"There is no such thing as a new idea. It is impossible. We simply take a lot of old ideas and put them into a sort of mental kaleidoscope. We give them a turn and they make new and curious combinations. We keep on turning and making new combinations indefinitely; but they are the same old pieces of coloured glass that have been in use through all the ages.”
— Mark Twain
There are many stories behind the name, Mojoko, and they are all as true as stories can be. Here is one of them.
Before there was the artist, Mojoko; before the collages; before now, he was Steve Lawler. In 2005, he was playing around with the hues for a project when he glanced at the colour picker and noticed that magenta (M), yellow (Y) and black (K) had the value ‘0’. In his mind, this appeared to him as ‘M0Y0K0’.
“I like how that sounds,” Mojoko says, “because it reminds me of A Clockwork Orange. Y’know the Moloko Plus cocktail. Also, at that time I was also into mojitos.”
He switched out the ‘Y’ for a ‘J’ (“Just like Spanish.”) and it became his art moniker for his entire career. Mojoko. It sounds like it could be from anywhere: Africa, Indonesia, Japan?
If a name does not give up its history, that future is a blank canvas. It’s a sort of freedom, especially for the creative. Anonymity allows for experimentation.
“A lot of people don’t even know that I’m white when they see my art,” Mojoko says. “They think I’m some cool Japanese kid and I don’t mind that at all. It’s a branding exercise. ‘I bought a Mojoko piece’. That is cool as opposed to ‘I bought a Steve Lawler piece. Now that’s weird.”
His moniker possesses far more of a reputation than his real name. A search for ’Mojoko’ brings results leading to the artist. Google ‘Steve Lawler’ and the top results are about a British house music producer and DJ of the same name.
“Being raised in various countries has taught me to rely heavily on visual communication because of language barriers. Images transcend words and are a great way of conveying messages and ideas.”
— Harper’s Bazaar Singapore’s ‘Artist Spotlight: Mojoko Shares His Inspiration, Influences and Favourite Galleries
His biography begins with this, in some form or another: “Born in Iran, raised in Hong Kong and educated in Europe.” His far-travelled origins are an important facet to his work. Mojoko’s father was in aviation, teaching pilots, thus the constant moving. “It paints a picture that I am a product of worldly travels. A hybrid of different cultures…” Pause. “Well, maybe less of the Iran stuff but certainly Hong Kong was very influential.”
Hong Kong is a neon chaos with its lambent signs and city sounds. It is the early ’90s and Mojoko will spend his teenage life in the Pearl of the Orient. He remembers the smoky, half- lit game halls, the Rambo poster with Chinese script, the advertisements. While Mojoko was able to pick up bits and pieces of the local dialect, the language settles on him like a weight, as though his head is in a dense fog. “I never had that same inspiration in England, but when I see road signs and public warnings, you become more intrigued that you don’t know what they mean; the modern idea of being confused.”
Armed with a graphic design degree from Brighton University and a two-year Fabrica residency working on Colors magazine, Mojoko would further his career at Diesel. He’d move to Singapore, working for OgilvyOne Singapore before launching Kult in 2007, Eyeyah! in 2017 and The Unusual in 2019. Through it all, Mojoko was working on his art.
“It was in 2005 or 2006. I started with screen-printing,” he says. “The first image I did was of a kid spitting on the floor. I got that from an old school book that taught you not to spread diseases. I put ‘Mojoko’ on that and then I was invited to do a group show and I plastered ‘Mojoko’ on my work that was sold.”
From pulpy comic books to B-grade movie posters to advertisements of yore, Mojoko has amassed quite a collection with images going back to the middle of the 20th century. Picture frames pile up in his house. Stacks of magazines and reference books line bookshelves. He has silkscreen frames that he thinks has some value to them. “I think some would want to buy those.” He’s, in no uncertain terms, a hoarder. “But I had to tone it down when I had Babyman. So, I’m just digital hoarding now, just scanning images.”
“Collage allows the opening up of conscious, which is very direct… it's also a way of looking at what you are consuming all the time.”
