24 November 2016

CROSSINGS: Pushing Boundaries @ Galeri Petronas

An exhibition about Malaysian artists who “work internationally” starts off on the wrong foot, by greeting each visitor with a world map overlaid with random historical events. This display, wall texts, and catalogue essay, are equally irrelevant, because the exhibition’s emphasis on pluralism in art practices, is an outmoded symptom of our contemporary situation. Granted, the corporate gallery has no new works from its collection to showcase, but it remains surprising how consistently incoherent are its curatorial efforts. So what if an artist has stayed overseas for a long duration – was it an extended travel time? Staying on for a residency? Migrated and changed nationalities? Where was the work itself produced? Does any of these matter?

Ali 'Mabuha' Rahamad - Madusa #2 (1986)

A number of artworks exhibit individual merits, but one is compelled to only talk about the 25 minutes spent watching Hayati Mokhtar’s and Dain Iskandar Said’s ‘Near Intervisible Lines’ (the panoramic video is 45 minutes long and shown here via four projectors). As interviewees talk about their experiences on the left-most screen, the vast beach and sky occupy the audience’s vision. The narratives lend a mythical air to the snail-paced projection, as winds of imagined change complement moving shadows. People go off-screen into purposeful punctures, while the horizon provides a false impression of stability. The assertiveness of nature and time’s passing, is mistaken for inhibited poetry. Where there are no boundaries, there is no safe crossing. So much can be said about art practices.

Installation snapshot of Hayati Mokhtar & Dain Iskandar Said - Near Intervisible Lines (2006)

17 November 2016

Dari Langit dan Bumi @ Wei-Ling Contemporary

Snapshot at "Dari Langit dan Bumi"

The impulse of creation
aligns not with the impulse of reception
The refuge of mother nature
Contradicts the human impulse to create
Line, colour, and texture   Come from nature
Yet, imbued with emotions   Come from experience
The horizon is mistaken for a simple divide
When the space between is a gulf
of unimaginable proportion
of unbounded memories, remembered or recalled
The Almighty is the Sublime   no matter how small
is a light particle that travels the Earth
From sky to ground, eye to non-sense
The presence  is an absence   in the abstract   of the moment

Hamidi Hadi - Fragile (2016)

07 November 2016

ARTAID 16 @ White Box

At a selling exhibition where proceeds are channelled to an aid organisation, this visitor cannot sidestep the cause which the charity represents. Subtitled ‘Love for Sale’, the event theme offers the interesting prospect for interpretations about social stigma and sexual attitudes, although that is admittedly too much to ask for in a group show. Artists’ neutral approach result in many exhibits with Love in its title, although only a few works can be forced-fit into the theme. Signature-style paintings by two established artists surprise with re-contextualized displays. Ahmad Zakii Anwar’s two-dimensional still-life of fruits and vegetables, suggest an irrepressible human desire; One hanging brassiere used by Chan Kok Hooi to mock a political party, now become a cynical commentary about sex for money, via ideograms painted over used denim.

Chan Kok Hooi – Love Me in My LV (2016)

Ambiguity is fine until the point it becomes obscure, e.g. Bibi Chew’s “Good Cells”. Animal as symbol is a popular approach too, evident from the peacocks depicted in creations by Alexandra Hon and Kim Ng. Less subtle is ‘The Secret World of Love’ by Hisyamuddin Abdullah, the picture featuring on its foreground a duck ferrying a raincoat-wearing figure, whose face is buried in his hands in shame. Walking past the rather inappropriate up close and personal capture of an artist couple, then a large painting of young ladies in black singlets embracing, Khairul Azmir Shoib’s work stands out with its bleak mood. Looking at an illustration of a topless lady in pantyhose (with legs wide open) is already a disturbing sight, the discomfort aggravated further by the artist’s cartoonish characterization. 

Haslin Ismail – A Little Box of Miracles in the Solar System (2016)

Haslin Ismail’s cut-outs arranged in containers are always interesting, of which four examples are exhibited here. ‘A Little Box of Miracles in the Solar System’ is an exceptional small work, where images of cosmological diagrams are crammed within a compartmentalized wooden box. Space as human curiosity – defined from ancient times to the medieval era – is transcribed here as a literal display of curios, complete with arcane signs and oval shapes that become markers for other spatial dimensions. Taking a different approach is Tetriana Ahmed Fauzi, whose photograph projects a colourful and alien-looking plant emerging within an open oven. It is a curious image of hope (or the end of it), where the extra-terrestrial grows out of an extreme environment made by man. 

