Picturing the Nation @ ILHAM

“By comparing APS (Angkatan Pelukis Semenanjung) to PPMM (Persatuan Pelukis Melayu Malaya), I suggest that Hoessein Enas and APS’s ascendency marked a second moment in the development of modern art discourses in the Malay language during 1950’s Malaya. It also reflected a shift from a period that focused on aesthetic experimentation in search for an ‘art for society’. This can be seen in the post-war proliferation of published Malay art writings in Singapore, towards a new collective aspiration in Kuala Lumpur. This aspiration desired to affirm the political legitimacy of the Malay elite class and its position as leaders of the new Malayan and later Malaysian nation-state.”
- Moving Suara for Sovereignty: Reading the shifts in 1950’s Modern Art Discourses in Malay through Kamus Politik, Simon Soon, catalogue essay in Dato’ Hoessein Enas: From His Personal Collection, 2015

Hoessein Enas - Study Sketch: Datuk Patinggi dan Datin (1988)

It takes a different type of corporate tycoon – the former long-time UMNO treasurer, no less – to demonstrate a different level of art philanthropy in Malaysia. Built on prime land, two floors within the Foster + Partners-designed IB tower are converted into gallery spaces, and sculptures by Ai Weiwei and Pinaree Sanpitak decorate its outdoor compound. The inaugural exhibition showcases artworks and paraphernalia from Hoessein Enas’ estate, acquired by the landlord three years ago, along with a mixed collection of contemporary art. Hoessein is well known for his depictions of Malayan & Bornean people for the 1962 Shell commission – a selection of which is now on display at the National Portrait Gallery – that cemented his reputation and career as a figurative painter.

Hoessein Enas - Untitled 1973 work with pastel on velvet paper

Early paintings and incomplete sketches are framed and exhibited according to loose themes, informing about one traditional-minded artist whose academic style found favour with a number of dignitaries. Business cards featuring the artist's initials-as-emblem is displayed within a hanging box. Preparatory drawings document his formal approach, while generic portraits and waterfall nudes infer a genuine passion for depicting the figure. Works on velvet paper attract via its shimmery qualities, and offer a different take on velvet paintings typically associated with American kitsch. Family and self-portraits are the only completed paintings, useful for visitors not familiar with Hoessein's output. Re-enacted at one end of the gallery is the deceased artist’s studio, where music from his record collection plays in the background.

Snapshot of Hoessein Enas' studio re-enacted in ILHAM's 5th floor gallery

The more interesting works on display, are located near this section. ‘”WAHYU” Pertama’ overlays calligraphic text for dramatic effect, a rare departure in style. ‘Project for MINDEF’ presents an action-packed gun battle between an armoured ship, against armed men crouching on a speedboat. One charming 1970s Kuala Lumpur street scene is depicted in pencil and marker pens. ‘The Vanishing “Kolek Lichung”’ isolates a fisherman’s boat parked onshore, employing a nostalgic perspective that hints at the artist’s cosmopolitan outlook. Storyboard-like drawings of construction scenes inside power stations, better illustrate the exhibition theme as markers of one developing nation. Photographs inform the artist's approach to realism. The pastoral appears to be a guilty pleasure, and not an idyllic pursuit.

[clockwise from top left] Hoessein Enas - Untitled; The Vanishing "Kolek Lichung" (1973); Tapak tempat Pengawas untuk Mesin No. 4 (1972); Project for MINDEF (1982)

Highlighting people diversity within our national borders is a main thrust in Tourism Malaysia’s infamous commercials, and the exhibition downstairs plays to the same theme. Greeting the visitor is a running LED display of words being shot down à la Space Invaders, ‘Kebebasan Asasi/ Fundamental Liberties’ by Yee I-Lann turning a classic game into a semantic metaphor. Natural rights is an alien notion to the majority of Malaysian nationals, especially for communities who speak the languages flashing by on the artist’s electronic board. This belief in a unified social contract is dispersed within the found photographs displayed behind the wall, where documented snapshots of life events on a staged background, project a contemporary longing via nostalgic forms.

Installation snapshots of Yee I-Lann (2015) - [top] Kebebasan Asasi/ Fundamental Liberties; [bottom] Through Rose-Coloured Glasses

Suitably onerous in describing the slippery notion of nationhood, looking at ‘Through Rose-Coloured Glasses’ is akin to reading personal histories written by someone else, where underlying desires are obscured in favour of an aggregated consensus. Utilising a monochromatic approach instead is Ahmad Zakii Anwar, whose walkway of ten charcoal drawings, depict Malaysian women in all its life-likeness. Despite the wall statement’s claims, there is no subversion of stereotypes, their looming presence only serving to highlight the renowned artist’s technical skills. In the multimedia room, I stand captivated by the three-channel projection featuring the three brothers from Bunohan. Director Dain Iskandar Said’s panoramas and close-up focus, render philosophical profiles through action and inaction, leading the universal viewer to empathise with a specific cultural psyche.

[from l to r] Ahmad Zakii Anwar (2015) - Perempuan Cina; Budak Perempuan Melayu; Installation snapshot of "Orang Perempuan"

Seen as a whole, the exhibition succeeds as a statement of power in representation. Hossein’s practice depended on official patronage, and the contemporary works dwell upon Malaysian identity as a surface construct, regardless of artists’ intentions. The gallery has also prepared learning guides, and started a regular cultural programming. Moving forward, how sustainable are these efforts? Why call this a public gallery when the space and commissioned works are owned by an  individual? Will creative director Valentine Willie’s role be like Hilla Rebay's to Solomon Guggenheim, who promoted the avant-garde and unfashionable art? How will local contemporary art develop if only artists associated to the former gallerist are featured? Questions of cultural capital and art philanthropy remain unanswered, as I stare at Ilham digging deeper, into the sands of Bunohan.

Installation view and video snapshots of Dain Iskandar Said - Bunohan: Tanah Air (2015)