— John Stezaker
Leave it to the cubists to come up with an art form involving glue. Georges Braque and Pablo Picasso championed this movement, working with several mediums to create assemblages. Materials are usually made of paper or photographs and it was not uncommon to include three- dimensional forms as well.
While a multi-disciplinarian in his field, Mojoko is best known for his collages that draw inspiration from trash culture—“artistic or entertainment expressions” that appeal to audiences through its “low-quality and culturally impoverished content”.
“Back then, they had a lot of random ’80s films. Remember Rentaghost?” Mojoko asks. “This stupid show was the first thing I watched. I was always attracted to the mysterious, the obscure, the occult elements. I’ve started looking up Peranakan art. The periodical archives section of the Central Library opens up all these resources. All the HDB and home magazines have all these amazing materials.
“Everything you see now is polished. It’s homogeneous. When I see a Bollywood poster or a cheesy cyborg poster from the ’80s, it sings to me. It’s hard to describe it, but they do.”
Mojoko eschews the blockbuster movies. He takes a hard right, swerving away from the mainstream and looking for the underdogs. After a while, it gets challenging, especially when he has mined almost everywhere.
“In my travels, I make it a point to head to the second-hand bookstores, junk stores, flea markets. I’ll look for old-school stuff. I’ve been doing this for 15, 16 years and I’ll still drop into places like Past Times Collectibles or Junkie’s Corner to see if they have anything new in. It’s about constantly finding new stimulus. Who knows, I could luck out and discover a box filled with Mexican cowboy films.”
He does watch the occasional tentpole film from time to time. Thumbing towards his son, a gangly kid who is now sprawled all over a chair as he watches something on YouTube. “I watched Lego Batman with him.”
Mojoko affectionally refers to his kid as Babyman, which sounds like the name of an alternative singer from the ’90s. Babyman is of mixed parentage (English and Singaporean Chinese) and it’s clear that Mojoko is willing to make concessions for him if the need should ever arise. Babyman was also the main reason that Mojoko set up Eyeyah!, a magazine to teach social issues to children using creativity.
“I’ve become a father and I’ve been watching my Babyman grow up. I started to think about how I grew up as well and how visual culture shaped my youth. Doing what I do now as an artist, I wanted to find a way to open this world to my kid and at least to give him a chance to see if visual intrigue helps him look at life from other perspectives.”
— from an interview with Mojoko called ‘Simple Questions for Smart People: Eyeyah!’
“Inspired by B-movie thrillers and film noir, the artist deconstructs antiques, traditional paintings and objects by infusing them with contemporary culture. The installation will feature over 30 new artworks in varying traditional mediums, such as rosewood furniture, lanterns, ceramics and glass but with a modern twist.”
— Sansiri House’s The Secret Room press release
The original idea was to have an opening party at the art space next to Jam at Siri House on the last weekend of March. It will be filled with revellers and potential buyers, with 35 pieces of artwork on display.
“But due to the pandemic, it didn’t feel right to have an opening night,” Mojoko says. “So, now it’s a residency where I’ll come in for the next two months and work on some of the pieces. When someone buys something, I’ll replace it with something else. There might be more government restrictions in the future, I don’t know, but that’s the plan for now.”
A prevailing theme accompanies each of his exhibitions. Ever since he started on this artistic endeavour, it has mostly been about the mash-up of B-movies and traditional artwork.
Items at the exhibition will be posted online, forming a virtual installation that people from all over can look at. Each artwork will be replete with information about the process, with an inclusion of before and after images of said piece.
On the day of the interview, collage-covered lampshades hang from the ceiling; some of the framed art pieces hang from the walls. The light of the sun flits through a gap between a draped curtain across the display window. An orange Chinese side cabinet sits in the corner of the room. Silkscreened stencils inspired by William S Burroughs’ Naked Lunch adorns the exterior. Mojoko puts a hand on the surface. “You see these Chinese cabinets and you’d imagine Burroughs having something like this in his place because he’s so bohemian. If he had one, it would be super-weird, right?” That’s how it got started: popular culture placed into traditional Chinese elements; this corrosion of traditional cultures. Sure, his gold standard for any of his artwork is that it has to be something he’d want to see in his own home, but Mojoko wants the experience of being surprised. If not, why bother?
