17 March 2018

Unreal GRUP (II): Dealing with Abstracts @ Sasana Kijang

At his exhibition of recent works in White Box, Publika, Jolly Koh proclaims, that “Modern Art in Malaysia is 100% foreign influence.” In the subsequent radio interview, the artist says that “this is the best show Malaysians will be able to see in a long, long time”, and “…the curator’s job is not very difficult”. The timing of Jolly’s solo show coincides with “The Unreal Deal” at Sasana Kijang, and “Gerak Rupa Ubur Penyataan 1957–1973” at ILHAM, where his earlier works are also on display. Sidestepping questions about curatorship, quality, and art history, the display of large collections of Malaysian art is still a welcome sight, insofar the interested visitor can make informed aesthetic judgements and expand one’s understanding of the Malaysian art canon. Personally, the 1960s paintings with hard-edged swathes of colours, are easily Jolly’s best work.

Jolly Koh – Road to Subang II (1969) [@ ILHAM]

As compared to displays from the 1970s, paintings such as ‘Road to Subang II’ and ‘Wanda II’ feature unnatural forms and less conventional mix of colours. These works highlight Jolly’s composition skill in creating pictorial harmony, and remain visually relevant within Malaysian art’s current glut of painting (including the artist’s recent decorative works). Such cross-exhibition looking is the greatest joy I garnered, from abstract-themed exhibitions showing in town at the same time. Mentally oscillating between the pictures seen at Sasana Kijang then ILHAM, I conclude that Yeoh Jin Leng was uninspiring, Cheong Laitong is consistently good, Syed Ahmad Jamal was a late bloomer, and the Oxford Blue hanging at the former gallery is the best I have seen from Latiff Mohidin’s “Langkawi” series. Unfortunately, Ibrahim Hussein works presented at both places fail to impress.

Yeoh Jin Leng – Human Rot (1968) [@ ILHAM]

Jolly recalled that only two works sold in the 1967 GRUP exhibition; Curiously, no current exhibit is indicated to be from that exhibition. 1967 was also the year Valerie Solanas published the feminist SCUM Manifesto in New York, where Ibrahim resided at the time. “The Unreal Deal”, then, is the delightful patterns by Sivam Selvaratnam, hung between works by Syed Ahmad and Laitong. Along with Sharifah Fatimah Syed Zubir, these two are the only female artists featured in this survey show. While one can suggest the link between American Abstract Expressionism and machoism as a reference point, it appears to myself as plain lazy curatorial efforts. That an explication of potential subject matter related to Malaysian abstract art – overseas education, Merdeka euphoria, collector demographics, religious teachings, Robert Rauschenberg – is entirely absent in this survey, is abysmal.

Sivam Selvaratnam – Symphony (1969) [@ Sasana Kijang]

Twenty years ago, Wong Hoy Cheong wrote in the “reGRUP” catalogue essay, that “(t)he beliefs of these artists in the quintessential and authentic might appear archaic and naïve in this age of cyberspace and genetic cloning. However, what they propagated, formulated, and instituted were significant because for the first time in the history of the visual arts and art education, a set of reference points and pedagogic tools were made available to be appraised or debunked.” In both exhibitions, pedagogical lineage marks the continuity and relevance of abstract representation, a deficient notion given that many renown local artists are still turning out homogenous works for frivolous collectors.

Installation snapshot of Awang Damit Ahmad: [from l to r] Essence of Culture "Ingatan Waktu Kecil (1987); E.O.C Series "Childhood Memory" (1988) [@ Sasana Kijang]

‘The 2010s’ section presents attractive contemporary interpretations. Mesmerizing compositions and visual beauty describe mature expressions by Sabri Idrus and Hamidi Hadi. In contrast, poor choice of works (surely better material can be culled for a museum display?) by Shafarin Ghani and Yeoh Choo Kuan, under-represent the skilful approaches of both artists. The most interesting display belongs to Ajim Juxta. ‘Tugu: Gelap Misteri’ combines painting techniques seen in preceding exhibits – expressionist strokes, blended colours, splashed dots, monumental forms, geometric outlines, and ripped canvases. Ajim’s works are showcased at international art fairs and local museums, but are also found at neighbourhood cafés. Is it decorative? Is it evocative? is it ground breaking? Whatever one’s answer, the fact that Ajim’s work is categorized as abstract has absolutely nothing to do with it.

