I've known of artist Fyerool Darma since I was 13.
One half of a pair of twins in our secondary school, Fairullah Darma (Fyerool's a moniker) stood out as a student councillor and part of the National Cadet Corps co-curricular activity. A grade above mine, we shared mutual friends, and he was plonked into the hollow pages of Facebook as one of the people you sort of knew back in school. But when the Singapore Biennale first announced its title — 'An Atlas of Mirrors' — back in January with an initial list of participating artists, Darma's name stood out. I had to meet him again in this new capacity.
Now 29 years young, Darma's one of the highlights in the Singapore Biennale's fifth edition. Organised by Singapore Art Museum and commissioned by the National Arts Council of Singapore, the four-month long international contemporary art exhibition will start later this month, pooling together veteran artists as celebrated as sculptor Han Sai Por as well as emerging talents such as Darma. The LASALLE Fine Arts graduate will present 'The Most Mild Mannered Men', an installation of four parts that re-examine the lives of Sir Stamford Raffles and Sultan Hussein Shah, two central figures in relation to the signing of the 1819 and 1824 treaties that transferred Singapore over to the British.
When I visited Darma's workspace (a shared studio in Tai Seng) in April, he was in the beginning stages of the sculptural works. Although he wouldn't show me his sketches, clues spotted in his space were abound in sketches and transfer studies of his past work that would feed into 'The Most Mild Mannered Men'. Narratives of Darma's works often tap into self-identity. They were last seen in 'Moyang', his debut solo exhibition held last year which featured a series of paintings exploring the ideas of dissociation, identity and rootedness in and to the Malay Archipelago.
While his work for the Singapore Biennale 2016 departs from his medium of painting to sculpture, the themes are familiar. It's driven by his concern for what he calls a "growing historical amnesia". In fact, 'The Most Mild-Mannered Men' is quoted from Lord Byron's Don Juan: "He was the mildest manner'd man, that ever scuttled ship or cut a throat" — a quote used by Sir Frank Swettenham to preface his study of the Malay race, Malay Sketches. While much is known about the life and times of Raffles, Darma's work questions the role of Hussein Shah, imploring us to re-examine our colonial history and the myths of the lazy native.
How did you interpret the theme 'An Atlas of Mirrors' when you first heard it? What first came to mind?
Identity. Migration. Trans-national borders. When you look at the time period that an atlas grows or evolves differently from a small plateau to a large continent, that for me is the change of an individual's intellectual thinking, how the world exists from initially a small space to a large world. When you talk about mirrors, it regards to self-reflection. I think the entire theme is about how you position yourself within the idea of a globalised world — if there is even a globalised world.
Migration and identity are two of the subjects that your art delves in. Why these themes? What does it personally mean to you?
I think they are necessary, for me at least. My grandfather moved from Java during the Japanese war. He was supposed to work on the death railway in Burma, but escaped and settled down in one of the Javanese kampongs in the east part of Singapore and got to know my grandmother. It's a way for me to understand why and how I came here. Identity, at least in Singapore, is the whole idea of what you are. When we sub-categorise everything and look at our identification card, we don't see either of those things but we just see "Malay". There was this period when I was in confusion. I know certain customs and traditions, but we don't live with them, and that is the demarcation I have with my generation. It is also the reason I am un-archiving all these narratives and understanding the customs.
What does your family think of you digging through history and your own ancestry and heritage for your art?
They don't like the fact that I'm doing art. When I produced my works at home, my parents would ask me why I would be painting these individuals' faces. I told them it's to understand myself better. Then they started sitting down with me, having tea, discussing about the work and that's when I realised, "it's this that pulls people together". For me, this is what art is about, to bring people closer together. Now they are more receptive and they are not shy to share their thoughts about certain things. My dad really enjoys history.
How did your process begin for 'The Most Mild Mannered Men'? What were you interested to explore?
I'm really interested at how these lands can be taken away from individuals because of power structures. I wanted to speak about Sir Stamford Raffles and Hussein Shah of Johor, two individuals who had contributed extensively to the present condition of the history of Singapore, and how one of them was somehow forgotten — Hussein Shah of Johor. I was interested in the back-end of it, of how Raffles got this guy, Hussein Shah, to sit on the throne of Johor — he wasn't even the real brother of the official sultan. After the treaty, Hussein Shah was left on his own, given a plot of land. When we started studying the history of Singapore in secondary school — at least for my generation — we studied the parts from 1819 and it was said that Singapore was just a fishing village, but the truth is that it wasn't. That's what interested me, the waking from that amnesia that we had no history before Raffles.
