This year was my third time visiting the UBD art & design graduation exhibition, known in 2017 as Impact, and in previous years as Spectacle.
This is a write-up and reflection of what I’ve seen in these exhibitions.
Conceptions of art and of being an art-lover
The Spectacle and Impact exhibitions feature artwork appropriating a host of different media, including:
- mural painting
- metal sculpture
- computer graphics
- digital photography
- art installation
- interactive art
(From 2015 SPECTACLE 2015: Art & Design Graduation Show Displays UBD’s Creative Talents, Universiti Brunei Darussalam)
This year, there was even an augmented reality app to make Md Nur Huda Firdaus Jamil’s “Affection” (Impact, 2017) come alive:
The UBD art shows are self-described as exhibitions of contemporary art. As pointed out by many local artists in numerous interviews, traditional art forms may still “dominate the art scene”, and dominate what the Bruneian public perceives as “art”; and yet art is more than paintings of landscapes, or portraits of famous people. Art can engage all senses, and it does not have to be still and motionless. Art can subvert expectations.
“When we think of art it is almost [sic] paintings which come to mind, but what is a painting? Is it the materials – canvas, paint, frames?”.
– Yasmin Jaidin, Beyond The Painting, Open Brunei
Local artists have been pushing for exposure to contemporary art in Brunei for years. Impact and Spectacle are perhaps a reflection of the growing taste for such art, and the demand for it (often in commercial spaces, cough, but that is a separate thought).
But, hey, I’m a IT programmer, what do I know about art? One time, upon entering the Emerge art exhibition at the Creative Space in Sengkurong, an attendant asked me, “Are you an art-lover?” by way of greeting. I suppose I should have just answered, “Yea, sure” and be done with it. But (as usual) I overthought the question.
Other than casual sketches and graphic design throughout my life, I don’t really consider myself an artist. Likewise, I have enjoyed art in many forms, but an art-lover? So intimidating! Dabbling in sketchbooks and watercolours doesn’t mean I know anything about art theory or the discipline – the blood, sweat, blood and tears – behind an artist’s life.
So, I think I’m more of a fan of art. (I don’t remember what answer I gave to the exhibition attendant.) But while I may struggle to write art critiques, I’m also aware that artwork is often made to be seen, made with an audience in mind. I wonder about my freedom to observe or even experience a work of art, to feel moved or unmoved by art, and to be able to express this experience, as a normal member of the public with no art background.
This insecurity is not an unusual thing to feel conscious about:
There is perhaps a general assumption that to engage art requires an acquired discourse. It is no surprise that the general imagination of the art world is a stereotype of sophistication and intellectual rigor. Far from this, a meaningful work of art expresses the everyday and the ordinary.
– The Importance of the Work of Art, Open Brunei
With that said, please let me share some observations about the Impact and Spectacle exhibitions. As a fan.
Impact & Spectacle
The Spectacle is a contribution to the society, where it aims to bring joy, to tell stories and to inspire. The audience is be [sic] brought to another realm of self-awareness and self-understanding. It is an exploration for both, where the artists have had to overcome several obstacles in order to create their art for the viewers to be fully immersed in the artists’ world.
– Assoc. Professor Shui Kong Ho, Preface, Spectacle 2016 Arts & Design Graduation Show
I’ve visited UBD’s Impact and Spectacle exhibitions (missing the ones in 2013 and 2014) with slightly different audiences. I’ve shown up with my boyfriend, an art enthusiast; with my family, including children; and with friends. Viewing the pieces with different companions, it was possible to experience them differently.
The younger ones were less attracted to pieces that were too abstract in concept. They preferred art installations over patterns and paintings. They were also drawn to interactive, fun pieces.
A few stand out for me in this regard. “Let Us Play” by Hjh Noraziah Hj Ismail (Impact, 2017) was a constant delight as every single component could be moved or played with. “GT13 Composition” by Md Hazwan Hj Awg Madial (Spectacle, 2016) made us figure out how it worked, and we were rewarded by becoming part of a virtual gulintangan ensemble.
On the other hand, one of my friends, a digital artist, admired pieces with good workmanship and detail – which are also my own weaknesses when viewing artwork. The meaning behind such works were often overshadowed, as we would be busy examining the detail instead.
Themes: Family and personal struggles
From year to year, a good number of the installations seem to be family-centric; not too surprising, really, given Brunei’s family values. But interestingly, many of these also looked at the disruption of these values. As someone with divorced parents, I am interested in representations of family beyond the “nuclear family” model. I admired – and was sometimes saddened by – pieces that impressed upon their viewer these themes such as neglect, resentment, trust, and abuse.