Ajim Juxta – Tugu: Gelap Misteri (2017) [@ Sasana Kijang]

13 March 2018

Unreal GRUP (I): Dealing with Abstracts @ ILHAM

Two large institution exhibitions showcase abstract art within the context of Malaysian art history, which overlapping choice of artists and modern aesthetic offer much to see, but little to reflect upon. With 100+ paintings exhibited, Bank Negara Malaysia Museum and Art Gallery’s “The Unreal Deal” boasts “what is probably the largest ever display of abstract art in the country”, notwithstanding the absence of sculptures. Helmed by three relatively unknown curators, its display demarcated by decades project a lazy arrangement, exacerbated by dry catalogue essays keen on name-dropping and describing perceived styles. The thick catalogue bizarrely includes quotes by Edgar Degas and Francis Bacon, while the museum director’s statements that “(t)his is timeless and placeless art”, and “the definitive exhibition in its field”, compromise further my viewing experience.

Ibrahim Hussein – Freeze (1965) [@ Sasana Kijang]

At ILHAM, “Gerak Rupa Ubur Penyataan 1957–1973” presents works by seven artists who participated in a 1967 group exhibition, i.e. GRUP, whom are now recognized as pioneers of Malaysian modern art. The timeline stated in the exhibition title, however, refers to a sideshow about the development of arts infrastructure, which exhibits are culled from “Manifest: Modernism of Merdeka” held at Galeri Petronas three months earlier. Worth noting also is the show “reGRUP – 30 years on” held at Valentine Willie Fine Art two decades ago, which gallery namesake is now the creative director of ILHAM. Within the exhibition, another sideshow features a collection of Latiff Mohidin’s “Pago-Pago” drawings –  some belonging in Valentine’s collection – that coincidentally fits nicely with the exhibition’s curatorial theme to “…(trace) the emergence of modern art as a cultural phenomenon.”

Cheong Laitong – Malaysia Merdeka (1962) [@ ILHAM]

In an interview with BFM, co-curator Simon Soon speaks about the emergence of the “full-time professional artist” during this time, thereby providing an instructive lens in viewing this exhibition. Wong Hoy Cheong wrote in the “reGRUP” catalogue essay, about “…a yard-stick for success is something less tangible – the artist as a mythical hero and art as a mystical venture. All the artists in the disbanded GRUP have cultivated this aura to varying degrees…” Between the lavish celebrity of Ibrahim Hussein (implied via ‘Paul’ displayed at the beginning of the gallery hang), and the poetic hippiness of Latiff (one known to trade-in works to maintain his livelihood in the late 1960s/ early 1970s), the remaining exhibiting artists attain social statuses via roles as art educators, bureaucrats, or in Cheong Laitong’s case, a lengthy career as the creative director of an international tobacco company.

Installation snapshot: [foreground] Anthony Lau – Spirit of the Fire (1960), [background, from l to r] Jolly Koh – Wanda II (1969); Syed Ahmad Jamal – Timang (1963); Ibrahim Hussein – Red and Purple Interludes (1973) [@ ILHAM]

Soft colours in Jin Leng’s dull paintings aside, mysterious qualities manifest in most exhibited artworks. I gaze into the cracks of Anthony Lau’s wooden ‘Spirit of the Fire’, and reflect upon the use of diamond shapes in constructing the metal ‘Cockerel’. Three of Lai Tong’s paintings diverge in style but united in its enigma – the dirty rough texture of ‘Bird Forms’ that recall Chen Wen Hsi, ‘Malaysia Merdeka’ and its sinister crevices, and the definitive brushstrokes depicting ‘Life, Public & Private’. Comparing Latiff’s oil painting ‘Tropika’ with its much smaller watercolour sketch, I notice the differences that bring into focus the artist’s ongoing attention, towards drawing the interior/ exterior of things. Hung opposite is the unexpectedly contemporary-looking ‘Mindscape IV’, its oblong-shaped cut-out depicting the silhouette of mobile phone screens.

