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Visual Arts

Ahmad Abu Bakar

Meditations about land, home, and belonging


Published: 16 Oct 2019

I feel close to the LAND that I have inherited and want to be close to it as it came to me from my late parents. Putting mud on my face in such a way makes me sincere in receiving it and true as a ceramist. This land is rich in clay, so this too amplifies my feelings of attachment.

Title of artwork: Tanah Ini Ku Punya (Land/Earth I Owned)
Medium: Mixed Media
Date: 31 Aug – 30 Sep 2012
Location: Jendela (Visual Arts Space)

In 2012, the Esplanade commissioned a new work by Singapore artist Ahmad Abu Bakar for Jendela (Visual Arts Space). Ahmad, whose practice has evolved over more than two decades, works extensively with ceramics to make often large-scale installations. Tanah Ini Ku Punya (Land/Earth I Owned), a site-specific, full gallery-scale intervention, combined three media including fired ceramic, photography, and video projection documenting performance.

Inspired by the earth, land, sky, and home, Tanah Ini Ku Punya (Land/Earth I Owned) was a composition in six parts, the various segments approaching the theme through a different medium. Originating with photography showing a paddy field, the piece of land the artist inherited from his parents, the work progressed to ceramics integrated into the photography narrative, with the sequence culminating in a video of the artist performing bodily with liquid clay.

Organic in sensibility overall, the installation’s individual three-dimensional elements integrated into the photographic tableaux of the artist on the land. Referencing pods, seeds and clouds, Ahmad’s ceramic forms told of earth and sky, alluding in a fantastical way to nature and the importance of the land in Southeast Asian life and culture. Their scale often distorted to avoid the overly literal, the sculptural shapes also obliquely pointed to the peoples’ time-honoured reliance on the land, this traditional reverence and dependence possibly now forgotten in highly urbanised Singapore and Malaysia. In addition to these fired clay appendages, finely handmade in natural-coloured porcelain, the artist provided a clear narrative through snippets of Malay text: INI TANAH AKU PUNYA (the Land that I owned), and INI TANAH AKU BELI (the clay that I bought).

Breaking from his more habitual, exclusively object-based practice, the artist here presented a performance video documenting himself encrusted with liquid clay he dug from a well. The film showed Ahmad gesturing in a way that suggests the artist is lifting the sky. Simultaneously grand and intimate, the clip revealed his physical closeness to the land and celebration of the local myths, histories and beliefs associated with the land, that, rooted either in Islam or the secular world, link his people. Thus beyond material and form, the work was autobiographical and identity-related with its focus on Malay language and clay-as-the-land.

The word TANAH itself has a strong significance for people in this region: TANAH can be interpreted as wealth, shelter, power, security etc… Thus, as you can see in many parts of the works, I’ve used images of myself and the landscape, along with Malay text. This allows me to emphasise the relationship between me and the LAND, as well as the feeling or fear of losing it.

Read Ahmad Abu Bakar's 2012 interview with Iola Lenzi
Visual Arts at Esplanade

Commissioned, curated and thematically developed by our Visual Arts team, Esplanade's quarterly exhibitions feature established and emerging artists whose contemporary Asian artistic expressions not only chronicle the issues and sentiments of the region, but also offer vital insight into the complexities of our changing cultural landscapes and identities. These shorts essays and interviews act as complementary material to the exhibitions, allowing for a richer and fuller perspective on the artists and their practice.

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