To Juhari Said a piece of plywood, say, two by three feet presents a problem of how to divide the surface with inked and non-inked spaces, crisscrossed by white and black lines. Conceptualizing the problem in these terms, he has already initiated the process of making the images. A woodcut conceals nothing: a splinter, a jagged edge, a miss turn are all imprinted, literally in black and white. Apart from making sure that his tools are sharp, Juhari is also aware that the hard part of the wood resists his cut one way, the soft, another. Such resistance curbs the way his wrists press, nudge, dip and turn. A knife blade gets the straight line, while the chisel flicks out the unwanted areas, both aiming at getting the grooves smooth preferably following the strands. But when the grain changes direction, turning inward where there was once a branch then the interruption has to be negotiated with patience and even sharper tools. Hence, this medium, like the watercolors or oils, determines how much an idea that can be stretched and modified. Rarely would an original sketch get etched as is.
Woodcarving is deceptively simple. An image cut into the wood in grooves, or in relief, that is then inked. A paper is pasted on it, then pressed till an image is registered in reverse. The first print is seldom satisfying due to unequal ink distribution, splitting, smudge, ridge, and paper slippage. Through years of labor to master the techniques of his craft, Juhari has much more to learn, or rather, to relearn. The first lesson is the most humbling. To treat the wood with the utmost respect for its texture, as a friend that helps rather than an adversary that obstructs. The second lesson is that an edition can consists of twenty prints at most; the wood plate is soon worn out, and stressful negotiation with collectors fixated on exclusivity.
These features Juhari considers when thinking of transferring a composition onto the surface so as to take advantage of what the wood can, and cannot, do. Such concern for the material Juhari imbibed while in Japan, where, under the auspices of the Japan Foundation (a grant he succeeded in getting after six tries), he has had the chance to visit a number of the studios of famous Japanese printmakers from whom he learns that there are levels of reciprocity between the love we give and the ensuing results we get. Observant, Juhari studied how well the master’s tools were sharpened, the care with which the rollers were hung, the love with which the papers were racked, the unselfish way with which the ink is applied, the diligence with which the different types of wood are stacked. Juhari also emulates the master’s work ethics. After a long day’s work, the woodcutter sweeps the studio clean, lined up his chisels and washed his teacups. The next morning he enters his studio fresh, the first day in a series that gets progressively numbered. The Japanese master, he noticed, balanced between the need to innovate and the respect for tradition, one breaking into new grounds, and the other, retaining the old habits. That, the master most readily admitted, was hard to do. Consequently, Juhari sees his craft as a balancing act as well, one in which the prominence of lines is made possible only by the equal care given to the subject matter.
How this is done differs from one work to another. “Colombia” and “Sadao” both printed in 1995 rely on the swirling white and black lines that overlap and intersect irregular swaths of black stretches to suggest, the first a branded coffer very popular in Japan, and the second, a resort island off of the city of Nagoya. The titles are instructive, aiding the viewer into understanding the works, as a statement of Juhari’s concerns, and as a display of his skills.
A color print “Landskap Kota dan Desa” (1985) that uses black, red, brown, blue, orange and beige. Each color is from at least fifteen different wood blocks imparts the compressed dichotomy of the city and the country. He mixes 40% of oil paints to the ink, and then let the rollers spread the various colors in find meshes, one superimposed upon the other like a silk screen. The myth is that city life is tight, often one-dimensional, symbolizes by the gray rectangle. Country life, on the other hand, is relaxed, easy, nature oriented, symbolized by the cluster of flowers in black. By emphasizing them as such Juhari allows the viewer to see which side he is on, without appearing too emphatic. However, the composition is dispersed enough to allow for more than one reading.
“Katak Nak Jadi Lembu” is a satirical piece about someone pretending to be what he is not. While the title indicates that the frog is doing the wishing but the image suggests it is the cow that wants to degrade itself into a frog wagging a tail of a mini whale. Either way, the point is about self-respect. Deprived of it, a man deludes himself into being the idealized image he keeps conjuring. This lessens the pain of being ignored, sidelined, condemned to play the perpetual Other. This bullfrog also illustrates how we are seldom what we truly are; we are always what people want us to be.
In this computer age inundated with electronic images that flicker in and out of existence with the click of the mouse, Juhari asserts that they are all but momentary, posing no threat to his craft. That, he admits does not make his life as a woodcut artist any easier. Speaking on behalf of the other woodcut artists, Juhari said that their situation differs from that of the watercolorist, who can readily paint by the muddy Klang river or by the smelly monsoon drains in Gombak. Not many are as lucky as he, who has a spacious studio space in Ulu Langat, spacious enough for the printing press, the tool racks, the ink shelves, and the paper drawers. There is a lot of hard and messy work in wood printing, a time consuming labor that promises no masterpiece. That is OK, as far as Juhari is concerned. Right now it is imperative to get the work done, mount regular exhibitions, and circulate the printed editions.
Associate Professor Dr. Zakaria Ali
Universiti Sains Malaysia, 2003