For Juhari Said being an artist is a journey of discovery. After being Malaysia’s foremost printmaker for over two decades Juhari abandoned printmaking to reconfigure his energy on to the process of carving woodblocks. His creative journey continues with recent explorations into ceramics and chainsaws. There is an emotion or an experience embedded into each and every artwork he produces. For Juhari Said making art is an intuitive process involving instinctive activities and it is here his art best remains; as visceral expressions.

Juhari also brings a strong sense of social responsibility to the role of being an artist by devoting part of his time to sharing his knowledge and to assist others to improve their lives. As Juhari says, “Creativity is not just about creating art, it is also about helping people around us”. After the Asian tsunami in 2004, Juhari travelled to Aceh to work on a papermaking intervention study project with Abad Cekap Alliance Sdn. Bhd. In 2005, he was involved in a project with the Yayasan Raja Muda Selangor (YRMS) to help younger artists to develop their hidden talents. He initiated a project with the Liga Inong Aceh to bring four Acehnese to Penang to teach them papermaking and entrepreneurial skills.

This article is based on extracts from two interviews I did with Juhari Said over a 9 month period in 2008 to 2009 as part of a research project to track his journey. Each interview begins with extracts of field notes I wrote at the time. The discussion focuses on materials, his involvement with the Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM) in Penang, his approach to composition, and the transition he made in 2009 from black and white to using more explosive colours and the intaglio technique.

TERAP ULANG STUDIO, USM PENANG, NOVEMBER 2008.

I first met Juhari Said in early 2008 in Kuala Lumpur at the home of Malaysian art collector Professor Rampal. We met often over the next few months and then on 15 November 2008 while in Penang, I spent a day with Juhari at USM. Several works of for his Okir series (2009) were seen in his studio. As wood is his primary material I began this interview by asking Juhari about the wood he used and why it was so special.

JUHARI: I use jambu laut – a rare wood that grows on the beaches along the east coast of Kelantan, particularly in Machang. It is a beautiful wood because I can carve it 360 degrees without breaking it. When I carve other types of wood on certain angles the wood often breaks.

TONY: Do you travel to Kelantan to collect jambu laut?

JUHARI: Yes. I travel to Kelantan in the school holidays with my children or whenever I have time.

TONY: How do you select wood for carving?

JUHARI: I cut the jambu laut with a knife from different angles and I also carve marks on to the wood to determine its flexibility and to identify the best wood for carving.

TONY: How did you discover jambu laut?

JUHARI: I was a printmaker until one day in 2005 I realised that repeating the same impressions was no longer exciting. After being a printmaker for 23 years, I had a crisis. I went into my studio and I could not produce any new artworks. I became unproductive and spent my time gardening or sleeping in the studio. I lived like this until early 2006 when I was invited to attend the Muhibah Seni Rupa Malaysia-Jordan workshop in Kelantan which was organised by UITM Kelantan and the Malaysian artist Sharifah Fatimah Zubir. At the workshop I was given a piece of jambu laut instead of plywood. The size of the jambu laut was large; about 9 to 10 feet [in length]. As I began to carve the wood it created an emotional impact. The wood was beautiful because of its size and thickness. The result was so impressive compared to the earlier blocks I had made from plywood. Plywood is thin whereas jambu laut is a heavy wood. From then on I was hooked and I stopped printmaking and started to focus on the process of making blocks.

TONY: Tell me about your residency at USM in Penang.

JUHARI: In 2008 I was invited by Mr. Rahman Mohamed, the Dean of the School of Art, to join USM as a Creative Fellow. The university did not specify my duties but I am now making artworks for a solo exhibition.

TONY: Do you teach at USM?

JUHARI: No.

TONY: What interaction do you have with students?

JUHARI: During the day, the students work with the lecturers in the studio. In the evening, after dinner, I am usually in my office on campus and students come to talk with me about their work. I find it difficult dealing with them because as a professional artist, the way I see things is different to how academics teach students. Their work is based on academic requirements, whereas my working situation is collective and requires broader considerations.

TONY: What are the defining characteristics of your art?

