Djohan Hanapi on The Everlusting Tales

words and designs by claudia

It’d be impossible to miss Djohan Hanapi’s illustrative work—be it on a poster stuck to an unassuming shophouse or on the ever-stimulating playground that is Instagram. As with his other illustrations, his sultry princesses share the same clean lines and vibrant colours. What makes them charming besides these familiar characters’ unfamiliar demeanour is the extensive process of creating each piece.  That magic happens at Knuckles & Notch, an independent publishing and risograph printing studio co-founded by the artist himself.

His partner, Marilyn—who is also a visual artist and designer herself, makes up the other half of Knuckles & Notch. They’ve exhibited at Art Book Fairs abroad and are popularly known for their range of quirky, pop-culture referencing merchandise in the form of themed calendars, totebags and unconventional Chinese New Year red packets.

The studio is primarily a store for independent work and a go-to for anyone with an inclination to produce work in the colours and unique texture that risograph printing offers. Besides these services, they also host workshops such as paper-making and silkscreen printing. Having grown bigger in the 4 years since its opening, the cosy studio will be relocating from Bali Lane into a bigger space to accommodate more equipment and processes.

In celebration of his exhibition, The Everlusting Tales, I spoke with him about the almost two-decade long history behind his sultry princesses and their playfully provocative nature.

You take on the roles of a visual artist, printmaker and creative director at Knuckles & Notch. Have you always been in this industry and can you tell us how it began?

I studied Visual Communication in school and took a break from making art due to National Service. After National Service, I rekindled the practice and visited New York City for a month in fall 2011. I remember feeling like I was there at the right place, at the right time. The New York Art Book Fair was happening when I was there and I got to see works by underground publishers and artists. I remember ending up at a random birthday party on one of the nights out. It was surreal having met those people, exploring the city and experiencing its vibrant music scene.

Screen printing is my first love and it’s what led me to venture into other methods of printing. I was looking for something new and I had a feeling it was out there; a method of printing besides screen printing, letter printing and lithograph printing. It was during that trip to New York where I discovered risograph printing which is sort of like a new wave of analog printing.

In Singapore, risograph printers were widely used to print things like school papers and church flyers. Because of its purpose, only black and white inks were used. In other parts of the world around the early-80s to mid-90s, it was popular amongst designers and they would use them to print zines.

I wanted to use this method of printing when I came back to Singapore so I obsessively did some research online. There wasn’t much information on acquiring one in Asia but thankfully, I managed to get one.

I was freelancing for a bit while my partner, Marilyn, was working full-time. I said to her, “Why don’t we start an independent publishing studio, it’s a niche but it’d be interesting.” She agreed and left her job, and we made it happen.

Based on a scroll through your Instagram profile, I’m guessing the Sultry Princesses series started back in 2013. Can you briefly talk us through what you were doing then which led to the birth of this series?

I actually started messing around with the concept of fairytale characters during my final year in art school and the series eventually found its focus on fictional princesses. Snow White kickstarted the series as I’d found her story to have a strong presence in Disney and German folklore. It was interesting and thought-provoking to explore the subject (characters we grew up with) in societal taboos such as drug-induced hallucinations; tripping into wonderland.

Post-National Service, I was working with an artist when I picked up a book on their shelves titled ‘Goddess’. That book contained metaphorical and theoretical ideas such as Snow White as a goddess and the symbolism of the apple (such as immortality, temptation and knowledge). I’ve always been drawn to the female form in terms of art. If you were to look at renaissance art, nudity wasn’t so sexualised but more so appreciated as an ideal form of the human anatomy.

All of these are hand-pulled silk screens—each piece taking about 4 to 5 hours from coating the frames with emulsion, mixing inks and testing the colours for the artwork before silkscreening. As they are all imprinted by hand, each print is unique and has a raw quality to it.

What made you choose fictional princesses as your subject? Can you also share with us the message that you wish to send through this series?

It’s an obsession with interpreting characters through different narratives. Women, especially fictional princesses, have always been portrayed as demure and innocent. I challenge those portrayals of women by for example, painting their desires and sexuality in-line with pop culture.

I’d rather these illustrations be appreciated and enjoyed without verbal or literal explanation. It’s open for interpretation.

If you look back to when I started this series, you’ll notice that I made the abuse that the characters suffered in their stories more ‘in your face’. The juxtaposition of the princesses and brutality and explicitness of their positions may be difficult for some viewers to understand (the amplification of the princesses’ suffering).

Painting characters that we grew up with and were conditioned to view as role models in the act of and in a state of for example, sexual pleasure, can be seen as vulgar to some, especially so in a conservative society where such desire is considered shameful and thus to be suppressed. How have your audience/exhibit-goers responded so far?

Djohan: To my surprise, responses were more positive than negative when I first exhibited this series. Whenever and wherever I showcase them, there’ll always be people who are shocked or amused by the nature of my illustrations. I’ve also had people questioning if these are art. I guess it’s because they have never seen these familiar characters portrayed this daringly. I hope that people see and understand that my work is tastefully risque, not cartoon pornography.

What are your thoughts on having open conversations about such controversial topics?

I think sexual expression—especially in Asia, is still very suppressed but it’s gradually changing with this generation. A majority of my buyers are women and we’ve realised that they enjoy the pieces because they portray women enjoying themselves freely.

What or who are some of your biggest influences?

My dad’s a painter so I was surrounded by art—including a Smurf Land mural painted in my room. I grew up with VHD, watching local and Western animation. The series that most inspired my work is ‘Who Framed Roger Rabbit’. The way that cartoon characters and people coexisted was fascinating to me.

There was one line said by Jessica Rabbit that had stuck with me since I was a kid, “I’m not bad, I’m just drawn that way.”. Besides the Jessica Rabbit, the renowned sex symbol, another impressionable character is Baby Herman; although he is portrayed as a baby onstage, he’s actually a middle-aged, chain-smoking womanizer offstage.

Other things that inspire me to include works by Memphis Group which I find really radical. But really, anything that is loud, weird and quirky from the 80s.

If you weren’t in the creative field, what would you most likely be doing?

I don’t know, maybe a scientist. I feel that there are similarities between the processes of art and science. Both create hypotheses and resolve them through research, comparing different theoretical studies and problem solving.

The only difference is that with art, the results are depicted through art works whereas for science, the results are apparent through breakthroughs.

You’ve designed a shoe for Onitsuka Tiger, collaborated with bespoke tailor, Inventory to reinvent a military-style shirt and created art for local artists. What’s the next exciting project you’re working on?

Right now I’m working on a few projects with Knuckles & Notch. We are also busy moving to a bigger studio space to accommodate future work. Keep a lookout!

The Everlusting Tales was hosted by UltraSuperNew Gallery between 20th March 2020 to 2nd April 2020. Visit Knuckles & Notch for updates on future exhibits, merchandise and other information.