The paintings of Ahmad Zakii Anwar are best viewed from the vantage of the tropical street where the artist was born in 1955 and still lives. It is lined with rust-mottled Proton sedans and boxy concrete houses, and wedged into the forested hills above the Malaysian port city of Johor Bahru, where the Anwar family has been prominent in politics since Malaysia's independence 50 years ago. Shaded by droopy banana trees, and crisscrossed by stray cats creeping through chain-link fences, the landscape lies somewhere between a sleepy kampong, or Malay village, and a soulless American suburb. "There is no culture around," Zakii says.
Out of these prosaic surroundings Zakii has fashioned his vaporously romantic style. His canvases are populated by huge male torsos floating in the night sky, wispy clouds of cigarette smoke and riderless horses. "My art is not rooted in things Malaysian," says Zakii, who cites the alienated urban aesthetic of David Hockney and Edward Hopper as formative influences. "I believe in something more universal."
It is this universality that is drawing global buyers and pushing up Zakii's value in the art market. At a Sotheby's auction in April, a lavender-colored painting of a flying male nude fetched $48,000, or triple its estimated price. Part of the reason Zakii's paintings are soaring in worth is because of their relative scarcity, which ironically also accounts for his modest profile among Southeast Asian artists. Sotheby's and Christie's have sold around half a dozen Zakii works each over the past several years. It's a trickle compared to the flood of paintings by his peers the Indonesians Yunizar, Nyoman Masriadi or Putu Sutawijaya, for instance, all of whom have received lots of attention in Asian art circles. "A big body of his work is in the hands of a few collectors," explains Richard Koh, the artist's Kuala Lumpurbased dealer. "They just don't want to sell."
One such impassioned collector is Steve Wong, a plastic surgeon based in the capital. Over the past decade he has acquired around 80 works by Zakii and proudly claims he is a "zero seller." "It's very powerful," he says of the response Zakii's images, particularly his male nudes, can evoke. These nudes, though rarely explicit, are a bold statement in a conservative society like Malaysia but for his part, Zakii claims they are not about sex. "I've had very little trouble with them," he says. The only incident he can think of involved a Malaysian-Chinese collector who converted to Christianity and then destroyed several canvases in a paroxysm of piety.
Indeed, the artist wouldn't be ordinarily mistaken for a sexual-rights advocate. A tall man with John Lennonstyle glasses, he looks more like a rumpled art lecturer than a rebel, and he cheerfully avoids the active political life of his late father, Haji Anwar, who was involved in the founding of the United Malays National Organization, Malaysia's ruling party since 1957. Even so, it is possible to imagine the directness of Zakii's compositions and calm, soothing brushstrokes as echoing his upbringing in a family of firm convictions. "I believe in certainty," he says. "Uncertainty is a process but it must end in certainty. You must come to a conclusion."
The certainty embedded in Zakii's paintings comes largely from his drawing, mastered during an advertising career in Kuala Lumpur and Singapore, where he worked at various ad agencies as an illustrator until he was 36. "If you're trained in advertising you can't have a blurry composition because you have to get the message across with a minimum of effort," says Hamdan Omar, an art-school chum of Zakii's who worked alongside him in the Kuala Lumpur ad world. As a consequence, Zakii's polished paintings sometimes appear unattractive to collectors looking for more frisson a characteristic of the Indonesian Masriadi's work, for instance. "Zakii's very good at composition," says Kuala Lumpur art-gallery owner Valentine Willie. "But that's perhaps his weakness because his paintings are sometimes too beautifully composed. They sometimes don't have an edge."
Zakii, however, appears aware of the opposite risk that of loading his paintings with too much profundity. Across one wall of his rooftop studio is a floor-to-ceiling bookcase stacked with DVDs, many of them the spaghetti westerns that he grew up on as a teenager in the cinema halls of 1970s Johor Bahru. The stark, lonely landscapes of these films have frequently resurfaced on Zakii's canvases. "Art works best when it satisfies the senses," he says, gesturing at the DVDs. "Not the intellect."