Tetriana Ahmed Fauzi – Siti (2012)

Resisting the temptation to treat such group shows as a survey of Malaysian art (now), I end up dwelling upon visually-minimal works. Acrylic drawings of humans from the back, are justaposed with various re-scaled plants by Poodien, the picture invoking a poetic sense of disconnectedness. Azam Aris’ ‘Belajar Untuk Pergi’ utilizes gold thread to depict pairs of hands, seemingly reaching out for help from deep pools of water. The embroidered pillow is endowed with cultural connotations that cannot be ignored, and the image of open-palm hands raised overhead, is a powerful one. From aspirations of self-actualization, to dreams of breaking away from one’s identity, to social events like weddings and migrations, the emotional charges that propels one’s motivation is always wading in a deep puddle. Sleep on it, and time to go.

Azam Aris – Belajar Untuk Pergi (2016)

04 November 2016

Era Mahathir @ ILHAM

Is it coincidence that the years which a Malaysian prime minister was in power (1981 – 2003), can be transcribed into an art exhibition? No doubt it is convenient, as organisers like utilising a fixed duration to fix the scope of a gallery exhibition. Since the guy is still regularly in the news, the free publicity is an added bonus, right? On the fifth floor, the visitor is greeted by comic panels that were first published on newsprint in the early 1980s, and a History Channel documentary produced in 2009. On the third floor (the fourth floor boys are absent from this building?), newly commissioned works include coffee-stained photographic collages, and recorded interviews which exhibited form (as a three-channel video installation) undermines its candid content. Is this exhibition capturing a zeitgeist, a legacy, or neither?

Detail installation snapshots of Liew Kung Yu – Pasti Boleh (Sure Can One) (1997)

The incoherence extends to the exhibits’ nonsensical arrangement, where convenience and spectacle are deemed more critical factors over the artwork’s individual context. Liew Kung Yu’s larger-than-life collage-sculptures ‘Pasti Boleh (Sure Can One)’ occupy one end of the gallery, and feature interactive elements to entertain visitors. The artist’s disarming use of icons – from golf balls to classical motifs to DBKL tong sampahs – is delightful and ironic for the most part, but it is the repeating image of the Petronas Twin Towers which is problematic. Relegating Kuala Lumpur’s most famous building to an opportunistic phallic symbol is an effective artful approach, but falters here when the work is situated in another steel tower built by one associated with the same authoritarian regime, that made the Twin Towers a Malaysian reality.

Hamidah Abdul Rahman – Self-portrait (2000)

The exhibition space itself is a potent element which neutralises the majority of works, especially Chuah Chong Yong’s towering installation at the gallery’s other end. Metal sculptures by Multhalib Musa and Zulkifli Yusoff are placed side-by-side with Hamidah Abdul Rahman’s black-eyed ‘Self-portrait’, thereby pitting heroic gestures against a personal reaction, to events grounded in Malay feudalism. On the opposite wall, Azizan Paiman’s droll illustrations make fun of rhetorical quotes, yet missing are works from the same series that feature Mahathir Mohamad and Daim Zainuddin. General commentaries in the form of metaphors provoke a cynical chuckle – such as Phuan Thai Meng’s leaking pipes, and Juhari Said’s corsage-flaunting gorilla – while one wonders the relevance of showing prints from the “Digital Collage” series by Ismail Zain.

Vincent Leong – Lot 3-75 (2012)

Therein lies the crux of this exhibition’s problems. By naming him, all issues and circumstances that occurred during a fixed duration are correlated with only one person, thus granting further agency to one powerful individual. Was an international tourism marketing campaign led by Mahathir? Why is the controversial National Economic Policy associated to just Mahathir? What does the Malaysian middle class’ liking for roman columns have anything to do with Mahathir? The reaction by artists to Ops Lalang – a political oppression that can be directly attributed to Mahathir – is only presented as documents in a glass box. Photographs and newspaper snippets overlay each other, denoting the carelessness and nonchalance of the organizers. Opposite, small screens play recordings of the eight-hour long ‘Skin Trilogy’ by Five Arts Centre, nary a chair nearby to ease one’s viewing experience.

[Jo Kukathas) #TanyaYBeeee – Will the petrol price affect the poor? [video published on 18th September 2013 on popteevee YouTube channel]

A compilation of Jo Kukathas’ ‘YBeeee’ videos offer welcome humour, as I pivot away from the proposed theme, to focus upon logical groupings of artworks. The found object aesthetic seems prevalent amongst MIA graduates, while painters prove that figurative depictions can portray strong emotions as effectively as abstract brushwork. One wall displaying works by Yee I-Lann, Nirmala Dutt Shanmughalingham, and Vincent Leong, project great examples of socio-political artwork, where the artists’ vantage point (i.e. perspectives) are literally embedded in the creation of pictures. Despite my detestation for large paintings, Ahmad Fuad Osman’s intense self-portrait stand out as an effective protest symbol in this politically-saturated gallery space, where the repressed sentiment is still present 17 years later. Also relevant today is the visual elucidation of the impact of media images, in Nur Hanim Khairuddin's video 'se(RANG)ga'.

