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Drawing Takes Centre Stage at ILHAM Gallery

It starts with a dot, then a line. From this line springs forth forms, figures, entire worlds.

This is the magic of drawing, which is the topic of the current show at Kuala Lumpur’s ILHAM Gallery. Titled Titik Garis Bentuk: Drawing as Practice, the exhibition calls attention to drawings not as preparation for more “polished” artworks later down the line, but as complete works in themselves. 

In line with ILHAM Gallery’s objective of showcasing modern and contemporary Malaysian art, Titik Garis Bentuk features over 20 contemporary artists from across Malaysia in whose practices drawing plays a central role. Celebrating the medium in its myriad functions, techniques, and effects, the show explodes drawing beyond its conventional bounds (which the exhibition text defines as “mark-making on a two dimensional surface”), taking it in surprising directions and to unexpected heights.

Drawing to document

Artists often use drawing to record their observations of the world around them. This is not least because the medium is mobile — pen and paper slip easily into a bag or pocket, without the fuss of paints. Imagine the itinerant artist, sketchbook in hand, in a picturesque landscape or busy cafe. With a few strokes she is able to capture the essence of a person, movement, or scene.

In many cases, the artist takes these sketches back to the studio to develop into more elaborate work. But these drawings can also be executed and exhibited with as much care as other mediums, as the inclusion of Khairudin Zainudin’s Moleskine sketchbooks in the show attests.

Installation view of Khairudin Zainudin’s Paradox in Tranquil (detail 1 and 2; 2019), colour pencil on Moleskine Japanese album, 28 x 247 x 14 cm each. Images by author.

Khairudin has filled these accordion-style notebooks with the people and places he observed on visits back to Kelantan, his home state. Splayed out, the notebooks give the effect of one long continuous montage in which different scenes are smashed together with abandon — a pole grows out of a man’s head, an arm sprouts from a chin. But despite an overall breathless effect — one has the impression of glimpsing things from the window of a moving train — the portraits are modelled and shaded with great delicacy. And by presenting an artist’s sketchbooks as a completed artwork, the show makes clear its intentions of taking drawing seriously. 

In a similar vein are Chang Fee Ming’s 28 postcard-sized drawings, executed in ink and watercolour on materials including found paper and stamped envelopes. On these humble canvases the artist depicts scenes from his home state of Terengganu: weathered faces, gnarled trees, men at work or prayer. Detailed and densely crosshatched, the drawings must have taken no small amount of time and effort to complete, but the modest scale and repurposed materials ensure that drawing’s associations with ephemerality, travel, and observation from life remain. 

Installation view of Chang Fee Ming’s drawings (1992–2015), various media, dimensions variable.

Simultaneously, Khairudin’s and Chang’s works point towards a curious phenomenon. Simply by drawing what they see, artists create – inadvertently or consciously – records of waning traditions and ways of life. 

Some of the artists in the show even actively deploy drawing as a means of preserving cultural knowledge. These include Syarifah Nadhirah, who created delicate and precise botanical illustrations for her book about the foraging and culinary practices of Orang Asli communities, and Roslisham Ismail (Ise), whose Langkasuka Cookbook boasts lively step-by-step drawings of recipes gathered from her research with families in Kelatan, Malaysia, and Patani, Thailand. 

Installation view of Roslisham Ismail’s The Langkasuka Cookbook (2012), mixed media on paper, dimensions variable.

Drawing with precision

As soon as we can hold pens, we learn, however artlessly, to draw. Even as adults we may still try to draw in the manner of childhood — expressive, spontaneous, unrestrained. 

But the domain of drawing includes not just scribbles and sketches but also mathematical diagrams and architectural plans, and there are artists for whom drawing adheres to a rigid geometry. For his set of 95 pen drawings, chi too reduces drawing to perhaps its most essential element — the line. Having devised an elaborate schema of vertical, horizontal, and diagonal lines and combinations thereof, he proceeds to execute these various permutations, covering each page in dense parallel lines. It must have been an almost hypnotic process for the artist, with a result strangely soothing for the viewer. Despite the robotic nature of this process, wobbles and blotches in the lines add a distinctly human character. 

Installation view of chi too’s 95 (2019), ink on paper, 21 x 29.7 cm each.

Agnes Lau takes a similar approach, but with perhaps even less trace of human imperfection. The lines that make up her grids, stripes, triangles, and concentric squares are almost uniformly even; instead, she relies on the play of light and dark values for visual interest.

Detail from Agnes Lau’s soul that repeats series (2022), pencil on acid free paper, dimensions variable.

