Embracing domesticity through still life


Sarah Abu Bakar
17 November 2017 - 5:00pm
Fish Head, 2017, oil on linen, 30.5cm x 30.5cm


Noor Mahnun speaks about her works on BFM 89.9: https://www.bfm.my/noor-mahnun-disco-lombok-still-life

Noor Mahnun Mohamed, 53, may be petite but she has held many roles, including that of a painter, curator, writer and educationist.

Born in 1964 in Kelantan, she graduated with a Master of Fine Art from the Hochschule für Bildende Künste, Braunschweig, Germany in 1996.

Popularly known as Anum in the Malaysian art scene, her latest solo exhibition, Disco Lombok Still Life by Noor Mahnun, will be held at The Edge Galerie from Nov 23 until Dec 10. Over 50 artworks comprising oil on linen paintings and drawings on paper will be on display.

Still life

Trained in Western painting techniques, Noor Mahnun adopts domestic objects as her  subject matter to reflect her notions of femininity and domesticity. Her depiction of home life, although presented in a small rectangular format, is skilfully rendered.

One example is Fish Head, a composition measuring 30.5cm by 30.5cm. Her brushstroke techniques can be seen in the head of the sea bass, particularly on its scales, mouth and fin, lying on a white plate. The flesh, in tinges of pastel pink and lilac, is slightly exposed. The plate sits on a blue-and-green tartan background.

“I chose basic homewares as subject matters because I enjoy domesticity and doing house chores like cleaning, sewing and ironing. I like being at home, perhaps that is why [incidentally] my work studio is located above my apartment, which is convenient,” says Noor Mahnun.

Another familiar kitchen essential is the coffee moka pot. Moka Pot — Single (30.5cm by 30.5cm) and Moka Pot — Family (45.5cm by 31cm) in oil on linen are Western still-life compositions.

Noor Mahnun’s obsessive fascination with geometric patterns, inspired by the grandeur of European architecture, is evident in her works.

“When I first arrived in Berlin in the early 1980s and visited the Neue Nationalgalerie, I was awed by the architecture of Mies van der Rohe … the iron pillars, beams, columns. The building is much better seen and experienced in real life. My interest in patterns and tiles started [then],” she explains.

“My master’s degree paper was about Leon Battista Alberti and his idea on ‘Disegno’. He is definitely a typical Renaissance man. A humanist, author, artist, architect, linguist, mathematician, poet, priest, philosopher and cryptographer,” recalls Noor Mahnun, who is a fan of the Renaissance period.

In Postcard from Tumpat (40cm by 120 cm), Noor Mahnun illustrates the iconic sleeping Buddha sculpture at Wat Photivihan in Kampung Jambu, Tumpat, Kelantan. Spanning 40m, the statue is said to be the longest in Southeast Asia.

“I was trying to capture the naivety of the sculpture. Of being at peace or resting, which brought to mind Francisco Goya’s Sleep of Reason, a favourite artwork. I was also thinking of a painting I saw in Tokyo by Takanobu Kobayashi. But of course, the ‘recline’ theme recurs in the arts, the Etruscan (tomb) murals and the figures on top of their sarcophagi, for example. I find it all intriguing,” says Noor Mahnun.

Disco, Lombok

“All of my solo exhibitions have been associated with a musical performance. I like singing and dancing. Music does play an important part in my life,” says Noor Mahnun.

Thus, disco in this show represents her student days. “The mid-1980s through to the early 1990s were spent in Germany at the height of the rave culture.” Noor Mahnun adds that she witnessed the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. In the spirit of egalitarianism, techno music unified people from East and West Berlin, she says.

The significance of Lombok in this exhibition relates to her collaborative effort with Dina Zaman, the writer of the book, I Am Muslim. Their collaboration involves The Very Clever King of Lombok, a short story based on a folk tale about the legend of a king on the Indonesian island of Lombok. A number of Noor Mahnun’s drawings are displayed in this exhibition but the compilation is a work in progress and Noor Mahnun is still documenting visual research or images to correspond with the text.

“I am hoping to use the sales proceeds of the Lombok series to visit the island as I continue to research illustrations of the short story. The Very Clever King of Lombok got me deeper into wanting to know more about the Wallace Line between Lombok and Bali. I have always been a fan of Alfred Russel Wallace (a British humanist, naturalist, geographer, and social critic), so it was a good and happy coincidence when Dina approached me with the project. In Volume One of Wallace’s The Malay Archipelago, the Land of the Orang-utan and the Bird of Paradise, Chapter XII is solely about how the Rajah took the census. The book itself was dedicated to Charles Darwin,” chirps Noor Mahnun.

