Jalaini Abu Hassan's Halal positions itself at a cultural border. Made after a recent first-time excursion to Beijing, this painting by Jai as he is fondly known in the Malaysian art community, plays off some familiar, and some new approaches and motifs. The two central characters are the self-portrait as bomoh, or witchdoctor, and a bull/cow. The bomoh character, gracefully depicted here in typical sarong kain pelikat and songkok, first appeared in Jai's Mantera series of 2004, and has come to signify a slightly humorous reference to the artist as a local "magic-maker", and also to his cultural background as a Malay - it both celebrates and lampoons such stereotypes. The bull seems somehow similar to the kerbau or buffalo of the Malaysian ricefields that Jai has fondly depicted before, but is in fact an image from a Chinese halal* restaurant then artist visited in Beijing. The Chinese characters read "Front Portion" and "Back Portion". So the narrative is intriguing - there are references to the "Malay" artist in the Chinese capital city, finding a halal restaurant to eat in. In Malaysia, these concepts of Malay-ness, Chinese-ness and the "Halal" are heavily loaded.
As always in Jai's work, however, the narrative is open-ended. "Characters" and motifs are really only visual triggers and never attempt to convey anything finite. Jai is first and foremost a process-based artist, less interested in his subject and conveying a message than in the possibilities of the materials he uses, and in the 'story' of how a painting is built. This dedication to process and to pushing the boundaries of drawing and painting has led Jai to forays into different media, approaches and subjects, from local form, personal memory, and more conceptual process-based work to Malay mysticism and heroic portraiture. It has long kept him a leading contemporary painter in Malaysia today.
Here, the composition is surprisingly spare and the treatment of the painting quite straightforward. We can read something of the romance of travel and solitude, under the night sky in a strange country. The artist performs just one sleight of hand - he draws the outline of a saddle and other trappings on the bull/cow, and over the "bomoh" figure. It is the most subtle play, but enough to catch us off guard, to mount a challenge to easy readings. So what seems at first to be a simple structure is sabotaged by an equally simple device, just as what may first come across as a statement on cultural differences, and the strangeness of the foreign, may be undermined by quite different concepts that are also triggered in the image, such as welcome, and reconciliation
*Halal refers to food prepared in a manner acceptable to Muslims for consumption.