SUMMARY: How does pop culture influence art? This essay by G13 Gallery explores how Malaysian artists Shafiq Nordin and Nik M Shazmie reinterpret iconic pop culture characters to reflect personal experiences. If you’ve been thinking about how impactful pop culture is in influencing artists’ creativity, this essay also delves into the two artists’ artistic journeys, childhood influences, and the transformative power of nostalgia in their works.
It was a rainy Monday, and Dad was on a mission to send his 7-year-old son (me) to school. In the car, I sat impatiently, waiting to get to school and show everyone what I had in my hand. I clutched a see-through plastic or polybag that is usually used for food or, locally, best known to contain syrup drinks. Except, there was no syrup drink inside. It was something else.
Dad noticed what I had in my hand and grabbed the plastic bag to inspect it. What was inside had made his blood boil to the max, and he rolled up the car window and tossed the bag into the middle of the busy road. A bunch of Dragonball and Power Rangers burst forth from the plastic and scattered on the road. Heaven knows how I cried watching those figurines on the road while the car slowly moved in the traffic jam. Even Goku, in all his Super Saiyan swagger and screaming theatrics, found himself as useful as a soggy noodle in the rain. Dad: 1, Goku: 0.
The point is, as a child, we are all attached to these characters, aspiring to be like one of them, even though most of the time, it seems impossible. While these characters remain fictional, we somehow look up to them and try to relate their journeys to our own lives. The cartoons we watched as children evoke feelings we long for and cherish. As we grow older, this dynamic flips inside out. Now, it’s art imitating life – we create art to express our own stories. We yearn for a sense of control over these characters, wanting them to reflect our realities.
This kind of sense of control is what is apparent in this exhibition the most. Even though they’re telling different stories with their art, they share a common goal: giving iconic characters, heroes, and villains a fresh twist that reflects their personal experiences. It’s like they’re injecting a bit of randomness, mischief, and even sarcasm into these characters.
Entitled “BETWEEN WORLDS,” this exhibition showcases artworks by Shafiq Nordin and Nik Shazmie that reveal the artists’ perspectives through their reinterpretation of pop culture and iconic figures. These characters get a makeover to the point where they become self-referential, popping up in various settings, social commentaries, and even political contexts.
Even though Shafiq Nordin and Nik Shazmie have different backgrounds, their handling of these characters takes them on unique journeys. Shafiq is all about sharing his experiences in his new life phase, the post-marriage world, and how issues like politics can influence life decisions, all through these characters. On the other hand, Nik Shazmie is more focused on current issues in the art world and the world in general. It’s like they’re playing these characters as a doll to play their thoughts and ideas onto the canvas.
As someone who likes to romanticize nostalgic childhood experiences, I managed to unearth the childhood histories of both artists. In an interview with Shafiq, Nik Shazmie, and myself, I wanted to ask them about their childhood memories of experiencing entertainment.
Nik started the conversation. As someone born in Kelantan, Malaysia in 1991, he admits that entertainment was quite limited during that time. He had to travel to the central town of Kuala Krai frequently to get his hands on the latest series of Doraemon and Yu Yu Hakusho at a comic bookstore. He also purchased Back to the Future CDs from a store located right beside the bookstore.
Being a geeky artist, I sense his well-versed vocab of references, which many that he mentioned were unrecognizable to me, despite us being the same age. But, of course, different upbringings lead to different absorptions. All sorts of cameos and references were juxtaposed together in his works, complementing and building up their own stories.
In ‘Die a Hero or Live Long Enough to be the Villain,’ we can see how everything is ‘boxed’ into this box-shaped canvas, breaking away from the traditional squared canvas. Inside, there is a character who appears to wear Master Yoda’s hoodie, who seems to be the focal point of this painting, holding a painting that says ‘Fake Rothko.’ Other references to renowned artists are also present in this painting, such as Basquiat’s work and Yayoi Kusama’s Yellow Pumpkin transformed into bombs, as well as Picasso’s Guernica, among others. The box-shaped canvas, with left and right wings, somewhat segregates and divides these characters into sequences of stories.
