DISINI Discovers – Latiff Mohidin
A maestro of Malaysian modern art, Latiff Mohidin is a prominent name known to all. His practice has been inscribed in the canon of Southeast Asian art history, which highlights his groundbreaking series of Pago-Pago (1964 - 1969) and Mindscape (1973-1974). Scholars have studied the culture and history that unfolds around his works of the said era - by conducting, reviewing and writing extensive analyses of his painting techniques. However, few have detailed a personal profile of Pak Latiff - a man of profound insights and simple words, with snippets of jokes and servings of laughter. DISINI’s Anathapindika Dai spoke with Pak Latiff to find out more about his current practice, music, musings, and what it means to be an artist.
1/ Could you tell us more about your current practice? What are you working on right now?
I've had many quiet days recently - except during the Raya period, of course. Now that Raya is subsiding, I would like to paint, to sculpt and to write; but, most of all, I'd like to go back to painting again. My last painting exhibition was the Seascape Series in Kuala Lumpur (2014), which was quite a while ago. I'm excited to attack the canvas again. I don't have any upcoming concept in mind - I want to surprise myself. But, it's definitely going to be something fresh and with vigour… a new series with new techniques.
3/ You've mentioned before that, unlike in the olden days, any material can now be made into an artwork today. Is there any new medium that you would like to experiment with? Perhaps painting with cement or resin...
No. I'm an old painter, who prefers a good old brush dipped in oil.
4/ Do you have a favourite place to paint?
The studio. I am a studio artist.
8/ You've spent a fair bit of time studying art in Germany. You are also tri-lingual in Bahasa Melayu, English, and German - you've even translated Goethe's Faust to Bahasa Melayu. I find German to be one of the most difficult languages to learn.
German is a very technical language, because the country is very focused on technology and the precision of it all. I went to the West to learn about the techniques of painting and sculpture. But, I find that people don't go to the West for wisdom.
11/ I'm from Jakarta, Indonesia.
Ah. I went to Jakarta many times in 1967, during the times of the Konfrontasi. It was a rough time. I remember spending time and having coffee with Affandi, Srihadi...
12/ Srihadi Soedarsono?
14/ Goenawan Mohamad, founder and editor of the newspaper, Koran Tempo?
Yes. Back in the days, we were young and vocal, fiery about the world. Now…well, Goen just launched his exhibition in Galeri Nasional Indonesia, in Jakarta. When I received the news, I thought, “since when did he start drawing?” The old folks remembered to invite me to his exhibition opening. I was in Penang, though, so I couldn't go. But in return, I invited him to my opening, here in Singapore. (laughs) Maybe he'll drop by.
15/ What do you think of the artists today?
The landscape is very exciting. Artists these days multi-task a lot.
16/ I think the economy forces them to be capable of many things at once - artist, manager, curator. Would you be interested in curating?
No. I've always trusted other people to curate my work, just like this exhibition. Trust is always a two-way street and with Khai Hori, it was almost natural. I have confidence in his display and management of the Langkawi series.
2/ What are the mediums that you enjoy working with the most?
I like painting and I enjoy the process of sculpting wood. Wood is the most comfortable medium; I like its warmth and softness, the ease of carving and forming it into various builds. Metal feels a bit strange to me…I suppose I am traditional that way. Many contemporary sculptures were made in metal because it could last up to 40 or 50 years. But, I would also look at those sculptures and think to myself - will these works be displayed for that long a time?
5/ Do you listen to music when you paint?
Yes. I listen to instrumental and classical music, along with some orchestra arrangements.
6/ What are you currently reading?
South American literature. I am very fond of Jorge Luis Borges, Octavio Paz, and Pablo Neruda. I've been re-reading them these days.
7/ How did you become an artist?
If I’m going to be honest, it was almost an accident. Although I’ve always gravitated towards creative things, I was prepared for other careers. Strangely enough, I started my adulthood in the military and I envisioned myself going into law and human rights advocacy. Like many of those in their twenties, I was a bit lost and didn’t complete university during my first attempt. I was, for a while, a college drop-out; cleaning toilets, landscaping, being a grocery store cashier – the kinds of jobs where you punched a clock for wages. However, I truly believe it made me the artist that I am now.
I applied to art school simply because it was the only option where the deadline had not passed. It was in art school that I realized I had quite a bit of freedom - not only to express ideas that were previously only possible for me to put forth in writing but, more importantly, the ability to simply be happy with who I was.
9/ Where do we go, then?
10/ You have travelled to many places, which became significant inspirations for your work.
Yes. I spent the 1960’s and 1970’s travelling the world. You don't sound local. Are you a local Singaporean?
13/ Wow! Would you know Heri Dono or FX Harsono as well?
Ah, no. They're rather young. I'm part of the Angkatan 70-an (the 70's batch), along with writers, poets, and the likes of Goen (Goenawan). Have you heard of him?
17/ Have you ever collaborated with another artist for an artwork?
An artwork, to me, is an expression of one individual. It's not a work of a compound nature and it's certainly not a group work. The idea of working with another artist hasn't come to mind yet, but the trend of artwork collaborations that is prevalent these days - it disturbs me sometimes. I believe that more is less. I prefer to paint alone and I build all my sculptures. I enjoy personal craftsmanship and working with my own hands.
18/ What is the happiest moment of your career so far?
When I'm alone, in the studio, at night. That's the time when I'm in my element.
19/ What would be your advice for today's young and aspiring artists?
None, I don't have any; I really don't. Well… just be a good person and do a good job. But at the end of the day, you should work persistently, and work hard. After practicing art for 70 years, I still want to see and create something new. So, remember to struggle with your medium every day, both physically and mentally. Whatever your medium is, you must always make it new and make it fresh. Challenge it, touch it, delve into your medium, and work it out. Build a sacred connection - not just with other human beings, but with the universe, the atmosphere, the nature, the elements, and the material - your material.