#Under30Unveiled: Interview with Hilmi Johandi

31st Jan 2018

Category: Interview

#Under30Unveiled is a selection of emerging visual artists, curators, art writers and filmmakers from Singapore. This is a millennial generation in their mid to late-20s that are now being noticed for their fresh approach to their own practices and the media they work with.

Our fifth selection is Hilmi Johandi, who was born, raised and educated in Singapore. He completed his BA degree at LASALLE College of the Arts, and has since returned to the school to undergo a Masters in Fine Arts. Since his first solo exhibition, Dusk to Dawn | Fajar ke Senja at Galerie Steph in 2014, Hilmi’s work has been noticed at fairs and independent spaces alike in in the region, and reaching as far abroad as New York, Paris, and London. Most recently, he debuted his graduate research at clap trap, a survey of the works-in-progress by the LASALLE MA Fine Arts candidates at the Institute of Contemporary Arts Singapore.

Hilmi works primarily in the field of representational painting, excavating archival material from Singapore’s recent past in filmic and collective memories. He reassembles found images from this research into arresting, beautiful compositions that place the viewer and his own subjects within a lattice of intersecting frames. I visited his studio at the LASALLE campus to have a better look at the fragments that compose his assemblages, and find out how his work has evolved through his journey as a graduate student.

Hilmi Johandi. Photo courtesy of the artist.

Hilmi, it’s good to see you again. I recall that the first time I really took note of your work was when I saw a sprawling recreation of Singapore’s “Golden Era” films, hung on a large wall in the Southeast Asia Platform exhibition at Art Stage in 2015. What is this era, and why were you so drawn to it?

These films were shot in Singapore in the 1950s and ’60s, and were mostly produced by Shaw Cinemas, before they moved on to Malaysia. This is called the “Golden Era” of Singapore Cinema. I grew up watching those films, and I wanted to work with something that’s representational, familiar and closer to me.

Before that contextual interest began, I was looking at the language of film and how it could be incorporated into the ways of constructing images. The narrative engagement or strategy I wanted to work with in my painting could be placed in parallel with the ways of seeing film. That’s why I have these methods of juxtaposition, or almost a montage of images that kind of create a narrative timeline. But this timeline is non-linear, fragmented and broken up.

Later, I became interested with the social, political themes that these Malay films were showing. I try to portray some of these issues in my works, whether it’s about social setting, class division, and so on. There are glimpses of these issues in the paintings, especially in the Dusk to Dawn | Fajar ke Senja series. My works later developed into a series called Vernissage, where I used archival photographic documentations of Singapore in the same period, while still addressing some of these same issues.

Great World City; 村民生活, 189.7cm x 130cm, oil on canvas, 2015. ​Image courtesy of the artist.

Framing Camellia, oil on linen, 480 x 130cm, 2014. ​Image courtesy of the artist.

Can you tell me about some of the key figures that you are referencing within this era?

I started with films, stills and images from P. Ramlee’s films. He made less than 20 films in the late ’50s and early ’60s, and was very critically acclaimed.

What I like about him are his range of influences, from Indian film, to Hollywood and Japanese film. He was educated in a Japanese school during World War II. That was where he was exposed to Yasujirō Ozu’s films, through the propaganda the children had to watch. He became inspired by Ozu’s way of engaging the camera in a rather low position. These kind of little details were very fascinating to him.

P. Ramlee films have become so iconic for the Malay community. They have been reflected by us, in the way we talk, our mannerisms, or sayings. We will use some connotations or quotes from these films. We will make jokes taken from these films. In the films, the men are very submissive, but then also “alpha” in some ways, though their masculinity is very different from Hollywood. It’s a masculinity that kind of reflects the community at large.

Ours is a generation that is about two generations removed from that period. I must admit that I myself have never watched a single P. Ramlee film in full, and only accessed him through second-hand knowledge—I’ve heard mentions of him in film lectures, or through Ming Wong’s re-enactments in Four Malay Stories (2005). If I were to really enter this era, what film would you recommend as a good starting point?

You should catch this film called Ibu Mertuaku (“My Mother-In-Law”). It’s extremely iconic, and it’s about class division and morality. The mother-in-law is very wealthy, but her daughter wants to get married to a poor musician.

In the Malay community, these films are passed down. They constantly show re-runs during festive seasons on Prime 12, which was a Malay channel that aired before Suria, perhaps in a way to unconsciously remember or perpetuate some cultural ideal.

The Waltz, oil on linen, 190 x 130cm, 2014. Image courtesy of the artist.

There seems to be a wistful return to this dawn of film. We see growing interest in The Projector for instance, the refurbished Capitol Theatre was recently debuted… All this is buoyed by a cultural sentiment that has much global resonance today, even beyond Singapore. I am talking about nostalgia. It seems that we can’t help ourselves—the past does glitter like gold. Why do you think we are so nostalgic?

There always seems to be a cycle of revisiting, but I don’t exactly want to know why… Maybe it’s a capitalistic, or political agenda, but it’s an area that I’m not very interested in.

Do you see your own work as nostalgic?

Actually, no, I don’t. In 2015, there was a critic who was writing about my work being nostalgic. That year was themed “SG50”. There was all this nostalgic intention and national remembrance being portrayed everywhere. Maybe in response to that, I said to this critic that I hated how my work was being seen as nostalgic. Later, I came to the realisation that nostalgia could be much bigger that I had perceived it to be, that it had different facets.

As for my own position as an artist, I don’t see it as coming from a nostalgic, romantic point of view. It’s more speculative. At the point at which I’m making a work, I’m always concerned about the present. It’s always a reflection of current situation, though I work with images that are from the past. There is that relationship or equation that I find interesting.

