Seeing the Heartstrings

In the context of modern Malaysian art, the position of Juhari Said as a committed and specialised printmaker is undeniable. After 25 years as a professional artist specialising in creating prints, Juhari Said has built a distinguished reputation in the discipline. Since the 1980s, the mutual-bond between printmaking and Juhari Said has been most intimate. It is easy for any observer, follower or researcher to gather this deep co-relation. It is also not overreaching to say that any discourse on Malaysian printmaking will eventually lead us to the artist Juhari Said or his works, and vice-versa.

His unassailable position as master printmaker can be attributed to Juhari Said’s unwavering sight towards obtaining print specialisation by sheer consistence and attention to specifics. Such single-mindedness is a choice that itself may not appeal to some artists. Yet, the way of istiqamah or unwavering path in the search of Truth—yields secrets and meaning, given patience and time. Yet, in the local experience, many artists avoid giving such specific, single-minded effort to any one particular genre.

This writing attempts to briefly discuss such devotion in order to discern the fundamental questions as to how and why Juhari Said and his works came to be within the context earlier cited. What are the motivations or themes that drive his soul to the singular pursuit of printmaking? Truly such core question has been the staple of study by art scholars down the ages. Georgio Vasari had repeatedly enquired on the ‘motivations’ that resulted in Michelangelo being labelled a ‘mad artist’ creating works of such ‘madness’. Yet, the explanations that persistently come-forth are not easily ingested nor are they consistent. It is not one that can be measured scientifically. The irony is that such phenomenon occurs all too often, and certainly in the case of Juhari.

The consistency Juhari Said applies in printmaking has led him into a journey of self-discovery. This endeavour is not limited to just attaining the technical adeptness through which the artist attains the status of master printer. In actual fact, the resulting outcome sees the spirit, aspiration and motivation of the artist uncovering something that is very much personal and intimate. To this writer, it is such phenomenon and where character takes root in artistic exploration that what renders an artist special and important. The resulting works are travel notes, reflections of that journey. They rest and reside within the soul and thinking of the artist himself.

On the exterior, we speak of themes used by the artist alongside his ideas, style, influences, technique and such. Yet what is his biggest motivation, so overwhelming that it causes all that is apparent to come into being? In this aspect, the question to ponder is what, for over the past 20 years, has driven Juhari Said to entrench himself in printmaking, with no sign of possible retreat or waning in his appeal of it. By the usual academic measure and reaction of art scholarship, researchers will study the variables to the phenomenon. Tools are devised to grasp and examine the situation. Indeed there have been many research methods created and applied for explaining the artistic situation. Through structured means, the researcher makes enquiries to the artist, people surrounding him or observe social factors that influence an artist to all ends.

We can certainly attempt this, yet this writer is more inclined towards exploring the fundamental humanity of the individual in question. No different from the question put forth by Paul Gauguin in 1897 in the seminal writing piece titled “Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?” These fundamental questions are most fascinating when viewed within the context of identity and life-journey of a steadfast artist like Juhari Said. In a way, it can narrow down to the inspiration, motivations or any instrument that has stimulated him to become the artist that he is. This writer will not prolong such questions in this essay for it warrants another in-depth study by itself. This brief observation, in moderation, serves only as an appetizer to the main course headed for by this essay.

The Stage of Intimacy

Observing the artistic exploration of Juhari Said, one is struck by the relationship Juhari Said has had with wood. On the surface, this relationship seems to be due to the simple fact that he started out twenty years ago by utilising wood blocks in the making of his art. Undeniably, the indulgence into woodcuts resulted in specialization—with all its inherent benefits—and thus we began to see his reputation grow. Woodcut blocks enabled him to explore a variety of methods and techniques.

Yet as we go a deeper into Juhari Sad’s background and life experience, we see that wood has always been an instrument that is intimate, important, critical and comfortingly familiar to the artist. His late father, a carpenter skilled in building Malay houses, forged the early bonds between the artist’s and the wooden material. Juhari himself notes how as a child he would often watch his father at work building their family home. There is no clearer indication than this of what started Juhari Said’s lifelong regard for the material.

