Khairullah Rahim on Being Open, Observing One’s Surroundings and The Visual Language of Objects
Khairullah Rahim (b.1987) graduated with a Bachelor of Fine Arts from LASALLE College of the Arts, in partnership with Goldsmiths, University of London in 2013. Formally trained in the field of painting, he also creates sculptures and installations. His idiosyncratic works evoke a distinctive tropical environment through a seemingly joyful colour palette but they are concerned with stories of loss and marginalisation. His works have been shown in galleries and art spaces such as FOST Gallery and Grey Projects. He is the winner of the 2017 IMPART Awards, and has been actively participating in artist residency programs. Currently, he is a part-time lecturer at LASALLE College of the Arts and is exclusively represented by Yavuz Gallery.
This year is going to be a busy one for the artist, as he’ll be exhibiting in multiple exhibitions. We sat down with Khairullah in his studio to talk about his practice, what creating art in Singapore is like, and how his work draws upon his observations of his surroundings. For this conversation, he selected Christopher Kulendran Thomas’ works, objects that reflect his love of birds, Bollywood movies, and referenced his own collection of photographs and mementos.
You picked out Christopher Kulendran Thomas’ works as part of your selection for this interview. You saw his work when it was exhibited at Yeo Workshop previously, and given your background in painting, you mentioned that his work helped you see how visual language could be translated and pushed into different forms.
I’m not sure if this is a byproduct of how art is taught in Singapore, because there doesn’t seem to be avenues of communication between art students who are working in different disciplines. There are often similarities between creative disciplines, but was this lack of interdisciplinary perspective something that you experienced yourself?
Thomas’ work explores the lived experiences of communities that have been displaced as a result of the civil war in Sri Lanka. Beyond using objects in his artworks, he actually purchased the works of young Sri Lankan artists and reconfigured them into new works. I found that very interesting, because it reflected the Western gaze back to the West, in some way.
I think working in an interdisciplinary manner is the way ahead. Now, we see the formats of exhibitions themselves being challenged. It’s no longer about just hanging works up in a gallery space. Now we see works in public spaces, and we also see curators drawing from other modes of display, such as fashion shows. If students are only exposed to the white cube mode of display, it can become quite limiting for the artist’s own growth. Artworks don’t have to just be hung on the wall or placed on the floor. Sometimes I think to myself if works even have to be shown within the context of a gallery, because that can become yet another template.
In Singapore, you hear people say a lot in passing: “Oh, Singaporean audiences aren’t open”. But what does that mean? I feel like people have accepted meanings and definitions of something, and that those ideas have been made concrete. So there is an immovable understanding of what is, for example, Malay, what is male, or what is identity. Of course such demarcations are important, but we should not treat them as unchangeable or untouchable. In the context of our conversation, audiences don’t usually spend time thinking about multiple readings of spaces and objects.
We’re very good at reading texts, particularly in exhibitions, and we do glean from them one possible reading of the artworks on display.
Yes, because those texts tell you what they want you to see. People rely on these texts a lot. It would probably quite uncomfortable for a lot of viewers here if they were to go into an exhibition devoid of text. Even if they feel an emotional connection to the works they see, they might doubt whether they are experiencing the “correct” sort of connection.
Exhibitions devoid of text are common in commercial galleries, and you’ve shown your works in spaces such as Yavuz Gallery before. There aren’t lengthy labels for each individual work in those spaces, and sometimes that lack of textual framing can confuse audiences.
Most audiences have a sense of what figural paintings or sculptures could mean, but as you work in objects and assemblages, do you find that they have a difficulty in articulating what they experience with your works?
Art itself is not accessible to everyone, as much as we’d like to say it is. Art is for anyone, but it’s not for everyone.
Following from what you said, I think Singaporean audiences are predisposed towards painting and sculpture. When you include something like a broom into an artwork, it can be difficult for some local viewers to understand what’s going on. What is an assemblage, and an object-based artwork? I was trained as a painter, and if my Diploma-self were to encounter the works I now create, I might’ve been confused too. There are already these layers of confusion, and on top of that, my work discusses cruising. Not everyone knows what cruising is.
