Nor Tijan Firdaus Gives E-Waste A Second Life in New Formal
Review by Wai Lu Yin

After Ma Jolie (2020) – After Pago-Pago 1966 (2020)

According to Global E-Waste, in 2019, Malaysians generated 364 kilotons (kt) of electronic waste (e-waste), or an average of 11.1kg per capita. The e-waste, such as discarded mobile phones, computers, television and other electronic appliances, end up in a landfill, adding harmful chemicals to the environment. To create awareness of this issue and that of climate change, sculptor and visual artist Nor Tijan Firdaus upcycles e-waste into works of art.

Graduating with an MA in Fine Art from UiTM in 2015, Nor Tijan Firdaus was drawn into environmental issues by a seminar on sustainability in Art and Design during the early period of her studies. Living with her family, Tijan was conscious about how much e-waste was accumulating at home every day. That led to using e-waste as the medium in her mosaic artworks, using materials which she collected from her home and purchased from friends and recycling and waste plants. Her first solo exhibition New Formal, filled with vibrant colours and aesthetic details, highlights sustainability, materialism and post-formalism through recreations of well-known artworks by Western and Malaysian modernist artists.

After Starry Night (2020)

“After Starry Night”, a response to my favourite Van Gogh painting, is one of her works that deals with the human relationship with modern technology and the natural world. The different shades of yellow and white represent the swirly clouds, stars and moon in the blue night sky. Tijan places pieces of a motherboard on wood and recreates Van Gogh’s bold brushstrokes with cut wires and cables. Sparking my imagination, Don McLean’s “Starry Starry Night” played in my head as I viewed the piece.

We are bound to technology in our world, causing us to lose that connection with nature, even in our own backyards. By showing us how e-waste can be used for better causes, Tijan reminds us of the importance of appreciating nature, even if it’s through our screens.

After The Kiss (2020) – After Endearing Thoughts (2020)

She also reinterprets Gustav Klimt’s “The Kiss” and Syed Thajudeen’s “Endearing Thoughts” to explore the complexities of romantic love and human relationships. The shimmering gold tones of “After Endearing Thoughts” and the lively and spirited colours of “After The Kiss” are united in their botanical aesthetics, which are all the more impressive given that they are made of coloured cables and plugs. Thematically, Tijan seems to echo the couples’ growth in love and correlation with the abundance of nature. Perhaps, she is also suggesting that they will bloom and wither away in seasons. It seems Tijan’s intention is to stress the need for human interaction with the environment and a consideration of what we receive from and give back to nature.

Clockwise: After The Amber Necklace (2020) – After Self-Portrait with Bonito (2020) –– After Gadis Melayu (2020)

Tijan looks into the portraits of women by recreating Henri Matisse’s “The Amber Necklace”, Frida Kahlo’s “Self-Portrait with Bonito”, and Dato’ Mohd Hoessein Enas’s “Gadis Melayu”. “After The Amber Necklace” consists of carved motherboards and wires that give a detailed impression of a woman’s outfit, facial features and the backdrop. Small squares of original and coloured electric parts are combined into close-up self-portraits “After Self-Portrait with Bonito” and “After Gadis Melayu”. These three artworks show the gendered perspectives of female representation in art and society. “After The Amber Necklace” and “After Gadis Melayu” depict women’s beauty and fashion. Despite having a sense of abstraction, “After Self-Portrait with Bonito'' still manages to depict Kahlo’s sadness following the deaths of her father and pet parrot, Bonito. Throughout these pieces, Tijan aligns these women’s stories and suggestions of loss with the death of the electronic devices that are used in these portrayals as we admire the physicality and function of our electronic devices and feel despair when they are lifeless.

Tijan opens up a debate on our approach to learning about art and creating art, as most of us recognise Western art more than Malaysian art, even though many works are inspired by the former. For example, Dato’ Mohd Hoessein Enas’s “Gadis Melayu” has a similar portrait style to Leonardo Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa. For this piece, Tijan incorporates the Master’s style and ideas with her unique voice and chosen medium, and adds another layer of transnational and universal themes, including environment and love. Highlighting great local artists through New Formal gives us a chance to discover Malaysian art history and the artists’ resolutions in creating their works that bring benefit to themselves and their communities.

The abstract “After Ma Jolie” and “After Pago-Pago 1966” are recreations of well-known avant-garde works – Pablo Picasso’s “Ma Jolie” and Latiff Mohidin’s “Pago-Pago” – showing parallel Cubism elements of West and East. Looking closely at them, I find obscure images of figures blending in the background. She focuses more on the intricate details, such as a musical staff, a treble clef and body features, geometrical shapes and earthy colours. I take quite some time to find the clues in these works to reveal the figures. Like Picasso and Mohidin, Tijan demonstrates her approach in creating shapes and symbols which evoke various connotations – the human relationship, nature and rooted culture.

After Ahmad Fuad Osman “Syhhh…” (2020)

Ahmad Fuad Osman’s thought-provoking and controversial artwork “Syhhh...! Dok Diam-diam, Jangan Bantah. Mulut Hang Hanya Boleh Guna Untuk Cakap Yaaa Saja. Baghu Hang Boleh Join Depa ... Senang La Jadi Kaya” is recreated in Tijan’s “After Ahmad Fuad Osman “Syhhh…””, using a combination of intricate small squares filled with electronic chips and parts. Following in Osman’s footsteps, Tijan’s “After Ahmad Fuad Osman “Syhhh…”” addresses the lack of freedom of speech in Malaysia. This work evokes a sense of hope and encouragement for young generations to join in the movement to make their voices heard. The many colourful squares in the work represent the diverse individuals in modern society who voice out their concerns and take action to build a better future.

Through New Formal, Tijan painstakingly brings the collected e-waste to life while highlighting new and meaningful issues. Although it is time-consuming to cut the components, colour them and combine the small pieces into big sculpture-like paintings, she is resilient and determined in her effort to caution us against the relentless consumption and disposal of electronic devices, and urges us to consider how they affect the environment. By studying well-known artworks, referencing art history and utilising various styles, Tijan elevates her technique and approach in upcycling e-waste within a local context. The individual pieces work in unison in speaking up about the urgency of protecting the environment and supporting the local art community. I came away from the exhibition with a newfound appreciation for conservation and a better understanding of my role as a consumer of electronics.

All images are credited to the Core Design Gallery.

Nor Tijan Firdaus’s New Formal exhibition was held from Jan 8 - Feb 6 at The Core Design Gallery.

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Wai Lu Yin is a participant of the CENDANA - ASWARA Arts Writing Mentorship Programme 2020-2021.

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