Latiff Mohidin: [from l to r] Tropika, Kuala Lumpur (1968); Tropika (1969) [@ ILHAM]

The calligraphic stroke is the subject matter in Syed Ahmad Jamal’s ‘Tulisan’, the most intriguing display at ILHAM. In Izmer Ahmad’s and Elham Shafaei Darestan’s enlightening essay The Calligraphic Subject: The Body and Social Power in Malaysian ‘Abstract Expressionism’, gestural expression (evident in many exhibits here) is described as “…rooted in an affirmation of social power that seeps into the body and animates the painter.” ‘Tulisan’ employs the naskh cursive Arabic script, found also on the Batu Bersurat Terengganu. Looking at the incongruous colours and crude marks, it becomes clear what the essay espouses is true, that “(t)he painter’s gesture on the canvas is proof of the body that is offered to ideological force of calligraphy that domesticates the body into a community.” One’s writing, is a product of one’s training, is a product of one’s ideology.

Syed Ahmad Jamal – Tulisan (1961) [@ ILHAM]

“The painting does not present a recognizable symbol but appears to be what would generally be termed as expressive or spontaneous. It hardly resembles its prototype, the letter ج. (…) What is important is the act of painting the letter itself, hence the title Tulisan. This assertion seems to undermine the formalist ideology of the cursive script and convey a full authority of the painter over his ‘creation’. However, such view is nullified by the notion of ‘cultural habit’; what appears to be ‘expressive’ and ‘spontaneous’ notation is in fact a manifestation of a convention at work. The form that Tulisan assumes is grounded in a practice known among Islamic calligraphers as mashq, the disciplined scribbling or constant application of an interrupted movement. The act defines the foundation of calligraphy, for “the constant application of mashq improves the hand writing”.”
– Izmer Ahmad and Elham Shafaei Darestani. 2017. The Calligraphic Subject: The Body and Social Power in Malaysian ‘Abstract Expressionism’. Wacana Seni Journal of Arts Discourse 16: 35–68. 

Installation snapshot of ‘The 1980s’ section: [from l to r] Syed Ahmad Jamal – Tun Mamat Mendaki Himalaya (1984); Sharifah Fatimah Syed Zubir – Like a Piece of Sunshine (1981); Yusof Ghani – Siri Tari V (1985) [@ Sasana Kijang]

09 March 2018

Merata Suara @ Projek Dialog

In this age of political correctness and woke-ness, a six-months project which commissions five artworks to “represent marginalised voices”, sounds like an inadequate premise for an art exhibition. In Malaysia, however, the existing political hegemony and societal imbalance render such initiatives necessary, where voices of the underrepresented are drowned within a globalized and mainstream social media. The setup in “Merata Suara” successfully levels the presentation dynamic – none of the five individuals working with location partners (representatives from marginalized groups) identify themselves as a full-time artist, and the exhibition (including performance acts and community gatherings) takes place at Projek Dialog’s office in Ara Damansara. 

Snapshot of exhibition space, with Eleanor Goroh - Fabrication in the background [picture taken from Suzy Sulaiman's Facebook album Merata Suara: Changing places from office to art.]

To produce artwork via collaboration, each individual intercession becomes tenuous; After all, the exhibition title explicitly states its intent to “even out the voices”. Suzy Sulaiman emphasizes in her curator’s statement, “(i)n order to perpetuate a porous border; one needs to exercise an artistic strategy that is fair to both sides.” To mitigate the risk of a foisted presentation, Suzy mentions in a radio interview, that “…these art pieces were more of catalysts, of a conversation and inquisitions…” Eleanor Goroh’s ‘Fabrication’ greets the visitor into the upstairs shop lot, its combination of state anthems and cultural icons, leading me to further discover melodies utilised for nationalist propaganda. Artists grappled with cultural differences in their engagements; This struggle now transfers to the audience facing exhibited artworks.

