Roslisham Ismail, the itinerant artist
Oleh Adriana Nordin Manan

Misunderstanding at Christchurch airport” (2019-2020)
Image: Adriana Nordin Manan

Discovery and disquiet in happenstance moments come to the fore in Campur, Tolak, Kali, Bahagi, Sama Dengan by multidisciplinary artist Roslisham Ismail aka Ise. The exhibition at Kuala Lumpur’s A+ WORKS of ART presents Ise’s responses to sights and scenes in Bangkok during a 2014 residency, and illustrations of unforgettable and sometimes dangerous moments when he spent time in other cities at other times. Per the curatorial statement, Campur, Tolak amply demonstrates Ise’s “interest in the virtues and intricacies of the social.”

The “Operation Bangkok” series of 118x84cm paintings taped to the wall, as opposed to mounted on backlit frames, for instance, gives the impression that the exhibition doesn’t seek to be sleek or snazzy. It works because the paintings are childlike, featuring objects like bowls of ice-cream, buildings and popcorn. To take in the exhibition as if seeing drawings on mahjong paper is apt. The curious assortment may be absent elements of conventional artistry such as plays of shadow and light, depth, or other areas that a layperson understands to be marks of a fine art graduate’s artistic command, but this is immaterial as they tell plenty a story. One does not have to be familiar with Bangkok to appreciate the work either.

“Giant Croc” (2014)
Image: Adriana Nordin Manan
“Yod Zei” (2014)
Image: Adriana Nordin Manan

In “Operation Bangkok,” we cast our eyes on Ise’s rendition of what a city can mean. A city can be a site of character and quirk, for example in “Giant Croc,” depicting a giant crocodile from Wat Chakrawat, or Bangkok’s “Crocodile Temple”. A city can also evoke culinary camaraderie, seen in paintings featuring bowls of dry ice-cream and boat noodles. A few paintings set in Lumphini Park show us that a city is also a site of clashes and contestations. “Mob Memorabilia” features three whistles hanging from lanyards in the colour of the Thai flag. We learn that the whistles – a few in the zigzag shape of lightning – are from the political movement that descended upon Bangkok to protest the enduring influence of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra in national politics. “Lumphini Park” features green dome tents with the Thai flag perched atop each. Tracking the images and time when Ise was in residency, we identify the tents as those used by protestors in the park in early 2014, when demanding the resignation of then Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra.

“New World Building” (2014)
Image: Adriana Nordin Manan

A city is also a place for white elephants, such as the infamous New World Mall. Ise’s portrayal is of a building with its top floors in flames, situated above a large square aquarium filled with fish. Post-show research reveals that the mall was abandoned, caught fire and at one point was filled with varieties of fish by area residents to put a halt to a mosquito infestation. There is also cultural insight: according to one narration, the Mall was doomed once the developers proceeded to construct unauthorised upper floors, angering locals with the act of architectural gall to rise higher than the venerated Grand Palace nearby.

In his own way, Ise became a traveling documenter in a city with plenty to offer. It is easy to picture him travelling up and down the Chao Phraya or from Sky Train to Sky Train, soaking in the sights which he would then draw and commit to our collective memory of the city.

“Gelora Bung Karno” (2019-2020)
Image: Courtesy of A+ Works of Art

“Greece Bandit in Barcelona” (2019-2020)
Image: Courtesy of A+ Works of Art

The other half of the exhibition is made up of comics in mobile light boxes, each depicting Ise in a foreign city. Produced in collaboration with comic book artist Ibrahim Hamid (Pak Him), here Ise is a key player in every scene. All his thought bubbles are in Kelantanese Malay. His fears when being stopped by local police in Jakarta after that perennially heated event known as a Malaysia-Indonesia football game, or his cheeriness at being in Barcelona only to be rudely cut short when he is mugged, are all delivered to us in this distinct regional variant of the national language.

If it holds that one’s truest language is that which one thinks and dreams in, Ise’s true language was Bahasa Kelantan. In many of his works, he drew from his life as a Kelantanese and made of that something that everyone could enjoy. For a 2013 exhibition at the Guggenheim, he made a mini documentary on Kedai (Mer)Pati, hole-in-the-wall eating spots in his home state. When on residency in the Bronx in 2016, he led a nasi kerabu cookout. At ILHAM Gallery in 2018, he devised a communal meal of dishes curated by his great aunt, melding her recipes with research inroads that he and a collaborator made into the culinary and warfare practices of the ancient Langkasuka Kingdom in present-day southern Thailand, Kelantan’s neighbour and kin. I was at ILHAM that evening, and although sometimes not entirely sure what was going on, I remember enjoying the festive atmosphere immensely.

That effortless extension of interiority into art that is playful and participatory is part of Ise’s legacy, as he passed away in 2019. The curator of Campur, Tolak makes it clear that it is not a retrospective exhibition. Hopefully it is just a matter of time before an Ise retrospective takes place. Until then, we shall remember the joy his curiosity and artistic excavation gave us, and lament the present’s gaping loss.

Curated by Anca Rujoiu, Campur, Tolak, Kali, Bahagi, Sama Dengan was held at A+ Works of Art from Dec 17, 2020 to Jan 9, 2021.

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Adriana Nordin Manan merupakan peserta di bawah Program Bimbingan Penulisan Kesenian CENDANA-ASWARA.

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