ALL ARTS Documentary Selects


Edge of Obedience

Malaysian painter Ahmad Zakii Anwar's career has spanned graphic design and advertising, to fine art in oil painting and charcoal. The way he deals with the body and sexuality alternates between reverence and whimsy, which can cause problems for him in conservative Malaysia. But he is a highly regarded artist on the international scene, especially for his depiction of spirituality in urban life.

AIRED: October 14, 2019 | 0:51:41


Zakii: My father subscribed toLIFE Magazine.

LIFE Magazine in the '60s was a really fantastic magazine.

It had incredible pictures in it.

You know, it's a picture magazine.

There was this spread from the Renaissance

with a series of nudes,

and that really grabbed me, you know?

That really grabbed me.

I would go behind the armchairs. I would lie on my tummy,

and I would start copying the drawings.

I just kept copying and copying over and over again, you know?

It was sensual.

This excitement that I felt

hasn't changed much to today.

That is something which I think, if I lose,

then I'll probably stop painting.



I think these bananas --

I think that's my favorite.

This one here, I think I like this one best.

I like the way the two bananas sort of,

kind of entangle in each other, you know?

It's like clothes being torn off, and, um...

But yet, you know, they seem to

sort of sit comfortably on the table.

You know, sometimes when you are in a hurry

to take your clothes off, you know?

[ Laughs ]

[ Insects chirping ]

[ Birds calling ]




[ Children playing ]





[ Insects chirping ]

[ Birds singing ]

Anwar: Not very often now that both my parents are gone,

I don't come down very often.

It's not the same family house anymore,

but I think he's done a good job of building

the house in that, kind of, like, same spirit.

The front doors were never closed in our close

except at night.

We used to have lots of rambutan trees, jambu trees and all that.

That's all gone, but, you know, he's planted lots of green.

It looks like a jungle now from the outside, you know?

Zakii: I think, the only advantage of being the boy

in the family is that, you know, in a traditional household,

I don't get to do any housework. [ Laughs ]

And I think that bugs my sister through now, you know?

[ Laughs ]

He would never climb the rambutan tree

and pick the rambutan

because he was busy drawing all the time, you know?

He's just lock himself up in the bedroom

and just draw, you know,

while I was the one who had to climb the trees,

pluck the rambutan, you know, and then sort the rambutans out

and distribute them to the neighbors.

There were hopes and aspirations by my mother

that I'll be an engineer or a doctor.

I mean, of course at that time nobody thought

that, you know, being an artist,

you know, you could make money from being an artist,

and of course my mother was worried,

you know, because he's the boy.

He's supposed to have money and support a family.

I knew that when I was growing up

I was extremely rebellious.

My parents are very religious.

My mother had someone come to the house to instruct me,

to teach me, but I kept questioning him, you know?

"Where's God?"

Of course he can't answer either, but...

[ Laughs ]

But in the end he left, you know?

He just didn't come anymore.

I think he was tired of me.

You have all the friends around the neighborhood.

We used to run around together and, you know, tell my friends,

"There is no God. There's no God."

And they'll run home and tell everyone, "Hey, mum,

Ahmad said there's no God."

And their mother would tell my mother,

and I'll get a beating.

[ Laughs ]




These are two of my favorite krises.

The kris is a --

Traditionally, it's a Malay weapon.

There are scenes in the carvings of Borobudur,

which dates back, like,

1,000 years of people forging the kris.

See how beautifully carved it is?

It's a killing tool, yeah?

It's meant to kill.

It is, you know, something that is dangerous

but at the same time beautiful.

The blade is forged by what we would call a blacksmith,

but he's not an ordinary blacksmith.

Normally theempu is a spiritual person, you know?

He goes through various rituals.

He's almost like a priest.

He strives to put a spirit into it, into the metal.

People sometimes nowadays look down on craft, you know,

because they think it's low art, you know?

But for me, you know, craft carries a history.

That history is, you know, like, the spirit of the people.




Anwar: My father had this very interesting way

of introducing things to the children.

There was a time, I think, when we were five

or six he felt it was time to draw,

and so he bought us drawing blocks.

