “very fruitful”, the idealised technique, hierarchy of genres and well-established subject matter soon gave way to less traditional methods. Looking back today, he further expounds, “In the early 60s, the genres of Photography, Cartoons, Graffiti and Multimedia were not considered fine art yet. But now, all these are acceptable in Asian art. Vice versa, at that time in Europe, batik and other such textile works, for example, were considered as ‘craft’. So, the thinking nowadays is: any material can be made into a serious artwork.”

And that is exactly what Langkawi (1976-1980) was. A quieter series that succeeded his exalted and energetic Pago-Pago (1960-69) and Mindscape (1973-74), Latiff adopted a more sombre mood, with a meticulous commitment to precise calculations in the preparation of the materials; Langkawi was not a set of formal paintings in the traditional sense, but rather a merger of painting and wood that evokes a skateboard. 

Latiff Mohidin, Langkawi 1, 1978. Credits: Chan + Hori Contemporary

Graphic in design and extremely subtle in its imagery to the extent that symbolic implications are merely suggestive of “Islamic domes, rafts, battle shields, wall plaques, windows and portals to secret and sacred places”, the series had a distinct development process. It first emerged from restlessness. According to Latiff, “During the hectic literary activities in the early 70s, I suddenly became quiet. I went into deep meditation. I contemplated the vast, silent sea.” This brief but memorable interlude in Langkawi with “its strange seascapes, myths and legends” compelled the artist to create “a sort of floating object – half-painting, half-sculpture – which later came to be known as a ‘wall sculpture’.”

“At all stages, the structure itself had to be measured in an absolutely symmetrical manner and was meticulously created,” Latiff recalls, with drafts after drafts created before a final decision could be reached, and only then could the wood and canvas be cut and assembled.

Drawing reference to the canonical, distinctly Western art history movements, Latiff distinguishes Langkawi from his other work as wholly Minimalist instead of the usual florid Expressionist strokes from before: “Cautiously, I added strikes and sprinkled drips of paint, thousands of little pigments onto the surface; using the techniques of wet paints on dry ground and dry paints on wet ground…There were layers upon layers on each single piece. ”


Latiff Mohidin, Langkawi 2, 1976. Credits: Chan + Hori Contemporary
Latiff Mohidin, Langkawi 16, 1978. Credits: Chan + Hori Contemporary

While the creation of Langkawi was marked by such clarity, Latiff hasn’t always managed to arrive at, to quote Dr Eugene Tan, “this distinct aesthetic realm” so easily. Despite the consistent genealogy of Eastern-inspired works with Pago Pago having materialised after his encountering of the pagodas of Indochina, Latiff has described a tumultuous period where “it was very difficult for [him] to be Asian then, because there didn’t seem to be such a thing.” While travelling extensively within Southeast Asia from 1964 to 1968, the pre-ASEAN region was a medley of the “Viet Cong, Pathet Lao, Khmer Rouge near the areas where [he] was passing through and doing [his] sketches.” He details the turmoil, “One could hear insurgencies and confrontations. One could smell wars and the killing fields.”

With a blend of Eastern inspiration alongside a sensibility honed by the West running through the bulk of his works, it is also interesting to note how this confluence could be as much a matter of artistry as it is a reaction to the political climate he found himself in – landing in Germany right before the Berlin Wall went up, and the subsequent spillovers from the Cold War that affected Southeast Asia more insidiously.

The idea of “Southeast Asia” then was far from fully formed with different valences at different periods in history. The notion of a united region was difficult to comprehend as conflict was rife and a popular way to broach the notion of  “Southeast Asia” was likely to deliberate on colonial modernity, necessarily implying a need to look towards the West. Considered a figure integral to the development of a regional artistic identity for Southeast Asian artists today, Latiff doesn’t pander to a false sense of Asian exoticism, instead he has abstracted the terms of engagement in favour of creating a new visual language that responds accurately to the region in all its complexities. While the many landscapes and eponymous silhouettes of Southeast Asia are visible in his works, his depiction of folk cultures flexibly meet German Expressionism or Minimalist techniques. There simply can’t be strict parameters for a region that cannot be strictly and rigidly defined.

Latiff Mohidin, Pagodas II (Pago Pago Series), 1964. Credits: National Heritage Board

In retrospect, Latiff’s practice has been prescient: his works recognised the importance of reclaiming a distinct regional visual identity rooted in tradition, but above all remained reactive and aware. The gifted painter refuses to make any sweeping statements about his practice, instead he sincerely says “Art is almost two-thirds of my life…Just go on struggling with your art materials, with your daily painting.” Whether at the Pompidou or the National Gallery Singapore or here at Chan + Hori, it is clear that Latiff Mohidin forms a sort of keystone that can help to chart the development of modern Southeast Asia art, one that is reached on the region’s own terms.

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