More Than Meets the Eye: Najib Bamadhaj’s Expressionist Art

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The cacophony of yellow butterflies being released from a birdcage captivated my attention more than the svelte woman holding the door open, a cigarette in her other hand. Why a birdcage? Logically thinking, wouldn’t butterflies simply slip out from between the bars, being the paper-thin creatures they are? Artistically, the notion of delicate freedom could not have been better put.

expressionist work concubine kl
Mural at Concubine KL

Upon learning that the yellow butterflies were originally from a piece alluding to the Bersih rallies, an exclamation of excitement from me was unmistakably audible. The Bersih rallies have long been a sensitive topic in Malaysian politics, being a bright yellow streak on the country’s dominantly blue and red lines. While this particular relation might not be obvious at first glance, the main visual element of butterflies flying free still was a beautiful sight to behold.

najib bamadhaj bersih art
B.E.R.S.I.H. | Oil-Acrylic-On Jute (183x62cm) 6 panels 2016

Further conversation with the founder of Concubine KL, in which this beautiful mural was installed, led me to learning about Najib Bamadhaj.

With an extensive history in academic arts and curated exhibitions, Najib has had over 14 years of being in the local art scene, and has garnered support from the likes of Istana Negara, official collectors from Bank Negara Malaysia, Maxis, and Maybank. He even professes to having some pieces sought out by private collectors such as former Malaysian Finance Minister Tun Daim Zainuddin, notable collector Zain Azahari, investor Dato Azman, and Dr Steve Wong.

najib bamadhaj installation art
Meluat | Nylon Cable Stainless Steel Cable Tie On Expended Metal (122.5×152.5) 2 Panels 2016

Taking inspiration from favoured works such as ‘A Bigger Splash’ by David Hockney, ‘Flexible’ by Jean-Michel Basquiat, and the ‘Mother and Child (Divided)’ sculpture of formaldehyde-preserved halves of cows by Damien Hirst, Bamadhaj showcases a clear understanding of the power of imagery meeting personal and social opinion. He also expresses interest in other notable pop surrealist artists such as Karel Appel, Anish Kapoor, Willem de Kooning, Takashi Murakami, and Yoshitomo Nara; each with distinctive yet equally powerful contributions to the modern expressionist style.

Passion and expression are Najib’s inspiration for his pieces, yet he acknowledges that being an artist full-time also depends on being topically sustainable and relevant in the industry.

najib bamadhaj merdeka
Black Merdeka | Charcoal Acrylic On Linen (153x244cm) 2015

From a curatorial perspective, Najib advises local art galleries and exhibitors to focus on a systematic approach in putting a show together, and place importance on quality workmanship. He also encourages these avenues to actively participate in art fairs to help artists gain international exposure.

Noticing the artwork shared for this interview, I couldn’t help but ask Bamadhaj about possible sedition and censorship concerns, given that artists like Fahmi Reza (creator of the Prime Minister Clownery images) had been arrested for direct incorporation of activist messages and Ahmad Fuad Osman faced alterations of his solo exhibition at the National Visual Arts Centre following a complaint by a board member three months after the exhibition had been opened, deeming his work to be obscene and political.

the gathering malaysia art
The Gathering | Acrylic on Jute (183x270cm) 2019
bersih bamadhaj
The Protesters | Acrylic On Jute (183x244cm) 2017

Najib addresses my questions with attention to his art process, noting that relying heavily on fine visuals such as symbolism and metaphors produce another way of relaying a message. One doesn’t necessarily have to be politically aware to view his art, but only after viewing the title attached can they make their own revelations as to what the piece alludes to. Meanings, he explains, while directed, should not be forced upon the audience, as no two people have the exact same relation towards the subject matter.

malaysian scandal
Scandal 1 | Acrylic Bitumen on Jute (151×200.5cm) 2017

Najib Bamadhaj’s artworks can be viewed at representing galleries such as Taksu Gallery, Segaris Art Centre, or his own studio – Ruang Bamadhaj at Ara Damansara; or via online portals @ruangbamadhaj or @najibbamadhaj on Instagram. For purchase, send a direct message through emailing [email protected].

najib bamadhaj
Najib Bamadhaj

This article was first published in The Expat (April 2020 edition). To get this content and more, subscribe here.

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