Art Detail | Ilham Gallery

This portrait depicts a woman posing in a modest setting interspersed by blue bubbles. The sitter is dressed casually in a loose button down shirt, white trousers, and black loafers. Her relaxed demeanour is complemented by a humble arrangement of props, consisting of a grey pedestal and a four-legged wooden stool on which she is perched. She exudes a quiet confidence, staring directly at the viewer whilst resting her head on her hand as if in judgement, or contemplation. Her right elbow balances on a bubble that has settled above the pedestal, whilst her left hand cups the top of the bubble. Unlike the other bubbles that are suspended across the upper section of the composition, this bubble sits solidly on the pedestal, offering a place for the sitter to rest her weight. 

The symbolism behind these bubbles is unclear, though the motif appears in another painting by Anum entitled Deer (2013), where large bubbles populate a fantastical landscape with a deer made of smaller bubbles as one of its central subjects. Similarly, the atmosphere of the present portrait is one that combines the imaginative with the lucid; here, Anum’s use of flat perspective introduces subtle irregularities that throw us off kilter: the way the back leg of the solidly-rendered stool disappears into a plane hidden behind the green wall, or the way the base of the pedestal’s shadowed face continues on a straight line where we would typically expect a sharp diagonal. Logical perspective is eschewed for a focus on colour — a comforting blend of blue-greens and warm terracotas — as well as the interaction between objects floating in disoriented space and the almost hyper realistic treatment of her sitter. This inferred distance between the viewer and the world occupied by Anum’s sitter is what distinguishes her work beyond an everyday portrait: what Anum offers to the viewer is less so an image of her sitter than what seems to be an intimate and personal interpretation of her personhood, a relationship between artist and sitter that we as the viewer purposely cannot access.

Oil on canvas
94 x 74 cm
Credit Line:
Collection of ILHAM Foundation
© Noor Mahnun Mohamed
About Noor Mahnun Mohamed

Noor Mahnun Mohamed (b.1964, Kelantan), also known as Anum, studied at the Hochschule für Bildende Künste in Braunschweig, Germany and graduated with a Masters in Fine Art (1996). In 2000 she was the Malaysian artist-in-residence at Rimbun Dahan, Kuang, Selangor. She was awarded the Italian Government Scholarship in 2003 to study printmaking at the International School of Print and Graphic Il Bisonte, Florence, Italy. In 2005 she was recipient of the Australian High Commission Kuala Lumpur Visual Arts Residency at Gunnery Studio, Sydney, Australia. She was curator at Valentine Willie Fine Art (2003–2005) and Arts Manager of the Rimbun Dahan Art Residency programme (2006–2012) in Kuang, Selangor. She has taught Art Criticism and Professional Studies at the Malaysian Institute of Art, and Visual Communication and Design courses at the Department of Architecture, Faculty of Built Environment & Science, University of Malaya, Kuala Lumpur. She was granted the Asian Public Intellectual Fellowship (2012–2013), a programme funded by the Nippon Foundation Grant, which she spent in Japan to research printmaking. As a painter she has had several solo and group exhibitions, locally and abroad. Noor Mahnun is known for adapting an old technique of painting in a visual style that has been praised for its simplicity and meticulousness. Her work weaves subtle psychological narratives laced with a dark wit and emotional depth. She is currently delving into botanical illustrations of indigenous plants in relating to the traditional arts and culture of her home state Kelantan, Malaysia.

Further Readings
Learning Section
  • Describe the woman in the painting. What is she wearing? What is she doing? What kind of person is she? What kind of life has she lived? Is she happy? Is she wealthy? Does she have a family? Has she ever been in love? How does she feel at the moment captured in the painting? How does she feel about being painted? Did she choose what to wear? Did she choose how to pose? Does she know the artist? Do they have a good relationship? Does she like this portrait?

  • What elements of the painting do not obey the rules of perspective? What other elements of the painting are unrealistic? How quickly do you notice these elements? Do they feel like mistakes? If not why do you think the artist included them?

  • The text offers us no clues of what the bubbles might represent. Do you think the bubbles are an important element of the work? What makes you think so? What do bubbles make you think about? What do they remind you of? Why do you think the artist has included them in the composition?