Juhari Said is developing his own uniqueness—conscious or otherwise—his daily life and work possessing an individual sense of inspiration, idea dan style. Uniqueness can never come from merely having a style different from others. Especially not a lasting kind. It has to have its foundations in principles, individual character and a mind that debates while firmly holding on to his choices—no matter what his detractors may say.

He is one of of the few graphic artists whom have held true to the art of printmaking even though it is rife with difficulties—from the creation process to its targeted audience (many modern art followers and collectors are more enamoured by huge and colourful works as decoration for their walls). His stubborness to continue working by painstakingly cutting the surfaces of wood with his knife and other tools, and later printing for days on end to produce a single piece of work is simply amazing. This method of producing art demands unusual patience and an artistic ‘obsession’ that whirls around a strong sense of self on the part of the artist.

In an age where people are swept away by calls to become globalised and universal (hence deemed as contemporary and modern), Juhari Said chooses to give prominence to local traditions (as if throwing himself against the relentless tide of globalisation). Different from the Indonesian artist Rusli, Juhari does not depart from the point of his physical surroundings, but rather from idea, mind and perception. Rusli departs from objects such as flowerpots, boats, women, harbours and buildings but later chooses to portray half hidden or shades of objects set against an open space. Rusli in the finality delivers the essence from the life that lay before him.

Juhari Said is more of an observer of the turmoils of lives caught in their social entrapments —tradition, culture, honesty, partnership, pretense, dreams and insecurities. Thus, he does not lock himself wholly in the studio but rather keeps his sights on the centre of society’s interactions. His experiences are then evaluated and interpreted to be laboured upon his works with the use of symbols. At such stage, he has chosen an approach that differs from his peers in that he has returned to Malay proverbs in visualising symbols and the naming of his paintings.

Frog Wanting To Be Cow (Katak Hendak Jadi Lembu) is the title of one of his works. This proverb could most likely mean a small frog that harbours a desire to become like the bigger creature that is the cow, a stronger and also more directly useful animal to man—equally as a beast of burden or as a source of food. A frog that continues being itself is limited to  only leaping around in the paddy fields before finally meeting a gruesome end at the fangs of a snake. Yet, on the other hand, the big ambitions and dreams of this frog (like the dreamy proverbial Malay character Mat Jenin) can be deemed as liberating in that it releases the dreamer from the realities that constraint him. But like every dream or vision, one has to be realistic when facing the possibilities lying ahead. Dreams that are unrealistic or grandiose, when left unchecked, can only end in mockery. Thus, Juhari creates an image of an incomplete frog and an incomplete cow—a picture that speaks of ugliness.

Return to Malay Literary Aesthetics

Since the 1990s, Juhari Said has gotten intimate with Malay literary traditions and wisdom that have its roots sprawled across the entire Malay archipelago. It is as if he has been excavating and reclaiming the genius of his race while shadowed by elements of Western art and literature through an education gained at the local institution or the prevalent broadcast media.

Thus, year by year, Juhari Said has worked his knife on the surfaces of wood and given such titles to his works:

Different Grasshoppers In Different Fields, Different Fishes in Different Waters (1997)

Scissors In The Fold (1998)

If The Cask Is Broken, There’s Still The Pitcher (1998)

Like A Two Edged Saw (1998)

Fish In The Sea And Lime On The Land, In the Pan Will The Two Meet (1998)

Negotiating with a Tree Stump (1998)

If the Tree is Bent Even the Tortoise May Climb Over It (1998)

Chicken’s Scratch Man’s Scratch (1998)

Congkak Counting (1998)

Like The Bamboo and The Riverbank (2003)

Not all of these titles were gathered from Malay proverbs and some of the more sarcastic sayings or statements such as Chicken’s Scratch Man’s Scratch and Congkak Counting are of the artist’s own making. ‘Chicken’s Scratch’ colloquially refers to a type of traditional sweet confection but also means illegible handwriting. In the bigger context Chicken’s Scratch Man’s Scratch could mean either a person who is more negative or positive than the said fowl. Similarly, ‘Congkak Counting’, which in its print depicts an uneven congkak playing board (with one row having six holes, while the other has seven, when both rows should be of equal number of holes) is a symbol of sarcasm, mocking or attacking the cheating and dishonesty that is becoming rampant throughout his society.