So each one of us has drawing blocks, and I remember that.

And my sister and I were just not interested,

but my brother just picked, you know, just picked on it,

you know, and just started drawing.

And so we gave.

I remember we gave our drawing blocks to him.

I think I always knew that I was going to be an artist

because you have this inclination to make marks,

to draw, you know, on any piece of paper that I can find.

So this was something embedded in me from very early on.

Yeah, so there's no question about me being something else.

He was not, like, worried

that he didn't do well in school, you know?

He would preen around the house and say,

"I don't need to study. I've got talent.

I don't need to study. I've got talent."

He was very lucky that when he went, you know, to college,

there was ITM, Institute Technology MARA,

and they had a great arts program.

Except that he actually majored in graphics

rather than fine art, you know, because he thought --

I guess at that time he was, like, worried that,

okay, being a fine arts artist, he might not make money.

The intention was always, you know,

after the foundation course, to go into fine arts

because that's what I wanted to be, you know?

But then again, you know, these voices from my sisters

and my mother and saying, "Ooh, you know you're going to starve.

You know it's -- You'd be becoming like this

and, you know, why don't you take design instead?"

So, I don't know.

I went into design.


After art school, I went into the commercial art world.

I was working as an illustrator, as a designer,

and I was working on a lot of big corporate clients,

you know, like Singapore Airlines,

Singapore Tourist Promotion Board.


Every week I'll make maybe two or three trips to Singapore

to get briefs,

to collect checks. [ Chuckles ]

That's always nice.

[ Laughs ]

But I didn't like the 9-to-5 life, you know?

I find it very difficult to conform to that.


There will be meetings after meetings, you know?

There will be changes.

When you do a piece of work, you are not the hero.

The hero in advertising is the product.

They hire really intelligent people

to sell soap powder.

I was doing very well, but I was unhappy.

I just got tired of it all, you know? So I quit.

I think I quit advertising in '91,

and then I started painting.


Probably the most critical moment was his decision

to go back to Johor Bahru, to our home town.

Zakii: I just got married a year earlier.

My wife was expecting our first child.

I wouldn't know whether I would make it as a painter.

I went back to JB and I stayed

at the back of my mother's house.

My mother fed me.

[ Laughs ]

There was never enough money.

I was almost penniless.

The first painting didn't work.

The second painting didn't work either

until one day I...

By coincidence, I met a friend who knew

of a very senior artist in Malaysia,

Latiff, Latiff Mohidin.

He said, "Do something as simple as possible.

Don't think too much."

So that's how the still-life paintings came about.

Nothing can be more simpler than a still life, you know?

Put an object there and draw it.

[ Laughs ]


And it was a very bold statement to make because,

in the 1990s, who was doing still life?

Nobody was doing still life.

And here was somebody who came and said,

"Look, I'm going to stand in the shadow of the masters

and work within that tradition."

yet with a great deal of eccentricity

and a lot of quirkiness, and of course,

Zakii has a great deal of humor.

He's a humorous person himself.


So I did the whole series of still lifes

of fruits in various compromising positions.


That's when the works started selling.



For a while, it became my trademark.


I've always returned, you know,

to the still life on and off, you know?

I might do three, two, four pieces a year.

Oil is like a long love affair, you know?

Acrylics, well, they're more like quickies.

I don't know. What do you call this?

[ Chuckles ]

It's a very phallic-looking thing, isn't it?

[ Laughs ]

I just saw it at a shop, and I thought it looks nice.

I was looking for a small object

actually to put this big thing on, you know?

Something to feel almost invisible.

The first stages of painting is always very technical.

At this moment,

I'm just getting to get a grip with the form,

the color of the whole thing.

So I might not be too concerned

about therasa yet, yeah?

Without the form, you cannot get therasa.

The notion of form in the western context

and the notion of form in the eastern context

are quite different, you know?

Within the western context, form is --

It's something which is totally physical.

Looks like a zeppelin, huh?





Although I was looking at the still lifes, you know,

but my real interest was the figure,

was the human figure.



