Bold, straightforward and culturally observant, Engku Iman is an artist who isn’t afraid to touch on topics generally swept under the rug and considered taboo in our society. One may categorize her illustrations as provocative, but upon closer inspection, it is undeniable that the issues raised by her works are very true, and very present. ROJAK had the chance to sit down with the artist who recently exhibited her project at the Making Space: We Are Where We Aren’t exhibition, to learn more about the artist herself and her works.
Let’s start with the basics. What are some of your hobbies?
Apart from doing art, I enjoy reading. Not fictions ke apa, but philosophical stuff. I gain a lot of knowledge about art from theoretical books. I also love travelling and seeing the way the world works. When I travel, I discover lots of artists, especially in Indonesia. They’re so close to us but so different, and the arts scene over there is far more mature. The people there think so much further than us. I really like that about them; they teach me to think outside of the box and be brave.
Where have you travelled to?
I travel around Asia a lot. There are many things that we haven’t seen here in Asia, especially in rural areas. The dodgier a place is, the more artsy it is. The people in these places go on with their lives and make do with what they have, despite being poor. It is very reviving, unlike modern society.
When did you start doing art?
I did architecture for my diploma, but decided to ikut arah lain (go on a different path) after that. In architecture, I learnt a lot about the artists and aesthetics behind their designs. I got caught up in their work and decided that I want to be like these people. I want to be the one creating art, not the ones learning about other people who has done amazing art. So after my diploma, I went on and did my own thing. I didn’t get a degree because I think it’s a waste of time. After having a degree in art, I would still be doing what I do. So why not kick start everything now?
Are your friends and family supportive?
They are, actually. When I have shows, they do come and support. Even my parents, but only when they have time. They might not be there for the openings, but macam, like one week later lah.
How was 2014 for you as an artist?
It was great. I got to do my very first double solo show. I also got the chance to exhibit in London. When I did my first show, I didn’t know I had fans. At the opening, many of them came and told me they love my art. I was really amazed at the amount of support I received. Later during the year, I received an e-mail from a girl in London who was doing a feminist show, Blurred. She wanted to exhibit my work at her show. So, I brought 3 art pieces over and showed the people in London how the context of art here in Malaysia is. It was a very nice experience, as I got to hear the point-of-view of the mat sallehs (Caucasians), as compared to just locals. It was very different and a very nice start-up for me.
How did the people in London find out about you?
Through my curator, who is also a friend of mine, and also through my website and Instagram. I show lots of my works on Instagram; I think it’s a very powerful source. That’s usually where I get my work from.
How would you describe your art?
I decided that my art will not be done in a “skillful” way, because I hate painting. It’s very time consuming. My style is illustration and my image has to have a lot of content. That’s how I find myself in art, and I make that my identity. I take all the drama and chaos going on in the country and make that my subject. I want to tell people that things like racial and religious issues are happening right here, right now, and they’re not a taboo subject. I want to make it into something that is, macam normal. My art is also heavily revolved around kaki lima observations.
What are some of your proudest works?
For the time being, I think it was an installation I did last month, Aku Keturunanmu Perempuan, in Sekeping Sin Chew Kee. I sewed wax strips together and made it into a carpet. It was something different for me because instead of illustrating, I experimented with other things. I got to engage with a lot of people from the public. I’m proud of works like that because I get the chance to meet other people and show them that art does not require skills. Anyone can do art. Art is everywhere.
What inspires you?
I don’t hang on to inspirations a lot because it’s a trap for me. It makes me procrastinate. You wait for it, but it never comes. Instead of that, I just do it, and make something. That’s what I trade with inspiration. But I also get inspired through travelling and engaging with the locals. I go to Indonesia often, and hang out with the locals. They bring me to new places and I see many interesting things during my journey. After that, I make it into art and share it with others.
Do you earn from doing art?
Sometimes. It’s very seasonal. I recently sold a painting that was done 3 years ago. In arts, it really depends on your background as an artist. The more popular you are, the higher the prices of your art.
Is it enough to make a living out of?
I would say so. The whole time after graduating, I tak pernah kerja (I’ve never worked). I adapt with what I have. Sometimes, I approach cafes and ask if they want murals on their walls. I also do projects with the government.
What kind of projects have you done with the government?
I was involved in Celcom KAX, a project by Celcom for the FIFA World Cup last year. 10 artists were gathered to paint the long underground wall at Masjid Jamek’s train station. It was a cool experience, but something I will never do again because it was way too tiring.
What do you think about the local arts scene?
I would say that most of the art here is not interesting. I’m not saying my art is way cooler, but then again, the arts here are boring compared to other countries. Lots of art here revolves around abstract and realism. I don’t like that, but of course, that’s just me lah. I’m the kind of person who is very blunt. If I don’t like your art, I don’t like your art. In my opinion, many arts students are very skillful, but their art has no content. They’re only doing arts for the sake of graduating. Perhaps if they took a different direction and try out new things, contohnya try out a different style or something, it would be better. Most people are afraid of leaving their bubble. They have to pop their bubble and venture out to learn and appreciate other stuff as well.
Where do you see yourself in 5 years? Still doing what you do now?
Yeah, still doing what I do, but maybe at a different place. I think about migrating a lot. It’s not because I cannot adapt with what I have here, but I want to discover new things and live in a different environment. It may seem cowardly to just chao (run away) from my country, but I’ve been here all my life and I get bored. Maybe if I get into a new environment, I can try out other things, like film. But I’ll definitely come back one day. Malaysia is still my home and I’m proud of this country.