In actual fact, Juhari is free to use simple language in naming his paintings. Instead he has returned to learning from Malay proverbs and sayings that has been passed down from generation to generation over thousands of years.

Proverbs, idioms, metaphors and the elegant yet potent sayings found in the Malay language forms a cosmos that holds deep within its folds the world view, values and wisdom of the Malay society, strained from the events of its past ages. Like all the other civilisations belonging to the world’s nations, the Malay nation houses its civilisation in its language and it is through the very enrichment of the Malay language that it nurtures the life of the people’s Self and identity. Malay language and literature becomes the most important element in building its Islamicism, knowledge, identity and future—no different from the peoples of other nations. From literary forms (Malay proverbs and pantun) we are able to uncover the creativity and genius that has taken root in this part of the world. How astute, sensitive and creative our artists have been in perceiving world experience and phrased them for the contemplation of other men through the use of symbols, metaphors and language that is imaginative, original and rich in meaning.

Artists and Nature

It is difficult to comprehend how there might exist an artist who does not love Nature—the trees, flowers, fruits, boughs, leaves, mountains, water, rivers, rain, birds and beasts. Like other artists, Juhari Said is intimate with nature—from which he reaps ideas, he creates and even gathers for his daily sustenance. The Malay World especially can never be separate from Nature. It is a part of the Malay man’s entire cosmos—the skies, earth, material, spiritual and mental—all affixed around a central belief that God is the creator of everything. The creativity of the Malay artist, willingly or otherwise, will show forth not just an appreciation and awe of nature but also carries with it an awareness of society, morality and ethics that molds the harmony of a communal life. Thus, Malay literary aesthetics often look towards nature in creating symbols and metaphors to portray universal social and humane statements.

Juhari Said continues this Malay artistic tradition not merely through the use of proverbs but also in its spirit which often makes references to natural phenomenon when touching on matters of social responsibility. In another aspect, he undertakes innovation towards tradition by lifting proverbs onto a contemporary visual arts medium and straight into the lives of visual artists who are considered a minority in this country.

Apart from Malay proverbs, the pantun is another major creation of traditional Malay arts that can be considered equal to other world poetry forms. Just like proverbs, pantuns articulates the body and soul, socio-cultural values, pride and prejudice, gems of thought and the Self of the Malay nation. With its concise form, balance of syllables amongst lines, rhythm and rhyme in the middle or end of lines, a pantun only conveys its full meaning after earlier providing glimpses of it through beautiful expressions of nature. The aesthetics sensibilities of Juhari Said captures the deep secrets of the pantun to express his own artistic statements:

Art of Motherland art of tradition
like scented blooms upon a hill
when debasing values of our nation
dare we remain artists still.

Art comes from the soul’s longing
gushing forth from the artist within
and to what end are we heading
after so long courting ruin.

Just by looking at the pantuns above (composed by Juhari himself) one can already sum up Juhari’s artistic stance towards his audience. The labours of his art are not just driven by emotions but also bear layers of thought, in fact some of these works may even be quite cerebral. His studio and home are themselves located in a remote village—frequently visited by snakes, wild boars, monkeys, lizards and most certainly birds—and have been named Akal di Ulu*. Usually, those who live upriver are conventional folk from a traditional, agricultural and rural background. Yet, as a creative and formally educated artist, his presence in a remote farmland in Hulu Langat is quite unthinkable and anachronistic. His spirit is always in search of new experiences, opening new borders and courageous in facing the risk of bringing himself to take up residence in such a strange and romantic place. This is characteristic of a restless independent soul—desiring the freedom to experiment and express his existence.

It is thus, that he has chosen to become an artist.

* * *

* ‘Akal’ is derived from a noun of Arabic origin meaning ‘intellect’. ‘Di’ is a preposition to illustrate direction or location. ‘Ulu’ is another Malay noun that has many meanings applicable to a place, position or objects. It is also often used to denote the base of sharp objects, i.e. ‘ulu keris’ means the hilt of a keris, while the ‘ulu’ of a river means the upriver. Here in ‘Akal di Ulu’, ‘ulu’ refers to the district of Hulu Langat where Juhari lives, a place at the Langat upriver.


Baha Zain
Taken from the book Akal Di Mata Pisau, published by Malaysian Re-Insurance, 2003.

(Translated into English by Dhojee)