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Observing The Soul At Work: On Birth Of Langkawi Installation Of Sculptor Tengku Sabri’s Archelon Through Rasa Jiwa (The Feel of the Soul) – Essay

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A Review of a Malay Artist’s Notebook

To create a mythical figure, borne 70 million years ago, set it free so that it will roam the Earth protected from the Tyrannosaurus Rex, and then set its offspring in stone only to be visible during low tide on this mystical magical island of a hundred islands, as many as the names of Allah, and on this island which housed rock formations of 500 million years old – to do these is a feat of the mind of a renowned Malay sculptor-cultural philosopher whose inner world itself and whose soul is, as old as the Universe, I’d say. 

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It is worth extrapolating what went on in the mind of the creator of the underwater sculpture the Archelon, a creation of Tengku Sabri Tengku Ibrahim whose work is a culmination of not only his inner sensibilities as an artist rooted in the culture of the people of the Malaysian East Coast state of Terengganu, where he grew up in but also chronicled his journey as an artist who is also a survivor of massive stroke rendering him incapable of even lifting a hammer and a chisel for many years. 

My thesis

The process of creating this figure of a turtle with spikes and long legs able to fend itself from possible extinction for millions of years is documented, in a Leonardo Da Vinci-fashioned collection of daily musings as Tengku Sabri was creating it from sketches to a massive installation not only the Langkawi islanders but also the people of Malaysia can be proud of.  The notebook, Rasa Jiwa, loosely- translated as The Feel of the Soul is a series of narrations of this experience of giving birth to and raising the mythical figure-sculpture, The Archelon. 

What makes Rasa Jiwa: Rampaian Catatan Langkawi a fascinating read in its original language Malay or Bahasa Melayu, and how does the work – a potpourri of thoughts long and short — speak of the world outside and the world inside of the author-artist? This is the aim of the review—to peek into the soul of the artist, through the limitations of the writings narrating the creation of The Archelon, through a project called Community-Based Tourism, funded by the Malaysian government.

Below I present some exemplary passages that illustrate the work of Tengku Sabri. I will then present an interpretation of the Archelon. 

On the Book and the Project

The book is a gem of Malay language wisdom, written in various forms of sentences, some a collection of complete ones and some mere one-liners.  I find this a fascinating style of presenting, from the point of view of a non-linear narrative. The variations, like jazz and progressive rock passages, make Rasa Jiwa an exciting read. The sketches, each a valuable drawing showing the complex yet sustainably predictable inner-working of the artist’s mind itself is a gem. Each sketch, though accompanying text, makes one think of what it means. The act of interpreting abounds in each. 

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Tengku Sabri Tengku Ibrahim with his Archelon sculpture (photo supplied)

Tengku Sabri’s creator of the majestic primordial Archelon wrote about publishing the notebook, passages below of which I translated loosely: 

Penerbitan buku ini tidak pernah dirancang sama ada sebelum atau semasa program Community Based Tourism: Arca Dasar Laut 2022 di Langkawi, Kedah. Ideanya muncul selepas aku memeriksa dua buah buku catatan yang sarat berisi berbagai catatan selama kurang lebih satu bulan untuk membina sebuah arca di Langkawi itu. Aku datang ke Langkawi membawa berbagai keresahan dan kebimbangan: Aku ini lumpuh dan makin berkurang tenaga pula. Kenapa Balai Seni Negara (Balai) memilih aku sebagai salah seorang peserta? Dapatkah aku menyelesaikan tugasan yang diharapkan? Bagaimana tindak balas orang-orang terdekatku? Pembantu, orang-orang di sekeliling, dan diriku sendiri? 

