Robes of Fire
“You ask me why I live in the gray hills,
I smile but do not answer, for
My thoughts are elsewhere.
Like peach petals carried by the
Stream, they have gone
To other climates, to countries
Other than the world of men.”
-Li Po, (701 – 762)
To the soul of the traveller, the roll of the waves on a beach is the call of foreign lands. In Terengganu, year after year, the South China Sea glitters, grows, howls and then returns again to her quiet glitter. Twice, as an adolescent, Fee Ming had planned to become a sailor. “If I had had my way,” he said, “perhaps I would never have become an artist”. Instead, during his escapades in Pulau Duyung, he listened to stories about Nepal, India, and Thailand, told by young Europeans who stayed in a guesthouse there. Challenged, he gathered enough funds from his drawing classes in his studio in Kuala Terengganu and was on his way westward and north, towards the mountains, riding camels in the deserts of Rajasthan, sleeping in the cold.
At first Fee Ming had thought of painting his way onwards. But, (he was then in his twenties) he realised that he was keener on painting what he saw than selling his paintings to continue his travel. He had already embarked on another journey. “It seems so long ago,” he wrote later, “as I struggled to discover who the artist in me really was, that I took that first step.” ( Introduction to “The Road to Mandalay” exhibition, 1995). The thirst to explore was still alive but Fee Ming’s true vocation had taken over. Fee Ming did not need to go fast or far.
The Call of Myanmar
One destination was particularly significant in crystallizing Fee Ming’s passion. It was Myanmar (Burma). He first made a foray in 1986 (As I was Walking in Pagan…, 1987), and another visit in 1992. He did not mean to paint much of Myanmar, a country then politically controversial and barely opened to visitors. The warm welcome given to the painting Mandalay, 1993 encouraged him to return a few times. “There was an exciting challenge,” he said, “the monochrome fabric of the robes of the monks, leaving only the hand and the feet visible, the simplicity of the scenes and the atmosphere of a world isolated from global fevers.”
Compared to Malaysia, Myanmar is a much bigger country. It has twice the number of inhabitants and five times the territory. From the eastern ranges of the Himalayas, two wide rivers, the Chindwinn and the Ayerawadi, flow to a large delta in the Bay of Bengal. It was not always isolated. Over the centuries, tribes and peoples from the north, the Mon, the Pyu, the Tais, the Bamar (the modern Burmese) and the Shan, rushed down towards the sea, in search of space and riches. Like Malaysia of old, Myanmar had been dubbed “Suvarnabumi”—the Land of Gold, because of its precious metal deposits—it also has rubies, diamonds, jade and forests with the best teakwood, bountiful harvests of rice in the southern deltas and an abundance of fish. Empires were built and crumbled. Kublai Khan invaded on his way to the southern lands; the British colonized to ensure peace on their Indian frontier. During World War II, Japanese, British and American soldiers fought and retreated heroically on what, for them, was the road to China. From time to time, Myanmar has been subjected to devastating earthquakes.
Buddhism, coming from India, was introduced a few times since its first appearance there about two thousand years ago, bringing its philosophy of detachment, rebirth and compassion. It became deeply rooted in the heart of the Burmese. Throughout the centuries, stupas (reliquaries) and wats (temples) were erected everywhere, testimonies of the will of their builders to gain good karma (merits) for a better next life. Spheres and spikes sumptuously decorated with gold leaf and precious stones shine through the morning mist on a background of green hills, spelling the message that nothing is permanent except the faith of the believer.
Being of Chinese descent in Malaysia, Fee Ming could have been a Buddhist, but his parents had become Christians and the family received lessons on the Bible from Finnish missionaries in their hometown of Dungun. Today, Fee Ming remains reserved in matters of religions. Muslim pahala, Buddhist merits, Christian good deeds…for those who know him, it is obvious that he does ascribe a transcendent value to acts based on moral motives. Tao philosophy, Confucianism, and Zen Buddhism have contributed to build his world vision. However, it is while painting, that Fee Ming finds most of his answers. And although they are not literally religious works, the beautiful Burmese series demonstrate the strong link between the artist and his spiritual quest.
“I respect people’s beliefs, their way of life, their rites,” he says. Such is his empathy, that if it happens that some people were praying in a temple, Fee Ming may silently join them. “Once,” says Fee Ming, “I was in India, in a monastery in Sarnath. The abbot, a Chinese, spoke Mandarin. I asked if I could stay, although I am not a Buddhist. “That is not important,” answered the abbot, “what matters is what you do and what is in your heart.”
In Myanmar, the length of stay was limited. Fee Ming sojourned in guesthouses. Everyday he walked, or as in Pagan, rode on a little horse cart to the monasteries and settled there for hours on end. He sketched, looking at the daily life of the monks, looking when the sun played through the cloth of their robes as they washed and dried them. “The monks did not mind, they liked to see me,” says Fee Ming.