Installation snapshots of Yana Rizal - Komuni[s]kasi 

Flipping through tabbed Form 3 and Form 5 Sejarah textbooks, then browsing handwritten anecdotes copied behind sheets of past year exam questions, it is revelatory to see what was taught about the Malayan Communist Party then. Despite its naïve presentation approach, Yana Rizal’s ‘Komuni[s]kasi’ unpacks a state-sanctioned historical misrepresentation across two makeshift classrooms. Recorded interviews with surviving guerrilla members (Jane Chin Leong, Kwei Ling, and Lean Thai), and documents from the National Archives, contribute to information overload. Counter-narratives are always interesting, but a sense of hopelessness persists when one posits this knowledge within the contemporary Malaysian political consciousness. How long does it take, for one to un-learn taught mistruths? Why is it so hard to acknowledge violence, as a prerequisite in nation-building?

Installation snapshots (taken while sitting on the ground) of Okui Lala: [l] Ingatan Welding (Welder’s Flash); [r] Perjalanan bersama Desi (A journey with Desi)

Okui Lala’s ‘Ingatan Welding (Welder’s Flash)’ projects from a television screen on a raised floor platform, while a video recording of three interviews with a Perodua Myvi driver loops on the wall. Shining a tiny torch on bound statements, I learn that the former’s actions is one ex-welder’s (Ayu) hand movements for protecting herself from sparks. A speechless recollection by an empowered individual, are juxtaposed against the lively chitchat about daily affairs in the latter work, where Desi the domestic worker speaks with the artist, Sofi the factory worker, and Nasrikah who runs an organization that “aims to network the Indonesian migrant worker community in Malaysia.” For one day, Okui offers interested persons the opportunity to experience her awkwardness in conversing with Desi, while driving around Ara Damansara. “(A)n artistic strategy that is fair to both sides”?

Installation snapshots of Poodien - Bulat Tanah Lengkang

In ‘Bulat Tanah Lengkang’, Poodien draws head portraits from behind, of womenfolk at Kampung Gebok, Mantin. His lines are clear, yet the vivid colours of the illustrated hair and skin, denote a sense of alienation. On a BFM program, the artist admits the realization of “an unequal artistic format” in his output. Hung at eye-level in a circle, the audience never gets to know these portrayed people. The social distance in this collaboration is affectingly presented, and complements the exhibits in a wonderful manner. Absence as a visual strategy, is further pronounced by the fact that I did not attend the silat-poetry performance ‘Silat-tru-rahim’, a collaboration initiated by Victoria Cheng with silat teacher Kak Ji (Norzihah Kasim) based in Gurun, Kedah. 

Snapshot of Silat-tru-rahim performance [picture taken from Rodney Anolin Simon's Facebook post dated 24th February 2018]

In an incidental allusion to the theme Belas at the ongoing KL Biennale, Projek Dialog’s founder Ahmad Fuad Rahmat writes, that “(c)aring stands out in it all (…) no way of avoiding at some level the work of caring that makes the core of our social being.” Representing the marginalized is an anxious effort, and this exhibition includes several artful approaches. Combining visual propaganda with women’s work, presenting historical documents with current evidence, letting one’s words and actions speak for themselves, and visually illustrating the inadequacies of such representation – each approach has its attractions, and limitations. Does showing them all together “even out the voices”? Probably not, but just giving the platform for a curious audience to understand a bit more about the other, brings one that bit closer to understanding the multicultural society we live in.

Exhibition snapshot of "Hari Serantau" event [picture taken from Okui Lala's Instagram page dated 26th February 2018]

03 March 2018

PRIMITIVE @ A+ Works of Art

Centuries ago, what did visual art illustrate? Reverential icon? Metaphorical lessons? Decaying reminders? Can an artwork be defined as, a material object representing subjective truths? Standing outside this art gallery in Sentul, I face an oil painting, of one Roman philosopher’s marble bust from the Musei Capitolini. Inside the gallery, a sculpture family of porcelain pigs exhibit grotesque expressions. Nearby, large hangings display one peeing dog in a barren landscape, and a picture of a dead elephant being feasted on by vultures. A giant tombstone, and a taxidermy crow perched on a hoe, lie among a long patch of soil. Facing it are three acrylic paintings of monkeys in funny poses. How should the visitor look at these depictions of animals, and who is that in the window?