Detail snapshots of Anurendra Jegadeva – Running Indians and the History of Malaysian Indians in 25 Clichés (2001)

A missing strain in this narrative is the emergence of collectors who were supportive of politically-charged expressions, masquerading as the thinking person’s art (a notion still popular now, as if the Moderns thought lesser). They likely belong to a social class that patronised one of the curator’s former private gallery, where more than half of the current exhibits have shown before. Further convoluting the presentation are the four catalogue essays, which cover broad topics related to authoritarian rule, but only one relating to Malaysia's visual art history. So what if Mahathir had no interest in visual art? Why is there no mention of Anwar’s role in the nation’s gradual Islamization? Who decided to include ‘Puncak Purnama’ into the exhibition’s chronological timeline at the last minute? Where is Syed Ahmad Jamal’s logo design for Parti KeAdilan Nasional? APA? SIAPA? KENAPA?

Nirmala Dutt Shanmughalingham – Great Leap Forward VI – Bakun (1998)

“The reductive Era Mahathir branding is the sound of the first mine going off. I wonder why you would want to brand an exhibition of progressive, independent art with the name of a politician, no matter how important you consider him to be? It immediately brings to bear issues of power, gender, patriarchy, ethnicity and ideological interpellation. It has the effect of branding all the work in the show. And it underscores the impression that the exhibition, and the gallery itself, are tied into the game of thrones of Malaysian politics. The public will be forced to confront the spectacle of a supposed struggle between Barisan power elites, with Mahathir and Daim on one side vs Najib and his cronies on the other. But when boiled down to a paste, don’t both sides really represent the same ethos and ideology? And is it an ethos and ideology shared by the exhibited artists?”
‎- excerpt from Ray Langenbach‎’s 5th July 2016 letter to Rahel Joseph, as published in a posting dated 13th September 2016 on ILHAM gallery’s Facebook page

Ahmad Fuad Osman – Syhhh..! Dok diam-diam, jangan bantah. Mulut hang hanya boleh guna untuk cakap yaaaa saja. Baghu hang boleh join depa... senang la jadi kaya (1999)

16 September 2016


...Ponderings about being Muslim are made manifest in complementing prints by Sulaiman Esa and Ponirin Amin, which should have been placed closer together. The former utilises iconographic juxtaposition to present an ongoing inquisition, while the latter formalises a meditative moment via gridlines, the girl in the foreground acting as an appreciative intermediary with the Supreme Being. At the opposite end of the gallery, one comes across in sequence - a reconceptualised pastoral landscape by Redza Piyadasa, two paintings by Ismail Zain highlighting the aura of cultural motifs, Joseph Tan’s large and misty scene, and a pioneering example of Islamic calligraphy as fine art by Ahmad Khalid Yusof. Appreciation quickly turns into irritation, as I notice that the English titles have been omitted from wall labels, an observation applicable to other exhibits in the gallery.

Ponirin Amin – Dalam Sinar Mu (1978)

Displayed together under the section titled ‘Pasca Dasar Kebudayaan Kebangsaan’, these five artworks form an awkward collection that appear irrelevant to its theme. The National Cultural Congress 1971 is often cited as an important milestone in Malaysian visual art history, in terms of a paradigm shift from Art for Art’s Sake to Art for Society’s Sake, and an official endorsement to incorporate more Malay cultural motifs within artworks. How these pieces can be attributed to this single event, require strong justifications from the curators, if clarifications are necessary. Walking past photographic collages and expressionist paintings, I stand awed by one eccentric painting by Zulkifli Dahlan. At the centre-left of ‘Kedai-Kedai’, people sit and eat at roadside stalls underneath trees that recall the Post-Impressionist stylings of Gauguin/ Van Gogh.

Zulkifli Dahlan – Kedai-Kedai (1973)

The somewhat disproportionate scale of naked figures, denote a keen understanding of human perception towards its immediate environs, as one imagines a similar scene while sitting along a pavement and gazing upon a busy street in the late evening. This painting was among the pieces displayed in the 1973 “Man and his World” competition, which joint-winners include a collection of personal items by Sulaiman Esa, and Nirmala Dutt Shanmughalingam’s ‘Statement 1’. In a 1998 exhibition at a private gallery, Chu Li writes that the latter work “…had set the precedent for the role of artist as social commentator in Malaysia.” Consisting of onsite photographs and newspaper snippets, Nirmala’s documentary approach is a formal and truthful account (contrary to art’s assumed illusory properties) of matters one deems worth expressing. In other words, a statement.

