Bacteria as an art medium?
Based in Kuala Lumpur, Nur Amira Hanafi is more at home in a laboratory than an art studio. Her Bachelor in Science degree and expertise in marine biology form the foundation of her practice as an artist.
Using bacteria as her medium of choice, Amira alters their environment and biological processes to create textured visual artworks. Her exploration of bio-art is both a scientific endeavour to understand the growth and survival capability of bacteria and an artistic expression of her medium’s beauty.
However, unlike paint, bacteria are living organisms and things don’t always go according to plan when your materials have a will of their own. Amira shares the challenges and thrills of an artist that works with microscopes instead of brushes.
After majoring in marine biology, what led you to pursue your master’s degree in arts and design?
Even as a kid, I was interested in art. My passion started with comics and cartoons when I was 5, all the way until I was 18. However, as a science stream student who really loved biology class, I enrolled as a marine biology student for my bachelor’s degree. It was there that I fell in love with microbiology classes and laboratory works and based my thesis on marine bacteria.
However, I hated numbers, data and anything quantitative. So I collected data for my thesis qualitatively, where I captured and compared images of bacteria under the microscope. It was very visual to begin with. Laboratory sessions actually helped me improve my sketching skills a lot because we had to draw preserved biology specimens observed through the microscope.
After graduating, I applied for a master’s degree in fine art at UiTM Shah Alam. I did it because the school has produced many great artists and my cousin who graduated there became an art teacher. I didn’t really expect to get in and I was just trying my luck. I was surprised when I was shortlisted for an interview. At the time, I had a very simple portfolio with charcoal drawings, and I never thought I would make it.
But here I am now, so I am really grateful for the chance to study art and for the chance to apply my knowledge in science into my art.
Why did you decide to choose bacteria as your artistic medium?
Since microbiology was my favourite subject during my undergraduate studies and my thesis was on marine bacteria, I am quite familiar with bacteria even though I am not an expert. My knowledge allows me to run some basic laboratory works with bacteria, and knowing how they behave really helps too.
As opposed to something non-living like paint, what are the implications of using bacteria as art?
It is hard to control. I think that is what bio-art is about.
It is a kind of art where the artist has no full control and authority over their own materials.
When the materials are living organisms, with their own life processes and preferences, the outcome of the artworks rely not just on the artist, but also on the bacteria. What the artist can do is to try to change the environmental factors in order to direct them.
The truth is, it never comes out looking like what I had in mind. My own artworks always surprise me every time. It is like a colouring book; the artist draws the outline of the images and the bacteria do the colouring.
What are some challenges of working with bacteria?
The most obvious challenge for me when working with bacteria as an artwork is the preservation process. As far as I know, no one preserves bacteria in order to display them. Normally, bacteria that have been grown and cultured can be found only in microbiology laboratories, where researchers would dispose of them after a study or preserve them in a liquid state for future use.
For my artwork, I also have to consider how to stop the bacteria from growing once they have reached the desired form and how to prevent decomposition so they can stay in that state for a long time. I spent one-and-a-half months trying to find methods to preserve the bacteria and their texture.
Another challenge is that bacteria are really small. They can’t be seen with our naked eyes. So when I draw with bacteria, I don’t get to see the lines and textures until after 24 hours when the bacteria colonies start to grow. The 24-hour wait is nerve-racking and exciting. I am always curious to see the outcome of my drawings as there is always an element of uncertainty.
Lastly, resources are also a challenge. Different bacteria species have different colours and I have to make sure I’ll be able to get the bacteria stock culture I need. Also, the only appropriate working space for me is a microbiology laboratory. I need to use scientific equipment and machines, and the bacteria have to be kept in separate tubes in a freezer at 4C. Fortunately, the biology department of the University of Malaya has been kind and generous in providing me with the space I need.
How do people react when they learn that your pieces are created using bacteria?
Most of them are surprised and the feedback has been positive. I was concerned with how the science community would react, but so far everyone has been so supportive of and excited about my artworks. They feel that my art practice also promotes microbiology to the public.
My former professor, who is an expert in microbiology, was happy to provide me with the laboratory space and facilities. People from science departments and schools have been very kind to me, and I don’t think I would have been able to make these artworks without their assistance. Most artists who work with bio-art need someone from the sciences to assist them either technically, or through their knowledge.
In fact, many bio artworks are products of collaborations between artists and scientists.
Are there any other forms of bio-art you’ve considered exploring?
For now, I am focusing on creating more artworks based on bacteria, but I might explore a wider selection of bacteria species. I would also like to explore other species, maybe extremophilic bacteria, which is a bacteria species that can survive in extreme conditions.
I also would like to explore other forms of biological-based artworks other than bacteria, perhaps marine life such as plankton and other marine microorganisms. They are so beautiful, and I think it’s a shame to not share their beauty and aesthetic.
I am also interested in DNA and biotechnology, and I hope to collaborate with a local scientist to explore that for my future works.