Anwar: I mean certainly in the context of Malaysia, too,

there are conservative Muslims,

you know, politicized Muslims who feel that to draw a figure

is against the teachings of Islam.


It could lead to idolatry.


I think what interests me was not the act of smoking.

The smoke from the cigarette was covering the person's face.

It wasn't a physical mask, but it was a psychological mask.


The works after that took on a different dimension.


Anwar: There was a period when Zakii's alma mater,

you know, ITM, actually did not teach figure drawing

because of the influence of politicized Islam

at the arts school.


[ Indistinct conversation in distance ]

[ Insects chirping ]

[ Television playing indistinctly ]

Zakii: Movies play a very important role in my works,

you know, because a lot of the early works,

especially the smoker series

where you see these two characters

at the edge of the frame of the painting, yeah?

Those works were very much influenced

by Spaghetti Westerns, you know?

You would see how Sergio Leone frames the gunfight.

That is when I learned the psychological implication

of space, of empty space, how important it is.

That space between the gunfighters, you know,

it's a psychological space, you know, which tells a lot

about everything that's going on between these men, you know?


is psychological.

[ Gunshots fire on television ]

-Ah! -Oh, my God. What?

[ Chuckles ]

-Scary. -That scary?

[ Indistinct ]

[ Chuckles ]



I learn a lot about human nature by working at Lifezone.

We are working with some very difficult people.

Addiction is a terrible problem.

You need to experience it actually, you know,

what it is like to have no control...

...absolutely no control.

An addict, you know,

will do anything to get a fix,

anything at all.

This is our shelter home.

It's called Dignity.

It's run by Lifezone.

What we do is what we call harm reduction, yeah?

Getting them to stop taking drugs can be very difficult,

so we do the next best thing, you know --

stopping them from spreading HIV, not to just other addicts,

but to their families and their children.

You know, we had some problems with the residents this year

because it's a residential area,

and, um,

they didn't like it that we have a shelter home here.

I think I guess now they are quite used to it.

[ Car horn honks ]

These were the drawings that were done

for a fundraising that we had for Lifezone.

But these are just prints actually.

The original drawings are bigger, yeah.

[ Conversing in Malay ]

These are our outreach workers,

and what they do is they go out and interact with drug users,

and telling them how to use clean needles.

And we also have our group of sex workers.

They look after the street walkers

and teach them how to do safe sex.

[ Conversing in Malay ]

[ Laughter ]

They couldn't get a Chinese sex worker,

so they're learning Mandarin.

[ Laughs ]

[ Conversing in Malay ]

We got a lot of donations -- rice.

This is our staff.

Right now we have 16 residents here.

They're all HIV-positive,

so they have to have regular blood tests.

Let's go down this way.

Yeah, we use the 12-step program here --

NA, Narcotics Anonymous.

Very much like Alcoholics Anonymous.

[ Man speaking in Malay ]


When I was a student,

one of the assignments that we had for art history

was to copy a painting by an old master.

The painting that I chose to copy was by Velázquez.

It was Christ on the Cross.

It was a crucifixion.

It wasn't easy in the beginning, you know,

because it's such a foreign notion.

I was always intrigued by any form of religious image.

It doesn't matter whether it's Islam or Christianity

or Buddhism or Hinduism.



His journey or his excavations have taken him

into a part of both the Malay and Southeast Asian

part of our past that today is very contentious,

which is basically the very vibrant

and still very vital pre-Islamic past,

influenced by Hinduism and Buddhism.

His painting of Buddha heads, for example, the Malays,

they didn't get rid of their pre-Islamic traditions.

They rationalized them, and there was a process

of a metamorphosis in which such pre-Islamic beliefs

fit in very nicely with more mystical trends in Islam.

And the Malays were mystics,

and that has been the experience of Islam

for all these centuries up to very recent times

in the past 40 or 50 years.

The challenge of puritanical Islam

has been a more recent one.

The rise of Wahhabism, terrorism, al-Qaeda-ism,


you know, Bush-reaction-ism, all these kinds of things,

we understand Islam within that prism.

