Khalil Ibrahim’s self-portrait, in a retrospective exhibition at a gallery in the Petronas Twin Towers, was an essay in double vision: the artist stood before a table, an unfinished floral painting at his back, the left side of his face in such thick shadow that only the arm of his eyeglasses could be seen. But it was impossible to tell where the light came from (since the blank part of the canvas behind him, which was as bright and harsh as sunlight, had a shadow of its own, as if another figure were lurking somewhere in the studio), or whatever the source of the different shadows might be. The artist’s lips were turned downward, few of the paintbrushes wedged into a dark can were illuminated, and it was difficult to decide which was more disturbing, the penetrating gaze of his lit eye or the speck of light in his dark one. The painting spoke to something essential about my experience of Kuala Lumpur: it felt as if every conversation, gesture, and silence contained a shadow.
Yet the self-portrait seemed to bear little relationship to the droll, round man who warmly greeted me and his old friend Eddin, or to the other sketches and paintings drawn from fifty years of work for A Continued Dialogue, a whirl of flowing lines and vibrant colors, in images of dancing women and fishermen, of palm groves and boats on the sea, spread over all the flat and curving walls of the gallery. I took the title to mean that the artist’s dialogue was not only with his materials but with the complicated issue of identity that shaped so much of the national discourse, and I was intrigued by the stylistic variety of his land-and-seascapes, which ranged from the abstract to the figurative. He painted in oil, acrylic, and watercolor; he made batiks and gouaches; he celebrated the human body, notably in a series of ink drawings titled The Spirit of the East, which featured groups of women on the beach, spinning and swirling and stretching toward the sky.
‘Malays are a very sensual people,’ said Eddin.
Ibrahim was born in a kampong near Kota Bharu, the son of a Sumatran sent to Kelantan to be educated in an Islamic school, and from an early age he yearned to be an artist, despite the traditional Islamic suspicion of figurative representation. (It is written in the Hadith, the stories and sayings attributed to the Prophet, that ‘He who creates pictures in this world will be ordered to breathe life into them on the Day of Judgment, but he will be unable to do so.’) Ibrahim drew, made shadow puppets out of cardboard, and took art classes with a Singapore-trained school art inspector. Ignoring his father’s wish for him to become a teacher, he devoted himself to painting, selling his works to British colonial and army officers; when his family moved to a kampong in Pahang his work brought him to the attention of a district officer, who convinced him to seek formal training abroad. And so it was that in 1959, two years after independence, Ibrahim won a scholarship to Central Saint Martins College of Art in London, and there he learned the elements of composition, colour, and anatomy, tutored by artists steeped in the European academic tradition. He drew still lifes, worked with models, visited galleries and museums in London and on the Continent. A decisive encounter with Rubens: the Flemish artist’s portraiture fed his developing interest in the human form, and by the time he returned to Malaysia in 1965 (with a Swiss-born wife) he had not only internalized the history of Western art but discovered the rudiments of his artistic vision – in the body.
His subject, broadly speaking, was life in the coastal villages of Kelantan – fishermen and their boats, women walking by the sea, swirling figures in bright greens, yellows, reds, and blues: the lives of ordinary people, set against the lush backdrop of the tropics, and the communities that they form.
‘I am deeply involved in the activities of people in groups,’ he once said.
While Eddin asked him about friends they had in common, I took another look around the exhibit. From a painting of six women strolling into a splash of sunlight I turned to gaze through the window at the women passing by, laden with bags of designer clothes, and then it hit me: the planners of the attacks that occured on 9/11 had probably been here, had perhaps even wandered down this gleaming hall – a realization that made me shudder. I remembered how the ash was still falling when I visited Ground Zero late one afternoon in November 2001. The wooden walkway I climbed to peer into the twisted wreckage was slippery with soot; the stench of death filled the cold air. Men and women wept. Sidewalk vendors hawked American flags, T-shirts, hats emblazoned with NYFD and NYPD insignia. A young woman embraced a policeman. I circled the site, conscious of what was missing – and of how absence can be described through what is there: the skeletal remains of a building; a makeshift shrine of plastic flowers and teddy bears; a chamber orchestra rehearsing in a church with plastic sheets covering the pews. The mind reels before such destruction – which is why so many turned to poetry in the days following 9/11. For poetry, Robert Frost reminds us, offers a temporary stay against confusion.
By way of contrast, the Petronas Twin Towers, the tallest twin buildings on earth, completed in 1998 (the year of the Asian financial crisis) to house the state oil and gas company and its subsidiaries, were beacons of prosperity, with the rest of the office space leased to Boeing, IBM, Microsoft, and other Fortune 500 companies, and with all six levels of the shopping mall crowded on a weekday afternoon. The Petronas Group, one of the so-called ‘New Seven Sisters’ of the petroleum industry (along with companies in Russia, Iran, China, Venezuela, Saudi Arabia, and Brazil), played a huge role in the national economy – exploring, refining, and distributing oil and natural gas; operating pipelines; manufacturing petrochemicals; trading and shipping and developing real estate – and was helping to integrate it into the international economy. It was fueling globalization, that is, as relentlessly as the financial service firms located in the World Trade Center in New York City had once moved capital around the globe.
Two pairs of towers celebrating economic might, two visions of modernity: a double-sided mirror of the international order.
What could not be seen in this mirror before 9/11, what remained in shadow, was the backlash against the forces of dislocation unleashed by globalization – the uncertainty that, for example, contributed to the rise of Islamic fundamentalism. Nor were those who walked the corridors of power and money (including the majority of intellectuals and writers) always alert to the potentially violent link between dispossession and fervency: acts of terror in the service of the divine have shaped civilization sometimes as decisively as the ethical codes and ideals of justice vouchsafed to prophets. For faith and terror are inextricably linked, inspiring some to create works of genius and some to take up arms. It was no accident that al-Qaeda operatives finalized plans for their attack on the World Trade Center in the shadow of the Petronas Twin Towers. If only the import of their summit had not eluded the intelligence community – and yet how often we fail to comprehend the meaning of something until it is too late.
Ibrahim lifted the plastic cover off a table displaying a selection of his sketchbooks, every page of which seemed to burst with ideas – figures in every conceivable pose, with notes scrawled in the margins: a microcosm of a world in flux, I decided, caught in the act of disappearing. Ibrahim said that he was always drawing, and from a side pocket of his combat-style trousers he pulled out a sketchbook filled with pictures of the visitors to his exhibition, all of them, men and women, rendered in the nude.
‘I naked them,’ he said with a smile, ‘because I love the body’.
This seemed to me to be a good definition of any work of the spirit.