Nirmala Dutt Shanmughalingam – Statement 3 (1979)

More potent is ‘Statement 3’, where photographs of children living at Kampung Batu 4 Jln. Damansara, were taken over a course of four subsequent years, then juxtaposed against captures of the then-recently completed residential areas of Bukit Damansara and Bangsar. Reportedly rejected at the time of its creation for being “too socialist”, the national institute then collected the work in 1983. Being bought into the national collection, however, is not always a positive situation for a local artist. Lee Kian Seng, who protested in the past about Balai’s treatment of his sculpture ‘Mankind’, will again be disappointed to witness the current presentation, which was missing a layer of grass at the time of visit (although a plaque does state that “Restoration Work is in Progress”). The artist also claimed that the same work was wrongly installed, at a group exhibition in 2000 curated by Redza.

Installation snapshot of Lee Kian Seng – Mankind (1973)

It is ironic then that Kian Seng’s creation is placed adjacent to, an entire section devoted to Piyadasa and his synonymous association with Conceptual Art in Malaysian art history. Walking past painted shadows, and cringing at self-righteous (and sometimes multi-coloured) string of words, I return to the ‘Empty Canvas’. Along with one empty birdcage, these items were first shown at the landmark 1974 exhibition “Towards A Mystical Reality”. The painting is an intriguing item – it is primed and stapled over its frame a few times over, the gaping marks left behind then, even clearer now. The object describes a moment in a painting’s lifecycle, but due to it being displayed ahead of time (of its intended period), the object turns into a relic, full of imagined potential yet useless in its current form. Additional meaning is introduced into the object as time goes on, so… when is art?

Installation snapshots of Redza Piyadasa & Sulaiman Esa – Empty Canvas (1974)

Reflecting critically on the merits of individual artworks is a worthwhile activity, but a curated exhibition – especially one with the ambitious objective to establish a permanent exhibition of a national collection – deserves scrutiny as a whole. After the successful staging of “PEMBENTUKAN”, “PERALIHAN” is a let-down, which perhaps implies a structural issue about the re-telling of history in this country. Without archival documentation and wall labels introducing the exhibition segments, the hackneyed categories project an over-simplified narrative of Malaysian art history, resulting in an incongruous visiting experience. In an era when postmodernism is a meaningless adjective, it is perhaps best that Western art movement like Abstract Expressionism and Conceptual Art are no longer used to describe Malaysian artworks. That is the transition, we need..

Syed Thajudeen (1972) [from l to r]: Ramayana; Hanuman Visits Sita; Ramayana

13 September 2016


…This segment of Balai Seni Lukis Negara’s “MAPPING” project focuses on the 1960s and 1970s timeframe in Malaysian art history. A glaring difference with “Formasi” showing downstairs, is the lack of archival documentation which supplement the exhibits. The presentation of “Peralihan” is split into two galleries without a clear narrative difference, resulting in an incongruous visiting experience.  One obvious reference is the clichéd tale of Abstract Expressionism’s popularity, and artists’ reaction towards this preferred style. It is disappointing that the curators have chosen to go with this outdated storyline, even if it is a convenient excuse to fit pieces from the national collection, into two galleries of different sizes. Writings by Redza Piyadasa, who propagated this belief during his involvement with the institution, hang heavily within the second floor galleries.

Cheong Laitong – Black Magic (1964)

Such a set up renders the contents of Galeri 2B as periphery displays, a shame considering the great modernist qualities in a number of exhibits. T.K. Sabapathy writes in the 1976 “A View of Modern Sculpture in Malaysia” exhibition catalogue, that “(a)rt works produced on the basis of this (romantic) notion impress by the potency of the imagery, and the mastery of the craft.” Among the disparate layout for sculptures, Anthony Lau stands out with his wonderfully crafted pieces – bent & welded iron bars imbue ‘Jungle’ with an ominous feeling; applied ashes add a vitality to the polished rock surface of ‘Wild Bull’. Syed Ahmad Jamal’s visually-captivating ‘Perhubungan’ is also on display, as one notices that most creations in this gallery include obvious figurative elements, thereby debunking the myth (or lazy categorisation) of Abstract Expressionism in Malaysian art.

Anthony Lau – Wild Bull (1962)

Entering the larger Galeri 2A, one is greeted by Syed Ahmad’s ‘Jendela di Angkasa’; opposite it hangs a fine green-hued example of Ibrahim Hussein’s printage technique, titled ‘Mengapakah Kamu Begitu’. Both works belong in the section labelled ‘Refleksi terhadap Peristiwa Sosial’, perhaps because the former painting is “based on the students’ revolt in Paris in May 1968.” What comes to mind more immediately is the 1969 race riots in Kuala Lumpur, which had a profound effect on artists during that time. It is unclear if the national institution owns any critical works from that period – or has chosen not to exhibit it – but it cannot be ignored that one representative work following on this significant event (i.e. Piyadasa’s reconstructed coffin) is currently on display at the National Gallery Singapore.