How did you progress from that initial idea?
The works are going to be in one of Singapore's monumental and historical buildings. The discourse that these installations will bring within its surroundings contributes to the discourse of what Singapore was like before colonialism. Did we have a history before that, and even if we do, what happened to the other individual who had said yes to this treaty? The aim of this work is to speak of the other between that two. History doesn't just happen with one individual, it always has to happen between two individuals, just like a clap.
The installations are different to the paper-based works you've done in the past. Did this difference in medium change your process drastically?
It is a shift. I look at it like I would another painting. I am not trained as a painter but I've been doing painting for the longest time. It's only now that I understand the whole idea of what a painting could be, and what it could mean. Even if it is in three-dimensional form, for me it is a painting because when you talk about painting, it is how you put an object in the space and how you narrate a story within it. I think my role within this project is like that of a storyteller: How do I navigate it, and help anyone else to understand this?
Apart from the two sculptures, what else will be part of 'The Most Mild Mannered Men'?
These songkets will inform the work. They're from Sumatra and Padang and are leftovers from my grandmother and my mother. The whole idea of hoarding things, it's really precious to them. I keep fighting with my dad telling him to throw things away. I even have a parang (machete) in my house. The thing about my dad is that he doesn't know anything about Javanese culture — he distances himself and doesn't want to be known as a Javanese. We were cleaning the house and when I was about to open the parang, my dad knocked my head, saying "you don't open this kind of thing, this is the family heirloom. Do not open it, even till I die."
It was quite interesting how you can just erase certain parts of yourself to be at the present moment. It's a constant topic that's always recurring in my mind. How do you keep yourself from things? With that, you have to slowly keep on shaving parts of yourself.
So what parts of yourself have you shaved?
Straight after my degree, I produced this body of work was called 'The Muted', about a certain individual that was oppressed. It was very much self-absorbed. One time I was in my old studio and decided to burn the works. It happened naturally, I don't know why I did that. I wasn't angry but I just thought that it was time to move on. The next day I came back to the studio with an empty space, and I started on another work. I said to myself, "that was the process you needed, because without you burning it, you wouldn't have understood the intention or the purpose of doing art."
So what is your intention and purpose of doing art now?
It is for yourself in a part, for self-fulfillment, but largely it's for your family, the individuals close to you for them to reflect on their thoughts, their conditions and how we are living in this placid world. We produce art to reflect on how we are positioned in a larger trope.
What other things do you read, watch or listen to when you're working on a project? What's on your playlist right now?
It's quite interesting because when I was growing up, I didn't want to listen to any traditional music or any music from Malaysia because I thought it was crappy. It was when I was doing my National Service in SCDF when all these individuals influenced me with Malay rock bands. My playlist includes Sundanese Keronchong from Indonesia to Michael Bublé or Pink Martini. I like a lot of jazz. Thelonius Monk is one of my favourites.
Do you listen to music when you're in the studio working?
I used to listen to a lot of Radiohead and Portishead but I stopped because it changes my mood when producing. I need that focus, but I don't mind people switching on their music and I'm absorbed within it. That's the whole idea of a shared studio space — I don't mind being intruded.
How does working in a group of people affect you for the better?
It's a healthy environment because you might not know how their train of thought or process might influence you. As creatives we are always feeding off each other, and at the same time you know that you want to detour from that block. Even sitting down and listening to people talking about what they are doing helps with that process.
Do you think artists wait for inspiration or do they work to get inspiration?
Inspiration is everyday, it's like a job but I don't see it as a "job job". You need to do it for yourself, so that you won't get angry. There was a period of time when I hadn't been doing any form of work and then I got agitated easily, and then I found out that's the reason why, because you just need to produce something. So everyday, even just a synopsis of my ideas is enough for me to go, "I'm fine, I'm cool, I'm good now". It's a form of escapism.
Fyerool Darma's 'The Most Mild Mannered Men' will be shown at Singapore Biennale 2016 at the Singapore Art Museum from 28 October 2016 to 26 February 2017. For more information on the Singapore Biennale, click here.