JUHARI: It is the use of black and white. When an artist produces a black and white work, it is the pure natural expressions of the artist. In black and white, an artist cannot be pretentious or conceal anything. Very few printmakers work in black and white because it is difficult to sell the artworks.

TONY: In your Okir series you use a little blue and red. Why those colours?

JUHARI: When I display 15 artworks in a row, I use minimal colours of red, blue and yellow to break the monotony of the display.

TONY: What does colour mean for you?

JUHARI: Colour is not important for me.

TONY: Who buys your art?

JUHARI: I have a base of collectors who have collected my works since 1983. They are collecting my history.

TONY: What is your usual routine when you are at home with your family?

JUHARI: I usually work from 8am to 2pm. I rest in the afternoon and then at 5pm I spend time gardening until 7pm. In the evening I may read a book, watch news, and I sometimes write. I have a good life at home.

TONY: How do you approach composition?

JUHARI: When I enter the studio I have to understand myself. If an artist enters the studio feeling joyous or angry, the artist must be able to control these emotions and to translate them into a composition and into art. An artist must turn emotions into a positive activity.

TONY: Could you describe the process of translating emotions on to wood?

JUHARI: It is an intuitive process and difficult to explain in words. It relates to life experiences. For instance, if I decide to go home to visit my mother, I do not have to call her. She will know I am arriving today and she has already prepared special dishes for me. She is waiting for me at the door. It is like telepathy. So I try to transfer this energy into my art. And if I have15 artworks standing in a gallery, it is the artist who stands individually in each artwork.

TONY: Is your art Malaysian?

JUHARI: I have been to Japan about ten times. When I am in Japan I live in a hotel and produce my artworks. But when I return home some Malaysians say the art I made in Japan is Japanese, while many Japanese perceive the same artworks as Malaysian. I suspect the reason for this is that when a Malaysian sees black and white, it is often perceived by them as being Japanese, but when a Japanese observes the intricate lines and textures of my art, and because a Japanese will rarely produce such highly intricate carvings, my art is perceived by them as Malaysian

The intricacy of the lines, textures and motifs are related to Malaysia. Our forests, jungles, bushes and shrubs, are intricate and delicate, and this is why most Southeast Asians love to draw or carve intricate motifs. In Japan or Europe, the landscape is different. These countries do not have rainforests and jungles like Malaysia. When I was in Jordan, while driving through the country, all I could see was endless desert, sand and rocks. But when I drive in Malaysia, I see trees. The trees block our view and we cannot see beyond them. A Malaysian finds intricacies (as seen in our trees and forests) attractive and expressive. These intricacies express the soul of Malaysia.

TUANKU FAUZIAH MUSEUM AND GALLERY, USM PENANG, 1 AUGUST 2009

I returned to Penang 9 months later to see the Samudra exhibition at USM. I met Juhari outside the Tuanku Fauziah gallery on a wet Saturday morning and he invited me to join him for breakfast at a nearby food stall. We then returned to the gallery and spent the next few hours talking and viewing his new artworks. With Juhari’s earlier Okir series which emphasised black and white, I was surprised to discover the new Samudra artworks were colourful with burning reds, intense greens and solid blues. I soon realised this apparent contradiction was a natural and necessary part of his journey. I began the second interview by asking Juhari how this transition to using intense colours came about.

JUHARI: This transition to colour took place over 9 months. I was surprised because in the past I have worked in black and white but after staying in Penang for 9 months the artworks I produced were colourful and very different to my earlier works. In my earlier works I used traditional print techniques in which black paint is applied directly to the surface of the wood by using rollers. But the artworks I made for the Samudra exhibition at USM became colourful after I introduced the Intaglio technique and I did not use a roller but applied the oil paint on to the wood with my fingers, rubbing it on with my hands or using old rags, newspapers, or the occasional brush stroke. I applied Intaglio techniques on to the surface.

TONY: What attracts you to oil paint?

JUHARI: I like oil paint because it is durable, flexible and lasts longer.

TONY: Has living in Penang influenced these works?