Syed Ahmad Jamal – Window in the Sky (1969)

The gallery’s remaining exhibits are grouped either by noteworthy group shows or vague themes, thus highlighting the gaps in the national collection, with only few works allocated to each category. Safrizal Shahir writes “…that modern art of the 70s was a radical, bold and critical interpreter of the face and form of modern and postmodern Malaysian art.” Essays by the art academic are a key reference, although the vibrant multiplicity chronicled do not clearly manifest in this presentation. One resorts to appreciating outstanding individual artworks, of which there are many.  Around the corner hangs Ib’s ‘Genting’, which Jamal once described as “…a harmonious and serene picture.” To me, it is a rousing picture of sublimated sex. All lines lead to the high point at the painting’s centre, effectively conflating the figurative peak and metaphorical climax into one.

Ibrahim Hussein – Genting (1978)

Abstract artworks displayed in the section titled ‘Pelukis Arena Baru’, refer to the six artists who participated in a 1969 exhibition titled “The New Scene”. Striving for an “…impersonal, non-symbolic approach”, the play on optics and the human eye’s peculiarities result in an enjoyable walkthrough. Focus on any one of Tang Tuck Kan’s ’49 Squares’, and the picture is never static. Colour blocks in Choong Kam Kow’s ‘Vibration’ fade in and out, while ‘Blue Movement’ by Sulaiman Esa mimics fabric texture via the use of dyes. That such geometric abstractions are in vogue again in the Malaysian art market, follows on a reactive impulse towards the art popular in its time, expressive figuration in the latter case. Behind this wall hangs an astonishing triptych by Syed Thajudeen, who paints one Indian folklore in his unique style that is ambitious in scale, and surreal in presentation.

Tang Tuck Kan – 49 Squares (1969)

Three works approach the subject of Malay identity, via different and increasingly meaningful entry points. Dwelling upon the surface, Anuar Rashid assigns a mythology (Hikayat Inderaputera) to his luminous and fantastical painting. Syed Ahmad’s woven triangles and horizontal bands utilise its medium and design to proclaim an equal affinity towards ethnicity and religion, although its visual presentation remains anchored in formal artistic traditions. Ruzaika Omar Basaree constructs a window frame featuring carved Malay motifs, the open pane inviting the viewer to take a peek and mediate one’s expectations about Malay-ness. That these works are grouped together with the Ramayana mural and a Kam Kow print, and presented as ‘Refleksi terhadap Kebudayaan’, highlight a retrograde (and race-stereotype, in this case) segmentation that besets “MAPPING: Transition”...

Installation snapshot [from l to r]: Ruzaika Omar Basaree – Siri Dungun (1979); Syed Ahmad Jamal – Tumpal (1975); Anuar Rashid – Kelahiran Inderaputera (1978)

06 September 2016

Cage of Deliverance @ Wei-Ling Contemporary

Mortification of the flesh is a religious practice that is difficult to forget once seen. In Rajinder Singh’s case, it is the bearing of kavadi by devotees who worship the Hindu God of war, and the cheek & skin piercings commonly associated with this ritual. The artist expands his horizon to include many other cultural icons which represent deliverance, or the human need for atonement from shame. At the deep end of the gallery, a sequence of straight lines cut into five fingers is projected, disarming the visitor who had just walked past gilded poles and an assortment of Chinese plates & bowls laid out on the ground. Rajinder says that these objects are part of a performance to re-enact a wake, which is documented on a screen nearby. 

Three Studies on Everlasting (2016)

Wall hangings fall into three categories – square mandala-like paintings with figurative poses embedded, triptychs that both construct and deconstruct cultural designs, and large depictions of icons amalgamated from various cultures the artist is familiar with. The latter works are impressive and dominate a large corridor space. Rajinder appropriates the spatial memory of encountering such icons, instead of just depicting the subject’s form, the larger-than-life works imposing an authority akin to a magnificent marble statue seen within a Roman Catholic church. Disparate parts are fun to make out, but inconsequential to the overall interpretation – peacock feathers headdress, Chinese warrior vest and blade, stumpy yet elegant legs from Indian statues, angel wings, Balinese dance costume, Greek arms and silver halos…

Restitution (2016)

With titles like ‘Penance’ and ‘Reparation’, the theme of ‘Forgiveness’ is reinforced via repeated depictions of the vel, a divine javelin that is represented by the skewer in ritual practice. Most spear tips are embellished with gold leaf by the artist; multiple layers on the canvas demands a closer look. According to the artist, sand was laid over gesso to create a fine textured surface. Images of body parts are subsequently silkscreened, then oil paint and glittery metal sheets are applied, and powder is used in some cases. The end effect is slightly superficial but undeniably gorgeous, as vague memories of cultural rituals are re-constructed into a single figurative representation. That the bindi – a red dot on the centre of one’s forehead, worn by Hindu women – functions only as decorative element in these paintings, is the whole point. 

