Tale of Two Tomi’s
Review by Ellen Lee

In Tomi Heri’s inaugural solo exhibition at The Back Room, the 29-year-old’s latest works are noticeably more abstract than the figurative forms of his past works. The monochromatic wood assemblages, which blend in seamlessly with the gallery’s white walls, are not just abstract “forms” or patterns, nor do they represent anything particularly identifiable.

The young artist has been active locally and internationally, and up till now, his signature style has been recognisable for its blend of graphic design-type “vectors” with an edge of street-art stencil, usually done up in the bright complementary colours which he has an eye for.


“Mimpi Hutan Kota”, 2017, stencil spray paint and acrylic on canvas. Image: Artemis Art Gallery

Tomi’s name may bring to mind renown Yogyakarta-based artist, Heri Dono (no relation). The two artists seem to have nothing in common stylistically, except for a certain penchant for illustration, but one can see thematic resonances in the playful tableaux of strange creatures picked up from local legends and everyday observations, which are then translated into the artists’ uniquely contemporary styles. Tomi is heavily inspired by the art scene of Yogyakarta, having made many pilgrimages there throughout his artistic career. That’s why his voyage to London under the auspices of a residency at Acme Artist Studios is a major one. It’s a step away from the primacy of tradition and regionalism that so characterise the art of Yogyakarta – and also of Kelantan, where Tomi went to university … and into the Western heartlands of global commerce and cosmopolitanism. Will this taste of foreign waters produce any new, unfamiliar ideas?

Taking up the entire left wall of The Back Room is a work with a threatening aura, which sort of looks like a chest-upwards view of a village elder, donning what looks like a straw sun hat over his head and a starry medallion around his shoulders. Its title is “K-II”, possibly a nod to the Lord Ketu of Hindu astrology.


Image: “K-II”, 2020

Next to “K-II” is “MXP”, which features a circular wooden frame at the top with its face painted black, and, below that, several thick, black strips of canvas with simple, white-coloured geometric shapes bolted onto them. It looks like it could be a grandfather clock, or some kind of flow chart for rivers, ending at the big basin of the sea. Another work looks like a white frog, with stiff bended arms like wooden clothespins, titled “Layang” (kite). In between “MXP” and “Layang” is a smaller print on wood titled “M.I.A”, of a creature with leaf-like wings, or fins, buzzing lazily upwards: perhaps a fly to feed the layang-shaped frog.

SG. is an abbreviation for sungai, the Malay word for river – an elemental life-force that the exhibition centres around as its primary inspiration. Tomi grew up in his grandmother’s house by a river in Kuala Kubu Bharu, Selangor and so SG. is his way of “going back to his roots”, which is an interesting reaction to having just completed a residency in a foreign land. In London, he also lived by the River Thames, a murky, clogged-up river snaking through 346km of London, reflecting back the corruption of the city’s industrial development and underpinning the collective imagination of Londoners since the time of Dickens.


Image: “MXP”, “M.I.A.”, and “Layang”; 2020

Tomi’s river, on the other hand, is a village river, up in the clear hills of Kuala Kubu Bharu, away from the symbolic and physical grime of the modern city. As he matures, Tomi is starting to grapple with the ideas that every major Malaysian artist eventually has to confront: big city vs small town, local vs international. Which is better? How to synthesise?

The river is a symbol carried from his childhood at his grandmother’s house all the way to cold hard London. All rivers, of course, join up at the sea; but Tomi doesn’t seem ready yet to take the plunge into the deep. His childhood still calls him back to familiar waters.


Image: Tomi’s animated video

On the opposite wall, there is the video work. The work consists of a looped video along with a projection-frame upon which the screen is mounted. The frame, another wooden assemblage, has a tribalistic look to it, with sharpened spikes all along the top like a barrier-gate painted with some Tomi-esque motifs. Before the projection screen-frame, there lies, atop a sheet of white cloth on the ground, a sort of wooden sword or spear. The video being projected features animated versions of the creatures along the walls, with “K-II” bobbing up and down and “Layang” doing a frog-stroke behind it. As well-read as Tomi is in the art of traditional woodcarving, the translation of his extensive research into a digital video work is a modern adaptation that still feels a little awkward and untethered.

It’s clear that Tomi is still seeking the right blend for the two parts of himself – between tradition and modernity, between his river-submerged roots and the wide sky of the future opening up before him.

SG., a solo exhibition by Tomi Heri, runs until Jan 10, 2021 at The Back Room @ The Zhongshan Building, Kuala Lumpur.


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Ellen Lee is a writer under the CENDANA-ASWARA Arts Writing Mentorship Programme 2020-2021.

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