JUHARI: Yes. I try to absorb the environment I live in and to convey it through my art. The colours in my new works for the Samudra exhibition perhaps reflect the buildings and my surroundings in Penang. But I also used a chainsaw in Penang to carve the wood rather than my usual carving tools. So the texture on the wood actually comes from a chainsaw.

TONY: Which do you find more significant in your work; the form or the surface?

JUHARI: The most significant part is the treatment of the surface. An artist working with woodblock print will focus on the surface. With sculpture, the form of the work is primary. A sculptor carving stone will emphasise the form and shape of the work rather than the surface. My works are not sculptures because I emphasise the surface of the artwork. For me it is about the patterns, carvings, colours and whatever you see on the surface.

TONY: There is a departure in material in one work in which you use ceramics?

JUHARI: Yes. This first work is the start of my exploration into ceramics. I treated the ceramic like wood. I made a wood carving and did castings of the wood. I created a mould and used press mould techniques by applying the ceramic on to the mould. I then created a form and tried to repeat the forms based on the mould I created. I left it to dry and after the ceramic became leather hard I carved the ceramic just as if I were carving wood. Some of the textures on the ceramic were created by carving.

TONY: When did you start the ceramic piece?

JUHARI: In June 2009. I produced 20 works but only one piece survived. The other 19 pieces cracked.

TONY: So the material is fragile.

JUHARI: Yes, very fragile. Actually, the 19 cracked ceramics were sketches. A sketch is traditionally produced on paper but my sketches are on three-dimensional objects.

TONY: How did you get into ceramics?

JUHARI: As a Creative Fellow at USM I often talk with academics and I met a researcher specialising in ceramics. We talked about the possibilities of how to apply wood carving techniques on to ceramics. So it started as an exploration and I love to explore new directions and to search for new ideas. Normally, when I make Intaglio prints on zinc or copper plates I use a similar technique to apply the paint on to the ceramics as I do with wood, that is, by etchings. I have made etchings for many years but with the ceramics I had to experiment to find the best way to apply the technique of etching on to the ceramics. This is the most fascinating part.

TONY: What key attributes does an artist need to carve wood?

JUHARI: Passion and patience. I give workshops and lectures at universities and I find few students have the patience to sit and make a woodcarving. Sometimes it takes more than a week to produce a carving but few students have the resilience to spend time carving.

TONY: You have spent time in Jordan and Tunisia. What attracts you to these countries?

JUHARI: I went to Tunisia in 2008 to participate in the Festival International Des Arts Plastiques in Monastir. I like Jordon too because of its ancient history. In Jordan, I spent time in Petra. I am attracted to Petra because in ancient times it was a great centre of trade and a meeting place of all peoples of the world. Even today, one can find Roman, Greek and Byzantine elements in Petra. It was a centre of cultural and intellectual thought just like New York is today. I like this idea of a centre of intellectual cultural and artistic thought bringing together peoples the world over. I think this is what attracts me to study Sufism because Sufism is universal. There is no hidden agenda in Sufism. Whatever a Sufi says is for knowledge. Even a non-Muslim can appreciate books on Sufism – the poetry, literature and art. It is about universality. We should examine all things in this world from a universal perspective.

Anthropological reflections

There is a tendency to want to know our artists and to expect them to reveal everything before attempting to evaluate their work. But Juhari prefers not to reveal too much. His art is experiential. It exists to be viewed but it also involves processes in which the patterns, colours and carvings of each artwork are interwoven into a single unity. As I stepped closer to the works in the Samudra exhibition I was drawn in to see other dimensions. In Arus (2009), for instance, from a distance the work appeared almost as a slice of the earth but in moving closer to it, the work changed and it reminded me of Penang. In making his art, he combined certainty with a feeling of being out on the edge; venturing into uncharted territory. The art is about his journey. It is about experiences and energy distribution.

Dr.Tony Donalson

11 December 2011

(Taken from the catalogue of Juhari Said solo exhibition Yes or No at MoMA Art Gallery,Desa Sri Hartamas,Kuala Lumpur.)