Time stretches for an eternity in Khatijah Rahmat’s canvas, writes Julia Mayer
“TIME spent with cats is never wasted.”
So said Freud or perhaps it was the great literary felinophile Collette? No one is really quite sure but what is for certain is that for Kuala Lumpur-based visual artist Khatijah “Kat” Rahmat, a considerable amount of time is spent pondering upon the meaning of life while creating endearing illustrations of adventurous cats and kittens. Given their depth and cheerful impact, time has certainly not gone to waste.
BEING IS REMEMBERING
Inspired by her feline muse Daisy, Kat’s debut collection All Things Malaysiana focuses on those instantly recognisable aspects of Malaysian life which have all but disappeared from the cultural landscape under the dubious guise of “progress”.
“My work responds to a variety of understandings of what it is to be Malaysian”, she begins, adding: “I extract the more innocent bits in order to frame an alternate world, without the political baggage.”
When casting our gaze upon these images, it isn’t this niggling loss of innocence we feel initially. That comes later. At first, we’re undeniably charmed. As with the iconic illustrations of Lat’s Kampung Boy series, which Kat also cites as a source of inspiration mostly for its impact. Kat’s meowing back to simpler times immediately draws smiles, if not a warm spread of laughter, for their witty, whimsical nature.
But then nostalgia sets in, that wistful yearning for the simple pleasures many have heard about, though increasingly few have genuinely experienced, especially if they had an exclusively urban upbringing or are currently leading hermetically-sealed lives in one of the many condominiums which now dot the skyline.
One Afternoon featuring two batik-sarong clad kittens playing congkak, a Malay marble mental calculation game said to have been brought to the peninsular by Arab traders in the 15th century, ignites a sense of longing for the simplicity associated with kampung life. A longing for that time long before the Bejeweled Blitz craze saw marbles swapped for CGI gemstones and had us all staring at our phones in digital solitary confinement.
Meanwhile, At The River also evokes a similar sentiment, with the cool waters reflecting a way of life, when not so long ago the local river was the hub of activity, be that a place for relaxing, bathing or attending to the laundry.
Then there’s The Hostess, depicting a kebaya-clad cigarette-smoking feline that appears to be gathering its thoughts over a spread of nonya delicacies, which also hints at having time to spare before its guests arrive.
It’s not so much that the congkak board has since become a quaint, strategically-placed objet d’art of yesteryear in designer homes or that the batik sarong or shirt, or the kebaya is now merely hinted at in fine-print on invitations that read “traditional attire accepted” almost as an afterthought, or that an afternoon spent by the river is now considered a stingy form of entertainment because it’s largely free, which has us wanting to rescue them from their present fates.
Rather, what we miss most is not the objects or the scenery so much themselves but more “the way we were”, as Barbra Streisand once sang, even if perhaps rather bizarrely, we have never played a game of congkak in our lives nor have ever dwindled hours away half-submerged in a local muddy river.
The real beauty of these three pieces from the Malaysiana collection and the very reason why they do incite slight pangs of nostalgia for a past seemingly less likely lived, is that time stretches for an eternity; a sharp contrast to the present when we tend to worry incessantly about the future.
In bringing these ideas to the foreground, Kat makes excellent use of anthropomorphism by giving her feline creatures traits and characteristics that are usually only seen in human beings to reiterate the point of just how far we have moved away from essentially being people. Our relentless pursuit of security so often mistaken for happiness means we tend to live out our days and ways without taking the time to contemplate about what truly matters.
Human being or human doing, that is the question seemingly raised by her feline characters in their relaxed repose. And it’s as if they have very much the answer.
MAKING IS THINKING
That we are increasingly building our identities through pop culture and political choices is also something Kat is acutely aware of, having obtained her MA in Philosophy and Politics from Edinburgh University, and more recently, a Postbaccalaureate from the Tufts School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
Working as a brand consultant and with a background in advertising, “… two fields where colours and shapes guide us intuitively,” she notes, further reinforces how we interpret the world largely through imagery, a familiar language that cuts through all barriers.
She adds: “The visual is more immediate and more intuitive than words — after all, we learn to see before we learn to speak. It’s a powerful way of evoking emotions because of its closeness to our instincts.”
Kat firmly believes that we’re all creative because creativity, as she defines it, is an essential human instinct which has always guided our ability to survive and thrive in the world. Talent is honed by practising and eventually, experimenting with new techniques, as way of seeking new possibilities in established patterns of communication. Though Kat did paint and draw as a child as do most children, it was a form of communicating she had largely forgotten until one day, she took notice of her writing pad used in a meeting.
“Up until then, I really hadn’t thought much about drawing,” she recalls, adding: “Something triggered. I became aware of how those doodles not only have the power to entertain but also can hold personal meaning.”
With the encouragement of her boss who found them hilarious, including the office staff who started requesting caricatures, Kat moved from the drawing pad to settle down with her canvas of choice — the tablet.
Using Paper by Fiftythree, an app designed to simulate the experience of drawing on real paper, she became a pioneer user following its launched in 2012 and began producing a portfolio to submit with her art school application.
Fast forward to January this year, after several months of researching and finally sourcing a printer, Kat opened her online shop Kat Draws Cats, which offers these images including others as posters in a range of sizes. Partnering with the Californian-based fulfilment centre, Printful, Kat’s illustrations are printed on durable acid free matte paper and are “designed to grow old with you”.
“Finding the right paper and printer has been a critical part of the process,” she says. “I wanted the assurance that the paper is of museum archival quality, and that the colours printed remain true to the tablet version as far as possible.”
Though Kat draws mostly cats, they are not strictly about Malaysia, nor have her feline friends always been given distinct human qualities. Some illustrations are keen observations of cats as our beloved-though-sometimes annoying pets. For example, when one’s privacy in the bathroom is being invaded, which instantly draws a smile to any feline owner. Other images are tributes to artists such as Vermeer and the great master of the 20th century modern art, Henri Matisse, with one aptly titled Meowtisse.
A new illustration is added to the online catalogue on a weekly basis, which keeps her fairly busy. But at the heart of emerging Katology, is that while making is thinking, it has to be enjoyable in order to bring about joy. Time spent this way is never wasted.
More info on Kat’s All Things Malaysiana collection and other illustrations can be found at www.katdrawscats.com