From the 1980s, Juhari Said’s works has displayed the uniqueness of wood, whether as an instrument, a feature or highlighting its inherent qualities. This observation is inevitable given Juhari Said’s focused fascination with woodcut printing. His early works in the series ‘Death of The Princess dan Garden’ saw the first explorations of the material’s qualities. Between 1985 and 1987, through the Garden series and other works, we saw Juhari Said focusing on wood characteristics as an instrument or tool to realize his vision. In formalistic manner, the attention to form took the works onto their own unique place. The wood characteristics became the main vehicle for presentation of the works and stamped unique traits to the created forms.

Wood or wood blocks thus became Juhari Said’s chosen material for his printwork. His focus on woodcut printing again brought his vision to higher ground, as exemplified by the body of works created during a Japan Foundation fellowship-stint in Japan in 1994. By the mid 1990s, Juhari had endeavoured to produce works that fused wood and the wood characteristics itself as elements of the final created form. Eventhough he had at this juncture of his career, embarked on a radical experimentation and exploration, the elements of wood kept appearing across his works. The intimacy of woodcut print flared again in 1997 when the artist began exploring old Malay proverbs and idioms. Wood took the highest position, and a critical one at that, in the creation of images. His works in the Okir exhibition showed wood elements making a distinct departure from previous efforts, signaling also Juhari Said’s entry into a different phase and paradigm.

This writer feels there is indeed ‘something’ in this bond Juhari has with wood. It is like an echo, a yearning, perhaps even an assertion of his Self. The intimacy between him and wood is a fascination that leaves it own imprints, especially after it has been harnessed to a state of creation yielding various forms. The long intimacy between the artist and wood has brought Juhari Said to explore creativity, identity and meaning varying throughout his artistic life-journey. Certainly, many views can be extricated out of the relationship between Juhari Said and wood in the context of his creative work. Studies from the aspect of sociology, culture, psychoanalysis or at least formalistic approaches will yield a rich context to the matter in question.

Challenging Borders

The works displayed in this exhibition is the culmination of a process different from the usual techniques and process often associated with printmaking. Juhari Said’s approach in the latest body of works is a continuation of the exploration undertaken since his Garden series of the 1980s. Printmaking as a medium of expression in visual arts has been raised and moved to a more critical axis in terms of definition, form, basic principles, technique and concept. In a way, this situation reflects the modern art’s desire for innovation and novelty. The duality of modern art that celebrates modern ideologies with new forms of expression while at the same time stimulating criticism of itself has resulted in the character and form of the modern art itself. The paradigm of self-criticism adopted by art movements down the ages has been lifted by post-modern art to a highly critical level.

The nature and character of printmaking with its great emphasis on technical order is harnessed by Juhari Said as the main pulse of his latest exploratory works. Going down the history of printmaking, it becomes obvious that it is not easy for an artist to aggressively pursue innovations in the print final presentation or techniques. For example, the intaglio process such used in engravings of 15th century Italian and German artists, is still in force today, and accepted as a permanent technique of printmaking. This permanence and convention became the cornerstone of Juhari Said’s attempt to give new value and character to the print form and character itself.

The basics of printmaking necessitates a prime matrix or block that is then used to print as many copies as needed. Based on this principle, Juhari Said begins to impart new interpretations and values in perception, form and techniques of the printed artwork itself. In this latest body of work, Juhari Said has deployed the use of the matrix or block itself as the main focus. In the process of embossed printing, serigraphs, intaglio (impression) and also lithography—specific focus is given by the artist to the block or matrix because it is with this that all printed images will be produced. The specific attention given includes aspects of cutting, scratching, drawing, chipping or whatever techniques needed until the desired image is formed. There is also thought given to the placement of colour. From this ‘finished’ block or matrix, all copies will ensue either printed on paper or other formats.

In this new series, Juhari Said had applied new interpretations and values in the preparation of the block or matrix itself. In other words, the matrix IS the artwork itself. Juhari Said does not merely print with the prepared block, but also exhibits the block. This takes place because Juhari Said intends—while still grounded within the conventions of the medium—to broaden the definitions and interpretations of printmaking techniques. This conveys the message for the observer to emphatise and understand the printmaking process first before connecting to the resultant image.