Nik further explains that in this painting, this Yoda character is portrayed as a villainous character, an art ‘master’ who copies the works of others and makes millions from them, which is based on a true story that happened in the current art world. The painting delves into issues of authenticity, corruption, and vandalism, all of which are symbolically concluded with Yayoi’s Yellow Pumpkin, except that they are now depicted as a collection of bombs waiting to explode and put an end to these negative facets.
Other works, such as his Doraemon sculpture, offer an interesting twist to the character, revealing that Doraemon is actually a zombified cyborg, while Darth Vader as the savior and Marty from Back to the Future is seen as destroying the town, among other unconventional interpretations. It’s a truly twisted and random portrayal, but it remains controlled within Nik’s own narratives, influenced by his real-life observations and experiences.
Shafiq Nordin, born in 1989 in Malaysia’s state of Negeri Sembilan, embraced his artistic side as a child, crafting cartoons for friends and creating his own comic books. Growing up as a ’90s kid, he cherished physical objects and their shared sentimental value. Comic books passed from friend to friend, became worn with meaningful memories, influencing the romantic nature of Shafiq’s current works.
Looking back, if we were to rewind the clock by five or six years, Shafiq’s body of work would be significantly different from what it is today. His previous creations delved into themes of morbidity and dark humor, complemented by a much darker color palette. In our previous conversations, Shafiq revealed that this ‘cowboy’ phase prompted him to question not just aspects of his personal life but also delve into social commentary and the political turbulence of that era.
As he embarks on a new chapter in his artistic journey, Shafiq openly acknowledges his shift towards a different artistic expression. He now embraces vibrant and zany humor instead of the previous dark undertones, infusing his work with a playful and mischievous charm that is both sweet and tantalizing.
In one of his paintings titled ‘Good Morning SuperDad!,’ Shafiq presents a side of himself that is markedly different from his pre-marriage persona. He clarifies that this portrayal of Batman represents how an ordinary father might appear after ‘tying the knot’, humorously emphasizing the character’s wider and plumper physique in this artwork (although Shafiq’s physical appearance hasn’t changed to that extent).
There’s a subtle irony in this depiction, as it suggests that this Batman is grappling with an identity crisis. This sentiment is conveyed through the iconic diamond-shaped logo on his chest, which, instead of the letter ‘S’ for Superman, features ‘Dad,’ metaphorically endowing him with the superpower of being a father.
Many subjects in this series serve as metaphors for emotions, and if interpreted keenly, they reflect Shafiq’s own feelings about this new phase of life. I like how both artists use characters from Star Wars, like the Stormtroopers and Boba Fett, who are usually considered less important, to indicate or indirectly comment on how many people don’t deeply reflect on who they are.
Instead, they simply exist, trying to get through each day. Shafiq discusses how he feels about the modern-day pursuit of money, which we often find ourselves doing despite believing that money can’t bring happiness. As an artist and a father, he now feels the responsibility to provide for his family, unlike his earlier days when he didn’t worry much about what he’d eat in a day, which he calls his “cowboy” era. This shift in priorities has made him more practical about life.
In this journey through nostalgia and art, we’ve witnessed how iconic characters from our childhood worlds can take on entirely new meanings as we grow and evolve. From the innocence of youth, where our favorite characters served as inspirations, to the complexities of adulthood, where we use these symbols to express our own stories, the connection remains profound.
Through the lenses of Shafiq Nordin and Nik Shazmie, we’ve explored the transformations of beloved characters into vessels for artistic commentary and self-expression. Nik’s world of art collides with pop culture, dissecting subjects of self-narration, authenticity, and even power and authority, while Shafiq’s evolution from his “cowboy” days to becoming a SuperDad unfolds with humor and symbolism.
In their unique ways, they remind us that our childhood heroes can grow and change, just as we do, reflecting the multifaceted nature of life itself.
BETWEEN WORLDS A Two-Man Art Exhibition by Shafiq Nordin & Nik M Shazmie runs from 30 September to 14 October 2023 at G13 Gallery.
All images are supplied by G13 Gallery.