Installation snapshot of See No Evil, Hear No Evil, Speak No Evil (2013/2017)

After some looking, I conclude that the exhibited paintings are drawn from images found on the internet (the exception being ‘Dogged’, a work completed 15 years ago). Ahmad Fuad Osman is well-known as a painter, and although his signature bold brush strokes remain, these paintings look like mere impressions of digital images. In a radio interview, the artist revealed that the two philosophical quotes seen at “PRIMITIVE”, were shared to him via WhatsApp texts. The quote on the epitaph shown here, is from Ayn Rand’s novel Atlas Shrugged, which hidden preceding sentence states that “(m)oney is the barometer of a society’s virtue.”

Installation snapshot of [l] Dogged (2003); [r] Mak Bapak Borek Anak-anak pun Rintik (2015/2018)

Less we think that the artist is quoting Objectivist philosophy as truth, I note that Ayn – who espouses “the concept of man as a heroic being” and rational individualism – also wrote in Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal that, “(c)ollectivism is the tribal premise of primordial savages who, unable to conceive of individual rights, believed that the tribe is a supreme, omnipotent ruler, that it owns the lives of its members and may sacrifice them whenever it pleases.” The tombstone exhibit ‘Déjà vu’ is made from lightweight insulation foam and engraved PVC boards; Visually the object & text combination is heavy, yet in fact both things have been taken out of context in its presentation.

Installation snapshot of [foreground] The Birth of Tragedy (2014); [background] Déjà vu (2017)

That ‘Déjà vu’ lies near an exhibit referencing Friedrich Nietzsche and biblical murder, amplifies the ethical conundrum one encounters when trying to interpret the work. The suspicion of fake news being propagated here, is confirmed after a Google search. White laser-cut acrylic letters spell out a quote about “taught falsehoods” by Plato, which should be attributed to George France Train, a former railroad mogul who campaigned to be the President of the United States in 1872. Displayed together with the bust portrait in golden frames under the title ‘Plato (427 – 347 BC)', the conceit is complete. Diving down the rabbit hole, I further suspect the original bust – a copy, no less – already had its nose broken off, and this mimicked image is a digital restoration…

Installation snapshot of Plato (427 – 347 BC) (2017)

While curator Syed Muhd Hafiz opines in his catalogue essay, that “PRIMITIVE” deals with the lack of a (Malay) ‘hero’, I think Fuad’s exhibits are an investigation into the authority of the visual image. The pairing of beautiful object (or looks like), with words of wisdom (or sounds like), project a strong commentary that abnegates the visual mode. How does an artwork look like, what it really is, what does it mean – and everything that is not. Fake news is a symptom, blind trust in human expression is the disease. The three wise monkeys, which origins are traced to the Japanese expression 見ざる, 聞かざる, 言わざる (with no references to ‘evil’), offer a good reminder about human nature. Ignorance and fallacy are human, primitive traits as they are.

All That Is Solid Melts Into Air (2018)

"Plato was discoursing on his theory of ideas and, pointing to the cups on the table before him, said while there are many cups in the world, there is only one idea of a cup, and this cupness precedes the existence of all particular cups. "I can see the cup on the table," interrupted Diogenes, "but I can't see the cupness". "That's because you have the eyes to see the cup," said Plato, "but", tapping his head with his forefinger, "you don't have the intellect with which to comprehend cupness." Diogenes walked up to the table, examined a cup and, looking inside, asked, "Is it empty?" Plato nodded. "Where is the emptiness which precedes this empty cup?" asked Diogenes. Plato allowed himself a few moments to collect his thoughts, but Diogenes reached over and, tapping Plato's head with his finger, said "I think you will find here is the emptiness."
- Anecdote from Aelien, Varia Historia

Déjà vu (2017) [picture from "PRIMITIVE" exhibition catalogue, p.29]

21 January 2018

Remembering Warisan Nusa @ Badan Warisan Malaysia

After buying a copy of Warisan Nusa years ago, I only browsed it. This exhibition reminded me to read it, and appreciate the great volume that it is. Ilse Noor was commissioned by Shell Malaysia in 1985, to make 24 etchings based on Malaysian buildings with heritage value. The book includes the artist’s jottings when visiting each of Malaysia’s 13 states, with a lyrical translation into Bahasa Melayu by Adibah Amin. Ilse’s road trip begins across the ocean, at a Bidayuh Longhouse and the Kuching courthouse, and ends at the ruins of Kota Datuk Purba and Makam Tok Pelam in one Terengganu cemetery. Her approach for this commission is stated in the book’s preface, “(m)y weapon is my pencil and the trail I leave behind will be of pictures and notes. Forward, towards East we rush.”

