The irrepressible Aziza Ali, a Malay woman who succeeded in Singapore. Part III: The spirit of the Malay woman as recorded in Aziza’s art

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'The Coconut Grater' by Aziza Ali (2018) Photo courtesy of Aziza Ali.

IO – Aziza Ali loved painting at school. Already at the age of fourteen she told her father that she wanted to become an artist or architect. His fatherly response was, ‘You want to be an artist? What, you want to die of starvation?”

Needless to say, not a very encouraging response. He himself was a super draughtsman and topographer but like most people in those days he did not even stop to consider his daughter becoming an architect. In fact, Aziza later became the doyenne of Malay cuisine and fine dining in Singapore known for her restaurant, her books, her events and her many media appearances. Nevertheless, after her second restaurant in Albert Court Annex failed in the aftermath of the Asian financial crisis one of the things that she turned to was her art, and it not only comforted and healed her wounds of the soul but proved also to be quite lucrative. It turned out that cooking was not Aziza’s only gift. She is also an accomplished artist.

‘My Baby, My Life’ by Aziza Ali Photo credit: Tamalia Alisjahbana, private collection.

Like many talented women artists, Aziza never received any formal training in painting. At school, art was her best subject and she always received a distinction for her work. The teacher would pin Aziza’s paintings on the wall as an example to the other students of the best work produced by the class. She had a natural talent and ability for art and any creative crafts. In her early teenage years, she began by looking at images of famous men such as Tunku Abdul Rahman, John F. Kennedy, Mahatma Gandhi and Ringo Starr (she says she loved the shape of his nose) and sketching their likenesses with charcoal or pencil. However, she gave up her sketching and drawing at the age of seventeen. “I had no time because I was pouring all my creative energy into Malay cuisine: creating a restaurant and later books and events and media appearances – all centered around Malay food.”

Although Aziza’s father was a draughtsman, she believes her talent and creativity derived more from her mother. “My father was a very meticulous person as a draughtsman whereas my mother was far more creative. Besides creating extraordinary dishes for the family, she used to make artificial flowers out of velvet and silk and designed and tailored all our clothes,” Aziza observed. “However, that is not to say that my father was completely lacking in creativity. He could be quite creative in his own way too. He sewed my mother’s baju Kedah (Indonesians would refer to this as a baju kurung) which is a sort of blousy or A-line top to be worn with a sarong, and he sewed his own safari suits. He also crafted the sort of wooden utensils needed to prepare certain foods in the old days such as for example, a wooden utensil for making laksa noodles which are a thick rice noodle (Laksa is a spicy, soupy noodle dish). My father designed platforms for my mother on which to dry her krupuk (rice or prawn crackers) or herbs for jamu or herbal medicines”.

‘Sleep Baby, Sleep’ (2015) Photo credit: Tamalia Alisjahbana, private collection.

Aziza began painting again eleven years ago.  She had shut her restaurant in Albert Court and returned from travelling to thirteen countries. At the time her niece, Alana who lives in London was in Singapore on a visit. Alana is an accomplished artist who paints as a pastime. They were discussing art when her niece suddenly said, “Aunty Cha, let’s paint together!”

Aziza told her that she had not painted since her school days, but her niece continued to insist and ended up motivating Aziza to begin painting again. She simply refused to accept no as an answer. Alana chose brushes, canvas and colours for Aziza. Meanwhile, Aziza was trying to motivate her niece to continue painting more seriously – which she did by buying 3 of her niece’s paintings for about Singapore $1000. Alana asked her, “Not US dollars?” but Aziza laughed and told her, “No, no not till you are famous. Then you can charge in US dollars.”

Alana gave her a fourth painting as a gift and then returned to London, leaving a very inspired aunt behind in Singapore. While Alana painted abstract, Aziza’s style has been described as naïve or rustic. “If I had received a proper education in art I would do real faces,” says Aziza laughingly. “But this is more fun. All the faces I paint are from my imagination and then brought to life by my hand. It’s a bit like magic because what my hand produces is better than what was in my mind originally. As I bring it to the canvas it improves.”

‘Too Much To Do’ by Aziza Ali (2013) Photo credit: Tamalia Alisjahbana, private collection.

In her book ‘The Obstacle Race’, Germaine Greer says that many talented women artists paint in this style because they never received the training that men did in art. Nevertheless, Aziza has managed to find a very clear style of her own and what is so attractive about it is that she records the world of the Malay woman but in doing so she not only dares to be completely herself but she is clearly also very comfortable in doing so. No svelte and glamourous modal like figures in her art. Aziza’s women have a very different kind of beauty and attractiveness. One can feel that Aziza’s women are genuine and real: they perspire and work – but they are also at ease, and they are confident women.

‘Life’s Lessons’ by Aziza Ali (2015) Photo credit: Tamalia Alisjahbana, private collection.

What draws the viewer to Aziza’s women is the strength, warmth and generosity that emanates from her paintings. No romanticized beauty. Her figure of the Malay woman is fulsome and generous, reflecting the nurturing warmth of motherhood and the comfort of home cooked food from the family kitchen.

In fact, her paintings of women are glorious because like her they totally dare to be themselves. They communicate the Malay woman’s world not only in terms of children and food but also in their role as teachers (see Aziza’s ‘Life Lessons’) and in the courage it often takes for them to move out of that world as seen in her painting entitled ‘Never Look Back’.

‘Never Look Back’ by Aziza Ali (2017) Photo courtesy of Aziza Ali.

Aziza says of the figures in her paintings, “Its women I paint because they play such an important role in the family and the family is everything to me. My women are well-endowed and well-fed. I enjoy painting their curves and shapes. I often paint them from behind to give the viewer a view of their world through their eyes and I enjoy showing their strength – like the painting of the woman with eleven children (see her, ‘Are We Too Crowded?’). Women are more versatile than men in some ways as they can produce children, cook, raise families but also hold down jobs, write books and even run for parliament – and often they do many of these things at the same time.

