Still Learning After 40 Years

With the stand fan turned on full blast for better air circulation, and Indonesian music playing softly in the background, artist Awang Damit Ahmad concentrated on spreading acrylic-mixed paint with a trowel onto a canvas that measured 183cm by 183cm. Carefully working on his as-yet-to-be-named mixed media painting from the “Payarama Baru” series, the glistening rays of the morning sun and its accompanying heat showering upon his back in his open-air studio, Sulap Iraga, did not bother him one bit.

Awang Damit Ahmad
Awang Damit Ahmad

The studio is located at Kampung Sijangkang, Telok Panglima Garang in Kuala Langat District, Selangor, taking up just one corner of the vast land where Awang lives with his family. Also within the property are Awang’s private galleries and space for artist-in-residence programmes, as well as his son Muhammad Iqbal’s ceramics studio. “This is also where I express my love for gardening. Being surrounded by greens, this is like my sanctuary,” Awang revealed.

Awang Damit Ahmad in his private gallery
Awang Damit Ahmad in his private gallery

Upon his retirement as Associate Professor in Fine Art at Universiti Teknologi MARA (UiTM) five years ago, the veteran artist, who decided to take his interest in art one step further after laying eyes on the late Datuk Syed Ahmad Jamal’s painting entitled “Window in The Sky” at the National Art Gallery in 1975, Awang has made even further progress with his artwork. Most notable was having his works selected to be auctioned by Henry Butcher, KL Lifestyle, Masterpiece and Edge as well as established international auction houses, Christie’s and Sotheby’s.

Even with almost forty years experience as a painter, every second is still a learning process for Awang. “Every piece of artwork requires its own special treatment. Each idea needs a different visual language. An artist needs to understand all the various languages. Personally, I have continued to explore new media in the market which I feel is suitable and durable, that best illustrates my ideas,” he said of his mixed media genre of structured Abstract Expressionism.

open-air studio, Sulap Iraga
open-air studio, Sulap Iraga

Many of the sexagenarian’s art pieces depict village life, drawing inspiration from his own childhood experiences in his hometown of Kuala Penyu, Sabah in the 1950s and 60s. “My father was a fisherman and there were occasions when I had to go out to the sea to help him. I also worked the rice fields, collected wood from the mangrove swamp to be sold as firewood, and took up just about any odd job for a few cents,” he recalled.

Awang has never forgotten his humble background, as many of those scenes have been replayed through the five series of his collections, over the past forty years as an artist. “Since my first series, Essence of Culture, which took me an entire decade to complete, I have wrapped up two other series. The fourth series is still ongoing, alongside my fifth which I started nine months ago. It is a long process but I am enjoying the journey. I have never stopped painting since the 1970s when I began learning the craft from a number of artists in Sabah,” he added.

Iraga “Purnama Merah”
Iraga “Purnama Merah”

Having made the decision to fine tune his technique, two people had been instrumental in Awang’s artistic prowess. “While studying for my Diploma in Art and Design (Fine Art) at UiTM, one of my lecturers Ponirin Amin, fully encouraged and supported me to pursue fresh ideas and inspirations. Then, during my graduate study at the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., I participated in art collectives such as The Capitol Hill Art Center and Arlington Art Center. Through them, I was exposed to numerous art aspects and at the same time, had the opportunity to travel the country. It was around this time that I was lectured by Professor Tom Nakashima, who is known for his abstract narrative. He was one of my greatest influencers; shaping my direction and approach,” he related.

a new piece for “Payarama Baru” series
a new piece for “Payarama Baru” series

Despite achieving this level of success today, this internationally known award-winning artist has remained humble. He said, “I do not have any special ingredient or secret recipe to share, except to work hard, maintain the discipline and keep acquiring experience. The real success comes from God.”

True to his belief of continuous learning, Awang, who was a pioneer in using construction material in his artworks and whose one piece of art could now be sold as much as RM350,000 for a size of 5ft by 6ft, has already committed himself to an art residency programme in India in January 2017.

Following his return, he would be hosting some thirty local and international artists at his art space, Sulap Payarama. “Hopefully by creating this platform, artists are able to gain exposure for their artworks as well as exchange ideas among their contemporaries, while experiencing a different culture and country. Most importantly, we can bridge friendship and create artist link for future art development,” he said.

Note: An edited version of this article [Still learning after 40 years] was published on 5th November, 2016 in the now-defunct The Malay Mail.

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