Islam has so many dimensions in which people

can operate and gravitate,

and it is our reductionist approach,

not just by non-Muslims,

but increasingly by Muslims that Islam is exclusivist.

And it's this aspects of Islamic law,

what can and cannot be done, dominate everything.

When the term break ended, I came back to the school,

and I found someone had slashed the paintings.

There was a group of quite radical Muslims

running around the campus in those days,

and I think it was them.

Of course it is a difficult climate

to be controversial in this country

because, you know, I feel that the controversies,

the attacks, are really generated for political reasons.

There's a political project

in terms of wanting the country to remain,

and the Malays in particular, and the Muslims in particular,

to be a certain kind of Malay, a certain kind of Muslim,

you know -- conservative, traditional.

I think with all fundamentalists and conservatives,

it's about control, conformity, power,

and they having the sole power and authority to decide,

"This is how you should think. This is how you should act.

This is how you should paint."




[ Horn honking in distance ]


Zakii: I first came to London in 1984, I think.

When you live in Malaysia, you don't get to see great art.

The artists that you admire you see in books and magazines.

Woman: What are you looking for when you see a piece of art?

Um, I don't look. I feel, you know?

It's more of about if the piece makes your heart skips a beat,

so if it does, then I'm interested, you know?

If I look at it and it doesn't do anything for my feelings,

then, you know, I don't give it much thought.


The painting in the book has hardly any soul.

It's a reproduction.

But in the painting on the wall

in the gallery in the museum,

the connection is direct, you know?

And there's nothing like it.

You know a lot of young artists look at a place like this,

and they want the success, you know?

But behind the success is a lot of hard work,

a lot of disappointments, you know?

So you have to learn to handle all those.

You know, none of the artists who are shown here

had an easy life, you know?

If you look at those works we see in the last gallery,

you know, the Brâncusi and Mondrian

and, you know,

those were the early days of modernism, you know?

And they had to struggle to find a language,

a new language to speak, you know,

to get rid of representational art, you know?

So they have to feel their way around,

and it wasn't easy, you know?

Today you look at them.

They're nice here in this nice, modern museum, you know?

The artwork looks so pristine on the wall,

but the making of it is different.

The thing with contemporary art,

it's following a western art discourse, you know?

So even when I was in school, we learn western art history.

There was very few Asian art history.

Even today there's no curriculum for, let's say,

history of Southeast Asian art.

No one's really writing serious stuff,

you know, about southern Asian art and sort of compile

it into a proper art historical perspective.

Right. I think that's a shame.

And then you're an artist

and you're into western art theories and practices,

so where do you put all these things that you grew up with?

If you're a Buddhist or a Muslim or a Hindu,

there's a lot of mystical,

spiritual things that goes on, you know?

Things which you grew up with, the rituals and all that,

and how do you place that? Where do you place that?

Because those things are not really acceptable.

What are the forces that drive spiritual

and artistic development in the region?

Is creativity a form of rebellion?

So it is a great pleasure to welcome Yang May Ooi today.

Ooi: So back in the bad old days of the British Empire,

the British controlled the dominant point of view.

So in a photograph like this, we would know the names

of all the British people in it --

Lord This, General That.

But the natives?

Those other people out there, the natives,

they don't have names.

We don't have to care about them.

So fast-forward to the postwar period.

The colonies all over the British Empire were rebelling.

They wanted to be seen and heard.

Our next speaker is Zakii Anwar.

Now, Zakii has very modestly asked me to introduce him

as just a Malaysian artist,

but I will use my prerogative as chair to state that Zakii is,

in fact, on the leading artists in the Southeast Asian region.

Zakii: Well, you know, living in Malaysia,

which is a very conservative country,

we have many restrictions.

Sexual preferences, sexual identities --

very touchy subject for most people.

There were a few people who refused to go to my exhibitions,

which I know, because I painted these kind of images.

But, you know, I mean, you do things that you have to do,

and whatever reaction there is,

you just have to handle it.

Islamic fundamentalism is on the rise in Malaysia,

and the idea...