Kg. Mongkos – Sarawak (1986)

As a travelogue, Ilse’s running commentary informs the underlying emotions, that translates into her depictions. Ferried in a boat or a ride-sharing taxi, waking up to indefinite noises or a splendid view, solitary or human encounters within a building, haunted or not – these experiences matter, in how a place is remembered, then pictured here. Melaka is recalled in the fondest terms, where Mesjid Tranquerah is “incredibly beautiful”, looking out of the minaret at Mesjid Kling shows “an overwhelming view of Melaka (…) Out there I see figures like dragons and mermaids…”, and her first impression of the ‘Rumah Penghulu Natar’ is “of a cascade of rainbow colours on tiles, woodwork and glass.”

Mesjid Tranquerah – Melaka (1986)

Ilse’s printed illustrations are remarkable for its masterful compositions. Most buildings are not presented from the front, but from the side or back. Such vantage points allow for the delineation of shadows, which look great in etchings, yet invoke an unsought sense of nostalgia. Nevertheless, her night scenes are undeniably lyrical, with full moon hanging in the sky. The texts occasionally mention crumbling staircases and ruined facades; The pictures clearly illustrate architectural elements such as roofs, balustrades, and stilts & columns. Her clouds are always smoky, and the few etchings with fantastical visual elements, such as the high-contrast bricks of ‘Rumah Tangkak – Johor’, and the mist that envelops ‘Mesjid Tranquerah – Melaka’, point to sublime observations when one experiences old buildings in person.

Rumah Tangkak – Johor (1986)

This road trip took place in 1985, most etchings are labelled 1985/86 then copyrighted by Shell in 1987, and the volume was published only in 1991. How many of these places still exists today, what more recognized and maintained as heritage buildings? I never heard of Masjid Kampung Kling, although the guesthouse I stayed in my last visit to the UNESCO World Heritage Site, was located just 150 metres away. This realization exposes my middle-class hypocrisy – I have travelled around the world to visit heritage sites belonging to other alien cultures, yet have no knowledge of those much closer to home. As Ilse writes about her stay in a Kota Kinabalu hotel room, two days before a historic state election, “There it is, right in my heart a painful pull, a yearning to travel to far-away places, and without closing my window or switching off the airconditioning, I fall asleep.”

Istana Bandar – Selangor (1986)

“I leave the place, walking away from the lights and noise into some silent streets to my right. A beautiful round moon hangs in the sky, bathing palm trees, roofs and houses in its soft fluid light. It flows round the cupola of a mosque and caresses the curvaceous wall of a pompous villa – but how strange. The pleasant and gay impression gives way to a feeling of inexplicable sadness. The villa is deserted, windows stand open, its beautiful white shell is filled with impenetrable darkness. Trees grow on its roof like hair or hands, which call me to come over. Yes, tomorrow I will come, I will search for you and I will draw you. I can hardly sleep tonight.”
- Snippet from ‘Chapter 3: Kedah Darul Ahman’ in Warisan Nusa: Shell Book of Malaysian Heritage, Ilse Noor (translated by Adibah Amin), 1991

Makam Tok Pelam – Terengganu (1986)

06 January 2018

Art KL-itique 2017 Look Back

With favourite review site LoveHKFilm (and inspiration for this web log) now on indefinite hiatus, I am tempted to follow the same path. Since strong curatorship is an inconsistent affair, group exhibitions mostly bore, as I hold onto the unrealistic expectation that solo exhibitions allow artist(s) to better present one’s expression and/or vision. In Kuala Lumpur, the opportunities are present. Less-visible but established artists such as Abdullah Jones, Fauzan Omar, and Ramlan Abdullah, present recent work in spacious galleries; Aspiring students and passionate amateurs continue to show at independent art spaces like HOM Art Trans, Minut Init Art Social (currently at risk of closing! #saveminutinit), and RAW Art Space. The latter occupies the location formerly run by Findars 無限發掘, while Moutou 無頭體tend to the rooftop garden at 8 Jalan Panggong.