The result of these patient sessions, spread over five years, is a magnificent cortege, a procession of scenes reminding one of the carved panels of classical temples. These were gathered in a very successful exhibition in Jakarta in 1995. The titles—poetic or sometimes provocatively Zen Buddhist—given to the paintings of this series reinforce a pervasive feeling of harmony. From these works, about ten are more abstract, reflecting the mystical quality of the subject. Others are inspired by the daily routine and the rest are “still-life” that have a life of their own.
Fields of Gold, 1994, one of the most impressive paintings of the first part, represents a senior monk in his morning meditation. Only his hands are seen, quietly resting on the bright folds of his robe. The yellow cloth seems to be made of a pulsating golden light belonging to the spiritual world. The “cropped composition”, now a hallmark of Fee Ming’s style is put to full use, showing only what is necessary to comprehension, leaving enough to trigger the imagination.
Speaking about his selective “realism”, Fee Ming tells a story from the Zen folklore he heard as a young child. “Once upon a time, for an examination, an art master asked his students to draw an old temple on a high mountain, hidden deep in the clouds and forests. All the students tried hard to show the temple through the mist and the trees. Only one student satisfied the master. He had only represented a monk at the bottom of a slope pulling out water from a stream with a pail.” Fee Ming never forgot the lesson. He intuitively “zooms” in on the details that contains the whole. Painting Burmese monks (albeit in parts), he paints not just a monastery, but also the soul of Myanmar.
This would be a sweeping statement if it were not for another characteristic of Fee Ming’s approach to painting: At times, he reproduces minute details of matter in an almost obsessive way. In paintings filled with luminous cloth like Be…, 1995 or In This Earth, In That Wind, 1994, each crease of the textile is drawn in detail down to the warp of the cloth and the shadows of the threads, resulting in an impression of depth that enhances the spiritual quality of the subject. Then, the repetitive rendering of each fold guides the eye to travel on the surface of the painting, like in a labyrinth.
In Om! The Jewel in the Lotus, 1994-95 a senior monk is meditating, half hidden by a red cloth. Fee Ming represents the wood of a nearby altar with moulds in opalescent greens and veins of spiralling moiré. He catches the moment of transmutation when man is as if petrified, molecules melt and matter becomes liquid. The artist does not deliberately set to express such a tenuous reality. He intuitively captures it. An English writer, himself a Trappist monk and the son of an artist, describes the phenomenon: “After all, from my very childhood, I had understood that the artistic experience, at its highest, was actually a natural analogue of mystical experience. It produced a kind of intuitive perception of reality through a sort of affective identification with the subject contemplated. The kind of perception that Thomists call con-natural”. (Thomas Merton “The Seven Storey Mountain”).
Study of Mandala, from Fee Ming’s sketchbook, 1994
“ While I was painting Pillars of Enlightenment, 1993,” says Fee Ming, “the upward movement of the robes,?going up in waves, seemed to me like the gesture of a prayer”. In Mandala, 1995, (a mandala is a geometric design made to lead the faithful through the deployment of the actual prayers) a monk wraps himself in a red robe. The lines are almost symmetric. Ripples in a background river repeat the ripples in the cloth, reflecting the oneness of all things.
It is as if at first, the artist is attracted by the beauty of a particular play of light, the plastic texture of a material, or surprised by an unusual scene that inspires the desire to paint. Then, while painting, during the long hours of sketching, researching and thinking, he discovers some encrypted meanings. For example, In This Earth, In That Wind, 1994, is at first glance, a pictorial essay on the transparency of a yellow-orange fabric. A delicate range of mixed ochre and golden hues creates an impression of morning radiance. A young monk, a slim frame, seen from front, is about to complete his dressing. At the same time, he seems to be donning a spiritual cloak before treading the elements— “this earth and that wind” that he will meet in this lifetime.
Study of Remembering Home, Far Away,
from an envelope, 1994
Collection of Mr. Koes Karnadi, Bali
People in Terenggganu do not favour orange, yellow or purple for everyday dressing. Yellow is the royal colour. Red is the festive symbol of prosperity for the Chinese. Orange is rare. Chequered cloth and flowery batik have made plain colour, except for Westernized tastes, look austere or too striking. But Fee Ming knows how to read patterns in shades and shadows. In Myanmar, he jumped at the opportunity to catch, on the robes of the monks, the volatile range of colours usually found in a sunrise or in a flame: deep purple, vermilion red, saffron, golden lemon yellow or even white.