I hope these pieces opened up much-needed dialogue around such themes. They shouldn’t be dismissed as the concerns of “people with weak family values” (as if those are matters only experienced by people who can’t possibly be in our social circles, can’t be our own siblings or friends, can’t be our own experiences). But I digress.
I must admit I felt a bit removed from the “cage” metaphor of the installation “The Aftermath” by Nur Amalina Borhan (Spectacle, 2016), a beautiful wire-mesh piece that explicitly tries to capture the pain of divorce for a child. In Murjiyah Moranai’s “Do You Trust Me?” (Spectacle, 2016), the concept of trust portrayed in fallen boxes and Whatsapp chat screens was interesting – I felt I understood the idea, and the stability of the boxes were a nice touch – but again I felt removed. Was the concept of communication clear? Am I just too old to remember being a teenager or young adult, and the significance of gaining and maintaining your parents’ trust?
A few of the pieces are unexpectedly stirring. “Unheard Scream” by Hidayah Teo (Impact, 2017) was one that brought my companions to a hush, one even saying, “I’m going to cry.” There was contrast between calming words of comfort, and images of anguished self-expression and parental conflict. Its enclosed structure surrounded you with all of this at once. My companions were surprised that art could be so personal instead of detached, where they had previously only seen art as framed and indifferent watercolours. It was a moment that stayed with me.
How important is it to continue to support artistic expressions? And how important is it that people continue to be exposed to perceive art as more than objects of beauty, more than compositions of materials? Yes, art can entertain, and art can look beautiful, but art can also move you.
I was touched by the “Letters To Home” piece by Fatin Tahir (Spectacle 2016). Admittedly, as a PostSecret follower, it may just be that I am a fan of the idea of “confessions”, of unsent letters to people you love (or don’t). In the dark ambience of the installation, letters and envelopes spun freely, and on closer observation, the words in neon colours contrasted with fainter words in ineligible writing. These created the feeling of being inside, and hearing, someone’s thoughts: some clearly articulated, like a resentment you can barely keep beneath the surface, while the muted thoughts were like the softer grudges that you hold for years.
This piece seemed to be popular that year; it was often photographed. Perhaps it’s also accessible to this generation, one that understands “confessions”, the concept of reading secret but striking thoughts articulated in small receptacles.
This year, a similar concept was found in Nor Rozillah Md Yussof’s “Garden” (Impact, 2017). It also allowed viewers to directly build upon the piece by adding their own letters, or their own “confessions”, in the form of tiny yellow scrolls.
I wonder if this is a common struggle for the modern young person. The idea of public personas and private thoughts, of personal conflicts with identity, have similarly been explored in “Accepting Differences” by Teo Sui Fang (Spectacle, 2016), “Shifting” by Nur Nadiah Suhaili (Spectacle, 2016), “Realise, Real Lies” by Mohammad Hairol Abdulkhan (Spectacle, 2015) and several other works.
All in all, I was very interested in the prevalence of these themes. I did feel, after a while, that there was an unnecessary emphasis on family in many pieces. But it would be fair to say that the students, likely to be in their 20s, are still young – at an age where they are figuring themselves out, their relationships with families and friends, and the expectations placed upon them as young adults.
The art and design works showcased in this year’s Spectacle 2015 span a variety of themes, including natural beauty, ethical values, personal suffering, social issues, and cultural heritage. Other timely themes are aesthetic beauty, nature preservation, animal protection, family fame, nostalgia, traditional crafts, abstract expression, art therapy, and imaginative animation.
– 2015 SPECTACLE 2015: Art & Design Graduation Show Displays UBD’s Creative Talents | Universiti Brunei Darussalam
Of course, there were also pieces touching on themes outside of family and personal conflict. I admit that I am less ready to write about other themes – reminding me that there is still a lot more to think about when art expresses less familiar thoughts and ideas.
Here are some rough themes around my favourites:
Eye-catching or playful
And, it probably should be said, these are pieces that caught my eye personally. If it seems like I have an obvious preference for art installations, then I’ll acknowledge my bias. There were other pieces, those that experimented with light or sound, pieces focusing on texture or design, and photography and crafts and illustrations (which I usually take notice of). I have probably not given them enough thought or space in this post.
I hope fellow viewers of Impact and Spectacle would be able to discuss their insights on any of the expressed ideas. There are many deserving points of consideration within the themes – nature and environment, culture, design, and others – I am not well-versed enough to comment on them all.