So I think that my perspective and objectives are slightly different from nostalgia. I prefer the quality of familiarity, when something has a resemblance to something that used to be there. So there’s this idea of bringing it back.

That’s a very subtle differentiation. At the same time, in your compositions, there’s also this tension between the familiar (maybe a scene from a film I could have seen before on Suria) and something strange, almost theatrical. It’s a magnetic sensation that entices the viewer. How are you orchestrating this invitation?

I would like to think I play with a viewer’s desire to find meaning or narrative in the work. I constantly leave it open. There are clues, but I don’t give a specific summary. So it leaves that desire constantly open. My position is always to manipulate that sense of familiarity, to evoke a kind of estrangement, a tension.

You’re also wielding this manipulation with your fragmented compositions. Can you elaborate on your method?

It’s just an intuitive process. I try to manipulate a viewer’s perception of expecting familiar methods of perspective or ways of understanding an image. I juxtapose frames so that they just clash into each other’s space. There’s a lot of this distortion of the viewer’s usual understanding of space, how the viewer navigates a configuration of architectural forms.

My paintings are made up of many images assembled together, merging in a kind of continuity. I try to portray a sense of unsettling tension where there are multiple, very obvious clashes. Or other times, it could be a smooth transition. In The Vernissage, for example, the depth of field is manipulated. The viewer expects that larger figures should appear in front, but here they are all over the place, crossing over the four panels. In Great World City (Procession), there’s a very strong tension in the gaze of this figure in a masked Chingay procession. I used foreshortening and colour to create this really unsettling quality. In my opinion, when you see blue or a pigment that has cadmium in it, the colour will usually appear closer. But I tried to paint the blue and red with a perspective that deepens the frame, so it clashes with your senses.

The Vernissage, Oil on linen, 305 × 245 cm, 2014-2015. Image courtesy of the artist.

Great World City; (Procession), oil on canvas, 101.5cm x 76cm, 2016. Image courtesy of the artist.

You mentioned Great World City, which is a new series. How did you transition from your work with Golden Era film to this current body of work?

I got a bit bored feeling limited by the images I had found in film. So I started looking at archival images from newspaper and journalism during that same period of the 1950s to ’60s. I tried to work with the same approach, trying to portray social issues but this time, with the archival images. I’m also trying to construct my own kind of speculative perspective or narrative, as if I was there at those sites.

With Great World City, I’ve become more interested in the technical development of painting. The works have become more integrative and investigative towards formal aesthetics and the act of painting, but with those sources—those images from the archive. I’m constantly developing—I will touch on context, then I will touch on the technical aspect, then I will come back to the context.

To give some background for our readers, the “worlds” were these old amusement parks that have all but vanished, except for perhaps Beauty World and Great World City itself which have just become shopping malls. In their heyday, they had a very eclectic, mixed programming—a mishmash of many cultures, scenes, dances, stages that unravelled the stratifications of colonial society. I can see that in your work in the multiplicity of frames, or stages within frames. What are you doing with every spliced mise-en-scéne?

I wanted to propose that the “worlds” could be facades, or that painting them could be a kind of theatrical performance. In Utopia and Stagehands, I was interested in the act of staging. Not only are there real images of these amusement parks, but they also portray this idea of a “great world city” as a utopian objective. I used images of Singapore to create multiple perspectives, as if this landscape is constantly changing. It’s like a hall of mirrors, in a sense. They are fragmented images of the past.

Great World City; New World, 130cm x 170cm, 2016. Image courtesy of the artist.

​ Stagehands, Single channel video, 03:43, 2017. Video still courtesy of the artist.

Hotel, oil on canvas, 90cm x 61cm, 2016. Image courtesy of the artist.

That brings me to my last question. Philip Holden concludes his essay on these sites, “At Home in the Worlds: Community and Consumption in Urban Singapore”, by talking about a kind of ambivalent sense of nostalgia for a “public space which is neither colonial nor national, a space of safety marked by consumption, not production… for a past, a safe place, which those who feel nostalgia have never known: a place which perhaps lies in Singaporean futures as much as in pasts…” Your paintings certainly resonate with this ambivalence. I wonder if they could be projections of our future, as much as our past?

I do try to create a sense of timelessness in this body of works. You can see contemporary furniture and a nonsensical architecture of space—just white rooms scattered with pots and plants. If you observe the paintings further, maybe you will see Happy World or a particular space that used to exist. It could be windows to another world, an ideal “great world”. Maybe it is an act of escape, which is what the amusement parks used to provide before people had television. That possibility is fascinating for me.

As a running thread from past to present that strings together an emerging community of young creatives within this single column, #Under30Unveiled, I’ve asked Siddharta Perez, our last interviewee to pose to you a concluding question. She asks, “Where does your practice locate the intergenerational matrix to the subjects that inspire you? Is it relevant for you to make sense of spaces through diachronic (rather than synchronous) history? Where do you locate the gravity to be?”

I think that my standpoint in the context of history is a rather ambiguous one. I am interested in the process of reconstructing borrowed images of the past with subjects that used to exist to instil a potential critical discourse that may reflect the socio-political nature of the space we occupy presently. This process often oscillates between memory (of history) and materiality (of painting). In each body of work I make, I present a certain conceptual framework that inhabits this duality. I make up this “illusion” of empathy through the use of history as a form of nostalgia or familiarity. This is then disrupted by a kind of manipulation of the materials and colours, which I embrace in my process. I think the end result is a kind of distant yet illuminating sensation. So perhaps the “centre of gravity”, as you call it, shifts with this disruption.

Hilmi Johandi's work will be shown in the group exhibition Nyanyi Sunyi (Songs of Solitude), curated by Kamiliah Bahdar and Syaheedah Iskandar. It opens this Sunday, 4 Feb 2018. More information may be found here.

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