Purification (2016)

Balancing out these imposing works are the triptychs, typically composed of close-ups, plan views, and amalgamated structures constructed from pictures of religious sites. The architectural perspective of space provides a complementing dimension to the central theme of deliverance, as such motifs appropriate the spiritual experience attached to these forms by its initial creators. In ‘Three Studies on Immortality’, scratchy cloud patterns seen in Chinese temples are flanked by a Greek/Indian double image, and three towers that recall ringing medieval bells. Encounter with these icons belong to memories of different time and space, yet these visual cues refer to a singular element, that of a historical reverence for human salvation. When a church, temple, and mosque, is conflated to a single ghostly design, the spiritual aura does not diminish, even enhanced on further gazing.

Accept (2016)

Relative to other exhibits, the square mandala-like paintings denote the most simplistic aesthetic form of divinity, in its geometry and re-presentation of puja poses. Vel skewers become guide lines dividing each picture into quadrants, curiously negating a radial effect which potentially better fit this show. With its attention to detail, personal interpretations of accumulated experience, literally varied perspectives, and all through tinted lenses, Rajinder’s works propose an approach similar to its subject matter. To deliver oneself from one’s acknowledged frailties, a firm dedication to form and (aesthetic) purity is required for transforming one’s self. Cultivate attachment to attain detachment. However ostensible it may be, the end result is magnificent, as we know it. 

Three Studies on Immortality (2016)

30 August 2016

August, or Month of the Hungry Ghost (of Painting)

After the customary festive lull, a profusion of art exhibitions are staged in Klang Valley within the month. The first show I saw was deserted on opening night. Beautiful watercolours by a Shanghai artist, including a superb rendition of a red flower which, looked more like a bombing run photographed from an overhead drone. Painting is supposedly the dominant mode in Malaysian visual art, yet there are none who paint like this. Am I overestimating Malaysian painters? Perhaps, as I glance through upcoming listings. There are fewer painters exhibiting than previously assumed. Gallery chatter include the diminishing sales to local collectors this year, unethical practices of gallerists and curators, and the curious endeavor of selling artworks to fund for a specific cause. I return a few weeks later to watch video documentation of migrant labourers wielding bicycle wheels dipped in paint. The many wheels moving onscreen remain a mesmerising visual…

Hings Lim – Pusat Bandar Utara Selayang, 160612 (14 Painters : 3 Wheels) (2016)

…Is organising practical workshops a better way to raise funds (for an arts festival)? Perhaps, as I drop bank notes into the donation box. Then again, this workshop space was covered in paintings for sale a couple weeks later, to support the ambitions of one arts manager. In the mall upstairs, galleries show local prints, Japanese photographs, and young artists’ take on optical art and conceptual art. Few kilometres away, at an impressive collection of sculpture installations by one notable ceramic artist, sales were reportedly underwhelming. One of the artist’s older work is displayed in the city centre; Along with another group show in a nearby tower, both galleries are guilty for trivialising its subject matter into one-dimensional icons. Back at Dutamas, in front of large paintings by modern Malaysian artists, art enthusiasts gather to enjoy a poem recital; a few days later, they are back discussing a memorandum related to the careless treatment of public art…

Kamal Sazali - Pedas-pedas Bunga (2016)

…I glance out the window, as my ride-share driver zooms past a sculpture of oversized hibiscus plants, then drops me off at the headquarters of a banking institution. After enduring the inter-floor travels to complete a transaction, I step into an old gallery space covered in rice husks. A musty yet fragrant smell hangs in the air. Despite the pleasant sensory experience, this follow-on exhibition from one gathering of Southeast Asian artists was a disappointment. Quotes, sketches, and contact prints, emphasize the agency of the artist and the curator, but lack the shared tensions shared during last year’s conversations. I was expecting full-length video playbacks of these sessions, but only a video montage was exhibited. At another institution, one gets to enjoy artworks from the bank’s collection in a serene environment. The Merdeka theme is irrelevant, more so during a time when a new “bumiputera”-based political party is formed. I take notice of the more sinister-looking works, among many paintings…

Fung Yow Chork – Kong Siew Temple, KL (1981)

…Notwithstanding the demolishment of an unsightly and abandoned sculpture, Kuala Lumpur residents still got to participate in two arts festival in the same weekend. Which one is public, and which one is private? Braving the haze to attend a talk about alternative art spaces, I was rewarded with a wonderful display of art objects on sale at affordable prices. Not to mention the handmade linocut prints that got hand-delivered to myself a few days prior. Less affordable are chipped plaster sculptures and coarse wooden furniture exhibited in a Petaling Jaya bungalow, which gallerist is consulting another city-wide arts festival taking place in September, Warhol prints included. Is the perceived lack of diversity in Malaysian art a false statement? Am I being haunted by the ghost (of painting)? Are we better off selling those publicly-funded Monet paintings, instead of bringing it back? What if DBKL grew and maintained trees, instead of chopping them down? 

