Afi Sulaiman is an illustrator and writer that first made a splash in the local creative scene in 2019 through Balai Seni Negara's Young Art Entrepreneur. The 25-year old comes with a sunny infectious disposition which is only reflected in her vibrant paintings that can only be described like a box of jelly beans—you never know what you're going to get. Below, we talk to the artist on finding her quirky creative style, overcoming insecurities and more.
When did you realize you wanted to pursue being an artist? During 2018, when I took a gap year from university. At that time, I just wanted to paint in the hopes of finding my own personal style again after a 2-year hiatus of not creating art. I also wanted to express myself through painting but never fully understood my potential in becoming an artist until I joined YAE! in 2019.
How would you describe your creative and artistic style? Definitely fun and naive; a sense of innocence and nostalgia, especially in such a serious world.
As an artist, do you view and perceive the world differently?
I’ve been told countless of times that I have a weird or different perception. It was hard to grasp at first because I just wanted to fit in but now, I can proudly accept that yes, I do view and perceive the world differently. I might not use the normal way of thinking in life that society expects of me but I’m confident that my route is good enough and works for me because I know myself.
I can’t really explain how I am different in my beliefs because for me, it just is. I guess I often try to question things that should be left unquestioned in order to find a perfect justification. Yet, I also take into consideration of nonsensical or absurd possibilities that defy societal norms. I understand the world through the energy it exudes or my intuition so often times, I would joke that my intuition is defected because it differs from other people’s standard way of thinking [laughs]. In short, I have always perceived the world through my heart instead of letting others dictate how I’m supposed to think or feel.
From Malaysian food, nature to animal caricatures, your artworks are so diverse! Can you share with us your creative process behind them?
I guess it relates to myself and my personality, I’m never just one type and like to jump from one thing to another, including my subjects. I’m restless in a sense I can’t just focus on one kind of subject so my creative process always involves me jotting down any random inspiration or thought that passes through my mind. My mind’s always thinking and sometimes, the ideas and thoughts flow too quickly so I have to write it down before it escapes.
I’m inspired by almost everything that surrounds me. It never stays the same because I like mixing and matching ideas and concepts in a simple and silly manner for the fun of it. For instance, my children’s book O’Nasi O’Lemak is a direct English translation of the word ‘nasi lemak’ but in personification. I started thinking about this and went with the idea until it made sense to me.
Can you share your top 3 tips for people who are looking to improve their own art skills at home? Firstly, research and study artists that inspire you. Secondly, practise imitating their work but get a bit lazy halfway so you end up winging it in your way (this is how I found my personal style!). And lastly, aim for perfection and try your best but be happy with the imperfections because it adds personality.
On your Instagram, you mentioned how you are beginning to accept that not everyone can fully understand the art you create. How did you grapple with this fact and come to embrace the subjectivity of art? I’m constantly worried my art’s not good enough for critics, spectators and the like until one day, a friend told me that I’m missing the main concept of art if I was trying to please others because art is about pleasing yourself first. However, I definitely still take into consideration any kind of constructive criticism and do research to improve my art. At the end of the day, I am a perfectionist but I still celebrate the imperfections because I know I tried my best and I want to see my art progress as I grow.
For me, art is used to convey an idea or concept in a simple but heart-piercing manner. I believe that art is really complex because 2+2=5 can still be correct with good enough justification through research. The subjectivity of art is intimidatingly scary but exciting as it challenges me to think out of the box, which is why I think I often go back to it.
When do you feel that a painting is done? When I feel a sense of self-satisfaction and confidence to display it to the public should it be needed.
What are some things you are always exploring in your works?
Food culture because everyone loves food as it doesn’t discriminate, accepts and respects no matter the gender, race or religion. I try to encourage art appreciation through Malaysians’ love of food. Sometimes I also explore mental health and want to experiment with other vital issues like discrimination, racism and more but I realise I’ll never be able to properly convey the message I want through my art until I understand how to express myself through it.
Who is your favourite painter and why? Haron Mokhtar has always been my favourite painter since I was a child. I fell in love with art through his work at Concorde Hotel Shah Alam when my mum would take my sister and I for high tea on Saturdays during my childhood. His use of colour and detail absolutely awes me and I love that he paints about local culture too.
I might not use the normal way of thinking in life that society expects of me but I’m confident that my route is good enough and works for me because I know myself.
Staring at a blank white canvas can be intimidating! How do you personally make sure you're in a creative headspace? Is your creative studio set up a certain way or you only work in certain times, perhaps?
I always have my small notebook of ideas handy and try to do art depending on which idea matches my mood during that time. I’m always trying to do this thing where I create a specific playlist to the theme I want to explore so I get the vibe. Also, I usually work best at late night when everyone’s sound asleep except me because I overthink and need to materialise those thoughts on canvas to get a peace of mind.
What piece has been your most favourite/significant and why?
My KMS series definitely- they were the first pieces that I expressed my emotions on canvas without any other thoughts except to just let loose. That time, I felt so vulnerable and exposed through those 3 paintings that I was terrified of showing it to the public but that’s when I realised the power of the art you create: you get to control and limit the viewers’ understanding.
We love that your fashion sense is just as creative and expressive as your artworks! How much of your personality is injected in your paintings?
Not to it’s full potential as I hope for but it’s getting there! I’m still experimenting and exploring how I can better express my thoughts in a simpler, unpredictable and in-depth manner. However, my personality is most obvious through the colours, texture and details because I love those!
What kind of artist do you wish to be in the future?
An artist that encourages people of all ages to appreciate art and understand vital social issues in a playful but meaningful manner. I really admire Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree and The Missing Piece on its simplicity and playfulness but deeply touching meaning.
Lastly, who are 3 of your local creative crushes that you would like to shoutout?
1) Kide Baharudin (@kidebaharudin)
3) Carabelle Cheong (@carabelle_cheong)