Interpreting the Hallucination of Facts
What is the significance of the lemon motif in Jalaini Abu Hassan’s enigmatic work, Hallucination of Facts in Ungrounded History? By any measure, the 244cm by 305cm diptych is a giant painting depicting Malaysian themes and references.
Speaking with Jalaini Abu Hassan, we get glimpses of his methodology and his thought process.
Interview by Alexandra Tan
On the lemons:
A: We’ve all been wondering about the lemons.
J: This is where it all started. See, when I work, I need some…, in Malay, we call it gundu. Gundu means the mother of images, it starts to spread around, where it all started.
A: So you started with the lemons?
J: Before that, I was thinking of the mandarin (orange)! Prosperity, things like that. But I can’t find mandarins. In fact, I did a mandarin painting before this. So, I think, this is a lemon. The same connotations, the same idea of using a fruit as a beginning.
A: One interpretation is that it’s bitter and sour.
J: I didn’t realise that!
A: So why the lemon?
J: A substitute for mandarin!
A: But why mandarins?
J: To the Chinese, mandarins are prosperous, good fortune. It looks like gold because the colour is bright. So I substitute it with lemon with the same idea behind it, I guess. If you look closely, this lemon has a lot to do with the colour of the colonial ghost. So it’s related to history of the past and how we are still coloured by this colonial ghost.
On symbolism and the enigmatic shapes:
A: Actually, we were looking at the work in The Edge Galerie and we were like, where did all these skull print fabrics come from? I thought, Alexander McQueen! Jai used Alexander McQueen.
J: Alexander McQueen! I love that. We were in London that year, so we went to see the Alexander McQueen (exhibition), my wife and I. Skeleton is the most common image. They [guests to the opening] were all quite worried about the skull, because it always symbolises death.
A: Is that what it means to you?
J: Well, I was quoting a novel by (Datuk Dr.) Usman Awang, a Malay writer who had a book called Tulang-tulang Berserakan, scattered bones. Also, Malay proverbs, like, biar putih tulang, jangan putih mata. It means, you fight until the end, that’s the whole idea of using skeletons. It’s quite a paradox to the normal interpretation of death; I put it the other way round. It’s a struggle to fight to death. You see, Malay grace.
A: (Pointing to the lower right of the canvas) What is this bit?
J: This is a lion’s head! You know, lion dance? The head! That’s the thing, you overwrite on images, you put these images together, you juxtapose, all the images merge with each other. These are two lion heads, raw unfinished papier mache lion heads. I got them from a lion dance event. These [pointing to the left] are from Chinese umbrellas…
A: We were looking at these bits here, curtains?
J: The whole thing is a curtain! The whole thing is a stage!
A: So it’s artificial, like a performance? The ghostly image kind of looks like a wayang kulit puppet.
J: The whole thing is a play! You can use that as part of the narrative.
A; These collage bits that used to be there but are not there anymore?
J: I peeled them off! Intentionally because you want the mark but it doesn’t really work. But since you realise that, I think it’s working a bit.
A: Removing traces, leaving traces, getting caught.
J: Keeping track. Also the dog is a common subject I use. Again it’s a paradox. Especially in the Malay community it’s always a taboo (subject) but actually, it’s not. It’s the other way around – it’s loyalty, it’s obedience.
A Is there a reason their bums are facing us?
J: No, but some people find it a bit rude because it’s a backside. It’s interesting to have a bit of tease, like you tease your audience a bit there and challenges them.
A: [Pointing to the top] Why these figures?
J: All these figures are familiar figures. I know them (well). When I go to a wedding, it is a family thing, there’s always a silatperformance and I always take pictures. I know all of them. It’s a cultural thing, a family affair. The images in my work, the faces are all familiar. They’re family – bothers, cousins, sisters. They’re playing musical instruments; it’s a form of silat.
A: So, it adds to the whole idea about stage and performance. I thought it might be something to do with storytelling and oral tradition. Works the same. Why bingo?
J: If you look at the history of Tunku (Abdul Rahman, first Malaysian Prime Minister), the Tunku was a very liberal man. Tunku is the only Malay, I think, during that time, who introduced secularism to the Malays. You know, the orthodox Malays became more and more open.
A: I think there was a bit more openness with other religions and a willingness to communicate the best of what they had.
J: Even my father! My father was in the British Army. You know bingo… these images… Tunku was awarded a few medals. I sort of play around with medals and awards, like a button…
A: So, they’re more signifiers of awards in general?
J: You don’t want it to get too serious on that! It’s more informal! They’re all images and letters .
A: That you are granting him? You’re decorating him with letters. Extra letters!
J: Yes, decorating him. Decorate a person with an award.
A: What’s with the letter “F”?
J: Ah, this is the most often asked question. They always think, that’s the “F “word right? But it is not. The colonial or authoritative figure, like that one, during my childhood in the small village, there was always a man who represented the authority and we called him ‘the forester’. Forester was the only official government authority but I don’t know why. I even have an uncle called Pakcik Tuan Forest.
On how to read his work:
A: So, you’re quite open to interpretations of your work?
J: You are deliberately trying to do that! It’s always multiple associations.
A: I’m probably going to take something different away from this painting than someone else. That’s okay with you?
J: That’s the whole idea! We are not here to imply, not trying to impose. That’s the fun of making paintings, of telling stories. It’s always changing, always open-ended.
Hallucination of Facts is a rather funny work. It was specially done for the MONUMENTAL exhibition organised by the Valentine Willie Fine Art gallery in Singapore in 2012.
Jai addresses the then contemporary issue of Hang Tuah’s existence and the effect that this sort of mythology has on a culture. It opens a dialogue for viewers to consider what Malaysian history is – the stories we share with each other, multi-culturalism, our shared past.