In Conversation with Khairulddin Wahab

by Noorshidah Ibrahim
Noorshidah Ibrahim:    The title of your second solo show, Shape of Land, seems to reflect the general leitmotif of your oeuvre in recent years: colonial landscapes in their various forms and manifestations. How is it different from your last show?
Khairulddin Wahab:    This current show is actually a development from my last solo, where I mainly looked at natural history and its development in Southeast Asia. One aspect I was interested in then was the taxonomical impulse of the colonial enterprise, specifically its ‘disenchanting’ quality, and the organisation or classification of knowledge not only as a strategy for the colonialists to understand the colonies but also how these imperial works are essentially a system of power.
In some ways, Shape of Land is a continuation of that conceptual concern but expanded its focus to include visual representations of the land and landscape in Southeast Asia. These were mainly depicted by colonial artists, cartographers, and European travellers for colonial use and for commercial circulation back in Europe.
So I suppose it differs in both the scope and material I was working with, mostly colonial topographical maps and landscape representations, which inevitably also influenced how I approach my paintings in Shape of Land.
NI:       Can you take us deeper into the show’s over-arching theme?
KW:     Well, many of the paintings and prints produced by colonial artists were shaped by established modes of representation that were rooted in the picturesque European gaze. For this new series, I was interested in unpacking this picturesque lens and its relationship with the Southeast Asian landscape. 
The overarching theme that underlies my interest in these representations also centres around the concept of ‘disenchantment’, and I approach these imperial representations as material traces of disenchantment. Disenchantment in this context relates to the concept of rationalisation and demystification that was first popularised by the German sociologist Max Weber.  He talked about the condition of the world when science and enlightened reason will erode the sway of religion and superstition in society, meaning that science and rationality will supplant theological or supernatural perceptions of the world involving gods and spirits.
So, I was looking at these imperial representations, that range from cartography, photography, and landscape paintings, not only as neutral and passive repositories of geographical and historical information but also as methods and processes of disenchantment. They are spatial emblems of power that served as the primary means of establishing, accumulating, and communicating imperial power.
NI:       These colonial artists were clearly acting within specific cultural boundaries. Their shared history and cultural values would, to a large extent, influence the way they collectively interpreted, and in turn, represented these foreign landscapes. What are some of the issues central to these coded representations that Shape of Land deals with?
KW:     When considering these colonial representations of landscapes, we often forget the role and underlying ‘ideological work’ that these representations perform for the empire. Beyond their documentary value, these representations construct and visualise the empire by transforming the appropriation of land, resources, and labour into a cultural form that is both aesthetically pleasing and morally satisfying. In their essence, these representations conceived by foreign eyes were intended for foreign eyes.
I think central to the notion of shared cultural values that may manifest in landscape representations is the nature of the picturesque gaze that perceives these foreign lands. The picturesque was an aesthetic ideal that emerged in Europe, specifically in Britain, that favoured certain views or scenes that were deemed fit for painting, or as William Gilpin, the English artist who defined the idea of the picturesque wrote, “that kind of beauty which is agreeable in a picture”.
While looking into 19th-century landscape representations of Singapore, I saw a visual pattern emerge in these representations. Most of these paintings and prints depicted Singapore from a vantage point at Bukit Larangan or the present-day Fort Canning, a site that offered sweeping views of the settlements and the sea. The issue with this picturesque lens is that, in its attempt to capture an aesthetically pleasing view, it often relies on formulaic pictorial conventions that create sameness rather than difference. This meant that the picturesque helped to visually unite and homogenise the many regions of the British Empire, and which in turn reinforced the exoticness of the colonies.
My work makes references to these narratives by incorporating various figurative signs into the Southeast Asian landscape. Then there is also my stylistic approach to painting which helps to reveal these narratives.
NI:       Can you select one work from this series that calls attention to some of the issues or narratives you have mentioned and then take us through the visual cues that appear in the work?
KW:     Sure. In the work titled Serpentine Prison, I have inserted several visual cues related to narratives around surveying, mapping, enchantment, and disenchantment.
There are quite a few things going on in this work, and I think one of the first things that would likely jump out at viewers are the distinct lines of sight or perspectives that the work depicts — one is an aerial view, while the other aligns with the perspective of the viewer. The central element of this painting is an abstract-looking pattern framed by distinct figures and elements. Amongst them, there is the seated snake charmer, a person inscribing on
what looks like a topographical map, and a hand holding up a piece of paper.
For me, the central abstract patterns are reminiscent of topographical maps, and the aerial view that renders these maps is a way of looking at the world that is simultaneously enchanting and disenchanting. Enchanting because it offers a vantage point that is unnatural and disorienting for us earth-bound creatures, akin to the god’s-eye view of the world that we are at once a part of, yet elevated far above it. I suppose you could also read this from the way I render the foreshortened view of the legs standing on the map. This omniscient view is also disenchanting because maps rationalise and visualise the lay of the land — a process of exclusion that gives primacy to scientific objectivity and demystifies the unknown by making known what is around you all at once, even what is on the continent across the sea from you.
Truth be told, I would prefer to let the viewers fill in the rest of the gaps themselves as it makes it more interesting that way.
NI:       To all intents and purposes, your paintings are a form of response to the imperial works. How do you see your role as an artist where Shape of Land is concerned?
KW:     I suppose you could say that artists are a kind of conjurer, not of ghosts and spirits but of connections and revelations. I use the term revelation here devoid of its divine connotation because artists are not prophets. I look at what I do with the materials I referenced in Shape of Land as a kind of re-animation. By framing the archival maps and landscape representations as material traces of disenchantment, I reframe these representations not only to raise questions but also to connect narratives so as to allude to the forces or issues that underlie the imperial works.
NI:       Painting has been such an integral aspect of your practice so far. You are working with a medium – paint – that can be considered to be one of the most magical. It creates space where there is none. What drew you to the medium?
KW:     For sure you could say it is an enchanting medium. In the right hands, it can stir and move viewers. To be honest, I am not sure what first drew me to the medium. In fact, I did not paint much when I was growing up and only took it up seriously while I was in art school. Then, it felt natural for me to pick up a brush and experiment with paints. I suppose what kept me painting is the seemingly limitless possibilities the medium promises. The painter is constantly challenged to create something new in a world where the refrain ‘painting is dead’ has been bandied about. How do I and can I develop my own language with it? For certain, the process of finding and refining my language with the medium keeps me engaged with it.
NI:       Can you share with us how your aesthetic style has evolved between
the last show and this one. 
KW:     I was making static compositions in my last series of works. So apart from the cartography and landscape representations I was referencing for this exhibition, I have also been looking at a lot of textile arts from Southeast Asia, mainly Batik and Ikat textiles. I was drawn to how these textiles play with forms, lines, and colours to create movement. That, and the topographical lines on the maps I was looking at influenced my approach to the way I paint and compose my work for the current exhibition.
For instance, instead of using perspective to create an illusion of space, I tried to work with the flatness of the canvas plane by using directional strokes, as well as creating forms that direct the eye around the painting. Sure, I still resort to some perspectival strategies, especially scale, but not so much with linear perspectives.
NI:       What are your broad plans moving forward? Do you see your style
evolving further?
KW:     At the moment, I see myself continuing my conversation with paint and refining my language with it further. I feel it is inevitable that this ‘language’ will evolve as I spend more time conversing with the medium.

Noorshidah Ibrahim is an independent researcher and art writer based in Singapore.

January 7, 2023
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