I love Indian food, so --

Look, you know, it's an orgy of Indian food.

[ Chuckles ]

Look at that.

You have lamb samosa?

-Yeah, yeah, of course. -Yeah?

And do you have tea?

Tea with condensed milk, sweetened condensed milk?

-Yeah. -Yeah, with sugar.

Make it sweet. Make it sweet. -Okay.

Rebellion. Rebelling is today fashionable, you know?

But I think a lot of kids don't understand

that rebellion is a process, you know?

It has to end up in some sort of a conclusion, you know?

You rebel against something bad,

but you have a projection in mind to make things better.

You know you don't just rebel because it's fashionable

because rebelling is not a job.

Yeah? It's not a career.

You rebel when you want to change things.




Khoo: When Zakii moved into painting nudes,

he of course caused some controversy.

It's a way of gauging social attitudes.

They essentially see nudes and male nudes as pornographic.

While I admire the courage that he has, you know,

to draw things that are not politically correct --

you know, the Buddha paintings, the nudes, you know?

And these are things that supposedly the "good Muslim"

will not do and would of course incur the wrath of,

you know, the conservatives within society,

but I think it's irrelevant to him.

Khoo: These are very important ways of challenging the notion

of what comprises Islamic tenets.

You are born nude.

You die nude,

and I don't think it's...

so much an overt sexuality of the human body

that Zakii is preoccupied with.

Zakii: "Sit Up Figure 1"

was a painting that triggered the nude series.

I couldn't figure out how to make a painting with a nude.

The nudes was actually a direct response

towards my involvement in Sufism.

It is not something that is ignored in Islam.

In fact it is contemplated a great deal in Islam --

the nature of sexuality

which is then related to the nature of being.

All of this can be found in Sufistic traditions,

and at heart, I think Zakii is very much a Sufistic painter.

Zakii: The reason he's not wearing any clothes

is because I want him to be in his natural state,

so you can identify him

whether he's wearing western clothes or eastern clothes

or whether he's of this race or that race, you know?

He is a universal man.

It was something totally against Islam, you know?

[ Laughs ]

But then the works were never meant to be about... know, eroticism or -- It has elements of that,

but it was never meant to be erotic or...

sexually expcit.

When I first started the nude series, you know,

there was various responses, you know?

Some people think I'm gay,

which is fine with me, you know.

I don't really find anything wrong with being gay.

Some people think they are dirty, you know?

Very few people can connect it to something religious.

So what's wrong with erotic painting?

[ Laughs ]

I don't see anything wrong with it, you know?

If people want to choose to be offended by it,

that's their right to be offended by it,

but they don't have a right to impose their values

on other people who don't share those values, you know?

I mean, want more artists, they should be totally free

to paint what they want to paint.

Khoo: I'll always remember that some of the most erotic poetry

that we have in the world today were written by Muslim mystics,

people like Rumi, Hafez and Adar.

And I see Zakii in this line.

Although, you know,

the painting is painted by me,

but to complete the work,

it has to interact with the public.

I'm giving the audience the minimal of clues,

actually, yeah, so that you can open up your minds.

You know, I'm giving you a lot of room to roam,

yeah, to integrate.

Religion and art, for me they're like twins.










I've touched on various traditional subjects

in the works --

the Bali dancers, the silat pieces.

Mak yong actually is an exorcism

which involves music, dance, incantations.

It's performed when there is someone sick in a house.

It is banned by the past government in Kelantan

because it's seen as un-Islamic,

but they still practice it today,

but secretly.

These are the kind of things which interest me,

you know, that special side of these performances --

the dancers, the musicians, you know,

they are all done for God.

Khoo: The dance drama form called the mak yong,

which is an all-female dance drama form,

is very much rooted in the belief

that we all posses animal spirits,

animal spirits that then define our own personalities.

So we may be an eagle.

We may be a crocodile.

We could be a lion.

We could be a tiger.

We could be a wolf, aserigala.

Sometimes, you know, I may take, like...

...a dirty little animal like the babirusa.

You know, the babirusa is a small, dirty animal.