When I make my works, I’m always very clear about my objective and my contextual perspective. The message from the artist has to come first, and I’ll only think about the viewer’s perception in the midst of making the work. As a young artist, validation can be quite important, and it can be uplifting to be reassured in your technical skills. Technical competence is incredibly important, but it’s just one of many qualities required to pull off a great work of art. Your technical skills are necessary, but so is a good idea and your execution of that idea.
I always think of progress in terms of growth. This is not just in terms of becoming a better artist, but I think it’s important that I grow towards becoming more open and receptive. This takes time. Transposing this into the context of viewership in Singapore, I think it’ll take time for audiences to get used to different or newer modes of art making. It’s also important that both artists and audiences grow alongside each other. There is a great optimism about how young artists are now approaching art.
That makes sense, because the more you expose your audiences to different forms of art making, the more likely they are to develop the literacy with which to read these artworks.
This ties in to my choice of Bollywood or Indian cinema for this interview. I don’t want to term it as Indian cinema, and I prefer to refer to these films as Bollywood films because there is this element of kitsch associated to Bollywood. There are stereotypes of synchronised dancing, for example, attached to that label. I started watching these films because my whole family enjoys them and watches them together. These films can have the cheesiest, corniest and most predictable storylines imaginable, but they are now evolving. Many actors, screenwriters and directors are now challenging these norms. Audiences are also becoming more selective in terms of what sort of stories they want to watch.
My favourite actress, Tabu, started off by acting in the typical romantic-comedies of the time. She later acted in a more offbeat movie, Chandni Bar, where there was no male actor or hero involved. The whole movie was about her, and her life as a dancer in a bar. When I watched it with my family, we were shocked by the fact that this was totally different to what we expected. Yet, we absolutely loved it.
I don’t want to say that audiences have to be conditioned, but I believe that when you expose yourself to new ideas, there’s always a chance that you might grow to like what you’re seeing. Times are changing, and things are changing.
I also wanted to talk about how you describe your own practice. You’ve said that your work is interested in the stories of marginalised communities. When you describe your practice as such, viewers sometimes expect the work to be political. Is this something that you have an opinion on, with regard to whether you do try to assert socially-conscious statements through your work, or do you see your work as merely a reflection of contemporary society?
This is tricky, because everybody is political if you sit down and think about it. I am aware that there is a trend now of artists creating works that are socially conscious. Am I doing this sort of work because it is trendy? Not really.
When I first starting making art, I was painting rhinoceroses. I thought about why I was drawn to painting the rhinoceros, and soon realised that it stemmed from me feeling that I was always behind someone else. There was this notion of playing the second fiddle or of being the sidekick. In many ways, what I explored then is similar to what I’m exploring now. I am, in certain ways, marginalised. I am a gay person, a Malay person, and a dark-skinned Malay person. Why can’t I talk about these things? At the same time, I don’t want my work to be seen as riding a trend.
I’ve been thinking a lot about what I’m referencing in my work, and how I represent these references. The first exhibition I did at FOST Gallery was If You Think I Winked, I Did., and it was about cruising and swimming pools. If no one read the exhibition text, I think a vast majority of viewers would not have seen the work’s references to how gay men cruise. When I worked on Next Sunday, some were taken aback by the fact that I chose to work with communities of foreign and migrant workers. If you think about it, their stories bear similarities to how gay men have been displaced. Both communities occupy public spaces, which have all of these latent qualities, and transform these spaces by engaging in their own activities.
I do also think about whether I’m engaging in processes of self-victimisation. Even though I’m a gay person and a Malay person, I have a job at LASALLE, I have a studio space, and I am represented by a gallery. I do admit that I am in a privileged position, but a marginalised person could also be put on a pedestal even within their own community.
Coming back to what you asked, I try not to pay too much attention to such questions because I was making such works before they were trendy. I was recently did an interview where I was asked if I had any advice for younger artists. I simply said, “It’s okay to ask for help”. I try to be honest and genuine, and I’m not just saying this, because you can be genuinely racist or honestly an asshole. You can be honest and genuine, but you also have to be sincere. Sincerity is so important.