‘My Kitchen, My World’ by Aziza Ali (2006) Photo credit: Tamalia Alisjahbana, private collection.

Sometimes, there are men in my paintings, but rarely. The men I paint are not as interesting. They are just straight forward figures – too easy.

I do not paint beautiful women. Just ordinary women because the strength lies in them.” She goes on to explain, “My first painting was an abstract swirl of colours like a pool of water moving round and round with fish. A year later, I painted the painting that I love and gave my whole being to in its creation. I called it, ‘My Kitchen, My World’ and it has always been my very favourite. I am so attached to this painting that I have consistently refused to sell it, despite good offers for it. It’s been displayed in solo and group exhibitions and I have been offered up to Sing $6000 for it but I always refuse to let it go, even perhaps when I needed the money – and I keep it in my house.

‘Are We Too Crowded?’ By Aziza Ali (2013) Photo credit: Tamalia Alisjahbana, private collection.

I suppose it reminds me of my life and my restaurant, ‘Aziza’s’ – which all means food and kitchens. It is also somehow very maternal and tranquil. I find looking at it very therapeutic. It’s that kitchen environment. You see, I grew up in a kitchen cooking with my mother who was a great cook for our large extended family and for friends and neighbours. So, for me that is the environment in which I feel tranquil and where I can be creative and can make people happy by giving them food.”

Not all Aziza’s paintings are figurative. Some are a bit more abstract. She has one painting about spoons called ‘Searching’.  I painted it because all of us are in a sense searching. There is always somewhere to go, something to learn, something to do. We are on a journey every day, whether we recognize it or not. My non-figurative paintings each mirror my own philosophy, purpose and meaning of life. In my early painting days such pictures always had chili peppers in them which essentially represent me. I am involved in the food business. They represent my hot and hectic life style in that business and chilies are the main ingredient of all my dishes. I must have made over 30 paintings with chilies on them using different colours and techniques and for these paintings I do a lot of thinking first. Far more than for my figurative paintings which just seem to flow out of me. Chilies are in a sense my trade mark. No one else does them; also, pots and pans.”

‘Searching’ by Aziza Ali (2015). Photo courtesy of Aziza Ali.

There is also something a little whimsical and slightly humorous in Aziza’s paintings. They are the paintings of a very intelligent woman. Aziza herself, has a great sense of humour and her laughter can usually be heard ringing out. Frequently, in her pictures there is a cat in the background doing something funny. Cats which were the beloved animal of the Prophet Mohamad are often a part of the Malay woman’s world. “It’s all very subjective,” Aziza says about people liking her art. “It depends on whether my paintings speak to you or not. If they do, then I notice that cost is not a problem.

‘Feeding Time II’ By Aziza Ali (2016). Photo credit: Tamalia Alisjahbana, private collection.

Once the Dutch mother-in-law of a friend of mine came over for dinner and I showed her my work and explained my paintings to her. She was a psychologist and I had just finished a painting 3 days before with the title, ‘A Sexy Day’. It was basically a painting of 3 women in sarongs and kebayas carrying umbrellas walking in a slight drizzle. There were luscious trees all around them and although the rain had subsided somewhat there was still rain water up to their ankles. The painting had a lot of beige, gold, brown and a little green in it.  From the twenty paintings I showed her she kept looking at that one.

A week later her son-in-law came to see me about buying it. He told me that it was her wedding anniversary and that he and his wife had wanted to gift her with a trip around the world but she told him that what she really wanted was my painting. Normally, after finishing a painting I usually keep it for a while before selling it. Psychologically, I find I need to do that before I can part with it. So, I was very reluctant to sell it. In order to dissuade him I asked what I considered an exorbitant price for it: Sing $ 10,000. My highest paintings went for about Sing $ 6,000 to 7,000 but he did not bat an eyelid. Simply pulled out his cheque book and paid for it. I was flattered and thrilled that someone valued a painting of mine so much.”

‘I Can’t Cook, I’m Calling Take Away’ By Aziza Ali (2015). Photo credit: Tamalia Alisjahbana, private collection.

Aziza has held 7 group and solo exhibitions in Singapore and her art has been bought by buyers in twelve different countries. Former Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has complimented her on her work. What is special about Aziza’s art are the passion and assurance she displays in it all the while recording not only the warm and nurturing world of the Malay Singaporean woman but also the struggle that she is often forced to engage in when facing a modern city world so different to the one she was raised in. Through all of this the figures in Aziza’s paintings, like herself display a calm confidence in being themselves. One senses that the hearts of her well-endowed figures are equally large.

Aziza Ali with former P.M. Lee Hsien Loong of Singapore at her exhibition at the Orchard Hotel during the Radin Mas book launch in 2017. Photo courtesy of Aziza Ali.

For an outsider, in some ways Aziza can be compared to the Malaysian cartoonist Lat who in his cartoons also contrasts the old Malay world with the modern one in a whimsical, humouros fashion. Both are in a sense the voices of that old Malay world confronting and adapting to the modern world. At times they protest – but always in a very courteous and gentle way. Aziza says with a sigh, “I just wish my father could have seen my work. I think he would have been proud of me. You know art is basically about emotions. Sometimes I paint something without any real plan and then it develops into something I did not expect. The hand just flows, driven by a sort of inner energy created by a person’s emotions and experiences. There is at times something almost magical in it. Here in Singapore we have the image of being the best of the best but at times that emotion – the heart – is too often missing.” (Tamalia Alisjahbana)

‘Mother’s Love’ by Aziza Ali (2021). Photo courtesy of Aziza Ali.