I saw it in the Singapore zoo.

You wouldn't want to take it home with you.

You know, I was compelled to make this babirusa

into something magnificent, profound even.

And I can only do that if I inject myself into it.

I gave this little animal my personality.

For many people, of course, it's shocking

because we have been severed of that mythological tradition,

and today you go to large parts of Southeast Asia,

and particularly in Malaysia,

not only are these kinds of myths not encouraged,

they are seriously abused

and made illegitimate.

Zakii: The current series I'm working on is

"Tales From the Primordial Garden."

You have that thing within you, the word I mentioned just now --

[ Speaks Malay ] --

about doing things beautifully.

But then you have the other side of you,

you know, the dark side

where the more disturbing aspects of your personality --

You know that has to come out too.

In Islam, you know, like in Bali,

you know good and evil sits together, yeah?

Both are creatures of God.

I see him within a continuum of artists

who carry this primordial spirit

that is very particular to this region.

When he paints, he actually invokes

and entire landscape of this place

that has also very strong historical resonances.

You do understand that you're entering a landscape of color

and of sensibility,

or temperament

and of a kind of spiritual memory.

[ Birds chirping ]

[ Lively, indistinct conversations ]

Zakii: We're in Jalan Meldrum.

Normally, when I go to town late at night,

this is where I hang out --

have tea, watch people, you know.

After hours in the studio alone, you know, it's nice

to sort of go to a place where there's a crowd, yeah?

And this is my kind of crowd.

[ Laughs ]

[ Conversing in Malay ]

[ Lively, indistinct conversations continue ]

I'm a night owl.

When everyone goes to sleep,

when my wife is sleeping and the kids are sleeping,

that time for me is just kind of special because I'm alone.

And especially late at night,

you know, I don't get phone calls,

so it's my --

It's the time I have for myself, actually,

late at night, after midnight when everyone is asleep

and, you know, that's my time.

[ Lively, indistinct conversations continue ]

This particular series,

the Kota Sunyi and the Kota Sepi series,

was a series which I wanted to do especially on JB as a town

because at least once in my career,

I would like to acknowledge, you know,

the town where I grew up in, where I was born.

Kota Sepi and Kota Sunyi

started from the streets here

and in the back alleys behind the streets.

It just records the life of people

who are in the fringes of society.

Well, I don't think I like it in Johor

because I'm anonymous here.

It's just the place where I was born.

You know, I grew up here.

It's a small town, very simple life.

The family is growing now, so I might have to move.

[ Laughs ]

But, you know,

this is where I was born, and I like it here.

Yeah, I don't like the big cities.

[ Insects, birds chirping ]

[ Indistinct conversation ]


These are actually large studies,

which I did in Saigon, Ho Chi Minh City.

We were traveling with a group of Indonesian artists.

We went round Saigon looking for models,

but we couldn't find any, you know?

But in the end...

...we found a couple of models in a brothel actually,

which were willing to pose for us.

I don't normally do female nudes.

I don't have much of a choice.

When you're drawing the nudes, you know,

naturally eroticism comes into it, you know,

and here I think I tried to capture that sensuality,

but very quickly.

In Malaysia, although it's a fairly conservative country

and we have this

what you would call the "moral police,"

you know, making sure everyone behaves,

but, you know, I mean, I've been drawing

and painting nudes for years,

and they've never bothered me.

The female nude is not anything new, isn't it?

Artists has been drawing nudes for centuries,

but it's just that here in this country people

get a bit sensitive.

I would prefer drawing a female rather than a male --

you know, nicer to see.

[ Laughs ]

Not nice to see a nude man live in front of you for hours.





My children, you know...

they go to school.

I know what they teach in school, you know,

but they need to go through that.

But when they come home and they're with me, you know,

I present to them an alternate point of view, you know?

And as they grow older,

I start exposing them to a lot of things, you know.

Talk to them about life, you know, about religion,

about Sufism, you know,

and especially about

not being afraid to explore, yeah,

and not to be afraid of other cultures or religion,

to be able to stay a Muslim

but still be a man of the world.












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