The publication of this book was never intended, before or during the Community-Based program: Undersea Sculpture 2022 in Langkawi, Kedah. The idea came when I was inspecting two notebooks filled with thoughts penned for about a month in the process of building the sculpture in Langkawi. I came to Langkawi with a myriad of mixed emotions: restlessness and anxiety. I am paralyzed and one with decreasing energy. Why did the National Visual Art Gallery (‘Balai’) choose me as one of the participating artists? Could I complete the task? How would others closely-related to the project respond to my participation? My assistant/helper, those around me, and I myself? (trans)

This is an interesting idea of “central” conflict, a term I use in the field of Creativity Studies when we speak of what makes an artist or creator embark upon a project, with inner conflicts playing in the psyche. For Tengku Sabri the feeling is psychological, given that he is still recovering from a massive stroke that left him bed-ridden first for many poignant months and next in physical therapy till now, five years after he collapsed while giving his daily lecture at a renowned Malaysian university. 

The idea of surviving a massive stroke and next, with true grit of overcoming the odds of creating again, and regaining recognition and contributing to the nation, I believe warrants a separate study on how art is also therapy and in the case of Tengku Sabri a fascinating example of one whose inner strength and sensibility as an artist inspired him to project the victory of a major personal battle in the form of a creation and sculpted artifact as profound as that mythical figure he gave birth to: The Archelon. 

Aku pergi juga kerana percaya seni tidak dibuat dengan tangan malah bukan dengan semata fikiran pun! Seni dibuat di dalam dan dengan hati. Aku bawa hatiku bersama. Di Langkawi, ilham deras berdatangan dalam bentuk catatan dan lakaran/sketsa berpunca dari khayalan, pemerhatian, perbualan, bacaan, ingatan mimpi, dan seumpamanya. Aku jadikan semua perkara di sekelilingku sekaligus objek dan subjek. Semuanya adalah pencetus atau pembuka ilham.

I went because I believe that artwork cannot be created merely with the hands nor with the mind! Art is an inner creation of the heart as well. I brought my heart. In Langkawi, ideas would come rushing in, in the form of notes and sketches borne out of imagination, observations, conversations, readings, remembrance of dreams and their sequences, and anything like these. I see everything around both as an object and subject. Each of these triggers ideas and releases the imagination. (trans.)

 Aku 2 TENGKU SABRI IBRAHIM juga rajin memintas di dunia bawah sedarku untuk tujuan itu. Adegan mimpi yang menarik perhatian/memberi kesan segera kucatat sebaik terbangun dari tidur. Aku anggap satu bulan itu adalah satu period yang ‘produktif’ dalam penjanaan ilham untuk karya-karyaku, sama ada karya seni rupa atau karya tulis di masa hadapan. Justeru, ‘Rasa Jiwa: Rampaian Catatan Langkawi’ ini mengandungi berbagai catatan dalam sebaris-dua ayat, perenggan-perenggan yang tidak kemas atau sepertinya tidak sudah, dan sebuah-dua sajak. Semuanya ialah lakaran ‘ilham kerja’ yang aku tidak segan untuk kongsikan. 

I, Tengku Sabri, am also a keen and hardworking explorer of the world of the subconscious, for this purpose. Scenes from an interesting dream that resonates in me, I would write down as soon as I wake up.  I consider the month [ … in Langkawi …] a productive period in harnessing ideas for my compositions, whether it is a sculpture or a collection of notes to be used later. Hence, “Rasa Jiwa: Rampaian Catatan Langkawi” contains a variety of notes in the form of short sentences, one or two liners, unpolished and unrefined paragraphs or those incomplete, and one or two poems. All these are sketches of the imagination of my work I am not ashamed to share. (trans.)

On Composition

128 Apa itu Karya? Karya adalah suatu perkara/hal/benda yang bukan kecil. Ia adalah satu usaha arkeologikal – sama ada di lokasi sebenar atau ‘lokasi batiniah’ yang tiada berpenghujung. Ia adalah amalan formalistik tolak-tarik yang terbina dari pendidikan dan pengalaman rasa. Ia tidak pernah selesa untuk duduk pada suatu definisi/pengertian yang tetap. 

What is a composition? A composition is a subject/object that is not insignificant. It is an archaeological work – either from its original location or a “spiritual location” that has no end to its beingness. It is a formalistic exercise of a subtraction-addition built from education of the experience of the senses. It is never comfortable sitting in one definition/meaning that is definite. (trans.)