Installation snapshot of Liew Kwai Fei – divide and rule/ Bekerjasama (2017); Exhibited at “Collective: Individuals” @ 2 Hang Kasturi

How quickly my thinking shifts from exhibition to exhibition space, is indicative of my art viewing experience. Gallery shows that allow for contemplation, take precedence over short-duration pop-up events or performances, which explains why I have not visit the converted warehouse KongsiKL space that have been organizing weekend programs since its opening in November 2017. It is interesting how a number of these new spaces extend out to the public audience, in its conflation of art with design and lifestyle choices. A project realized by OUR ArtProjects – The Zhongshan Building at Kampung Attap – is “The Shopping Mall You Didn't Know You Needed to Visit Until Now” (clickbait headline); Another Think City initiative RUANG (2 Hang Kasturi) is converted into an artsy events space, that offers free yoga lessons on Friday lunchtimes.

Suk Tai – Blessed One and The Fighter (2016); Exhibited at “Labyrinth” @ Warren Art Gallery [picture taken from Warren Art Gallery Facebook page]

Looking back at visual art events in 2017, I am guided by poet-critic John Yau’s words: “I wanted to call additional attention to exhibitions that showed me something I had not seen before, and, in some cases, might not even been aware of not having seen it.” Drawing upon one’s identity as a Malaysian-Chinese woman, is a subject matter explored by artists Suk Tai and Eng Hwee Chu, in two relatively new galleries opened by art enthusiast-collectors. [p.s. Galeri Chandan’s Publika operations ceased by this year-end] Surreal symbols and painterly compositions underlie the strong emotions portrayed, and offer a nuanced take on women’s struggles in a local ethnic context. Referring to my provisional listing, it is noted that out of the 103 KL art exhibitions held this year that feature a single creator, only 19 showcases (18%) are presented by a female artist. 

Dhavinder Singh – Recollectus VIII (2016); Exhibited at “Recollēctus” @ Project Room Fine Art [picture taken from star2.com]

Several solo exhibitions struck a chord: Dhavinder Singh’s “Recollēctus” pays tribute to his long-time residence Razak Mansions, and is more affecting than other art/architecture projects focused on the now-demolished apartments. “Small Works” by Hamir Soib offers good insight into one painter of large canvases, while I regret missing out on “Carta”, the collection of sketches by Jalaini Abu Hassan showing at another new residence-gallery. Virtuoso craftsmanship, historical reference, and visual storytelling, are evident in two exhibitions – “Getaran” by Mad Anuar Ismail, and K. Azril Ismail’s “Thirty Pieces of Silver”. The former recasts modern forms as expired cultural object; the latter transforms expired cultural objects into a modern form. Object is art is artist is technology is making is referencing is historical is modern is contemporary…

Installation snapshot of Sun Yuan and Peng Yu – Hong Kong Intervention (2009/2016); Exhibited at “Afterwork” @ ILHAM

My first experience with having a domestic helper coincided with “Afterwork”, which collection of artworks offered various perspectives around the topic of cross-border imported labour, that provided a balanced view about the issues on hand. Photographs taken at Kota Raya referencing the same subject matter, are displayed at “Rags to Riches: A Story of Kuala Lumpur”. Captioned pictures present a lovely ode to this city, where individual experiences coalesce into layered stories and unique scenes. Underground in the same building, “Collective: Individuals” brought together works from artists belonging in seven collectives. Great art aside, the DIY ethos on show instils confidence and celebrates artists’ self-reliance. Run Amok member Liew Kwai Fei, whose “Art of Painting” works were part of a two-man show with Lee Mok Yee, is memorable for its innovative take on contemporary painting.