Measuring 57cm by 76cm, Postcard from Delhi is a graphite drawing with a watercolour wash on paper based on a postcard from her friend Lim Oon Soon, a graphic designer. Noor Mahnun impeccably illustrates the front of the card as well as the message written at the back in watercolour. The front of the postcard — a reproduction of an old miniature painting — is depicted on the left side of the paper, composed at the centre of a laborious grid pattern in graphite. On the left side, she immaculately illustrates the reverse side of the postcard, complete with a handwritten message, a little drawing and stamp.

Also featured in this show are six watercolour paintings of herself in six personas complete with different hairstyles and flowers either in her hair or in her hand. The artist jokes that “my model was always punctual”.

Another quintessential theme in Noor Mahnun’s oeuvre is squids and insects such as beetles, wasps and moths. Insects have been a favourite subject of hers, alongside geometric patterns, since her days in Berlin.

In Disco Lombok Still Life, Noor Mahnun showcases eight drawings of squids on paper. “The squid, against a repetitive pattern rendered in pencil, works on paper. My obsession started when I took part in My Story, My Strength: Doodle for Change, an exhibition in aid of the Women’s Centre for Change in George Town, Penang, in 2015. At first, I wanted to convey the perseverance and patience of women whose lives are affected by abuse,” she explains.

“But in the process of doing the work, the rendering became an obsession, and I got addicted to drawing not only cuttlefish but also the patience-testing, long attention span this series demanded. I have always done patterns but not in minute detail. What was supposed to be an arduous and challenging task became a delightful preoccupation. I could go on rendering for hours. The squid backfired, I suppose. It was chosen because it is languid in the way it moves. It’s smooth, slippery. But it can also swim speedily. Passive. Aggressive. The phallic shape has connotations. Being a printmaker, I have always admired Katsushika Hokusai’s work and one of them featured an octopus and a woman. It is sensual, and I think ‘sensibility’ is the right word to describe it.”


After returning to Malaysia at the end of 1997, Noor Mahnun kicked off her career in the arts as a graphic designer. In 1998, she staged her first solo exhibition in Malaysia and participated in group shows. In the following year, she taught in several local institutions and continues to lecture on art theory today.

From 2000 to 2001, Noor Mahnun was an artist-in-residence at Rimbun Dahan in Kuang, Selangor. She concluded the programme with an exhibition of paintings inspired by the location and produced on site. Later, she would return to work as an arts manager from 2006 to 2012.

In 2002 and 2003, she took up a scholarship offered by the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs for a printmaking course at Il Bisonte, Florence. Noor Mahnun returned to Kuala Lumpur and ventured into curatorial work at the Valentine Willie Fine Art gallery until 2005. During her stint there, she organised 10 exhibitions by Malaysian and Southeast Asian contemporary artists and wrote the text for the shows.

Noor Mahnun has written over 30 essays and reviews for numerous art shows in Malaysia. She also wrote a paper — Printmaking Archive for Reference, Research, and Regional Link — for a publication by the Nippon Foundation Fellowships for the Asian Public Intellectuals called Encountering Asian New Horizon: Contesting and Negotiating in Fluid Transitions, The Work of 2012-2013.

She is proficient in Bahasa Malaysia, English and German, which allowed her to participate in German-Malay translation workshops organised by Goethe-Institut Malaysia with Holger Warnk and Hedy Holzwarth, lecturers at the Goethe-University Frankfurt am Main Institute for East Asian Philology, Southeast Asia Science.

Noor Mahnun has curated fundraising exhibitions such as Artaid16 ‘Love for Sale’ in 2016 and Artaid17 ‘Bebas’ (Freedom) in 2017 in support of the Malaysian Aids Council.

This month, Noor Mahnun will curate and participate in a group exhibition of 21 artists, Hell Heaven, at Cult Gallery in Kuala Lumpur. This project is in collaboration with Sisters in Islam, an organisation that promotes women’s rights “within the frameworks of Islam and universal human rights”. 

Supported by Matrix Concepts, Disco Lombok Still Life by Noor Mahnun runs from Nov 23 to Dec 10 at The Edge Galerie in Mont’Kiara, Kuala Lumpur. For more details, visit www.theedgegalerie.com

August Squid, 2016, graphite and watercolour on paper, 21cm x 30cm
Postcard from Delhi, 2017, graphite and watercolour on paper, 57cm x 76cm