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A Crash Course in “Something New Must Turn Up” – Mohammad Din Mohammad

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The Mistaken Ancestor, 1994. Hamidah Jalil, Mohammad Din Mohammad

What does being ahead of your time mean? National Gallery Singapore’s recent exhibition, Something New Must Turn Up: Six Singaporeans After 1965, seeks to answer this question by spotlighting six artists working in post-independence Singapore who were luminaries of their zeitgeist. This expansive exhibition (which actually functions more like six solos) highlights how the diverse practices of artists Chng Seok Tin, Goh Beng Kwan, Jaafar Latiff, Lin Hsin Hsin, Mohammad Din Mohammad and Eng Tow were influential precedents in the Singapore arts scene.

Never heard of the artists before, or feeling bewildered and unfamiliar with this history? Don’t fret – in this series, we bring you through a quick crash course on each of the innovative artists in the exhibition, and take a closer look at one of their ground-breaking works.

Mohammad Din Mohammad: The Mistaken Ancestor

Who is Mohammad Din Mohammad?

Mohammad Din Mohammad (1955-2007) was an artist, traditional healer and silat master. Born in Malacca, he trained as a painter in Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts, subsequently working as a street painter on old Bugis Street. After a motorcycle accident in 1983, he turned to traditional Malay healing practices and herbal medicine under the care of his silat masters. The convergence of his artistic practice and traditional healing resulted in his strong belief in Sufi mysticism, which influenced many aspects of his life and art.

In addition to his expressive artworks which he saw as vehicles of emotional and spiritual power, Mohammad Din, with his wife and fellow artist Hamidah Jalil, collected hundreds of Southeast Asian artefacts, which in Sufi mysticism were embedded with a multitude of meanings. Over four decades, their three-room HDB flat served as their family home, painting studio, traditional healing clinic, and repository for their extensive collection of objects. This included textiles, keris (daggers), medical manuscripts, and precious stones collected from their travels throughout Southeast Asia.

Exhibition view of Muhammad Din Muhammad: The Mistaken Ancestor
Exhibition view of Muhammad Din Muhammad: The Mistaken Ancestor. Working with his wife, Hamidah Jalil, the curators of the exhibition incorporated some of the objects from Mohammad Din’s extensive collection to highlight how he drew on these elements as inspiration for his paintings and assemblages. Image courtesy of National Gallery Singapore.

What is his work about?

According to Sufi mysticism, all things in the universe are interrelated. Mohammad Din’s works were guided by this view, and he believed in art’s ameliorative and curative potential. In the 1990s, he began developing “The Mystical Approach” through rigorous studies and extensive travels across Malaysia and Indonesia. For Mohammad Din, this was a theory or means of understanding the meaning and spiritual power of objects, woods, minerals and colours.

From 1975 to 1990, he also developed the concept of Galeri Mistik – a museum that would trace the evolution of Islamic aesthetics in the Malay world. Proposed to comprise 118 unique Southeast Asian objects, he lobbied the Government of Malacca to establish a museum to house this collection. Unfortunately, it was unsuccessful, and Galeri Mistik remained in his own collection. Within their flat, Mohammad Din and Hamidah Jalil’s collection of objects were displayed alongside his own paintings and assemblages, generating new associative meanings and becoming the subject of many conversations with his patients.

Later in his practice, Mohammad Din also found inspiration in language and calligraphy. For example, he found beauty in the Alif, the first letter of the Arabic, Persian and Jawi alphabets from which all other letters are derived. To Mohammad Din, the Alif symbolised how a divine beauty could be found in every manifestation despite the infinite diversity of beings and objects in the universe, no matter its size or shape. In 1999, after learning calligraphy from an Iranian master, Mohammad Din also began to make large-scale paintings which incorporated the 28 Arabic letters from sūrah (chapters) of the Quran.

In Spirit of Freedom (2007), Mohammad Din depicts bold Arabic letters from the Quran
In Spirit of Freedom (2007), Mohammad Din depicts bold Arabic letters from the Quran – the top row reads kaf, ha, ya, ‘ain, sad from the 19th chapter of the Qran, and the bottom cluster reads ha, mim, ‘ain, sin, kaf from the 42nd chapter. Beyond their visual component, the calligraphy is also meant to be read out to incorporate the auditory element – together, they constitute zikr, or the remembrance and connection to God.

