IT is 20-feet tall and 10-feet wide. Weighing more than a tonne, it’s named Digarhayu Negaraku — Susah Payahnya Membina Negara. This gigantic Jalur Gemilang seems a little lacklustre when compared to the more recognisable brightly-coloured versions. The only splash of colour that can be discerned from the dim lighting in the gallery is the royal blue square on the top left corner filled with scribbles of poetry and sayings. It also serves as the background for a golden crescent moon and star that are made entirely of steel.
The rest of the flag has been created out of wood, most of which are dulled and weathered from the decades of being exposed to nature’s caress. However, behind the worn exterior, there are stories
attached that may not be found in our history books.
“Each piece of wood comes from old kampong houses from my home town of Raub in Pahang. These are houses that people didn’t want anymore and had been torn down to make way for newer brick
and mortar versions,” confides the artist, Mohamad Ismadi Sallehudin, solemnly. In addition, there are bits and pieces of kampong life and Pahang’s history inserted in certain crevices. Like the single Adidas kampong (rubber slippers) by the bottom left corner, and just above it, an original Pahang Consolidated Company Limited (PCCL) gunnysack filled with postal stamps.
The artist explains that in addition, each part of the flag is somewhat of a reminder of who we once were and who we still are today. The woods, in various shapes, the still-intact door latch, the piece of tree trunk from the forest, portions of window frames. they’ve all seen better days yet despite the
scratches and chips, they are all significant.
And like pieces in a jigsaw puzzle, each piece of wood holds up another. “If you take out one block, the foundation will start to shake. Pull out another and probably the whole structure would fall.
It’s just like that saying, ‘united we stand, divided we fall’,” shares the affable artist, continuing: “Building a nation is no different. But what’s unique about us is that we’re made out of so many different people. This is represented by the different shapes of wood here. There is more to us than meets the eye and for over 61 years, we have made it happen. Let’s continue doing it.”
Occupying pride of place in the middle of the foyer of Galeri Prima, the large wooden structure is certainly a beautiful piece of art. Sturdy and wise, it seems to stand guard over the other works displayed here.
As I stand looking at this amazing piece of work, which seems to radiate a magnanimous force, I couldn’t help but be awed. I wonder who has space big enough to accommodate it. I get my answer soon enough. It seems the founder of EcoWorld, Tan Sri Abdul Rashid Abdul Manaf has, for he has purchased the flag for one million ringgit!
SOMETHING TO CALL OUR OWN
It took Ismadi about five months and some help from friends and family to complete his gigantic creation. “It was a very tedious task,” he reveals, adding: “I had to go around collecting the wood, bring them back to my studio in Ulu Dong because I knew the piece wouldn’t have fitted in my home in Kuantan. Then I had to clean the wood before assembling them all into a flag. I had a few people helping me at first, but one by one they left because it was too tiring a task. I was working until the wee hours of the morning.”
Curious, I couldn’t help asking the artist why he bothered to continue if it was so challenging. He pauses to reflect the question before replying: “I wanted to create something that all Malaysians can
appreciate. I wanted to make a contribution to the nation and not be known only as an artist who paints pretty paintings.”
That’s because he believes that the marketplace is too saturated with contemporary and westernised art pieces. “I cannot blame the artists because that’s the type of art that sells these days. Artists need to survive too. It’s not easy. We do our best, but sometimes that’s also not enough, especially when times are bad,” he offers.
That said, he does harbour hopes that Malaysian artists would someday do more for the art industry in terms of showcasing our heritage and culture. “Maybe then we can have our identity on the international stage because at the moment, I feel we are behind compared to some of our neighbours such as Indonesia and Thailand,” shares Ismadi with conviction.
START THEM YOUNG
Beginning to feel a little tired from all the standing in the gallery, we decide to make our way to the NST cafeteria to continue our chat. As we walk, Ismadi reminisces fondly about his childhood in Sarawak.
“My late-father was an army man and was stationed in Sarawak. So, part of my childhood was spent there,” he confides with a melancholic smile. Continuing, he recalls with a chuckle: “He wasn’t much
of an artist, but I do remember that he loved carving. Perhaps that’s where I got my artistic DNA from. My mum wasn’t too happy about it! She wanted me to concentrate on my studies. She even marched to my primary school once to tell the teacher about my so-called creative ‘addiction’, hoping the teacher could help knock some sense into me.”
Unfortunately, to his mother’s chagrin, his teacher actually encouraged his creative disposition instead of hampering it. “He brought me to the museum and introduced me to the various art styles. He even gave me a set of watercolours and was always cheering me on,” shares Ismadi. Sadly, he wasn’t able to thank the kind educator before he passed away. “I went back to Sarawak once and tried searching for him, but they told me he was no longer around.”
That primary school teacher wasn’t the only educator who encouraged and paved the way for Ismadi to be the artist he is today. “Another teacher in my high school also advised me to drop chemistry and take up art instead. That I believe, changed my future quite a bit,” he surmises.
By virtue of his childhood experiences, the amiable artist ended up in various educational institutions as an educator himself after graduating with an arts degree from ITM (currently known as UiTM). “My last job before I decided to concentrate on painting full-time five years ago was as a dean in ASWARA (Akademi Seni Budaya dan Warisan Kebudayaan),” he reveals proudly.
As we finally sit down to enjoy our hot drinks, Ismadi muses: “To create better artists in the future who can help bring the industry onto the world stage, educational bodies as well as current artists should begin teaching art to school-going children. They’re never too young to understand art. I’ve seen it done in Europe and countries closer to home.”
His eyes lighting with passion, he concludes: “So until then, I shall continue striving to create works which are iconic and uniquely Malaysian. Maybe I can continue along the lines of this giant Malaysian flag project. It’s the least that I can do with the passion that I have.”
WHERE Galeri Prima, Balai Berita, Bangsar
WHEN Until Sept 21, 2018