I still recall when mother ‘released’ us to go play. We would turn everything around us– sheaths from betel-nut trees, bamboos, leaves, rubber seeds, etc. – into playthings. The pleasure of these earthy games would be heightened during heavy rains that turn dry soil into mud, and rivers into fresh, clear liquid. When playing on trees, we preferred the sturdy branches of the rambutan or maggis trees, especially when the fruits have all ripened and ready to be plucked. Such juvenile fun also happened in nocturnal darkness, accented by the occasional moonlight that slices through the night. Nothing really matters, and life goes on.

We never pondered about purchasing toys. Back then, most people did not have the extra cash; only enough for foodstuff, clothes and school expenses. We were at ease with material constrain, to live without sophisticated machineries and other up-to-date technological marvels. Our lives then contrasted starkly to today’s excesses. Malaysians now can afford daily bites of exotic apples, which some prefer over the fleshy stench of the kingly durian. Through careful deliberation I have contended with the maxim that poverty and lack shape us into creative, wise and appreciative individuals.

We occupied ourselves with the ceramic pots that mother used to collect the rubber sap with. We pressed them upon the sandy landscape and by doing so engraved into the particles of the earth. This was a game that we enjoyed freely without monetary prerequisite, for our yard is the very medium for our creation. Nowadays this earthly engraving has been termed ‘New Reality’, which I featured recently in the Goblockprintmaking exhibition at Petronas Gallery. It used to assume a simpler reality, as a sign of infantile drive towards wonder and bliss.

The present essay was inscribed during the holy month of Ramadhan, when Muslims refrain from oral satisfaction from daybreak till sunset. My childhood memories of this blessed occasion are punctuated by images of children helping their mothers to bake Hari Raya cookies such as bahulu, putu kacang, and others. We knew very well how to use the moulds to make those cookies; we employed metal moulds for the bahulu, and wooden ones for the putu kacang. In this simple domestic routine lies the fundamental knowledge of materials and their applications. Flour is pressed repeatedly so that the resulting cookies are visually pleasing for consumption. The parallel of the baking process to that of printmaking is unmistakable, although those ‘prints’ that were conceived in the warmly maternal hearth were never referred to artist proof, test proof, etc.

But today’s mothers and their offspring generally no longer press putu kacang or bake bahulu. This disjuncture is due to the fact that most mothers now are wage-laborers instead of house makers. They ‘bake’ not with the help of their loving sons and daughters, but instead assisted by the phone and emails. We are no longer privileged with the self-sustaining routine of preparing food for our own consumption. Commercial symptoms have infected the nerves of life, causing us to be indifferent and mediocre. It is not too much to claim that most of us today are lost, overwhelmed by technologies to the point that we are no longer able to calculate without a calculator. Life has become unlivable without the cell phone.

At times, the culture of buying and being bought can be likened to drinking pasteurized milk without ever knowing what a cow looks like. Or eating egg banjo without ever having a clue about a hen laying her eggs, let alone experiencing the thrill and exhaustion of chasing the terrestrial bird marked to be the year’s Hari Raya meal. It is not surprising that some children today choose to enlighten us with the ‘fact’ that chicken is a featherless animal, because that is the fowl they know from their countless visits to Tesco, Jaya Jusco or Carrefour.

The commercial symptoms are widespread within the networks of today’s life. And we are truly unconscious of this tragic fate of humanity. The fundamentals of printmaking that used to pulsate within the organic life of tradition were forgotten, gradually exiled by the seemingly unstoppable might and lure of high-tech industries. Not unlike what happened in the history of woodcut printmaking pioneered by Buddhist monks, which was taken over by publishing houses to print and disseminate religious texts on industrial thus commercial scale. Fortunately for us, there still exist artists around the world who cling to fundamental forms of printmaking, refusing to let this art disappears into oblivion. Similarly, the technique of using acid to etch on surfaces of metals inaugurated by the sword-makers and goldsmiths of the medieval Islamic empire was inherited and further developed by European artists who obstinately produce prints through etchings, aquatints and cuts. Such has been the roles and contributions of printmakers around the world.

Commercial rhythms indeed allure us, promising comfort and ease at every level of life. But they also induce apathy and as such can become dangerous, tearing our existential fabric apart. In fact, commercial symptoms are attributes of printmaking, but are manifested in the former as ‘communicative rapture’. We tend to forget that the money that engineers our daily living is a piece of print. People are ecstatic when they accumulate this printed matter, their lives felt secured. But it also seeds anxiety in some of us. Likewise, musical notes that are repeatedly played not only entertain but also induce negligence. Certainly, prints, or rather, impressions as such can work negatively against life.

In printmaking, repetition is fundamental to its aesthetics. But in commercial context, repetition functions as a force to dominate the mind of consumers. Objects, signages, slogans and music are repetitively bombarded onto consumers. Promotional callings repetitively enunciate, their amplified sonic beams impale our auditory orifices again and again, as if we are living in a world of deaf citizenry.

Fundamental printmaking requires a high degree of sensitivity and skill due to its lengthy and very technical procedures. Undoubtedly, the soul and personhood of the artist may be manifested through such process, especially when it merges with ideas and experiences. Printmaking is also communal in nature, and it encourages humility. Its end results exist in multiples, which enable them more affordable pricing. They are thus more easily circulated, while retaining a sense of originality through the presence of the artist’s touch.

Fundamental printmaking therefore differs from commercial prints that are dependent on capital and driven by profit. Its processes are compartmentalized and fragmented, hence express the desire for profit instead of the artist’s soul.

Nonetheless, these two forms of printmaking are closely interrelated in today’s context. We must acknowledge this development because progressive move demands us to be realistic. We need to ascertain, however, that the execution is handled wisely so that it continues to nourish our imaginative thinking, which usually dominates the life of creative individuals, causing restlessness within them, in search of expressive outlets.

By Juhari Said
October 2010
(Taken from Penang International Print Exhibition 2010 Catalogue, Penang State Museum & Art Gallery)

(Translated into English by Izmer Ahmad)