On the Archelon 

5 Perihal Arca Archelon Di dalam ceritaku, Archelon itu ditemui Gerogor Jiwo (seorang wira pelaut ciptaanku untuk sebuah siri arca yang dalam pembinaan) di sebuah pulau kecil dalam satu pelayarannya melalui ‘Lautan Tiada Tepi’, kurang lebih 70 juta tahun dahulu. Gerogor Jiwo dan anak kapalnya singgah berehat kerana lelah berlayar. Mereka menemui sepasang Archelon terhegeh-hegeh turun ke laut mencari makan. Pada suatu kesempatan, Gerogor Jiwo dapat pula berbual-bual dengan salah seekor dari Archelon itu. Archelon: Kami ini moyang kepada penyu-penyu yang ada di lautan kalian (mengikut masa kalian) sekarang ini. Sekian juta tahun, kaki kami yang panjang lagi kuat ini telah berubah menjadi ‘sirip'(flippers) seperti pada anak-cucu kami 13 RASA JIWA sekarang. Belakang kami berduri untuk mengelak dari mudah ditelan binatang ‘Tyrannosaurus Rex’ yang ganas itu!

Concerning the Archelon in my story, it was discovered by Gregor Jiwo (a sea warrior of my creation, for a series of sculptures I am working on) on a small island, in the seafarer’s journey across an “ocean without boundaries” 70 million years ago. Gregor Jiwo and his crew landed to rest after a long journey. They saw a pair of Archelons in a groggy manner heading to the sea to search for food. Gregor Jiwo managed to catch a quick conversation with one of the Archelons. “We are the ancestors to the turtles that are in your ocean (in your present time). After a few millions of years, our long and strong have been reduced to flippers, as you could see in your turtles of today, our descendants. We have spikes on our backs to avoid easily being swallowed by the violent creature “Tyrannosaurus Rex”! (trans.)

Seseorang telah mengarcakan bentuk seekor dari kami di Langkawi tempoh hari. Mei ini ia akan diletak untuk menunggu perairan Pulau Pasir di sana! Hati-hati, sakti dan sihir kami belum habis sepenuhnya! Nanti bencana karam besar di Andaman boleh saja berlaku! Gerogor Jiwo: Terima kasih atas amaran ini. Kami berlayar dulu. Archelon: Awas. Lautan ini tiada hujung! Nanti tiba-tiba saja kalian boleh terpelanting terbang mengudara! Selamat! Gerogor Jiwo: Terima kasih sekali lagi. Kami sedari hal itu dan sudah bersedia kepada sebarang kemungkinan. Selamat tinggal Archelon. 

A few days ago in Langkawi, someone created a sculpture out of our image. This month of May it is to be placed in the ocean by Pulau Pasir. “Be careful, our magic and black magic are still with us! A major disaster in Andaman can happen!” said the Archelon. Gregor Jiwo replied: “Thank you for the warning. We are continuing our journey. Archelon said: Beware. The ocean is without borders. I fear you might all be swept into the sky! Be safe! Gregor Jiwo replied: “Thank you again. We are aware and we are ready for any possibilities as such. Farewell, Archelon! (trans.) 

On Art and Nature

196 Kacau-bilau Hutan moyang telah diceroboh. Pohon-pohon telah dibawa pergi. Mana yang sempat, melarikan diri untuk cuba hidup di tepi jalan-jalan di bandar. Gigi harimau, gajah, beruang, dan segala yang berkaki empat telah tanggal dan luruh semuanya. Hantu pelesit jembalang kehilangan tempat tinggal dan pejabat. Mereka juga terpaksa menyesuaikan diri tinggal di bandar. 

Utter chaos. Our ancestor’s forest intruded. Trees were taken away. Some managed to escape the intrusion and tried to keep on living even along the streets of the city. Teeth of tigers, bears and anything with four legs have all shed away. Ghosts and golems lost their homes and places of work. They too had to get used to living in the city. (trans)

On dreams

131 Mimpi dan Kenyataan Tidakkah mimpi itu juga satu kenyataan? Setiap malam kita hidup dan tinggal dalam dunia yang kita sedia kenali atau baru, bersama dengan orang-orang yang kita sedia kenali atau tidak/belum kenal. Kita boleh berseronok, suka, sedih dan marah atau biasa-biasa saja seperti hidup dalam dunia yang dikatakan nyata ini juga. Nyatanya kita memang selalu bermimpi. Namun ada waktunya kita tidak didatangi mimpi. Dan selalunya kita mudah lupa kepada mimpi-mimpi. 

