Message Behind Mural of Dewan Bahasa Pustaka

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

THE mural above the Language and Literature Bureau (DBP) building set in the heart of Bandar Seri Begawan stands majestically as the sunrays slowly illuminate the drawings that depict the country’s life and culture.

The 20-by-100-foot landmark mosaic which was commissioned by Almarhum Sultan Haji Omar ‘Ali Saifuddien Sa’adul Khairi Waddien features more than 100 figures going through social, cultural and economic activities which include songket weaving, fishing, rubber tapping, rice planting and bamboo production.

“The slogan ‘Berbahasa Satu, Berbangsa Satu and Bernegara Satu’ (‘One Language, One Nationality, One Nation’) is the core of the whole portrayal and interpretation of what nationalism and patriotism means. This is a natural born concept in any developing country from all corners of the earth,” said Pg Dato Paduka Hj Asmalee Pg Ahmad during an exclusive interview with The Brunei Times.

The former director of Radio Televisyen Brunei (RTB) and brains behind the mural said that that it was originally designed in 1963 and the idea of Malay Muslim Monarchy (MIB) was unconsciously incorporated into the design.

The main theme of the mural is depicted at the centre where a huge book can be seen supported by two concrete hands at the end of a protruding bridge. Above the book is a torch radiating light and an image of a cogwheel.

“The book itself symbolises education and knowledge while the cogwheel represents science and technology,” added Pg Dato Paduka Hj Asmalee who has been spending his time creating works of art in his studio.

Five decades have since passed and there have been many historical changes in the Sultanate, from the painful memories of the Second World War to the declaration of Brunei’s Independence as a sovereign country and to becoming a key player on the global and economic front.

However, the memory of how the mural came about still remains fresh in Pg Dato Paduka Hj Asmalee’s mind.

It all started in 1962, where he was officially transferred to the Education department after serving as a teacher at Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddien (SOAS) College for almost two years.

At just 21 years old, Pg Dato Paduka Hj Asmalee was tasked to establish an Art section at the Language and Literature Bureau which was under the Education Department at that time.

In addition to that, he was also appointed as an Adult Education teacher where he gave classes to other educators.

Pg Dato Paduka Hj Asmalee was then sent to attend vocational training at Saint Martin’s School of Art in London which is now known as Central Saint Martins College of Arts and Design to study printing for two years.

Upon completion of the course, he took up Graphic Art and that was when he received a letter from the Director of the Language and Literature Bureau requesting that he undertake the project of drawing a mural for the building which now stands at Jalan Elizabeth Dua.

“It was such a huge project to handle at that time and I faced challenges due to time constraints, limited facilities and research materials as reference as well as being a full time student,” said Pg Dato Paduka Hj Asmalee while shaking his head in disbelief.

Staying with a family at Surrey and being only able to work on his sketch at night added more strain.

“I remember being cooped up in a tiny bedroom and hunched over a small table while my landlord would occasionally knock on my door asking me to switch off the lights - I got the message,” he added.

Unable to find reference materials to base his drawings on, he had to look to his childhood and experiences about Brunei, her people and their life in general to produce a work of art.

“I remember a lot of cultural activities and performances during Almarhum Sultan Haji Omar ‘Ali Saifuddien’s birthday celebrations and these were then inserted into my drawing,” he said.

Pg Dato Paduka Hj Asmalee also tried to incorporate a vision of how the country would advance politically, socially, economically and spiritually in the future while using Brunei’s history and its present in the drawing.

The technique or style of approach in formulating the mural was “Making a picture instead of painting a picture and there are distinctions between the two”.

“Painting a picture is copying what is seen and observed while making a picture is inspired by producing a painting by the use of creative ideas and focusing on the forms, shapes, textures and lines as well as values of colour,” explained Pg Dato Paduka Hj Asmalee.

Though he is personally not an abstract painter, his love for semi-abstract through the design of shapes, geometrical and organic shapes coupled along with positive and negative spaces as well as bright illuminating tonal colours brought the painting to life.

The finished painting was then sent to Europe to be made into mosaic tiles by Tom Butcher, one of the founders of the now defunct architectural firm - Arkitek Bersatu where the image of each square inch of the drawing was blown up to one square feet and amounted to 596,000 mosaic tiles.

“I did not have any formal training in Fine Arts and completing this mural has been from the grace of Allah SWT, the sole creator and sustainer of the universe, who has bestowed me with the gift and guidance,” he added.

Pg Dato Paduka Hj Asmalee has also designed six mural panels which were placed in front of the old Persatuan Guru Guru Melayu Brunei’s (PGGMB) building and several other murals for the new SOAS College but they no longer exist.

Looking at the mosaic tiles that adorned the Language and Literature building which are slowly peeling off and unattended, one wonders when this piece of history will disappear.

However, Pg Dato Paduka Hj Asmalee believes that life is just a perception or shadow, once the body ceases so will the shadow.

“The mural is no different, once the building ceases to exist, the shadow and everything else that came with it will too disappear but the recorded images will be forever imprinted in my soul - a testament to the challenges of life on this earth with my paintings as the only thing I can leave behind,” he said with a smile.

Courtesy of The Brunei Times.


Ai Lee Tan said…
Would the authority let such a fine piece of art disappeared unnoticed?

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