Bringing art to life

The artwork of visual artist Speak Cryptic (above) has travelled around the world.
The artwork of visual artist Speak Cryptic (above) has travelled around the world.PHOTO: C.J. WADHWA

Visual artist Speak Cryptic's characters - drawn in clean black lines, heads crowned with anything from thorns and brambles to bandanas screaming slogans - have always been two-dimensional drawings trapped on paper and brick. But they are poised to make their escape, with the help of members of the public.

For the first time, the Singapore artist's black-and-white characters will come to life, weaving their way through the crowds as part of The O.P.E.N. About 100 participants selected from open auditions will join Speak Cryptic's The Tribe. The performance is one of four anchor pieces planned for Club Malam, an evening of interweaving performances.

"I'm doing this because there's this need to belong," says the 35-year- old bachelor, whose real name is Farizwan Fajari. "A lot of people are trying to fit into groups that are not really them. They're just trying to be the best version of who they think they should be, when I think you should just be yourself and find people who like you for you."

Performers will dress in black or white and wear headbands that shroud their faces - a characteristic of his recent work. The idea, he says, is to let his characters loose on the crowd and engage in different activities. One, for instance, will go around plastering tape over the brand-name accessories people are toting. He says: "It will seem like everyone is brandless, not representing a lifestyle. We're just being."

The idea to breathe life into his characters surfaced about six years ago. "I was thinking one day that it would be interesting to see my characters come to life. So I joked about it with my friend, who started impersonating my characters," he recalls. "That started the process of thinking that maybe I should do this. But I didn't know where to start."

The idea sat on the backburner until last year, when he was roped into Singapore: Inside Out, a travelling arts showcase that united Singapore artists across different disciplines, from theatre to fashion.

Actress Noorlinah Mohamed, who had been part of the showcase, later asked if he would be interested in being part of The O.P.E.N., which she is director of.

That gave him the opportunity to step into the world of theatre, which is unfamiliar ground for him. "Being a visual artist, I'm usually working by myself late at night. But being out there, working with people and them taking an interest in what I have to say, I think that openness is something I can take away, " he says.

His artwork has now travelled around the world and one of his murals is on the walls of contemporary art centre Palais de Tokyo in Paris, France. But the journey has been riddled with uncertainty.

"I fell in love with the idea of being an artist first before I wanted to be an artist," he says.

At age eight, he told his mum he wanted to be a comic artist, an architect, a grass-cutter or "a guy who wraps fish in the market". He says: "I was fascinated with the sounds of the market. When you wrap the fish, it's so poetic. Even grass-cutting - I was waiting at the bus stop the other day and someone was cutting grass. I took a video of it, like 'This is so cool.'"

He enrolled in the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts in 1998 when he was 18, but it was a struggle for a teen who went to school "wanting to be an artist, but not necessarily ready to do the work". He did not graduate.

But national service gave him time to think about where he was headed.

In 2005, he started drawing his characters, staying away from colour due to his partial colour blindness, which makes it hard to tell shades apart, and to keep costs down. These characters - his exploration of culture and identity - were posted online and gained a following. He also headed to Lasalle College of the Arts that year and graduated in 2007.

"I'm grateful that being an artist has provided me with the chance to meet really great people. It wouldn't have happened if I had quit when I was in national service, when I thought about quitting art. Maybe I would have met really great grass-cutters, lah."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 22, 2016, with the headline 'Bringing art to life'. Print Edition | Subscribe