AWDB SPOTLIGHT: Interview with Haffendi Anuar

AWDB speaks with Haffendi Anuar, a Malaysian artist known for his themes of identity, post-colonialism and his documentation of the ‘kain pelikat’, a sarong rich in history and a checkered-print symbol of Malaysian culture.

Taking inspiration from Southeast Asian history, its textiles and architecture in the 20th century, Haffendi’s artworks explore the region’s development with technology and culture, presented with the incorporation of motifs and colours in his sculptures and paintings.

We visited Anuar’s London studio to find out more about how he embraces his Malaysian heritage in his practice within a western society and about what motivates him.

Batik studies in the studio. Photo courtesy of the artist

Tell us what you are working on at present?

This year, I have been experimenting with watercolour on canvas and batik textile works expanding on earlier textile works. They’re new and I’m still in the process of researching, refining the processes and materials exploring textures. So far, they depict abstracted images of landscapes, monuments and animal architecture. Recently I have been interested in looking at forms from the natural world and how creativity is shown in other species through making and construction.

Your work is highly influenced by Malaysian cultural symbols, such as kain and textiles. How has embracing your culture been like while in the U.K., a Western country with an entirely different cultural landscape?

I like wearing batik print shirts, I appreciate the designs and patterns and I also find Indonesian batiks interesting and beautiful. I’m attracted to textiles, their designs, their histories, and the language I can build within my works by incorporating them. I am especially interested in how textile has been used throughout history as items of protest, of identity and of solidarity. However, I must make the point that I don’t treat the works as traditional batik work or as textile art; they’re treated as sculptures, and the painted batik components as visual elements in my sculptures, and as portals to another dimension 3D to 2D). I am also interested in the relationship between batik and watercolour. There’s a peculiar similarity of how batik ink soaks into the fabric, much like how watercolour soaks into paper, and how fluid the colours are and the painting process is. You can mix them as if they are dyes and this fluidity allows both the materials to behave as though they are without much control.

I think I’m very aware of not exoticising the aesthetics and language of batik, but at the same time it is part of my culture and roots when I was growing up, and I feel more of a genuine language. They’re kind of processes, and like I said, I don’t see them as batik works, but rather as thought-out processes within sculpture, that I’m making work within my existing type of artwork.

‘Machines for Modern Living’ at Battersea Power Station, 2017. Credit: The Artist, Battersea Power Station and Cass Sculpture Foundation. Image courtesy of Thierry Bal

How important is location in presenting your sculptures/installations, and how does it compare to paintings? Do you consider any factors when presenting your work in public spaces?

I’ve worked with sculptures for some time now and there are additional practical things to consider when working with sculptures in comparison to paintings. Presenting sculptures and installations require a bit more control of the environment or gallery space. Even though recently I have been working with wall-mounted works, I still consider these works as sculptures and objects, and as an artist, I am more comfortable in sculpting processes such as cutting, rearranging, chipping away, and materially manipulating the works rather than the act of painting.

In terms of presenting my work in public spaces, there are plenty of challenges and things to consider. A sculpture, in any medium, is basically an object in space, in that it interacts with that space/environment, including the weather, people, and animals that live and frequent that environment and the type of audience, amongst others factors. Longevity of the medium will also need to be considered if you want your sculpture to last outdoors.

In terms of geographical location, I think I exhibit my work more frequently outside of Malaysia (my home country). I would love to exhibit more in Malaysia, but this would depend on opportunities for exhibition as there are a limited number of galleries and institutions. Though my work is anchored in research and inspired by Malaysian history, culture, and crafts, I think they have a universal message and appeal via their forms and visuals and that they can be appreciated in different contexts.

Installation view of ‘Interiors’ at Richard Koh Fine Art, Singapore, 2023. Photo courtesy of Richard Koh Fine Art

Where do you see Southeast Asian art in the western art world and what ways can we bring more recognition to SEA art globally?

I’ve been living on and off in the U.K. for nine to ten years. I studied here for my undergrad (I was in the U.S. before London at RISD in Providence). I went back to Malaysia and returned to the U.K. to do my MFA at the Ruskin in Oxford. I’ve been in London since then. It’s been many years living and working here and what I came to realise is that the London art scene is big, way bigger than it is in Malaysia and that there are many scenes happening at the same time. I think you can exist in different levels of it, and be involved in, and contribute to, the different communities of it. On the other hand, in Southeast Asia, there is one art scene that is, in a way, connecting the different scenes, in the different countries, via many regional events, such as biennales and art fairs. London and SEA are very different ecosystems (with different scales, dialogues, discourses, resources, and interests) and I am constantly navigating both.

The thing with London is that it’s different from New York or LA; London is a transitional place so you get a lot of people in art coming in and out, especially from SEA. I’m lucky that I get to see friends from back home in town quite often. Also, as the world is quite connected these days, I can maintain relationships with creative friends from around the world via the Internet. Though I’ve been here for a few years now, I feel like I’m still new to London and I’m in the process of still learning about the city and the art ecosystem, which I think will take a while.

I think about back home as a place where I can look at the history, culture, and things about colonial times, or culture, and architecture, in a way that’s different and I am able to contextualise what I make. I relish and cherish that connection and use it as a force in my practice.

I think there’s a lot of potential to think about using batik techniques in a contemporary art setting, and how it can be a new language, a way of thinking and a novel way of image-making. On the other hand, in London., I enjoy spending time in the British library, a strange bureaucratic reservoir of knowledge in London. There I have access to historical documents and the links between Malaysia and the U.K. from the colonial times. There are things I want to investigate and dig through and these have shaped the contexts of my recent works. Also, I am constantly hungry for knowledge and learning, I’m always constantly learning about art and professional practices and have been running a contemporary art gallery for a couple of years now, the latter of which I am currently doing (Gerald Moore Gallery).

‘Purple Diptych’, 26 x 18 cm (each), 26 x 36 cm, watercolour on paper, 2023. Photo courtesy of the artist

Your sculptures often combine the surrounding landscape, and it is referenced in your other artwork. What sort of landscapes inspire you?

I’m also looking at animal architecture, such as ant hills and bird nests, colonies, and termite mounds, and at how intricate and beautiful their designs are. These structures are imagined as monuments in my watercolour works, part imaginary documentation and part semi-abstract paintings. I’ve likewise always been drawn to human urban architecture and have been utilising elements of architecture as inspiration for my forms and shapes. You can see them in several of my early geometric sculptures and paintings. Those works also reimagined the landscape in new forms.

As mentioned, I’m still very inspired by Malaysia as home, somewhat more than by London, which I suppose is unexpected given that I live and work here now. I’m much more energised by Asian crafts and designs and the different ways of viewing the world through their aesthetics. But being a diasporic artist of Asian descent is challenging because in a way you must understand Western art history and its discourse from varying perspectives, but then you also have to reflect on where you come from, and that is something Western artists historically didn’t have to do. If they were considering Eastern civilisations or “other” cultures it was kind of more voracious and through a gaze of power. As a diasporic artist from Asia, you must consider more from these different contexts and find a way to juggle these various perspectives in order to make work that feels genuine to you. I’ve lived abroad for more than ten years and am still constantly noticing the differences.

For more information on the artist, please click here.