Sharon Chin – Monument Termite (2016) [from “Local Fauna (In Progress!)”]

23 August 2016

Pixel GIFs by Shika Corona/ Shieko Reto

“I've been inspired by pixel art and 80s B-grade sci-fi movies during the 80s and during college times in the 80s, playing my housemates computer games like the Lucas Art's 'Full Throttle', 'Day of Tentacle', 'Sam&Max hit the road', 'Street Fighter2', 'Raiden', '1942', 'Prince of Persia' etc, etc, and some other classics pixel games totally inspired me further”, remarks Shika Corona/ Shieko Reto in a blog posting one month ago. The artist has since gone on a roll to post her pixel GIF creations, starting with signature motifs such as the unicorn and the polar bear, to film noir scenes, to superb “DUSH!” and “TEBABO!” animated sequences.


Shika’s use of pixel GIFs is a wonderful extension to her art repertoire, which complements a vivid and incisive style; it is also an especially relevant medium to comment on current issues. A religious officer bursts into a transgender beauty pageant, only to be awarded ‘best dressed’. An iconic image of the Merdeka declaration, sees tears streaming down one Prime Minister’s face. Light reflects off the ‘Puncak Purnama’ sculptures, to give a federal minister an eyesore. Pokemon Go is hilariously translated into Malay, with a poke at religious authorities to boot. Irreverent colloquialisms like the Malaysian favourite 'otw' (on the way) also get an animated update, the medium particularly great for representing speed.


Scenes with rainfall are particularly poignant, be it to illustrate a calm lookout point, or a dark stormy night. Personal favourites so far are those with a futuristic and/ or surreal perspective, such as the Kuala Lumpur towers submerged in a desert (‘arabisasi…’), and ‘Post-apoKLip-Jaya 2’. The latter features a popular clown face, one silhouette of a building used for political conventions, exploding zombie heads, flashing lightning overhead, the eye of Sauron, culminating with a homage to cult classic Escape from L.A. All in seven seconds. Shieko’s pixel GIFs are nostalgic and recalls a time when personal computer games garnered mainstream appeal with urban kids. The aesthetic may be innocent, but her topics are always relevant. TEBABO!

Post-apoKLip-Jaya 2

16 August 2016

Convergence of Souls @ Black Box

With ongoing shows of modern/ postmodern Malaysian art presented in other parts of town, Fergana Art’s annual showcase is an impressive collection of works from generations past, also serving as a private sales exhibition targeted at institutions. Syed Ahmad Jamal rightfully headlines this collection – Puncak Purnama controversy or not – with the magnificent painting ‘Sidang Roh’. A dark purple background swirls and envelops the artist’s characteristic twin peaks, where a stream of arching white light touches one green pyramid. Overlapping paint layers represent metaphysical planes, and evokes a spiritual realisation. Interpreted together with Kassim Ahmad’s stirring poem, the painting offers a contained reaction to the brash prose.

Syed Ahmad Jamal – Sidang Roh (1970)

“…kalau kau percaya kepada manusia sejahtera
jangan kau bergembira mengikut hidup/ (karena kemenangan)
kalau kau percaya kepada manusia bebas
jangan kau berkata mengikut hukum/ (kerena taatsetia)
karena tidak ada hukum yang akan berlaku/ (namun digubal dalam pi bi bi)
yang tidak berpelembagaan di hati.”
- verses from the first part of Sidang Ruh by Kassim Ahmad, Petaling Jaya, 1960 [poem in full at demokorup.blogspot.com]

Joseph Tan – Graffiti Series (1969)

‘Sidang Roh’ presents a mature development in Syed Ahmad’s abstract style, which overshadows the earlier and more immediate ‘Chairil Anwar’, the latter work created a decade prior. An early painting and sketches done for his ‘Perhubungan’ sculpture are also on show, which allows visitors to appreciate the growth in one artist’s oeuvre. Such observations are the strength in this exhibition of many well-known artists. Looking at beautiful colour washes in an unfinished Tambun landscape by Joseph Tan, it is jarring to see the underlying angst in his “Graffiti series” hung nearby. ‘Dead’, a charcoal drawing covered with broken Perspex screen by Bayu Utomo Radjikin, presents a shocking portrait. Within a few years, however, the artist moved away from direct social commentary into abstract expressionism, which are frankly inferior when displayed beside old Yusof Ghani works.