Dreams and Reality. Isn’t a dream a reality? Every night we live in and inhabit a world familiar to us or one new, with those we know or not or those we are about to get acquainted with. We can have fun in it, be happy, sad, and angry or feel the mundaneness of things as we live in this world, we call reality. The reality is that we are always dreaming.  Nevertheless, at times dreams do not visit us. And usually, we always forget what was in our dreams. (trans)

On years of crafting

137 Sedikit Hitungan Otobiografi Pagi tadi aku buat sedikit hitungan. Aku tolak tahun sekarang dengan tahun aku tamat belajar seni rupa: jumlahnya 36 tahun, itulah juga jumlah tahun aku sudah berkarya (dan berpameran secara rasmi) kerana sememangnya aku berkarya sebaik aku tamat belajar.  

A bit of autobiographical calculation. This morning I did a lot of calculations. I subtracted this year and the year I completed my studies of sculpture: 36 years in total, that is the number of years I have been producing my artwork (and participated in formal exhibitions) because I did start to produce as soon as I finished studying. (trans)

On the self as artist 

231 Tengku Sabri Itu Bila aku mengarca aku adalah Michelangelo Buonarroti campur Constantin Brâncuși campur Henry Moore! Tapi yang benarnya aku adalah Tengku Sabri yang sudah lumpuh! Bila aku menulis aku adalah Gabriel García Márquez campur Salman Rushdie campur Haruki Murakami! Tapi yang benarnya, aku adalah Tengku Sabri yang bermimpi! Bila aku menyair aku adalah Rainer Maria Rilke campur Abdul Latiff Mohidin campur Pablo Neruda! Tapi yang benarnya, aku adalah Tengku Sabri yang gagap berkata-kata! Bila aku menjadi aku, aku adalah Tengku Sabri yang perasan! Harharhar…

That Tengku Sabri. When I am doing my sculptures, I am Michelangelo Buonarroti combined with Constantin Brancusi combined with Henry Moore! But in reality, I am Tengki Sabri who is paralyzed! When I write, I am Gabriel Garcia Marquez combined with Salman Rushdie combined with Haruki Murakami! But in reality, I am Tengku Sabri who is dreaming! When I am writing my poems, I am Rainer Maria Rilke combined with Latiff Mohidin combined with Pablo Neruda! But in reality, I am Tengku Sabri who is a stutterer! When I am me, I am Tengku Sabri who is full of pretensions! Harharhar … (trans.) 

On Art 

204 Hidup Bermaruah Seni sepatutnya mampu mengajar orang ramai untuk melihat dirinya supaya hidup lebih bermaruah sebagai manusia. Tapi, macam mana? 

Life of the ethical art ought to teach the public how to see the self so that life will be more ethical for human beings. But how? (trans.) 

On God

237 Tidak Terlawan Kita ini tidak ada yang hebat! Tidak ada yang boleh lawan Tuhan! Dialah Yang Maha Hebat! Dialah Yang Maha Perkasa! 

We can never challenge Him. There is nothing great about Us. There is none that can challenge God the Great Almighty. He is the Most Powerful! (trans)

Portrait of the artist as cultural-philosopher 

A philosophically-powerful and majestic creature that now stands on the mystical Malaysian island of Langkawi. Analyzing it with a theme of endurance resilience, and a deep sense of historic-cosmopolitanism. The Great Mythical Archelon. This is the subject of my analytical essay in progress, from my observations of the semiotic nature of this artistic creation of the artist-sculptor-philosopher-art educator, Tengku Sabri Tengku Ibrahim.

