10 May 2024

Omar Musa – author, poet and rapper now turns to printmaking

| Sasha Grishin
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woodcut art

Subway River, woodcut on paper. Photo: Supplied.

We tend to think of Omar Musa as a local – in as far as Queanbeyan is part of our backyard – even if he now spends a lot of his time divided between Malaysian Borneo and the borough of Brooklyn in New York City.

I also associate him more with the word than the image, sometimes hard-hitting expletive-laden words, rather than carefully carved, handprinted lyrical woodblock prints.

As Musa observes, “My ancestors sailed in wood. I carve my stories in wood. They will carry me out in wood.”

Musa turned to image making about seven years ago when he was facing a severe case of writer’s block. The blockage passed, but he continued making images. This is his second exhibition in Canberra. The first was held in the same venue several years ago and consists
of over 30 works, mainly relief prints (woodcuts and linocuts), cyanotypes, and cast glass sculptures.

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The show’s strength and backbone are the woodcuts. His cyanotypes (a primitive photographic technique that does not require a camera and produces Prussian blue-and-white images) are charming but don’t really bring much to the party while the cast glasswork is still under development.

woodcut on cloth

Bubu, woodcut on blackout cloth. Photo: Supplied.

Although the cutting of the relief prints bears evidence of a young cutter (Musa has recently turned 40) with a strongly expressed horror vacui (emerging printmakers frequently fear to leave an empty space); conceptually, these are sophisticated prints that stop you in your tracks.

Subway River is one of the highlights of the show. It is quite a large woodcut, approximately 1 x 1.5 metres, where ghosts from Malaysian Borneo invade a Brooklyn subway to create a strange hybrid world, accompanied by a rap-like inscription: “Subway River, Fentanyl silt/The hide of the city/Is a friendship quilt/Dirty dollars stitched with survivor’s guilt/Holy Book/Origami roses wilt.”

The river is a keris, woodcut on blackout cloth. Photo: Supplied.

There is a pulsating energy in the print where realities are allowed to collide. Although Musa’s imagery is quite literal, it is not prescriptive, and many of us will find in the work our own realities. The river of skulls, flames, and floral ornament invites us to contemplate the world that we inhabit and peep into an apocalyptic future.

The other standout piece is a huge woodcut, The river is a keris, that is footprinted on a blackout cloth, measuring about 1.5 x 4 metres. The print is so large that Musa lacked a press large enough to print it, so the inked-up woodblock was placed on the floor and covered by the cloth, and the artist danced all over it until the printing process was complete.

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I suppose this is a variant of the story that Paul Gauguin would tell that the lack of a press would force him and his girlfriend to make love on the print to get a good impression.

linocut art

Agave dreams, linocut on cotton paper. Photo: Supplied.

The full title of Musa’s print is The river is a keris / a sacred dagger / cast from meteoric iron & scrapyard bike frame nickel / patterned skin a trillion times folded with rain & song / whetted on white hot sun.

The artist’s inscription on the print reads: “Battle cry or requiem? We buried our eyes in a storm.” It is a moving piece that assembles a crowd of metaphors – something like an image of a sinking Noah’s Ark.

Many of Musa’s smaller relief prints, including the linocuts Kerbau and Agave Dreams and the woodcut Bubu, continue with this combination of image and text and this splicing of worlds to create a hybrid world that exists neither entirely in the filth of Brooklyn nor the paradise of Borneo. However, there is an interconnectedness between these worlds, and what happens in one invariably impacts the other.

linocut art

Kerbau, linocut on rice paper. Photo: Supplied.

This is a strong and vibrant exhibition by an emerging visual artist. Musa comments about the present exhibition: “A boat, a symbol of my ancestral Suluk seafaring, sinks in an ocean of plastic trash. Fearful of fetishising ruin or trash, I wanted instead to portray sites of
rubbish dumping or decay as theatres of power struggle between forces of consumption, capital and culture.”

Omar Musa, ‘All my memories are mistranslations’, is now at Humble House Gallery, 93 Wollongong St, Fyshwick, until 2 June, Wednesday to Sunday from 10 am to 4 pm.

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Capital Retro4:26 pm 10 May 24

I think Omar may have failed scribbling in kindergarten.

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