It’s the details of the everyday. You might have seen a painting a thousand times but on closer look, you’ll uncover the mischief; the devil’s in the details.
Take ‘The Curse of the Golden Skull’. The original glass painting was discovered in an antique store in Singapore. Fairly innocuous, the scene has two women seated at the table playing Go, while two other women stand to the side, looking on as spectators. The background is a river that blends into the horizon and the sky. That is what we see.
But when Mojoko sets his eyes on it, he imagined four women conducting a séance. He added a flaming skull in the middle of the table, added trees with faces in the background and further edited the artwork to look like the cover of a mystery comic book.
Or the piece titled ‘Catch them All’, where an old record album cover has a man chatting with a woman by the river. Working with his son, Mojoko inserted 12 Pokémons into the scenery for viewers to spot.
Mojoko adds to it to create something new. In his words, he likens it to “reframing a piece of work”.
“I definitely appreciate two points of view, if not more,” Mojoko says. “It gives us a new way of looking at things. Language being a good example. Xiăo biàn (小 便) and dà biàn (大便) means that you’re in the toilet doing either ‘small business’ or ‘big business’. That’s funny to me.
“Or the SOS call, ‘mayday’, which is derived from the French word m’aider (‘help me’). You reassess your worldview after seeing a lot of things, about people referencing other pieces of art and that has been going on for several years.”
Given the nature of collages, when does Mojoko know when his work is finished? “You try different things with a piece. I take a photo of the frame and I’ll layer the images over… until it clicks.”
“When there’s a sense of harmony to it,” Mojoko adds.
He can’t rightly articulate how he does it. It just has to feel right. Mojoko gestures towards "Pagoda Inferno", a collage bordered by an intricate antique wood frame. “See this man straining against the ropes that binds him. That’s from Gulliver’s Travels. I made his face green because he reminded me of Michael Jackson from ‘Thriller’. I think adding that made the piece more interesting.”
They say that an artist shouldn’t create because the base intention is for selling. Mojoko agrees with that sentiment but adds: “I think when someone buys it, it brings closure to a piece. I feel that it’s finished. If I make something and no one buys it, it feels like the journey isn’t over.”
“The only art I'll ever study is stuff that I can steal from.”
— David Bowie
Given humanity’s brief tenure on Earth, all has been said and done and originality is a distant past. But this is the age of the remix. It’s a glorious time, when a piano riff from The Charmels’ ‘As Long as I’ve Got You’ is used in Wu-Tang Clan’s ‘CREAM’ or that a crowdsourced version of Paul Verhoeven’s RoboCop movie exists.
According to Mojoko, all designers think as such: how do I take a common thing that everybody is familiar with and make it look fresh. “Someone might have done what I’ve done, right? What I’m doing isn’t new but I’m using my language to tell my story in my way.”
There are artists who are paralysed by the thought of what their next move would be. For Mojoko, it’s not whether it has been done before but rather, is it worth bringing into the world.
Mojoko tells me that some people would send him images of artwork that they had seen and say that they had spotted something of his. “And I’m, like, that isn’t mine.”
Inversely, he’s tickled by people sending photos of his stuff that’s in their friends’ houses. “That’s better. I feel good by that.”
Cataloguing his work will be a challenge. Mojoko has no idea how many pieces he has created over the years. They have been sold, their life cycle concluded. As to their location… that remains to be seen.
Who knows? Years later, maybe you'll enter a nameless store selling all manner of accruements that have passed through many a hand. In the corner, behind the gaudy clown and the antique cuckoo clock, in the half-light, a piece of collage art might catch your eye. You inquire about its provenance but the shopkeeper has no idea. Maybe you’ll buy it or maybe you won’t.
Or maybe you see this patchwork tapestry filled with Western and Eastern imagery as a tabula rasa, a blank space that's open to a million of things you can add to.
Siri House at Dempsey presents The Secret Room by Mojoko. Located at 8D Dempsey Road, #01-02, Dempsey Hill, the exhibition will run until the end of July. If you're interested in a preview of the works, contact Natasha Beh (firstname.lastname@example.org)