From the few exemplary passages I gathered from the notebook Rasa Jiwa, I could conclude the following:

–        There is a sense of cultural nationalism of magical-historical proportion in the philosophy behind the creation of the structure,

–        That sculpture symbolizes not only preservation of the environment and ecology but also institutes symbolic protection of it, exemplified by the huge spikes on the body of Archelon, in that even if a dinosaur (T-Rex, for example,) tries to swallow it, the larger creature would die. I am reminded of what the former prime minister of Singapore Lee Kuan Yew once said because Singapore is small and must protect itself from the superpowers, it must be like a “poisoned shrimp.” And not a small fish,

–        That there is a deep sense of Malay philosophy of true grit and resilience framed as a character in the Archelon, in that the sense of pride, dignity, and ethics of the traditional Malay is cultured into the majesty of the structure,

–        That the artist personae is presented in Archelon: from being incapacitated by his plight of being stricken by a massive stroke, and unable to move the entire left part of his body for a few years, he is now standing again with the spiritual, emotional, and physical structures he builds and represented through the sculpture. It is a personal statement of resilience and the ability to walk again, albeit with some help with a cane, and that the turtle had become a primordial mythical creature that stands tall guarding culture. The Archelon is a masterpiece of one’s personal triumph in the midst of an otherwise hopeless situation. It is a testament to the human mental and physical endurance,

–        That the artist Tengku Sabri is crafting a message that must also go back to the understanding of the “primordial self,” of the origin of things, or as the philosopher Charles Taylor would say, “the ethics of authenticity,” be as close as possible to celebrating and honoring and preserving Nature so that, as the French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau would say, that Nature would not degenerate. We recall Rousseau’s maxim in his seminal work, Emile, that “…. everything is good in the hands of the author of things, everything degenerates in the hands of man ….”

–        And finally, the symbol of the structure (and those of others as well created for this national project,) is that of guarding the sacredness of the island of Langkawi, with its 99 small islands, and when there is low tide, 100 islands she is, signifying the one hundred names of ALLAH, to be guarded against any force that will try to erode the meaningfulness of it.

The above are some of the interpretations I could conjure as I read through the notes in Tengku Sabri’s Rasa Jiwa. 

Closing 

Rasa Jiwa: Rampaian Catatan Langkawi or The Feel of the Soul: A Potpourri of Notes in Langkawi is a gem of documentation of thoughts in the field of production of art both as a process and product. I take the perspective of reading a well-crafted, free-flowing, and self-exploratory journal of a work in progress, from a phenomenological standpoint, and from the vantage point of a non-art critic. I believe this is a logical stand given the fact that to me, one need not necessarily have to possess gastronomical theories of eating in order to enjoy the Malaysian nasi lemak, or the national-signature dish of fragrant coconut rice, for example. 

I look at the sculpture and see it as it is first, and next let my mind wander into the memory palaces of the fields of study I have been in. That the response to art and any artform is the art and science of thinking about how a finished composition is informed by rhetorical devices, and in the case of the magnificent sculpture that has a tremendous ecology-preserving value, how the object is situated within the milieu (times) of the artwork produced and most importantly what goes on in the creative process of the author or the artist. Through the journal (styled after DaVinci’s sketches) I discern the inner-sensibility of the artist, as he opens up his world of a vast terrain of high creativity, which only a psycho-philosophical reading could explain the best. 

This “artist’s notebooks and musings” on the “Archelon”, one of the nine sculptures produced for the Community-Based Tourism Project, is a must-read and the work of the artist itself must be visited. On a low tide, on the magnificent and mystical island of a hundred enchantments, you could see the glory of the strange-looking creature. Surfacing reminds us of the sacredness of the place and how it is there as its protector. 

Dr. Azly Rahman

Dr. Azly Rahman is an academician, educator, international columnist, and author of nine books He holds a Columbia University (New York City) doctorate in international education development and Master's degrees in six areas: education, international affairs, peace studies, communication, fiction, and non-fiction writing. He is a member of the Columbia University chapter of the Kappa Delta Pi International Honor Society in Education. Twitter @azlyrahman. More writings here. His latest book, a memoir, is published by Penguin Books is available here.

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