Components of an art exhibition
Guestbooks: I hope that, throughout all the visits and support, the art students were able to receive relevant feedback and comments on their work. I showed my little sister the mini-guestbooks that accompany each piece, and she took to them immediately:
Artist statements: Again, on the importance of messages behind the art, all students seemed to be required to write some 400 words as their “artist statements”. The statements are often comprised of their inspirations behind the piece, their choice of medium and materials, and the message they seek to convey.
I’ve found the statements to be too long to read. I can understand that they might be part of the assessment of the art projects, but they are not concise (says the person who writes long blog posts). I wonder how reading these statements change our experience of the artwork? Although I note that Ranoadidas believes they are active additions to the artwork:
What’s interesting about the pieces are the story behind them. Why do they create that particular artwork or installation? Professor Kong has been involved with the students by challenging them with ideas and unlock their potential by translating their personal ideas and memories into an art form. Yes, the stories make a huge difference on the audience in appreciating their artwork even further.
– Impact 2017, Ranoadidas
Opening hours: I do think that, after a few years of running these exhibitions, the organisers would consider extending or changing the opening hours. This year’s opening hours were until 7:00 PM on weeknights, closed on Fridays and Sundays; there were limited chances to bring my own siblings, who are often in school until 5:00 PM.
Gathering my thoughts
To sum up my meandering points, I went over these thoughts when it comes to art in general:
- Why are these art exhibitions of interest? Isn’t art about drawing and painting?
- What comments can I contribute, as a mere fan of art?
- Who can experience art? What can the uninitiated art viewer appreciate?
- Who is creating art? What messages do they mean to convey to the viewer? What life experiences do they draw on to impart their message?
Questions I would like to pose with regards to Impact and Spectacle:
- Was there an intended audience? Who are the artist statements written for?
- When explaining an emotional piece, is it so important that artists emphasise their life stories?
- What are the factors of quality? What makes us decide a piece of work is “good” or “strong”? Is it art that is emotional? Is it art made with good workmanship? Is it art that conveys a message? Or a mix of all of these?
- What is the value of this blog post, from a fan of art? How much weight should my opinions hold?
For what it’s worth, I have heard that these exhibitions take a lot of time, effort, and funds. I also remind myself that this is an art programme introduced in 2009 (The Brunei Times , 2010 [dead link]). Like many things, time is needed to develop and mature, so I wonder what are the implications that as of 2016, this art programme is no longer offered as a major under UBD’s Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences.
By the way, this may have been a post about UBD, but these are certainly not the only art exhibitions in Brunei. Each year there are several art exhibitions by other organisations and groups. I really would love to see more thoughts about them – by “fans of art” like me or otherwise – and I still stand by my belief that progress cannot happen without critique and self-reflection.
Finally, it has been genuinely wonderful to bring family and friends to get a taste of contemporary art. Thank you to the artists, and to the teams, that drove these art shows. <3
Links for Spectacle/Impact exhibitions
- Official Instagram and Facebook
- Brochure: Impact 2017 Art & Design Graduation Exhibition, Universiti Brunei Darussalam [71-page PDF] – event information & artist statements
- Artworks come to life at “Impact 2017 – A Greater Spectacle”, Universiti Brunei Darussalam, 12 Apr 2017
- Exhibition on creative expressions of UBD art students begins, Borneo Bulletin Online, 13 Apr 2017
- Official Instagram
- Brochure: Spectacle 2016 Art & Design Graduation Show, Universiti Brunei Darussalam [68-page PDF] – event information & artist statements
- UBD Launches SPECTACLE 2016 Art and Graduation Show, Universiti Brunei Darussalam, 14 Apr 2016
- ‘Spectacle 2016: Art and Design Graduation Show’ opens at UBD, Borneo Bulletin Online, 14 Apr 2016 [dead link, replaced 8 Sep 2017 with archived link]
- Spectacle 2016 explores different art forms, Borneo Bulletin Online, 1 May 2016
- Official Instagram and Facebook
- Brochure: Spectacle 2015 Art & Design Graduation Show, Universiti Brunei Darussalam [37-page PDF] – event information & artist statements
- SPECTACLE 2015: Art & Design Graduation Show Displays UBD’s Creative Talents, Universiti Brunei Darussalam, 4 Apr 2015
- ‘Spectacle 2015’ draws over 600 guests; more seen coming, The Brunei Times, 13 Apr 2015. Archived from the original by The BT Archive.
- Official Instagram and Facebook
- Brochure: Spectacle 2014 Art & Design Graduation Show, Universiti Brunei Darussalam [72-page PDF] – event information & artist statements
- GenNEXT fosters students’ creativity: UBD official, The Brunei Times, 10 Apr 2014. Archived from the original by The Unofficial Brunei Times Archive.
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