Tuesday, January 2, 2007

Of paintings and stories: Zainal Abidin Musa

“Two days in Redang, and still there was no sun. On the third morning, I woke up early, though dreams were calling me back to bed. At the beach, on the dark shores, I waited. As yesterday, all was quiet. Moments later, I smiled – there – a break in the sky. And from a higher heaven somewhere, a million shades of colours were filtering triumphantly through. In another moment, I was bathed in light!”

This is the story behind Zainal Abidin Musa’s seascape aptly titled, Waiting for Sunrise Over Telok Kalong, a dreamy piece of sand, sea and sky, brushed in shades of blues, purples and peaches, that took two days of patient waiting and two weeks of furious painting to complete.

It is one of many paintings of Malaysian landscapes and seascapes that the artist produces each year since his departure from an exhausting career as an advertising entrepreneur. Although he had studied fine art at Institut Teknologi MARA (ITM), he never really pursued a career in painting until recently, after 16 stressful years in the advertising industry.

The change, he says, began quite by accident. On a quiet Sunday morning, after a simple breakfast of half boiled eggs, toast and coffee, he began to idly sketch the breakfast scene before him, finding the effect quite relaxing and therapeutic. “Although I had not been actively painting for many years before that, it came naturally enough to me when I was seeking some form of balance and tranquility in my life,” he later said of that life-changing moment. That breakfast scene is now immortalized in a painting called Lazy Sunday.

Tengku Sabri Ibrahim, renowned artist and personal friend of Zainal, who has seen his progress over the years, says, “Zainal became what he called a Sunday painter, looking for weekends to paint beautiful seascapes along the east-coast shores. The frequent painting trips allowed Zainal to associate himself intimately with nature – of his childhood rivers, of the seashells and starfishes lying on his beaches, and of chirping birds amongst his bushes and trees. He conjured his childhood memories into landscapes he rediscovered during his trips. He abandoned the advertising world, and happily repeated Monet’s I paint as a bird sings.”

From these Sunday excursions, Zainal produced enough works to be showcased in his first, self-financed solo exhibition. Aptly titled Weekends, it was held at the New Straits Times building in Bangsar.

Zainal says, “The Weekends series was developed during a particularly demanding and hectic period of my life at a time when I was juggling a business and a career in advertising. The series is partly my personal account of a period in my life as well as, on a larger scale, a response to the state of the modern world, which to me, had become too complicated, too enclosed and too egocentric.”

From a Sunday painter, spending the weekends with nothing more than brush, paint, canvas and whatever fleeting scenery presented itself before him, Zainal turned to full-time painting, which led him to travel further around Malaysia, capturing the beauty of Malaysian landscapes on canvas.

Going through his works, one gets a sense of the artist’s development in art. His early works, the Lazy Sunday series, focused on still life subjects – studies of objects in his immediate surroundings. He later moved on to passionate renderings of local landscapes – there are the waterlilies floating on a pool of clouds in Janda Baik, Pahang; there are the romantic atmospheres of sunrise on the islands of Langkawi, Perhentian and Redang, there are the coastal scenes of Kelantan; and the warm sunsets on the waterfronts of Port Klang.

Each painting has a story to tell, and through the artist’s jottings in his sketch book, and the tales he tells, Zainal puts himself closer to his audience.

Of his time in Langkawi, Zainal, in his notes, reminisces, “Pantai Pasir Tengkorak sounds like a pirate’s den. Yet, it’s here, on this small beach, flanked by rocky headland on both sides, that one can sit for hours entertained by the shadows dancing upon the sands. The sand here is powder soft, and the winds blow in leaving a salty taste on the lips. Trees peel their skin and shed their red bark, as though undressing to jump right into the waters…but it is only their limbs, in shadows cast across the sands, that reach the water’s edge.”

And indeed, Zainal’s acrylic pieces, Shadows by the Andaman, and The Andaman Sea, Langkawi, portray the dark shadows of the trees crawling across the sands towards the sea. Looking at these paintings, one can almost feel the afternoon heat burning the skin, and the incredible desire to just jump into the waters!

There are paintings, too, that remind Zainal of his childhood haunts. His teenage years were spent in Kelantan and Terengganu, and though these places have changed much since he left, they still have a great influence on him.

“Kelantan’s coastal areas have changed physically over the years but they are still beautiful at sunrise. It reminds me of the mornings when I would wake up early to go to school, but arrive late anyway, because I had spent too much time admiring the sunrise on the beach….In a way, painting the landscapes is my way of capturing the scenes, and the associated memories, for posterity. After all, we are developing so fast as a nation that soon these places will not exist anymore.”

Of the waterlilies he serendipitously chanced upon after a wrong turn along the winding roads of Janda Baik, he writes, “It was perfectly still, the water. Like a large piece of mirror had been set upon the ground to reflect the sky and the beautiful formation of clouds. The lily pads floated on the glassy surface, as though frozen in time, suspended between heaven and earth.”
One of the “Waterlilies at Janda Baik” series

The resulting pieces, a series entitled Waterlilies at Janda Baik, are dreamy efforts where waterlilies seem to float on a pool of soft cottony clouds reflected by the clear, still waters of the pond.

Other paintings are a study of the changing colours of water at sunrise, the passage of clouds as reflected on water; the quality of shadows on sand, and the shimmering waters of the sea. Influenced by the masters of Impressionism such as Monet, Van Gogh and Pissarro, Zainal creates landscapes with beautiful colours and dynamic strokes, offering his audience a chance to be immersed in the blue waters he paints and the lights of the setting sun, and to be lost in the stories he shares.

These paintings were later showcased at Starhill Kuala Lumpur’s Loft Gallery for his solo exhibition, Sunrise on the Water and Other Stories.

Zainal’s journey as an artist may have just begun but from the looks of it, he will have many more stories to tell in the following chapters of his life.

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