Getting accepted as a Fine Arts major in Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM) back then is no easy task. One need to obtain certain grades in the First Year final exam, submit a portfolio of their arts background, a list of exhibitions, contests or prizes won to even be considered for entrance.
The most difficult hurdle
Many pointed out that doing Fine Arts major in Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM) during our time (1975 – 1978) was the most difficult hurdle as compared to getting admitted to other majors.
Yes, it was but I considered myself one of the eight lucky few. We did have some privileges not enjoyed by other undergraduates, thanks to the small number.
But then, getting accepted as one was not easy. One had to get the minimum of a B or upon appeal, at least a strong C grade in the First Year final exam for acceptance.
Each undergraduate applying to major in Fine Arts also had to submit a portfolio containing their arts background, possibly a list of exhibitions, contests or prizes won and better still, some photos of their recent works.
I was lucky to have kept a few photos of my artworks (Batik paintings) from a group exhibition of 1971 (Kuching) and those from my one-man show of 1974 (Methodist Secondary School, Sibu). Furthermore the photos boosted my lecturers’ confidence in me as I discovered later that mine was the only one with such contents in our submitted portfolios. Others probably sent the list of art contests they won which I had only one, a statewide drawing contest in 1972.
Due to the stringent requirements, there were only eight people selected to major in Fine Arts for the 1976/77 session (second year). I was the sole Sarawakian doing Fine Arts and also the first son of the Land of Hornbills to major in Fine Arts in a local university.
The others included a Chinese girl surnamed Chong, fresh from school and the rest were Malay men, mostly in their 30s and went to varsity after having taught for a number of years in school as teachers’ college graduates — and most were weak in English.
Chong and I were the only ones who had attended two years of Form Six and were both multilingual. That gave us great advantage when it came to lectures which were mostly in English, as were the reference books.
Our group was therefore an exclusive few and havie free access to the Painting and Drawing Studio, Photography Studio and Darkroom, Printing Studio as well as the Sculpture Studio.
Because of my origin, I was asked by our Sculpture lecturer Dr Peter Gelenser, a Hungarian, to join his team doing the bust of Tunku Abdul Rahman Putra Alhaj, as he was commissioned by the Sarawak government to do so.
So I was part of the team doing a plaster of Paris molding of Malaysia’s first Prime Minister’s face at his home in Tanjung Bungah in Penang. The affable Tunku in his white round neck China-made T-shirt and a checkered sarong had a short conversation with us over tea and cream crackers before we did the molding.
“Dari mana?” he asked me.
“Dari Sarawak Tunku,” I replied to which he said, “Tak jauh.” His typical loghat utara or northern accent was “tak juh”.
Dr Gelenser, who also did a bust of JFK in marble (1964), did the final touchup of the Tunku’s bust in marble which was put up at the Bangunan Tunku Abdul Rahman, also known as Wisma Bapa Malaysia in Petra Jaya, Kuching that was opened in August, 1976. I went inside the building once a long time ago and had a peek at the bust, a small reminder of our rendezvous at Tunku’s residence at Tanjung Bungah in 1976, hitherto unknown to millions of Malaysians, including Sarawakians.
My involvement in sculpturing with Gelenser and later with the late Prof. Dr Piyadasa earned me the privilege to be featured on the cover of Fine Arts Department prospectus for 1977/78 session. It features me doing a standing figure out of concrete in the style of the French master sculptor Auguste Rodin (1840-1917).
My works later had the marks of Rodin and Romanian sculptor Constantin Brancussi, ending up with an original piece with an Iban twist. My masterpiece “Dance of the Immortal”, a nine-foot tall piece in plywood made amends for my poor scores in Painting and Drawing and scored the sole A for our group.
It also earned me an offer to do a MFA degree enroute to a PhD in Fine Arts in Hawaii University. I received the offer six years after graduation but I respectfully declined it. Story had it they were looking for a replacement for Piyadasa (Piya) who left to start a gallery in Kuala Lumpur in 1985.
Our small number in any of the four studios led us to get bonded. Sometimes we did our pieces (painting) together till morning. During one fasting month circa 1977, I joined my Muslim friends for “sahur” a few times.
It would have been a great privilege and opportunity for me to expand, especially in furtherance of Iban designs which were the main essence of my later works.
Nevertheless, when the mood is right, I still might do a Batik painting or two. Now I usually paint upon commissions or specific requests but these have been far in between.
I can recall that working with Piya was very rewarding, especially when he brought me to meet in Kuala Lumpur Malaysian iconic Malaysian painter Datuk Syed Ahmad Jamal who was then director of National Arts Gallery and another of his contemporary fellow artist Sulaiman Esa.
Both Piya and Sulaiman were conceptualists. Conceptualism was then the latest movement in modern arts which also affected me as I was Piya’s close disciple and the very reason why he brought me to KL. It was Piya, Rodin and Brancussi put together that resulted in my masterpiece wooden sculpture “Dance of the Immortal”. I endeared myself to conceptualism but never became obsessed with it.
It was a sad moment when I received news of the demise of my favourite mentor Piya. He died on May 7, 2007 but I came to know about it months later when meeting an artist friend.