Mastering the medium

But we find precision not only in abstraction. With a complete mastery of the drawing medium, an artist can achieve feats of photorealism. Ahmad Zakii Anwar’s immense charcoal portraits of Malaysian women, for instance, are drawn with such extraordinary detail that we almost feel like these professionals, mothers, and seniors can step off the paper and become real. 

Installation view of Ahmad Zakii Anwar’s Orang Perempuan series (2015), charcoal on paper, 205 x 76 cm each.

And then there is Nadiah Bamadjah’s nine-piece charcoal on paper collage work depicting cungkup — structures used to shelter tombstones in East Java — in the process of decay. For the artist, these cungkup point towards the complexities of religious syncretism and conflict; as the mottled, textured structure gradually collapses, it takes on a forlorn air. 

Installation view of Nadiah Bamadhaj’s Pessimism is Optimism III (2017), charcoal on paper collage, 110 x 150 cm each.

At over two metres in length, Chong Siew Ying’s 300 Years amply demonstrates what a master of the charcoal medium can do. An ancient, twisted tree strains across the paper. In the background, mists obscure a vast tropical forest. The whole scene thrums with a barely contained energy. Here, drawing ascends to truly virtuosic heights. 

Chong Siew Ying, 300 Years (2012), charcoal and acrylic medium on paper mounted canvas, 138 x 260 cm.

What is drawing?

We would be quite justified in describing Chong’s work as painterly. To create the piece, she’s used both charcoal and acrylic medium, thus mixing drawing and painting — to magnificent effect. 

This does lead us, however, to one of the show’s weaker aspects: while quite rightly expanding typical definitions of drawing, it omits to explain why certain boundary-pushing works are included, and thus potentially leaves audiences puzzled as to what drawing really is. 

To its credit, Titik Garis Bentuk does clarify the conventional definition of drawing — “mark-making on a two-dimensional surface” — that it aims to move beyond. But because it does not attempt to set forth a new definition (however expansive), and because some artworks are more difficult to place within the realm of drawing than others, we are left to wonder: what exactly makes this artwork drawing?

Consider, for instance, Chang Yoong Chia’s imposing Quilt of the Dead, a project consisting of portraits from newspaper obituaries embroidered onto white cotton. Here, the connection to drawing is fairly obvious. The way thread moves across fabric is akin to how pen moves across page; in both mediums, line morphs into image. 

Installation view of Chang Yoong Chia’s Quilt of the Dead (2002–ongoing), black cotton thread, 275 x 231 cm.

But when looking at works like Arikwibowo Amril’s blackout poetry or CC Kua’s watercolour pieces, the rationale becomes less clear. For the former, could it be the mere fact of the material — charcoal on paper — that justifies its place in a drawing show? For the latter, the label on the wall explains that drawing, with its spontaneity, is Kua’s “perfect medium for capturing day-to-day moments and ideas.” But surely spontaneity does not belong to drawing alone, as spontaneous, improvisational painters exist in spades. Ultimately, the exhibition is silent on what makes a drawing a drawing, as opposed to something else.

Installation view of CC Kua’s work (2020–2024), various media on paper, dimensions variable.

Of course, Titik Garis Bentuk is concerned with blurring the boundaries between drawing and other disciplines, and imposing a new definition of drawing would seem to contradict these goals. But in most cases, a few simple additions to the labels — which are otherwise exemplars of intelligent yet accessible exhibition texts — of more contentious works would have gone a long way towards improving the show’s clarity and focus.

Still, this is a minor hiccup in an otherwise admirable show, with quality works accompanied by lucid explanations. And one of the show’s most boundary-pushing works is also one of its most compelling. 

Installation view of Hasanul Isyraf Idris’ Quarry (2022), graphite on cotton paper and fiberglass sculptures, dimensions variable.

Quarry is Hasanul Isyraf Idris’ tribute to his hometown, also created in response to the passing of three family members during the Covid-19 pandemic. Taking large sheets of cotton paper, the artist has coloured it so densely with graphite pencil that no white shows through, then formed these into a sculptural mass resembling the granite quarry where his father worked as a security guard. Three self-portraits — resin heads coated in graphite — nestle among the paper folds. Amidst largely two-dimensional works, the effect is startling. 

Again, it seems only to be the graphite medium that places the work within the realm of drawing. But in this case, there’s a delicious irony in finding the most laborious way possible of creating a black sheet of paper — no figures or shapes to be seen. At once monumental and fragile, Quarry represents drawing pushed to its utmost limits. 


Titik Garis Bentuk: Drawing as Practice runs at ILHAM Gallery (Kuala Lumpur) until 28 July 2024. Admission is free.

Header image: Installation view of Syarifah Nadhirah’s drawings from Recalling Forgotten Tastes (2020), watercolour and ink on watercolour paper, 21 x 14.8 cm each.

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