This article appeared in the New Straits Times on 8 March. It was written by my wife's sister who is a writer. I really liked how she wrote the article and articulated my thoughts. In case the link doesn't work, I copy it here (text only) for your reading pleasure:
"Pieces of participation"
by Anis Ramli
Lovely, breathtaking moments are on Zainal Abidin Musa's art works. ANIS RAMLI is enamoured.
At the first meeting with artist Zainal Abidin Musa, he had just completed a collaborative 2008 calendar project with a local non-governmental organisation, themed Paradise, allowing free use of his favourite artwork for charity.
It was the first time his works were immortalised in a calendar and till today, he remains grateful for the opportunity to work on such a collaboration.
“At first it was just the excitement of the entire project,” Zainal began. “It started as a chance to do something good for charity and a way to give back to the community.”
(All proceeds of the calendar sale go towards aiding Pertubuhan Al-Khaadem’s charity home, Home of Hope, a sanctuary for the elderly, orphans and single mothers irregardless of race or religion, while Zainal pledges 20 per cent of sales of the artworks featured to the home).
As the project picked up speed, Zainal began to get excited.
“In terms of the medium and the message, I enjoyed combining art with charity. The calendar had selected verses of the Quran and hadith (sayings of Prophet Muhammad) that spoke of the promise of paradise in the hereafter.
“But ultimately, the project celebrates our connection to nature through beauty and metaphor. Whatever beliefs we have, one can not deny that we are undoubtedly the environment’s custodians.”
Zainal has always been passionate about the environment and his works often revolve around natural beauty.
Having grown up amidst the natural beauty of places like Parit and Batu Gajah in Perak, Kelantan and Terengganu, he certainly didn’t lack the inspiration.
Zainal’s landscapes are simple yet rich. Instead of ‘traditional’ scenes of a kampung house in a padi field, he keeps his compositions basic: land, sea and sky. They are often “silent”, peaceful, contemplative pieces. Some may even say meditative.
Yet they are also rich in the sense that they are not boring to viewers. There are a myriad of colours in each little square area of canvas. These are what make everything in that piece of art interesting.
His work, too, captures the present environment through contemporary sensibilities in terms of the use of light, colour and the expressive paint strokes.
“My landscape paintings are simple to understand,” he says. “The beauty that God has created in this world is already there. I am just conveying how I feel towards it and try to translate the aesthetics onto canvas in my own way.”
There is nothing philosophical about it, he laments, except to simply express his passion for natural beauty and to enjoy the pure act of painting.
In maintaining a dialogue with the environment, Zainal captures the light of day and the effect on the changing landscapes.
A play of light and colour congeals into shadows, waters and the horizon. They all interact with the shape and structure, where palm trees sway somewhat and rivers swirl, displaying Zainal’s expressive strokes in describing his work.
In fact, his has an almost impressionistic quality, to which he admits is very much influenced by the French Impressionists like Monet and his peers.
“There’s an emotional resonance between the painting and the environment,”he says, with the two existing independently.
So viewers are invited to look into rather than at his paintings, and experience the dialogue between what’s painted and what’s seen.
Zainal’s mastery in using colour to capture the fleeting passage of light is evident in each painting.
In Sunrise on the Water, Tok Bali, for example, yellow lights glitter against the blue seas, creating a shimmering effect of a peaceful morning.
And in Shadows on the Water, Pulau Besar, Mersing, rough strokes of blue, green, purple, yellow and red come together perfectly to create the effect of shadow and light of a late morning by the beach.
At a time when the market is flooded with abstract and modern art and experimental works, it’s refreshing to see Zainal’s works that hark back to the basics and his mastery of light.
In his Dusk at North Port #8, for example, the reds of a sunset sky flame fiercely juxtaposed against bold strokes of blues, while in Waterlilies at Janda Baik, fluffy white clouds are reflected against a serene pond of waterlilies.
During Zainal’s 2006 solo exhibition, friend and renowned artist Tengku Sabri Ibrahim says, “Zainal chooses to ignore the contemporary excitement of experimenting, exploring and working with ‘modern’ or ‘expressive’ images and approaches as practised by many artists of today. He hangs on to his romantic attitudes in reading and representing landscapes."
Zainal studied fine art with a major in printmaking at Institut Teknologi Mara (now Universiti Institut Teknologi Mara, UiTM) in the 1980s under the tutelage of various lecturers who themselves were influenced by different schools of thought.
It was an exciting time for the art scene as Malaysian artists were frantically searching for a Malaysian art identity, experimenting with various styles.
Zainal often describes being fortunate to be a part of that era.
After graduation, he completely left the art scene and joined the world of advertising.
Sixteen years later, without having followed the goings-on or trends in the art world, he started painting again.
“Not because I consciously wanted to start an art career, but because it was a means to de-stress from my advertising work, and the act of painting itself gave me a sense of calm and peace,” he explains.
Zainal would go on weekend trips to the East Coast and the surroundings that “naturally inspired me to paint again”.
Today, one can still find Zainal painting over the weekends, travelling to remote places to capture the essence of a special place and time.
He writes of his travels and artworks on his blog, www.zainalabidinmusa.blogspot.com, sharing with his audience the Malaysian landscape we have so often taken for granted.
His recent travels to Mersing and the islands off its coast are now immortalised in a series of artwork presently exhibited at the Alliance Francaise from Feb 27 to March 12, entitled Lights on the Water.