“What could I say to you that would be of value, except that perhaps you seek too much, that as a result of your seeking you cannot find.” – Hermann Hesse, Siddhartha
Ahmad Zakii Anwar sits behind a wooden table in the center of Andrew Shire Gallery tracing the ceramic ring of the coffee cup before him, while he surveys the gallery walls behind a fitted pair of rounded spectacles. The silver goatee beneath his lips curls in a quiet satisfaction. His hands are stained with an invisible cloak of charcoal that has seeped into the memory of his fingertips, callouses, and palms. More popularly known as Zakii, the Malaysian artist had just arrived in Los Angeles for the opening of Bones and Sinews, an impressive collection of skillfully rendered portraits of charcoal on paper, which uses portraiture as a catalyst to explore the metaphysical. Using charcoal like a sculpture chisels away at marble, Zakii sculpts nude male figures up from the two- dimensional plane with an exactitude that resists photorealism and leans toward a celebration of the human form that is not only seen but also deeply felt. Zakii describes his decision to use charcoal forced him to focus solely on the figure and maintaining the divinity of the human form. He explains that “Charcoal has always been a material that artists used for studies, sketches, preliminary drawings on a canvas and I thought that charcoal could be just as good as painting. In this series I decided to strip everything down with one figure and no background.” The figures exist in a suspended time and space and, as they are situated slightly higher than eye level on the gallery wall, they seem to be looking down at the viewer while we look at them in wonderment at how they came to exist.
Using compressed charcoal sticks and grinding them into a blender until they are fine powder, Zakii tamed charcoal without distorting the clarity of the figure. Each rib, tendon, and nodule of the skeletal system is accentuated and each hair follicle achieves a unique articulation even when the subject is cast in a shadow. Zakii’s fingertips are heavily pronounced at the ends of the appendages and heads that not only affirms the presence of the artist’s hands, but the energy of the artist vibrates like an echo of a chord strummed. Zakii explains that, “We are made up of two parts- the physical and the spiritual. When my fingers touch the paper, I’m not just touching it physically. I’m sort of injecting some of my feelings into it as well. I can’t explain it. But you see we have fantastic energy within us. We have energy and that energy is transferred. I guess when I’m drawing I have this need to transfer the energy within me into that drawing so that the person who sees the drawing feels it.” This feeling is what Zakii kept referring to as “rasa,” a Malaysian word that translates to the “taste” or the “essence” of what you create.
What makes Zakii unique is ability to make his drawings feel more like portraits than nude studies. The two models who posed for the exhibition are neighbors of the artist in Malaysia, yet they are not posed in any particular action. Whether they are on the floor with their backs arches and ribs contorted, or with their arms outstretched, occupying a sheet of paper nearly six feet long, they reflect the artist more than the subject. Zakii speaks to this transference. “These are like avatars, they are like self-portraits of me but the body belongs to somebody else. If you meet these guys in real life, their personalities are nothing like what you see here. I’ve injected my personality into them. The weight of the hand, the subtle movements or poses, it’s me, but I don’t have a great body so I don’t draw myself. What I’ve done is used other’s people’s bodies to do a self-portrait.”
In Standing Figure 22 we are presented the back of a man whose outstretched hands seem to throb in the cruciform position he has assumed. We can assign any number of meanings to the pose- that is the man has the weight of the world on his shoulders, or that it is a reference to Christ, but Zakii maintains that the pose references an act of surrender. “Islam means surrendering to the will of God,” says Zakii of his own religious devotion. “In a certain way these figures refer to the fact that I am submitting to the perfection of the human figure and the discipline in working because it takes a lot of labor. In a sense, you can say it’s almost like a hymn, an appreciation of God. It takes skills, it takes labor, it’s almost like a prayer and some form of denial and you need to have a strong belief.” The creative journey for Zakii is an equally spiritual one that demands intent, commitment, trust, and have course “rasa” without which the process of discovery would have no meaning.
Featured image: Ahmad Zakii Anwar, Standing Figure 4, charcoal on paper, 153 cm x 79 cm, 2006
All images © of the artist and Andrew Shire Gallery