The Best(a) of Bestrizal: Mother Nature (Review)

‘Almost Paradise’, 2018, Charcoal and acrylic on canvas (H250 cm x W200cm)

Bestrizal Besta was born in 1973, in Padang, West Sumatra, Indonesia. He made Yogyakarta his home and can be found in this city where he lives and works. I was acquainted with Besta’s art in 2018 at Art Stage Singapore where he was represented by Art Porters Gallery. Hanging in this gallery’s booth, at the entrance, is a substantially large monochromatic canvas with a burst of colour that led my eye to a human face — a smiling female child framed by a bouquet of colourful flowers. She is perched on a suggested make-belief swing made of leafy tendrils, her feet crossed elegantly and both hands clutching a spray of orange flowers and she is beaming. She is accompanied by a parrot and surrounded by flora and fauna, thick and lucious. A mouse deer peers at us, a rabbit peers at the mouse deer and we peer into a busy canvas covered corner to corner by monochromatic prints of flowers, plants, leaves, petals… and then the eye spots a leopard. I stood staring at this gigantic canvas, ‘Almost Paradise’, 2018, (H250 cm x W200cm), for several minutes and drank in its wonder. I let it quench my imagination while I studied the patterns on the leaves, on the girl. Peering closer, I caught sight of a feathery down that covered the girl’s legs – follicles of hair so lovingly and intricately added to embellish the subject. This is beyond Realism. I was in Art Heaven because being up this close and seeing such intricate details made with charcoal sent electric shivers down my spine. An apt title for such a mesmerising artwork, I thought. I was not the only who thought this way. The piece was finally sold but art lovers would drop in for a chat about this eye-catching rendition of what Paradise could be. For a dazzling half day at Art Stage, I found my Paradise. 

Bestrizal Besta is known for his large canvases of hyper-realist compositions, intricate in detail and surrealist by presentation. His works are photographic by nature, hence the term hyper-realism used as a descriptor of his oeuvre. In reality, Besta is a Surrealist: his works are often realistic but dream-like, centring on this world and bordering on one that is other-worldly. 

However, I am not one who is fond of labels. To say Besta is a Surrealist would put emphasis on Surrealism and detract from the fact that he is really a Hyper-realist. But to say that he is a Hyper-realist would veer away from the oft challenging definition of Surrealism and the representation of Besta’s unconscious mind.

Surrealists were artistes who sought to find ways through art, literature and film to channel the unconscious in order to unlock its power to find an unfettered expression of thought. André Breton, René Magritte, Joan Miró and Salvatore Dali were Surrealists.  Surrealism took off in visual art due to artists like Magritte and Dali, who were categorically Surrealists. Surrealist motifs differed from artist to artist and exactly what constitutes Surrealism is difficult to define – like a dream, we can’t quite put our finger on what it is. Yet, we know as viewers that the bending clock in Dali’s work is not real, psychologically, we know that it is an image from a dream. Similarly, we know that Miró’s fantastical depiction of space with biomorphic shapes, representing human beings on canvas is also not real, it is surreal. Magritte’s work also tells us that his imageries are from the land of dreams or from the unconscious because there is something quite unusual, rather disturbing in his pieces. However, we know that these artists are definitely not Hyper-realists, though. 

Hyper-realists are artists whose keen eye for detail and realism mark them out from the rest. But be careful for they are not Realists because the eye sees a different style in Realism. Realism is an art movement that sought to depict real life with truth and accuracy; Realist art is detailed but not photographic, they are paintings and they are unmistakably so. There is nothing pretty about Realism, to tell the truth. Jean-Francois Millet and Gustave Courbet are Realists. What of Hyper-realism? Hyper-realism was developed since the 1970s and are artworks of images that resemble high-resolution photographs but rendered in mediums often associated with paintings. This is where Bestrizal Besta gets drumrolls.

‘Mother Nature #1’, 2018, Charcoal and acrylic on canvas, H80cm x W180cm

Besta, to my eye, is a Hyper-Realist. A quick glance at his canvases will train the eye to notice that his human figures are realistically detailed. They resemble photographic images of somebody we are familiar with. That his works are dream-like, it is true. That they are surreal, that is true too. So, yes, he can be called a Surrealist.

Labels are but categories for better understanding of concepts. In art, better understanding comes from looking. Let’s take a close look at ‘Mother Nature #1’, 2018 (charcoal and acrylic on canvas, H80cm x W180cm), for example. A girl, somebody from a lost world, gazes out, she is holding a doll in one hand, with the other, she clasps a branch. Nature engulfs her. In fact, nature takes up two-thirds of this canvas, with only a sliver of sky topping a mountain chain. The leaves are intricately sketched as we follow their meandering journeys; the animals playing hide and seek in the thick foliage beckons us to find them. These life-forms are so hyper-realistically depicted that I feel the leaves growing and winding their way through the thicket; I hear the sounds of animals as they move through the jungle; I smell the silage of the damp earth. This piece is similar to Besta’s many other pieces – a human figure engulfed by nature seems to be the theme in all his works. Through detailed patterns of flora and fauna, Besta tells the story of how wonderful life would be if we were all to live harmoniously with(in) Nature. Nature is good, he says. So, it is not about being engulfed by Nature but about co-existing as one with a naturally eternal Female force. This is where the artist as dreamer steps into the canvas. It is Besta’s dream that we all co-exist with Nature. He expresses his dream and observation of Nature, unfettered, through the medium of charcoal. Now, we can see why critics have called him a Surrealist. 