In many ways, the exhibition takes a critical tone expecially in its presentation of forms and creative interpretation. Juhari Said has thrown a different interpretation when he gave indication that these works are a particular form of printed art. Conventional print art only exhibits the resulting print from the block or matrix. In terms of technical definition, the block or matrix is already a part of printed form itself. At a deeper level, Juhari Said is broadening the limits of printmaking and its practice with this new interpretation based on printmaking’s own conventional technicalities. While every work of print art requires a block or matrix, Juhari Said has build a new bridge to expand the potential of printmaking in terms of its presentation.

As mentioned oft times before, the field of printmaking is too staunch in the rigidity of the technical process—it stands accused of being too faithful to conventions for any courting of re-interpretations to take place. Any deviation or change in technique may easily lead to disqualification of the resultant work as printmaking art. This has resulted in a slower growth for printmaking as compared to painting or sculpture. Back to the artworks of Juhari Said in this exhibition, we may ask: what is really printmaking art? Is there such a thing as ‘new’ printmaking art? Could this be an alternative form of printmaking? Or is it clearly, that these works are not printmaking art at all. The answer to all these questions depends on the viewpoint of the observer. It is also tied to currently applied interpretations and definitions, which in turn link themselves to particular ideologies.

This writer reckons that if these works are aggregated into the field of printmaking, they pose a critical and challenging proposition. Different though if they are regarded as sculpture or installation art. After perusal of the fundamentals to these works, the writer opines that if they are defined as print art, then they satisfy print art characteristics and features only in the conceptual-sense. This is because Juhari Said has clearly grounded these works upon the central ideas and definitions of printmaking itself. That is, Juhari Said moves upon the basis of block exploration and matrix, very crucial elements in printmaking. This becomes relevant and significant in terms of the interpretation of printmaking definitions. In these terms, these works produced are indeed print art, the outcome of a conceptual interpretation of printmaking’s technical order and physical requirements. Which also means these works are highly critical, successful and progressive in concept.

Yet, even as we used the same conceptual approach to defining these works as print art, they themselves do not comply to the technicalities and principles of printmaking. Thus, a different analysis occurs here when, out of necessity of timespace and changing technology, we begin to adopt a different ideology. We can use the analogy of still film, celluloid, magnetic tape and digital data. Any change in old forms will give a new outlook to the future. Any change may bring about a new school of thought, character and open a new world for the heir of an old lineage. In the debate of printmaking definitions and interpretations: conceptual, technical and principles—a new space is required to discern the issues and questions at hand, critically and in-depth.

Visual Glimpses

Back to the latest works of Juhari Said, now displayed in this exhibition titled Samudra (in Sanskrit, meaning ‘ocean’); it is physically apparent that these new pieces are different from his previous works. One gets a bigger ‘sense’ of exhibition from these new pieces. Sense in terms of shape, colour, thread and space. The difference can sometimes feel like a break in the tone of Juhari Said’s other bodies of work that are predominantly black and white. Clearly outstanding is the primary shape of the art forms themselves that resulted from an application of cubes and layered wood. A portion of the created vertical organic forms remind us of basic features of epigraphs and megaliths that has existed for millennia in South-East Asia. The closest example would be the sword-like megalith of Pengkalan Kempas. Conversely, the lined impressions and wood carvings seem to be a continuation of traditional carvings practiced for over 500 years in Nusantara (South-East Asia). From a visual context, the works of Samudra while may be seen as having a Western axis, yet reverberating behind and throughout the forms across the entire body of work is the Nusantara soul. Wood and ceramic, the most familiar elements in traditional Nusantara art, have similarly become the basic staples of the works in Samudra. This represents the lineage of the main protagonist to his artistic traditions.

Juhari Said’s struggle to accomplish his block or matrix is clearly inscribed in every slash, cut and the application of multi-layered colours. Once again the observer is exposed to the process of printmaking, and this exposure that in itself is unique. Unique because we are faced with an artwork that printmaking itself regards as unconventional. This peculiarity in a way has liberated the art piece from the confines of the paper or even the print machine. In another aspect, the applied printing techniques have been raised to become the main theme of this entire effort to progress and liberate printmaking itself.

Safrizal Shahir
Taken from the Samudra Catalogue, published by Pusat Pengajian Seni dan Muzium & Galeri Tuanku Fauziah, Universiti Sains Malaysia Penang, 2009.