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A Singaporean Artist Reimagines Daily Objects as Treasures of Art

By Lynette Kee

An altar series titled “Gathering of Flocks”, Khairullah Rahim’s recent solo exhibition held at Yavuz Gallery.
Khairullah Rahim
An altar series titled “Gathering of Flocks”, Khairullah Rahim’s recent solo exhibition held at Yavuz Gallery.

To one degree or another, almost everything in life touches on the art of assemblage — the sprawling landscape of a country, the interior of a home or the pairing of a dish. Therein lies the art of bringing together diverse elements and making them co-exist harmoniously. “It’s basically putting things together,” says Khairullah Rahim (@khairullahrahim). “When I was younger, my family wasn’t well-to-do, and we couldn’t afford toys,” he says. Yet through this “deprivation,” Khairullah found creativity in play. “And so, I used to collect plastic bags and I would make my own figurines with them.”

Khairullah believes that the contemporary world of art can sometimes resemble a hall of mirrors, where the volley of images leads back to a reflection of oneself. “Art practice can be a narcissistic career,” he says. In that respect, however, Khairullah differentiates himself by confronting the larger issues at hand. Most of his works are a discourse on themes of identity, microaggression, and the intricacies of sexuality — a documentation of his subtle resistance as part of a marginalised community. While diving into these controversial yet intimate subjects, Khairullah seeks to bring attention through the persuasion of beautiful things — easily digestible artworks that bring people on a journey of understanding. “I’m not an activist; there are already people doing that, and doing it well,” he says. Instead, he is an artist who strives to communicate through the language of touch.

COS top, price on request and trousers, $175 Hay Soft Edge P10 chair, $360, available at Grafunkt.The artist Khairullah Rahim.
The artist Khairullah Rahim.

The 33-year-old multimedia artist had his first encounter with art just like any other school-going child undergoing Singapore’s formal education. He was introduced to mainstream art forms like sketching and painting, but they didn’t resonate with him. “It’s a very laborious process to me; the rendering and the perfecting of form,” he says. “A lot of time is spent on the technicality rather than the intent.” It was only when Khairullah was pursuing his bachelor’s studies that he started to explore the idea of mixed media and materiality.

“The element of touch is something very intriguing to me,” says Khairullah, of his attraction to the assemblage art form. He works with everyday objects and cast-off materials charged with symbolic meanings. The raw material of his works is handled with an eye for scale, colour and pattern. Represented by Yavuz Gallery, Khairullah’s works have been showcased both locally and abroad. He presented “Gathering of Flocks,” his second solo exhibition with the gallery, and “Intimate Apparitions” which was showcased at the 2019 Singapore Biennale. The visual space depicted the hostility of life, navigating the prejudiced gaze of the masses, but was presented in a beautiful, blossoming landscape.

Khairullah Rahim“Intimate Apparitions,” showcased in Singapore Biennale 2019: Every Step in the Right Direction, curated by Patrick Flores.
“Intimate Apparitions,” showcased in Singapore Biennale 2019: Every Step in the Right Direction, curated by Patrick Flores.

At every turn, Khairullah observes the contrasting elements of life, which has become central to his artistic direction. Like the piercing red balloon and yellow raincoat in the horror film “It” (2017), the extravagance and embellishments of Chinese funeral processions and blindingly shiny rhinestones. People tend to give objects symbolic meanings. “Those things act as [a skeleton] to navigate life, but when we see a car coming towards us, we need to jump; we need to react,” he says.

In a society addicted to a quick pace, not many have fully grasped the concept of observation like Khairullah has. He cited the various artist residency programmes that he has taken part in to be instrumental in his conditioned thinking. In these experiences, Khairullah was given very flexible time parameters to work on his art. “When I’m back in Singapore, I don’t have the same luxury of time to sit and observe,” he says. At the same time, Khairullah contemplates the local art scene, saying that “there has been [more investment] in art initiatives, but they are too short term [to have any lasting impact].”

Now a part-time lecturer at Lasalle College of the Arts, Khairullah engages in a sort of learning tango with his students, invigorating his creative sensibilities while he imparts his knowledge. “I wouldn’t call this a mentorship but a community. I think that communication between artists of different generations and diverse backgrounds is very crucial,” he says. “I think it’s important to have all these inter-disciplinary conversations across all fields.”

As an artist of the 21st century, Khairullah has experienced multiple setbacks driven by lingering right-wing ideologies. “People also make you feel like you should be expecting these setbacks because you chose this career.” But from teaching, he sees a new generation of creatives who are better equipped today — with technology and social media — to be in touch with themselves and to withstand possible future challenges. In Singapore, the general education provides creative students with the fundamental tools, and leaves students with an open-ended question of what it means to be an artist. For Khairullah, at least, artists are people who materialise thoughts and ideas simply because it is in their nature to do so. “I think an artist will know, in their bones, if they are an artist.”

Photograph by Gregory Woo
Styling by Michelle Kok
Hair by Christvian Goh (ARX Salon)
Makeup by Wee Ming using Shu Uemura
Clothing: COS top, price on request, and trousers, S$175.
Props: Hay Soft Edge P10 chair, S$360, available at Grafunkt.