Thangarajoo – Atomic Consciousness 17 (2017); Exhibited at “Atomic Consciousness” @ National Art Gallery

I proclaimed June 2017 to be a great month for visiting the National Art Gallery. There was plenty to see, feel and reflect; Two large shows with broad themes, along with two more focused exhibitions, complement excellent solo showcases featuring Zulkifli Dahlan and Thangarajoo. As KL Biennale opened in end-2017, this year will unfortunately be remembered for the occurrences of (self-)censorship, that all happened under events co-organized/sponsored by Balai. Suddin Lappo in January, Samsudin Wahab and Pangrok Sulap in February, then Aisyah Baharuddin and Pusat Sekitar Seni in November. Nothing to see, unsure what to feel, and plenty of reflection needed. Indeed, the situation I find myself in, going into 2018. 

Video still from Au Sow Yee – Kris Project 1: The Never Ending Tale of Maria, Tin Mine, Spices and the Harimau (2016); Exhibited at “ESCAPE from the SEA” @ National Art Gallery

30 December 2017

Snippets: Q4 2017

Organized by the artist’s family, a collection of 100+ sketches and paintings by Chia Yu Chian are cramped into a first-floor room at the Kuala Lumpur and Selangor Chinese Assembly Hall. Among figure studies, still life oil paintings, city scenes, and commissioned works tagged onto billboards in the narrow aisles, the quality on show is mixed. For every derivative impression, there is a delightful element, be it a forceful figurative gesture or a swirling impasto. His son reveals, “(e)ven during the times he was admitted to hospital, he would go around and sketch scenes of life in the hospital…” These paintings are incidentally the best works on show, as Yu Chian documents moments of human empathy and humdrum companionship. The older accompanying sketch indicates his strong composition skills, while suggesting also the artist’s painting method and its prominent use of outlines.

Chia Yu Chian – Attended to the Patient [left sketch 1977; right oil painting 1980]

Malaysian Art Archive & Research Support re-stages a series of 2004 works by Yee I-Lann at the British Council, at which opening the artist remarks that she has been wanting to do a similar series for females. “The Writer’s Portrait” series features re-touched portraits of 12 Malay-Muslim men, whose writings and friendship influenced the artist around that time. I-Lann recaps about applying her ‘female gaze’ upon individual persons, while maintaining an ongoing conversation with the men in producing each portrait. Equal dimensions yet stylistically different, pictures that describe less clearly about one’s creative pursuit appear more visually attractive, such as Pak Samad sitting in Starbucks KLCC, Baha Zain tending to a manicured garden, Salleh Bin Joned taking a baldi shower, and Osman Ali resting at his home’s dining table. Next serving of “The Writer’s Portrait”, please, I-Lann.

Yee I-Lann - Baha Zain 'Bahasa Alam' (2004)

During Gallery Weekend Kuala Lumpur, I took the opportunity to visit Galeri Z at Taman Melawati Indah, the home gallery of prominent Malaysian collector Zain Azahari. Showcasing mostly works made in the past five years, the display seems to project a confidence in emerging artists and Malaysian contemporary art, although the medium is strictly confined to the modern modes of painting and sculpture. Unfortunately, the eccentric choices do not reveal any general themes about the collector’s preference, apart from vague notions of spirituality, sensuality, and nostalgia. I left with the impression that gallerists have an uneven influence, as most artists featured are the popular ones in the Malaysian contemporary art market. Hopefully in the next change of exhibits, where older works are planned for display, will change my perception. 

Kow Leong Kiang – Sprout Head (2017)

Works referring to the artists’ cultural heritage are displayed in the upstairs gallery at “Roots”, which include Alena Murang’s small acrylic portraits that give back specifically to each sitter, and Shaq Koyok’s tedious monochromatic close-ups on woven dried pandan leaves. Less direct are the collection of objects depicted by Afiq Faris, whose chequered jute canvases are overlaid with beeswax & resin, inkjet print on silk, and batik dye. The mediums coalesce into fascinating visual collages, that transform household objects into an unstable recollection made up of, impressions derived from the natural/industrial, the mechanical copy, and/or traditional technique. With titles referring to Malay historical stories (and myths), Afiq’s experimentation with multiple mediums and dialled-up contrast, manifest a desire to embody one’s heritage, be it unconsciously absorbed or consciously adopted.

Afiq Faris – And everyone that appears shall return to his home / Maka segala yang menghadap pun masying-masying kembalilah ke rumahnya (2017)