Study from Fee Ming’s sketchbook, 1994
Besides the warm colours, hands and feet play an important part in the Burmese series. People in tropical Asia are barefoot at home. In Asian dances, the hand plays a leading role, so do the postures of the leg and the foot. Sometimes a movement of the head adds an indication. The body follows. (That is the opposite of Western choreography, where hands are meant to bring finishing note to the body’s lead). To depict the spiritual side of a daily routine of the monks, Fee Ming gives prominence to the hands. Hands of Compassion, 1993-94 and Hands of Benevolence, Hands of Gratitude, 1995 refer to Buddhist concepts. They also introduce the viewer to the monastic?life. In Mandalay, 1993, the skinny feet of the monks, carefully portrayed as in an academic drawing, tell of the humility inseparable from the spiritual splendour symbolised by the reds and purples of the robes.
Remembering Home, Far Away, 1994 pictures two young novice monks sitting—lost in the folds of robes that seem too big for them. One of them looks far away, towards a distant plain and blue pagodas. The boys are ten years old, the age when they are introduced to the basic tenets of Buddhism. They are taught the weight of each of their acts, the transience of all life and that samsara—the human life full of tribulations—is the only door to the mysterious nirvana of enlight-enment. Indeed it is far from their child-hood! When they are sent begging, as the group pictured in Illusion, 1993, they will remember they give the donor the opportunity to earn merit and increase their good karma in another life.
Going Home, 1994, 20.5X12.5 cm
Private Collection, Malaysia
Is it already sundown in Twilight at the River of Lost Footsteps, 1994-95 ? A novice monk is still holding his alms bowl by a riverside in the purple evening light. Is the bowl still empty? Has he not collected enough rice since early morning? In a next scene, (Song of Burma, 1995) a young woman—in the white and pink robe of a nun—poses in front of the endless waves of the Hsinbyume Pagoda. “I wanted to illustrate the long patience of the people of Myanmar”, said Fee Ming
Further down in the cortege, (Sometimes, I Wonder…, 1994) a few monks are caught in a moment of secular relaxation. An idle thought passes through their mind. Fee Ming likes to represent these moments of vacuity. In contrast, a studious pongyi is so engrossed in the study of a sutra—a sacred Buddhist teaching that he seems to be levitating as he sits on the barely visible support of a wooden bench (Ruby Bead, Diamond Sutra, 1995).
The two panels of Bodhisattva, 1995 show the meditative expression on the face of a monk duplicating the serenity sculpted on the features of a statue of a Bodhisattva —a person who has reached freedom from the wheel of re-incarnations, but has chosen to remain on Earth to help others. Portrayed with the same degree of realism, man and stone unite on the same mystical plane.
In a more prosaic mood, a novice monk is bathing, taking water from a jar. Fee Ming explained the title of that painting, Melody of a Thousand Water-drops Falling, 1995: “The flat sound of the drops of water reminded me of the repetitive cascades of some Buddhist litanies”. The painting is also a collection of Fee Ming’s favourite themes: glazed tempayan (jar), water and sun playing on wet skin, wet cloth and transparent white and blue droplets creating in their fall, round pools around the feet of a bather. After the lofty efforts in the monastery, Please Take Good Care of My Daughter, 1994 comes as a reminder, in the secular?world of a sunny day, that religion for many people is also about asking for something.
The still-life cortege is led by The Promise, 1995, where discarded robes are left on a windowsill, reminiscent of the Malay batik sarong that marked Fee Ming’s firsts steps in the world of painting. This time, the rumpled cloth with its monochrome simplicity is the anonymous garb of those who have promised to follow the path of the Buddha. Another still life, representing a bell in bronze and green, has received the inspired title of Reverberation of the Soul, 1995. Two studies in contrast of darkness and light show the dwarpa sculptures on the door panels of entrances to a temple. A dark interior is filled with the life of carved apsara—the dancing nymphs who tempted the God Vishnu in hermit reincarnation (Stillness II, 1995). In Stillness I, 1994, a water container is at the disposal of thirsty passers-by. These water-drinking stands are present everywhere in Myanmar. Fee Ming found them “an expression that the Burmese care for the needs of fellow human beings”.
Malaysian art critic and artist J. Anu describes enthusi-astically the mechanisms behind the surprising impact of images of everyday life. “The emotive quality that exudes from Fee Ming’s painting has always come from the artist’s own intense connection with the subject and how he sees it. It is an abstract quality that is difficult to pin down but is perhaps apparent in the intense love with which these paintings have been made… Everything he depicts are fragments from his own recent past. The artist lives the experiences before he actually paints them.”
Shwedagon, Yangon, Myanmar, 1986
The “Road to Mandalay” series reveals the Fee Ming forte—the zooming approach, the infinite minutiae of detail, the magnificent colours and the genuine emotion. For some viewers, the present destinies of Myanmar and the life of withdrawal of the monks impart sadness or melancholy to the rich flames of the artist’s palette. Others may see in the monks clad in their robes of fire a reminder of the supremacy of the religious over the secular. Those politically oriented may even remember the same monks in Vietnam…But mostly, Fee Ming’s Burmese series illustrates the continuing spirituality and the hope of the people of Myanmar. They are a pictorial celebration of a kind of beauty that needs no further comment