Truth be told, I think people also don’t take me seriously enough to see my works as overtly political. Many have described my works as “vibrant” or “colourful”. Once, I had another artist lament to me that his artworks weren’t selling as fast as he’d like them to because they were too controversial. He said that he should probably start making more vibrant works, much like I was doing. I was shocked, because there’s a lot more to my works than their colours.
I think a lot about how I can survive in Singapore, and I think this is what a lot of people in similar positions mull over too. My artworks have always been gay, yet I’ve received state funding before. In writing, I’ve learnt to describe my works as pertaining to the stories of “specific communities” instead of “gay communities”. You learn to play the system. I provide a voice for certain communities, but I’m not an activist. Most of my works draw from my own experiences, and I don’t create them in order to protect my community. It’s never my intention, yet in doing so, I’m doing something for the community and that’s great.
Coming back to how your works have been described as “vibrant” or “colourful”. Do you think these labels are simplistic or reductive?
As descriptors, they are true. My works can be vibrant and colourful. What I don’t like about them is that these labels project a set of associative meanings onto my works.
These labels aren’t reductive because they make my work bad, but they’re reductive because they’re misleading. We need to move past ideas that white symbolises purity, red symbolises romance, and black symbolises evil. It’s 2019. Of course colours have had symbolic meanings over the years, but we need to adopt a more open posture when looking and interpreting. When we observe with a restricted perspective, it reduces the work or the artist into simplified versions of our reality. My works are colourful, but I hope viewers engage with them on a deeper level to probe into what I’m actually using these colours to say. Sometimes viewers can be too lazy to draw their own conclusions as to what they’re looking at.
It’s not just on the viewer because curation can be lazy too. Sometimes the execution is sloppy or the artist’s intention hasn’t been communicated across adequately.
I think it’s okay to sometimes be a little lazy in terms of curation or programmes. Purposes and objectives may differ from show to show, so if a commercial gallery has a year-long programme of twelve shows to do, I understand if some shows are lazier than others. In those cases, the audiences have to be smart about what they’re looking at.
The art world also doesn’t just comprise of art spaces, artists and viewers. There are also the collectors, and they are the ones who extend the lifetime of an artwork by purchasing it. Without collectors, many artworks fall into oblivion. Although artists aren’t obligated to, there also is a responsibility for us to educate this group of people. When someone has the purchasing power, it can influence the sort of works that artist are producing as well.
Personally, you do engage in close looking and observations quite a bit, and they end up forming the backbone for a lot of your works. Ahead of our interview, you sent me some photographs you took of the 228 Peace Memorial Park when you were visiting Taipei. Do you have a particular way in which you go about observing or recording what you observe?
Usually, I record what I see through photographs. If you look into my phone’s image gallery, you’ll see lots of photographs of my surroundings and screenshots.
Do you think of it as being quite voyeuristic?
Yes, I think so. If something catches my eye, I do enjoy observing and looking closely at what’s going on there.
When I was in the 228 Peace Memorial Park, I wasn’t just there for half an hour. I would be there for two to three hours a day, just sitting around, observing, and taking photographs. The approach for me has always been to take photographs. If I stumble upon an interesting object, I’ll collect it. I’m constantly looking and thinking, so it’s more of a habit.
It sounds quite subconscious. Not in the sense that it’s unknowingly done, but in that it’s almost a way of life for you.
The more you observe, the more you understand the world around you.
I’m an avid fan of nature. When I was in Salzburg, nobody was taking photographs of the birds, but there I was photographing the ducks. I’m not a birdwatcher or a conservational activist, but I think it’s more of an aesthetic appreciation. I keep birds and send them for bird pageants as well.
I’d be able to identify some of the more common bird species, but I’m not familiar with the more obscure ones. I used to complain to my friends about the pandemonium of Indian ringneck parakeets that would fly past my house every evening. Nobody even notices or looks up. There are owls and eagles in Singapore too, especially white-bellied sea eagles. I don’t know if I actively look out for these birds, or if I’m naturally just observant.
