“APAKAN daya? (What can we do?)” begins Zaim Durulaman, his voice low, as he shares with me his predicament of not being able to have children of his own. But instead of wallowing in his sadness, the 51-year-old artist chooses to translate his yearning and love for children onto canvas using bitumen — a dark oil-like substance — to achieve that nostalgic, sepia-like quality in his painting. Like snippets of memories immortalised in screen captures, his studio is filled with the smiling faces and childish cheekiness of little girls and boys.
“Most of these children attend the kindergarten which my wife runs. It brings me joy to be able to preserve their innocence in my paintings even though I can’t have any of my own. All I hope is that these paintings will bring back memories of childhood to those who see them,” shares Zaim.
Stacked against the wall, on the other end of the studio, are paintings of boats. Long, short, big and small. They peer out from the canvas, languid in form, as if waiting for their fisherman owners to climb aboard with their nets, ready to set sail for the day.
Following my gaze, Zaim confides: “When I first ventured into this world of art, I gravitated towards boats, especially those floating on calm rivers. I guess it’s because of the sense of nostalgia that it evokes within me, reminding me of my childhood days when I used to follow my parents to the fishing village to buy fish.”
MAKING IT HIS OWN
With four solo exhibitions under his belt, this Perak-born graphic-designer-turned-painter shyly admits that four outings are more than he’s ever hoped to achieve in such a short period of time.
“I only started being an artist proper in 1990. In the art world, it’s considered very late because I didn’t start right after graduating.”
This graphic design graduate from Universiti Teknologi Mara found himself working in the advertising and publishing industry for two years before dabbling in painting. “I’ve always loved illustrations and I fancied myself as a comic artist at first,” he says, adding: “When I was 6 or 7, I loved copying film stills, especially from those black and white cowboy films. And every day after school, I’d sketch for the fun of it. So I didn’t hesitate to study graphic design after finishing high school.”
However, his love for painting grew thanks to the encouragements he received from his friends, many of whom are artists and painters themselves. When he finally turned to painting full-time, he had no choice but to painstakingly practise his skills over and over again in his little studio on his own. It took him a tedious six years to perfect his art and it wasn’t until 1996 that he finally gained the confidence to submit his first piece in an art competition.
To his astonishment, his artwork came in second and was subsequently sold to the Australian High Commission. Zaim recounts excitedly: “It didn’t matter that I didn’t get first place. Just having my artwork winning something on my first attempt was amazing enough. But it became more meaningful when I saw my painting hanging on the wall of the Australian High Commission office as I tuned in to a news segment that was featuring it (the office)!”
Closing in on three decades of painting, Zaim confides that it doesn’t get any easier with every canvas that’s filled. “There’s always the question of what’s next but this is the challenge that keeps me going,” he says, adding: “It’s not just about copying what you see or the pictures you’ve taken. Art needs meaning and you need to know its meaning before forming it. If there’s no story behind your art, then why do it?”
To produce a piece of painting, there are tedious steps to observe before the idea can even be realised. His method of creating each piece of work can be said to be an art in itself. It begins with him first finding a subject he desires before moving on to the visualisation stage in his mind. He would travel far and wide in search of it (the subject), which could take him to a small fishing village in Melaka or even the playground near his home. Once he has located his subject, he would then proceed to take photos of the images in various angles and under various lighting. It’s in his studio that the real work begins.
The artist is ever happy to share his method (of work), especially with his arts and graphics students at Universiti Selangor, where he has been teaching part-time since 2014. “I love sharing knowledge, particularly with students. That’s why I try to have at least one workshop whenever I hold an exhibition. I guess it comes from knowing how hard it is to be doing this alone without anyone to teach me,” says Zaim.
PLATFORM OF FRIENDS
The common misnomer of painters being a broody and solitary bunch certainly does not apply to Zaim, whose cheery laughter punctuates the air when he regales me with stories of friendships he has fostered around the world.
“It was during my first art colony in Vietnam back in 2004 that I started meeting different artist from different countries. It was there that I met my best friend and ever since then, I’ve met many others whom I’ve not only artistically collaborated with but have also had the pleasure of visiting their homes. Likewise, they’ve also visited mine,” he says, eyes sparkling.
Asked which country he’d love to visit, Zaim replies enthusiastically: “Croatia! But first, I’ll need to make friends with those who live there. It won’t be the same if I go there as a tourist. With a local, you get to see more of the local side and that’s what I want to come through in my artwork.”
Besides countries, I couldn’t help wondering what Zaim’s ultimate goal for his artwork is. He pauses before replying: “I don’t think there’s an ultimate goal for me because my target keeps evolving depending on what’s next.”
Looking thoughtful, he concludes with a question: “People always believe that when you’ve reached your goal, there’s nothing more to do. Just like when you pencen (retired). You boleh relaks ke when you pencen? (Can you really relax after retiring?) When there’s nothing more to be done, what then will become of you?”
It’s certainly a good question to ponder.