“THIS country runs on fear. Decisions are made out of fear,” declares artist Ahmad Zakii Anwar on what he doesn’t appreciate about Malaysia. The Nut Graph met the painter on 14 Jan 2010 to probe him on how his Malaysian identity influences his artwork, including of the nude male body — a touchy subject for conservative Muslim Malaysia. He has received international coverage for his figurative paintings, considered by some to be overly profound.
Ahmad Zakii’s identity, however, is rooted in something deeper and more universal than nationality. In fact, he thinks little of his Malaysian identity. It’s an interesting discovery to make about the son of Tan Sri Anwar Abdul Malik, an anti-colonialist and a founder of Umno. Ahmad Zakii, 55, is the youngest sibling of Securities Commission chairperson Tan Sri Zarinah Anwar and Muslim women’s rights activist Zainah Anwar.
He will join 10 other Malaysian artists for an exhibition titled Work, which documents the artists’ creative process. Public viewing is open from Monday 25 Jan to Saturday 30 Jan from 11am to 4:30pm.
TNG: Your older sister Zainah has talked about your parentage and ancestry, but what are your own feelings of your very mixed lineage?
Ahmad Zakii: We have all kinds of bloodlines in us. And I think genetics has a lot to do with attitude. The environment you live in will also contribute towards that. How I think genes affect attitude and behaviour is that if you come from one exclusive genetic family, I think the tendency is to get more stuck in a certain kind of environment and a certain way of thinking.
What are your most significant memories of growing up in Johor Baru?
Johor Baru was a new town then, with very little of its own culture. Culture to me as a child was the movies. I grew up on Bugs Bunny and spaghetti westerns.
Johor actually had a much richer Malay culture when it was together with the Riau Islands, before the Anglo-Dutch treaty divided it. When Johor was split, all the different cultures from these islands were lost. I used to go to Tanjung Pinang for an annual Malay festival, where Malays from all over the Riau Islands came to showcase their different traditions. I think the festival stopped after Indonesia’s 1997-98 economic recession.
At home, my father read a lot and subscribed to Utusan Melayu in Jawi, English newspapers, Life magazine, and Reader’s Digest. We were a very Malay family, but my father worked under the British, and as much as he hated them because he was a nationalist, he picked up certain British traits. He spoke perfect English. He was a government servant, so he was very precise about time.
Your father was one of the men who founded Umno. As a child at the time, what was your understanding of his involvement in politics and the Independence movement?
I was born in 1955. So what I remember was when he had already left Umno and followed Datuk Onn Jaafar into Parti Negara. The Parti Negara election office was near our house. Every day, my mother would cook lunch and walk over with me to send him lunch. In our house we had a cupboard full of Parti Negara documents. I don’t know what has happened to them.
I saw politicians come to our house all the time. When Tun Hussein Onn wanted to enter politics and stand for election, he came to our house to ask for my father’s blessings. When other politicians came, I would sometimes hear my father scolding them. He had a booming voice although he wasn’t a big-sized man. But his huge voice could frighten people.
Did he pass on his nationalistic ideals to his children?
He was not the sort of father who hugged or kissed you. I got to kiss his hands once a year at Hari Raya, and that was as much as I could get to touch him. And you didn’t talk to him, he had to talk first. So when he was in the mood, he’d tell stories about my grandfather or my Ethiopian great-grandmother, or about Umno and Datuk Onn.
I knew from early on that politics just didn’t interest me. I lost interest after helping a Semangat 46 candidate, Datuk Jaafar Onn, Hussein’s brother, in his election campaign. Jaafar is a former general and ran his election campaign like a military operation. He was running against a young politician named (Datuk Seri Mohamed) Khaled Nordin from Umno (who is now higher education minister). Khaled is actually my nephew. His mother is our cousin.
On the night the votes were being counted, it became clear that Jaafar was losing. I noticed that the Semangat 46 people started disappearing one by one. I saw some of them take off their badges. By the end of the night after the votes were counted, there were only three of us from the opposition in the hall. There was only one entrance, and outside were Umno supporters shouting and cheering. Our candidate Jaafar was in a daze. He couldn’t believe that a young guy had beaten him when he carried the Onn name. He was speechless and couldn’t move. Another party worker and I helped him up by the arms and we walked out the door. And all the Umno people were screaming and jeering at us.
But I didn’t take off my badge. From then on, I swore to myself that I would never get involved in politics because there are no convictions. There is no belief in what you’re doing. You lose and you start throwing your badge away. People jump parties all the time. Where is your philosophy? Where is something that you believe in enough to die for?
What is the most beautiful thing about Malaysia for you?
The sun coming up every morning? (Laughs) I’m not interested in buildings and economic achievement. Beauty lies in simple things, in a flower, or fresh air, which you can find anywhere in the world. I like to look at the essence of things, and at what is essentially human. But human beings just love to divide things. Whether it’s a country, or a political system, race or religion. Even if we are of the same race, same religion, even the same family, we’ll find ways to divide ourselves.
What does your Malaysian identity mean to you?
Nothing. Technically I’m a Malay, a Malaysian, a Muslim. Because my passport says so. But it’s not something which I take into my heart. I just can’t see things that way.
I understand that. But some might say you’re unpatriotic.
What is patriotism? We are so desperate to hang on to some group or country to identify ourselves with. This is the root of all human problems, this need to hang on to something and not being able to see what the essential truth is. I’m not interested in being a good Malaysian. I’m interested in being a good human being. Get that right and everything else such as country, race and religion will fall into place.
What kind of country do you want for yourself and your children?
Everyone wants peace and prosperity, not just Malaysians. But they don’t know how to get it. If everyone really wants to, we can stop all wars. Today. But we do not want to. We love conflict. Has there ever been a period of total peace in human history? None. Because human beings love to destroy and build and destroy again. So I try to find a way to live within that.
How does all this come out in your artwork?
If you look at my paintings, you can’t identify them as being Malaysian, or American, or Asian or whatever. Why play a small corner when there’s such a big field out there? My paintings address my inner thoughts about what a human being should be and what life is all about. How do you measure human achievement? By how fat your wallet is? By how good or intelligent you are? Your answer says a lot about what kind of person you are.
Have you heard parents say: “Son, be a doctor so you can heal the sick. Son, be a lawyer so you can fight injustice”? It’s always: “Son, be a lawyer so you can make a lot of money”, isn’t it? (Laughs) So we see things the wrong way, and we teach our children that. If the world is screwed up, we have to look at ourselves in the mirror.
Read other Found in Malaysia interviews