Besta expresses what his psyche really thinks about Nature and this is reflected in the exhibition’s title — Mother Nature — which underscores the power of the Feminine. Nature is the giver of Life — our Mother. But Besta goes one step further and tells us that “We are not born of Mother Nature”, “we are Mother Nature” he asserts. There is something so curative about this knowlege. Resistance is futile was the message that I took away from this exhibition. The best way to live is to be one with Nature. I succumbed to this adage as I immersed myself in these monochromatic canvases, meditating on Life and the human condition. I asked the Goddess to envelope me in her soothing balm which only Nature can provide. 

Mother Nature, Art Porters Gallery from 24th April to 30th June, 2019. 


Chinese Eyes

‘What are you doing, my puppet?’ the woman asks the little girl with blonde hair.

‘Making my eyes Chinese,’ the blonde girl replies as she pulls up the corners of her eyes towards the back of her ears.

The woman who has dark brown hair looks on as the little blonde girl continues to make herself look Chinese.

‘Why is that so important, my darling?’ the woman wants to know.  ‘Mummy doesn’t have eyes like that, does she?’

The little blonde girl looks away from the mirror, she is four years old but very wise, and takes a long look at the woman with dark brown hair.  She frowns a little and then looks back at herself in the mirror.

‘No, she doesn’t,’ the little blonde girl answers slowly. ‘But I want to look a little Chinese, because I’m half Chinese.’

The little blonde girl, her name is Heather, is serious and light hearted all at the same time.  She asks existential questions like ‘Where will I go when I die, Mummy?’ and ‘Where do butterflies go to die?’

Her mother, the lady with dark brown hair, her name is Evelyn, is young and ancient all at the same time.  She is Chinese from around the world.  Her ancestors are known as Peranakans who lived a hybrid life that incorporated Chinese, Malay and European cultures.  Evelyn’s eyes were double lidded, big and coloured brown.

Heather was born bald as an eagle.  Her eyes were blue at birth but they soon turned light brown.  Evelyn was all alone when she gave birth; her English boyfriend had abandoned her long ago.  She was exotic until the day the baby was born.

Evelyn was young. just a month past 24.  Sex had been an exploratory journey of hunger, urgency and loss.  She was still a virgin when she met Steve; he was charmed by her innocence but couldn’t contain her yearning for love and her appetite for touch.

She couldn’t fathom that she was pregnant even though all the signs pointed out the pregnancy so blatantly.  Her breasts were tender, her nipples hurt and she felt like throwing up for months.  She kept telling herself that it was the flu.  The weather was turning and winter was approaching.  She just needed a padded bra so that the cold wind won’t hurt her nipples; maybe a thicker coat.  The bulge in her tummy was due to too much beer.  They say that beer is fattening.

Beer was Steve’s favourite drink; a pint didn’t cost much in those days.  There were discounts at the Union House, perks of being a Phd student.

Dusk was nearing that Sunday when Evelyn felt a dull ache at the base of her cervix.  She still had a week to go, so she wasn’t worried about the Braxton Hicks contractions she was feeling.  The train was approaching the platform and they were still at the top of the stairs.

‘Let’s make a run for it,’ Steve shouted out as he ran down the stairway. A day at the local pub had lifted his melancholy.  He wants to fly like the wind; with arms stretched out like an aeroplane, he flew down the concrete stairs.

Evelyn hobbled down holding the base of her rotund tummy, this comes naturally to pregnant women.  Steve held the train door open, forcing the train to be stationed for longer than its intended duration.  The station master shouted in irritation and blew his whistle.  Evelyn finally made it down the stairs, panting, breathless and in need of a seat.  Her tummy hurt and she could feel the last swirl of dinner percolating at the base of her throat.

A kind gentleman gave up his seat for her.  She plonked herself down gratefully.  She could feel the acid ride up her throat and she gagged to keep the contents in.  She would have to wait for the next stop to throw up, she thought. Confucius had taught that it is wise to be mindful of others; the carriage just wasn’t the right place to puke.  Steven shifted his weight from one foot to the other, looking around him nervously.

The embarrassment of wetting yourself in public is a conditioned fear.  Toddlers happily pee in the sand pit or in the swimming pool.  Part of socialising children is to stop them from this natural inclination to mark their spot or to relax and let go.  Evelyn’s waters broke just as she heaved herself up to leave the train.  She left behind a trail of water as she exited and a pile of vomit on the platform as the train pulled away.  Walking home was memorable; Steve had decided not to disembark with her.

Evelyn was in the throes of another contraction when the taxi arrived at the hospital.  She had to wait for the contractions to stop before she could leave the cab.  Another round of contractions started as she shuffled her way to the maternity ward.  Her bald baby was born an hour later.

Who would have thought that genetics could skip a generation or two?  How did an Asian girl become the mother of a blonde angel?

Jari Tangah Benar, Dani “King” Heriyanto, oil on canvas, undated, 160 x 140 cm. Photo taken at The Art Stage, Singapore 2017.

Eva’s Notes:

Dani “King” Heriyanto is a visual artist known for his stylised female faces. He says that female beauty inspires him.. Heriyanto’s work consists of female portraits that combine qualities of pop art with a personal touch of stylised realism incorporating unique elements of Asian ethereality. The portrait pictured is entitled ‘right middle finger’ in Malay. Choosing to name this undated portrait in his mother tongue removes the banality of its  English equivalent. A phrase spoken in a foreign language makes the most insipid expressions exotic.

Our faces are visual expressions of identity; in the perception of ourselves lies how others see us. The Asian beauty is always imbued with a sense of the mystic and a sense of the exotic. To Western beholders, the shape of our Asian eyes and Asian noses distinguish us (as Others) from the (Western) norm.

Tidbit to Take Away:

Heriyanto has been accused of plagiarism by a Korean contemporary artist. The lines between plagiarism and inspiration are quite unclear in the Arts. In a globalised world where social media plays a huge part in the dissemination of information, intertextuality has become interwoven into the fabric of our contemporary lives; social media does complicate notions of privacy and ownership.