Noor Mahnun Mohamed

Noor Mahnun Mohamed (Anum) was the Malaysian artist of the year-long Malaysia-Australia Visual Arts Residency in 2000. The works from her exhibition were presented in the Underground Gallery at Rimbun Dahan from 16 February to 14 March 2001.

Anum was also the Visual Arts Residency Manager at Rimbun Dahan for several years, and curated the annual fundraising Art for Nature exhibition.

Conversation with the artist

Laura Fan talks to Noor Mahnum Mohamed about the body of work produced during her residency at Rimbun Dahan. This is an excerpt of their conversation.

How has your time in Rimbun Dahan influenced your work?

Being at Rimbun Dahan settled me down and got me back on the track of working as a painter again. I returned from Germany to Malaysia at the end of 1997 and stayed in Kelantan for a year to be with my family. There I had a studio but I did not produce any significant work – only one small oil portrait of my dad’s goat. In my second year I moved to Kuala Lumpur, bunked in at a friend’s apartment, didn’t have a studio and didn’t paint much that year either. By the time I moved to Rimbun Dahan for the residency program, I was eager to work again, to smell oil and turpentine.

Rimbun Dahan provides me with just the right environment and facilities. Here I find myself getting back into my usual work habits. I feel at home here and I’m at peace which is necessary for me to paint, be productive, and develop my ideas.

These paintings are a continuation of what I have done before. For example the Karaoke singers are figures in a room, isolated and dominant, in a composition using flat perspective. On the other hand, being in a tropical climate there is much more human activity happening outdoors, in the open. And being at Rimbun Dahan I am surrounded by nature so I become interested in going ‘back to nature’ and landscapes, such as the painting of a lady looking out the window. Nature or landscape is reflected in the window pane. She wants to be in the landscape, but not yet. The painting is self referential because that is how I feel.

In what other ways has that outdoor shift influenced your work?

At the moment, the landscape appears only as a detail or as a background to a painting (for example the lady by the window), or the three faces. I put each face in a different location, one in a room, one outside by the pool and one underneath the trees in the orchard. I am still getting to know the landscape in itself: the horizon, the sky and the ‘geological drama’ of the ground. At the moment I feel it is much more comfortable to look at a landscape through a frame, a window view.

But if you look at it through the window you’re always looking at a framed view and not the entire scene. Isn’t that limiting?

I am interested in window views because frames have a relationship to the framed structure of a painting. The window is like a viewfinder where I can analyze a scene. It’s a controlled image with different qualities of light and colour depending on which time of the day I look at it, from the glaring to the sublime. And I sometimes find so much visual sensation that I have to close the folding doors of my apartment or studio.

This aspect of control is very interesting, especially in relation to your figurative paintings. Looking at your preliminary sketches, I can see that your initial figures re much more emotive, but in the final work the emotion disappears and the figures are very controlled – event though sometimes there’s a sense that the emotion still exists under the visible surface. Your work creates a relationship between coldness and emotion.

The figures in my work are in their own world and they do not need to communicate with the audience. The emotional distance creates a space between the painted figures and the viewer; it is deliberate, so the emotion is a tension beneath the surface. I prefer these undercurrents rather than a direct emotional confrontation.

To create this distance I manipulate shapes and colours. Using flat perspective as a structure in my composition, the choice of colours applied becomes important to convey the pictorial space. A wall can look as it if has no depth or is very solid depending on my intention as I use layers of colours to get to the right hue.

Why is it so important for you to create distance?

Because I find buffer zones necessary.

Is there a relationship between your desire to create distance and your interest in still life paintings?

When I do figures, they tend to be narrative. With figurative themes, I will be distracted by other concerns such as the expression of the figure in relation to the whole colour compostiion. Still life is much more neutral as a subject, it can tell a story, but while painting a still life, my main concern is the painting process and how painterly I want the work to be. In my still life, I just focus on how it is presented through colour, texture, shadow, luminosity, shape and brushstroke.

For me painting is about exploring things. It is like being a traveler, where covering distance is more important than the destination. I feel like a traveler all the time.