I caught Donald Abraham at the local mamak before grabbing a coffee at a quieter location. He’d just come from bundle shopping bearing his findings. A down-to-earth, laid back kind of guy, he walked me through some of his latest creative works with humble confidence.
His style, although fluid across mediums, is easily recognisable. This is partially due to his method. Perusing through his oeuvre, our eyes scan across vibrant, bustling paintings that appear as a subconscious flow. Gathering inspiration from life all around us, the universe is spat back out through a Donald-tinted lens.
He emphasises the importance of technique in his work. A trademark of true artists; honing one’s style and craft takes precedence over the finished product itself. Prolific and persistent when working, Donald finds the night provides him with the quiet he needs to paint with very few people around to bother him and break his concentration. Before beginning his work, he ensures he is in a good state of mind and prepared by eating well beforehand. Thus, he can continue with very few breaks. If he cannot attain this level, he concludes it’s not a day for painting.
Recently, his Instagram is dotted with 3D sculptures he’s been making in his home studio. An installation of a lofty toaster monster and the so-called Yak Yak Totem and are currently on display at the House of Vans MY. Incorporating his most significant experiences of life, Donald uses broken skateboards and rehashes them into a pyramidal totem of puppies. The sculpture is structured like the 3D puzzle piece toys his daughter plays with. Here, he demonstrates his acute awareness of the interplay between location and his own vision. He whips out his phone to show me a series of inspirational photos that include spiral staircases, overladen signposts and six-point stars for the Yak Yak Totem.
Thematic concerns of ‘life direction’ seem to bubble to the surface. The spiral is perhaps the most potent symbol of creation, rebirth and becoming there is. Accompanied by the imagery of signposts and alluding to “man’s best friend”, Donald indicates there are many ways in life you can go and no matter which way you choose, there’s always going to be something close to your heart that will guide you. If you’re feeling lost, take a leaf out of a skater’s book – do a 360 flip and look around. By virtue of all dogs coming together, there are many avenues.
As a teenager and young adult, skateboarding was his primary passion. Tell-tale signs of his blossoming talent saw Donald occasionally customising a deck for his friends. Further experimentation with painting on canvas came later, after a skateboarding injury changed his course.
He cites Keith Haring and David Hockney as two of many influences in his work. Considering his aesthetic flexibility, I asked if he painted to music and whether this affected his brushstrokes and the general outcome of a piece. He nodded his head side to side as if to say ‘sometimes’.
He went on to talk about Rage Against the Machine as a standout band. Although Donald’s work is not intentionally or overtly political, through his observation of the world around him, he provides an honest, unique social commentary and the all too familiar disquietude we feel about it.
However, he also listens “to country music, classical, punk rock and metal,” offering additional insight into his wide range of tastes, “and pop.” he adds with a laugh. “Yes, some of the songs…I regret listening.”
As for his larger, commissioned works, I enquired into the murals. Three murals that feature heavily in the public eye are those painted at Publika, the National Art Gallery and most recently at Medini Mall in Iskandar Puteri. Overall, it’s evident to see the stylistic development of his mural work emerging. Like in some of his earlier canvas paintings, cartoonish characters cluster together in an expansive family portrait of Malaysia’s essence. All seems light-hearted and well at first glance but upon closer inspection, the empty-eyed creepiness of some of the faces sets in. We react to the mystery of passers-by in his mural in a way that is familiar and uncanny.
Donald states working on the murals with “different tension” affects his flow and thus, the stream of characters we see in the final image. At Publika, his working conditions were “very chill, nobody comes, I can just draw for a few hours and nobody comes to talk to me.” Whereas at the National Art Gallery, the atmosphere was more disruptive with people taking pictures and asking questions. His patrons also had a somewhat Nationalistic agenda of their own and attempted to direct his artistic vision. They asked him to include Malaysian imagery with hopes of promoting the national identity; “they had lots of things they wanted actually – that I couldn’t give to them.”
The Mall of Medini proved an interesting work environment for him. Other than being a productive site for his creations due to it being “very new and quiet, very chill lah”, he had a peculiar run in with the local Medini ghost. He lights another cigarette and begins to describe the story of the four murals he completed there.
Located at Medini Mall, MapIP’s Blackbox initially saw Donald paint a subtle black on black matte piece. However, due to it’s curved wall, the lighting was uneven and half the mural faded away and was eventually painted over in white. The compositions started from sketches, which were then approved and spontaneously developed on site.
Depicted like a flower in bloom, Donald’s last mural at Medini Mall is more spacious and takes on a somewhat different tone. Found near the Thai café, the shop owner requested it to be minimal. The overhanging awnings, about 5 feet from the wall, also became part of the creative challenge and forced him to rethink his approach. Using a scissor lift, he had to be resourceful and manufacture an extended paintbrush out of extra pieces of wood to reach the wall. Understandably, this took him a long time to complete up to the standard he set himself.
On the last night of its completion, he caught a glimpse of something in the shop mirror. He described it as the reflection of very long hair. Looking around, he saw nobody. Working late, at 3 o’ clock in the morning, Donald descended the scissor lift and proceeded to run up and down Medini Mall in search of what he saw. He asked a cleaner working at that hour if he noticed anybody, who then confirmed his Medini ghost sighting. “I haven’t eaten, I’ve had no sleep, I’m so tired and I see a ghost,” he laughs, reminiscing.
Perhaps a sign he has been working too hard. Curious, I queried what the ultimate goal of his career would be. To which he simply replied, “I wanna be Picasso.” Big shoes to fill yet he seems aware of this as he continued that it was “hard living with a dream, you know? Right now what I’m doing is…I do what I do best lah. So I don’t stop. I’m just consistent. Just do work.”