You would not have missed the vivid works of Juhari Said had you been at the Grafika II printmaking exhibition at Balai Seni Maybank last month. The artist has been feeling a little agitated about something, and is making it known the way he knows best – through his art. In Juhari’s latest series, where he takes on the art critics, we see a unique reversal of roles. This time it is Juhari who is playing critic to his detractors.

Stepping into the gallery (or any gallery for that matter), we are immediately drawn into a sanctum of inner reflection. Hallways are occupied by thoughtful creatures, visitors standing transfixed in the face of exhibits and the myriad of colours and shapes. All in all, it would seem to be a pretty picture of the state of affairs in artdom. Yet, a look at Juhari’s work tells us that this is not so.

Juhari’s Potrait of an Art Critic seems to be getting quite a lot of attention. This is not surprising since the work features a striking handmade latex mask. The mask is placed off-centre, looking to the left, a pitch-black face with hair plastered white. Sharply in contrast to the black and white, is the set of grinning teeth gripping a gold-tipped matchstick (not clearly seen it the picture).

The artist laughs when asked if the features are ‘inspired’ by a real-life art critic. “The black skin against white hair represents the art critic the art critic who often takes thing objectively as either in the black or white. In Malaysian art criticism, things are usually done objectively, but this is not the way (art) should always be approached.” He has also has a grouse against any artist-turned-art critic, for he feels that the criticism given might be driven by self-interest and might be biased since the art critic would naturally seek to highlight the type of art he indulges in. “(This amounts to) advertising the kind of art you produce.”

Another composition, comprising five identical frames, undergoes an elaborate makeover by the time its gets to the last frame. It’s title? Art Critic At Work. The same directness of message underlines both Responsibility and Selling Detergent in New York = Malaysian Art Criticism. The latter is inspired by the commercial culture in America, where products are publicly put down by competitors. Juhari is clearly in despair that a similar capitalistic competition has taken root in local art over the years.

The origin of the series can be found in two of his earlier pieces Seniman Yang Dilupakan (Forgotten Artists) and Katak Di Bawah Tempurung (Literally, meaning ‘Frog under a coconut shell’ – a Malay proverb which alludes to a person’s narrow minded view that is the result of a sheltered life). These earlier works are underlined by a traditional concepts and themes, and are Juhari’s attempts to counter what he sees as a deliberate devaluation of local art by western-influenced critics. “Criticism of our art should be according to our own yardstick,” he says. Then he humorously makes an illusion to roti canai, uniquely Malaysian bread. “If a Malaysian says a particular roti canai is good, he is probably right. But if a Westerner says it is imperfect, we must question why he says that. He cannot evaluate the roti canai by the same yardstick he does, a pancake!” Though the elements of art criticism may not be as simplified as Juhari says it is, the artist has, however, put across a good point. It would be interesting to see how his critics respond to this debatable issue.

Nevertheless, the artist does not dismiss the importance of art critics. He sees art writers as the channel through which art can communicate and be explained in public. In this spirit, he sincerely hopes that certain local critics will be more supportive of Malaysian art,that they will continue to be critical so that artists will seek to improve their work, and not unfairly condemn to the point that criticism becomes an unproductive bully.
Juhari Said is a young artist (well as young as 36 years old gets you) but he is known for being silent on that account. In speaking out against some counterparts on the art scene, namely art critics and promoters, he seems bent on self-annihilation. Obviously he runs the risk of not having his art pieces reach professional buyers from both the local and international market, since such buyers depend heavily on the advice of the very same people Juhari’s art scrutinises. This has led a fellow artist from France to remark that Juhari’s work is indeed ‘courageous’. After all, at the end of the day, even artists have to buy a meal like the rest of us.

By Rosihan Zain
Taken from Journal One Magazine, published by Nagamedia Sendirian Berhad, December 1997