Noor Mahnun conveys notions of domesticity, femininity and social causes through her intricate paintings
Noor Mahnun Mohamed, widely known as Anum on the Malaysian art scene, may be petite but she ably juggles the roles of painter, curator, writer and educationist.

Born in 1964 in Kelantan, she graduated with a master’s degree in fine art from Hochschule für Bildende Künste, Braunschweig, Germany, in 1996.

After returning to Malaysia at the end of 1997, Noor Mahnun kicked off her versatile career in the arts with a job as a graphic designer. In 1998, she staged her first solo exhibition in Malaysia and participated in group shows. In the following year, she took up a teaching post in several local institutions and continues to lecture on art theory until today.

From 2000 to 2001, Noor Mahnun was an artist-in-residence at Rimbun Dahan in Kuang, Selangor. She concluded the programme with an exhibition of paintings inspired by the location and produced on site. From 2006 to 2012, she worked as an arts manager at Rimbun Dahan.

The Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs offered Noor Mahnun a government scholarship to take up a printmaking course at Il Bisonte, Florence, from 2002 to 2003. Upon completing the course, she returned to Kuala Lumpur and ventured into curatorial work at the Valentine Willie Fine Art gallery from 2003 to 2005. During her stint there, she organised 10 exhibitions by Malaysian and Southeast Asian contemporary artists and wrote for the shows.

The artist’s latest solo exhibition at The Edge Galerie in Kuala Lumpur is entitled Disco Lombok Still Life by Noor Mahnun. Over 50 artworks comprising oil paintings and drawings will be on view from Nov 23 to Dec 10. The show’s intriguing title hints at Noor Mahnun’s unique approach to staging an art exhibition.

Self-expression appears to the central idea of Noor Mahnun’s work. It is an archive of memories, an attempt to eternalise certain episodes of her life. Her choice of subjects in Disco Lombok Still Life include the ordinary coffee moka pot; butter and steak knives; dustpan and brush; scissors; white gloves; and sunglasses. Yet, the narratives of these objects are deeply personal.

Noor Mahnun’s depiction of domesticity is presented in a small, rectangular format — dainty and ordered. One example is Fish Head, in which the head of a sea bass is placed on a white plate beneath which is a chequered cloth. The realistically illustrated work emphasises her brushstroke technique.

Evident in her work is her obsessive fascination with geometric patterns. “When I first arrived in Berlin in the early Eighties and visited the Neue Nationalgalerie, I was in awe of the architecture of Mies van der Rohe: the iron pillars, beams, columns. The building is much better seen and experienced in real life. My interest in patterns and tiles started then,” she explains.

“I chose basic homeware as subject matter because I enjoy domesticity and doing chores such as cleaning, sewing and ironing. I like being at home; perhaps that is why my work studio is located above my apartment, which is convenient,” says Noor Mahnun.

“My master’s degree paper was on Leon Battista Alberti and his idea of ‘Disegno’, written under the subject of aesthetic philosophy. He is definitely a typical Renaissance man... a humanist, author, artist, architect, linguist, mathematician, poet, priest, philosopher and cryptographer,” adds Noor Mahnun.

Disco and Lombok
“All of my past solo exhibitions have been associated with a musical performance. I like singing and dancing. Music plays an important part in my life,” says Noor Mahnun. “The mid-Eighties through the early Nineties were spent in Germany at the height of the rave culture there,” says the artist, who witnessed the fall of the Berlin Wall as a student in 1989. In the spirit of egalitarianism, techno music unified people from East and West Berlin.

Flouting the conventions of a gallery exhibition, Noor Mahnun has personally selected a playlist of disco remixes to incorporate a musical element into her show. The significance of Lombok in the exhibition relates to the collaborative effort between Noor Mahnun and Dina Zaman, the writer of the book I Am Muslim. The Very Clever King of Lombok is a short story derived from a folk tale about a king on the Indonesian island of Lombok. A number of drawings displayed in this exhibition are part of the complete compilation, a work in progress, as Noor Mahnun is still documenting visual research/ images to correspond with the text.

“I am hoping to use the sales proceeds of the Lombok series to visit the island as I continue to research illustrations for the short story. The Very Clever King of Lombok got me in deeper, into wanting to know more about the Wallace Line between the islands of Lombok and Bali. I have always been a fan of Alfred Russel Wallace, so it was a good and happy coincidence when Dina approached me with the project. In Volume One of Wallace’s The Malay Archipelago: The Land of the Orang-utan and the Bird of Paradise, Chapter XII was solely about ‘Lombock: How the Rajah Took the Census’. The book itself was dedicated to Charles Darwin,” says Noor Mahnun.

Postcard, blooms and squids
Postcard from Delhi is a graphite drawing with a watercolour wash on paper. Noor Mahnun had received a postcard from her friend Lim Oon Soon, a graphic designer.

This work demonstrates her impeccable skills and eye for detail. The front of the postcard — “a reproduction of an old miniature painting” — is depicted on the left side of the paper, which has a laborious grid pattern in graphite as background. On the right side, the artist illustrates immaculately the reverse side of the postcard, which features a handwritten message — complete with stamp and the sender’s drawing.

Also featured in this show are six watercolour paintings of females adorned with flowers, such as lady’s slipper orchids, tiger lily, frangipani and camellia. Noor Mahnun portrays herself in six personas with various blooms and hairstyles. She jokes that being a model for her own work is easy because “my model is always punctual”.

Another quintessential theme in Noor Mahnun’s creative oeuvre is the depiction of squids and insects such as beetles, wasps and moths. Insects have been a favourite subject alongside geometric patterns since her days in Berlin.

In Disco Lombok Still Life, Noor Mahnun showcases eight drawings of squids on paper. “The squid, against a repetitive pattern rendered in pencil, works on paper. My obsession started when I took part in My Story, My Strength: Doodle for Change, an exhibition in aid of the WCC [Women’s Centre for Change] in George Town, Penang, in 2015. At first, I wanted to convey the perseverance and patience of those women whose lives are affected by abuse,” says Noor Mahnun.

“But in the process, the rendering became an obsession, and I got addicted to drawing not only cuttlefish but also the patience-testing, long attention span this series demanded. I have always done patterns but not in minute detail. What was supposed to be an arduous and challenging task became a delightful occupation. I could go on rendering for hours.”

Besides making art, Noor Mahnun has curated several fundraising exhibitions, such as Art AID 16: Love for Sale in 2016 and Art AID 17: Bebas (Freedom) in 2017 in support of the Malaysian AIDS Council.

This month, Noor Mahnun will curate and participate in a group exhibition of 21 artists titled Hell, Heaven at Cult Gallery in Kuala Lumpur in collaboration with Sisters in Islam, an organisation that promotes women’s rights “within the frameworks of Islam and universal human rights”. Sarah Abu

Supported by Matrix Concepts,
Disco Lombok Still Life by Noor Mahnun runs from Nov 23 to Dec 10
at The Edge Galerie in Mont’Kiara, Kuala Lumpur.
For details, visit

Bakar is assistant manager of the Arts + Culture unit of The Edge Communications.

This article appeared in Issue 806 (Nov 20) of The Edge Singapore.

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