How did he make his work?

Mohammad Din’s practice spanned not only paintings, assemblages and installations, but his entire life and spiritual outlook. His life and art were inextricably intertwined.

His assemblages brought together various materials such as animal skulls, wood, fur, coconut husks and driftwood, as well as antique artifacts such as wayang kulit, gamelan gongs, wooden sculptures and many others imbued with rich mystical and symbolic meaning. Working with found objects was his way of breathing new life into things that seemed to have lost their material worth.

His expressive paintings explored the therapeutic potential of certain colours – for instance, red and yellow, the colours of the sun, could aid digestion, whilst green had the ability to enhance harmony with the environment. Often, his paintings also incorporated objects from his assemblages, whilst his later calligraphic paintings were made through the energetic application of paint onto the canvas with his bare hands, adapting techniques from his silat training and channelling inner energy.

Earth Energy (1994), wood, shell, animal bone and gouache on board.
Earth Energy (1994), wood, shell, animal bone and gouache on board. In Earth Energy, Mohammad Din deliberately applied colours said to hold therapeutic properties, and also used it to engage his patients in conversations about the mystical and talismanic properties of wood. Image courtesy of National Gallery Singapore.

Which work stood out to me?

I found it impressive that Mohammad Din’s entire life and practice was so deeply invested in the various sources of knowledge that he drew upon, from Sufi teachings, Malay traditional medicine, silat, and many others. In particular, The Mistaken Ancestor (1994) is a work that coalesces his various interests and his life-long pursuit of knowledge and meaning.

The Mistaken Ancestor, 1994. Hamidah Jalil, Mohammad Din Mohammad
The Mistaken Ancestor, 1994.

The titular work of the exhibition, The Mistaken Ancestor (1994) is an assemblage featuring a polished brass dervish, a monkey sculpture made of twisting wood and bark, as well as 19 books.

Let’s look at each element individually. Firstly, a dervish is a Sufi seeker of knowledge, and in this work, takes the form of a small seated sculpture reading a miniature Quran. Positioned opposite the small dervish is a comparatively larger monkey, whose body is sculpted from tree bark, tail from wild bamboo. It wears a skull cap made from a lampshade. The monkey, assembled from various repurposed natural materials, seems to represent the manifestation of the dervish’s nafs, or ego.

Surrounding these two figures locked in confrontation, 19 books signifying Al-Ghazali’s Book of Knowledge (Kitab-al-ilm) are laid out. The Book of Knowledge is the foundation of Sufi philosopher Al-Ghazali’s The Revival of the Religious Sciences, and is considered a seminal 11th century text outlining the practice and teachings of Islam. Placing these objects in dialogue, this assemblage looks towards the study of religious and traditional knowledges as a way to access a deeper understanding of the self.

Up close with The Mistaken Ancestor (1994).
Up close with The Mistaken Ancestor (1994).

The title, The Mistaken Ancestor, returns some ambiguity to the reading of the artwork: as opposed to one direct source, perhaps knowledge can come from multiple sources. This alludes to the myriad of influences and sensibilities that made up Mohammad Din’s practice – be it assembling found objects with symbolic meaning, painting with silat movements, and even writing Sufi poetry and composing music – ultimately, they were all part of Mohammad Din’s never-ending pursuit of a profound and meaningful life.

“Every soul will look for its true self despite the shapes and sizes assigned for their manifestation. Some will get lost along the way and some will find their true self. As for me, the search and the pain are divine by itself.” – Mohammad Din Mohammad

One of only two known self-portraits of Mohammad Din, titled Self Portrait – Split NFS (Not For Sale) Personality (1999).
One of only two known self-portraits of Mohammad Din, titled Self Portrait – Split NFS (Not For Sale) Personality (1999).

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Curious to see more of Mohammad Din Mohammad’s works? Something New Must Turn Up: Six Singaporeans After 1965 runs at National Gallery Singapore until 22 August 2021.

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