I don’t really have to go out of my way to look for things to observe — they’re all just there, lying around and waiting to be noticed. When I was 15, I stumbled upon a cruising site. I didn’t come from a well-to-do family, and I didn’t have Internet access. So, how did I know it was a cruising site? I just noticed that there were a lot of people at the urinals. Now with the Internet, we have all the information we could want at our fingertips. Yet I’ve always noticed moments, gestures and behaviours. I think it’s just me being sensitive to my surroundings. I admit that I’m a very petty and emotional. I can get really sad, offended or disappointed, but people don’t see that in my works. They just see the vibrancy, and that irks me.
Speaking about sensitivity, it seems that not only do you need to be sensitive to your surroundings, you also need to be sensitive in the way you use these stories. You’ve been in public spaces and have observed people from all around the world. Although there are similarities between these transformative processes regardless of location, how do you use these stories in your works without collapsing the contextual differences between them?
That’s something that I’m struggling with right now. I’m in the midst of preparing for a show, and I’m constantly thinking about whether the community I’m drawing upon would find my work relatable. I don’t think I’ve figured out the right way to balance this just yet. For me, I draw upon what I see, and I do my best to engage in conversation and research. Artists have a responsibility, because what I create does not affect only me. You don’t want to perpetuate stereotypes through your work.
When I was in the 228 Peace Memorial Park, I tried to interact with some of the cruisers. Whether I like it or not, speaking about this space in Taiwan does touch on Taiwanese culture. At the same time, I acknowledge that I can’t portray a one-size-fits-all sort of narrative. There are many cruisers around the world, and not all of them will agree on one portrayal. At some point, I need to know when’s enough, and to come back to my interest in the transformation of spaces and objects. I cannot respond to everything, but I need to consider everything in order to be open to multiple readings of the same space.
What runs through your mind when you collect an object? Some people would consider objects as being part of the location from which they were collected, and others would think the objects were meaningless outside of that physical space.
I consider the objects I collect to be relics. They aren’t exact representations of a place, but they are fragments. Including these objects in an artwork adds yet another layer of significance to it. As much as I can, I’d like to have the original object included. Other times, I do purchase objects. In those instances, I see those objects as replicas.
Technically, it is illegal to pick up and collect many of these objects. I’ve been to swimming pools, and I’ve taken the shower heads from the toilets. But I won’t go into cruising sites, such as a heavy vehicle carpark, and try to remove a wheel from a lorry parked there. There was this instance of a man who got into trouble for dismantling the seat from a bus stop. I haven’t gotten into trouble yet but I’ve broken the law by taking things such as signages, concrete blocks and broken road curbs. This is going to sound quite horrible, but I have to do what I have to do.
Do you think using objects or three-dimensional forms allow you to communicate things that other mediums or techniques might not?
I’m still not very comfortable with calling myself a sculptor, let alone an artist who deals with objects. I started off by doing paintings, before moving into doing installations and assemblages. Looking at the works I’ve recently done, I can see painting coming back into the fold. My gallerist noticed this recently, and remarked that it was interesting that I’m using painting as a prop to my sculpture. Usually, artists add a sculptural element onto a painting.
I think objects have actually complicated my making processes, and I like that. Why would I want to take the easy way out? I don’t think I’ll stop using objects because the possibilities are endless. I feel like incorporating painting helps tame the audience a bit, and this is my own personal choice here. I could always do huge, avant-garde sculptures, and I think they’d still be strong pieces. But if I’m being honest, I still feel like I want to reach out to my audiences. There are areas where I’m pushing and challenging, but there are also areas I want to stand my ground in. I see my relationship with the viewer as a long-term two-way relationship, and I don’t want to lose that connection.
I don’t think I’ll ever be able to say, I’ll go abroad and forget about the audiences here in Singapore. I think there’s something about creating works that people here can relate to. That’s still something that’s quite important to me.