Bayu Utomo Radjikin – Dead: Nik Nurul Suhada when she was fighting for her life at the Terengganu Hospital (1993)

Etchings dated between 1978 to 1980 by Abdul Mansoor Ibrahim are visually stunning, where works such as ‘3 Sequences’ and ‘Trace of Memories’, draw surreal pictures of an imaginary landscape (and would look great if converted into CGI). The “Serangga” series made three decades later retains his technical brilliance, but utilises a more recognizable subject matter. Other interesting prints include a clever layout of four Ismail Hashim photographs featuring chairs, each developed at a different time, yet clearly projecting his uncanny ability to highlight time passing. Two erotic silkscreens by Long Thien Shih (one so vulgar that viewing it requires a private appointment) are crowd pleasers, along with a number of works from Ismail Zain’s landmark “Digital Collage” series.

Abdul Mansoor Ibrahim – Trace of Memories (1979)

Unfortunately, small monochrome artworks fail to hold this visitor’s gaze in the presence of large colourful paintings. One example of the latter is Ismail Mustam’s ‘Three Horizons’, an astonishing triptych completed by the artist when he was 21 years old. Ismail’s smaller untitled figurative works are equally accomplished, where bodies in dramatic poses signify a youthful bravado. Done around the same time is the “Pago-Pago” series by Latiff Mohidin, which two landscape format paintings are displayed here. Reputedly gifts to artist peers, it is interesting to see the muted palette and close-up perspective utilised, as compared to the more popular Pago-Pago image of conflated tower(s) in primary colours.

Latiff Mohidin – Pago Pago (1967)

Walking past an oversized charcoal drawing of one migrant worker by Wong Hoy Cheong, and a delightful literal depiction of kepala batu by Fauzi Tahir, I stand before a stainless steel wall sculpture by Mad Anuar Ismail. Resembling a pendulum clock from a dystopic future, ‘Belangkas’ projects a powerful counterweight to the lofty ‘Sidang Roh’ hung across the gallery. Luminous painted stripes cover this representation of a living fossil, its metaphorical reference to a long-life deadweight perhaps describing the Malaysian Official 1… As a platform for encouraging institutions to collect, it is notable that the majority of exhibits are classified as modern Malaysian art, and all represented artists are male. A convergence of middle-aged men, biasalah.

Mad Anuar Ismail – Belangkas (2016)

09 August 2016

Bukan Objek Seni @ Galeri Chandan

‘Apa Yang Kamu Lihat Semasa Ke Pameran?’ ‘Sold Out!!!’ ‘Merakyatkan Seni Dengan Membawa Seni Ke Masyarakat’. ‘Tajuk apa ya nak tulis? UNTITLED aje laaaaa…’ ‘I Create Retinal Art’. ‘Seniman Adalah Seorang Pemikir Bukan Sekadar Tukang Buat Lukisan Cantik…’ These statements are among many printed on title cards, and displayed in a cluster (shape of an Arabic alphabet?), by Amir Amin. Complete with medium description and price tag, the artist points out the significance of a title card, in-forming an artwork’s (and its creator’s) identity. One’s imagination easily runs wild, when informed that a work titled ‘MALAYSIA OH MALAYSIAKU’ is made from “fibre glass, epoxy resin, fabrics & oil paint on MDF board”. Many other titles simply refer to questions about conceptual art. 

Installation and detail snapshots of Amir Amin – I Thought the Definition if a Good Artist Is... (2016)

Multiple mentions of a “J.A.W.I.” series make reference to the expected mode of being a Malay artist, i.e. produce aesthetically pleasing paintings in series, in order to make a living. Poignant too because the gallery’s previous exhibition featured paintings of figurative poses in mosques, the wall titles re-enact certain challenging truths of being an artist in Malaysia. Amir is part of Bukan Seni-man collective, whose six other members occupy this small gallery space with found objects. Walking past cotton wool stuck on a wall, and chewing gum stuck on a stool, not all exhibits are effective. Although climbing up the gallery’s ladder to look at Nazrul Hamzah’s horizontally-mounted canvas, is highly recommended for all visitors.

Installation snapshots of [foreground] Khairani Ahmad Zakuan – Hyoscine Butylbromide (2016); Nazrul Hamzah – Top Secret (2016)

Khairani Ahmad Zakuan’s empty silhouettes invoke loud laughter; more absurd and clever is “Pecahkan Karya Ini (…)” by Kamal Sazali. A hammer is encased within a glass box and presented as an art object, its title prodding the audience to destroy the artwork, with an object already declared as art. Khairani’s statement in Malay adds another dimension; Art and objecthood may be tired tropes in Western art history, but artworks in Malaysia are still overwhelmingly perceived as useless objects, and found objects as a medium is often utilised for metaphorical purpose only, without concern for its materiality. Bukan Seni-man’s KL debut show is brave and defies expectations. Coming back to Amir’s wall titles, the most expensive artwork asks (titled), ‘Mana Mungkin Objek Tidak Hidup Berbicara dan Mempertahankan Dirinya Sendiri?’ 

Installation snapshot of Kamal Sazali – Pecahkan Karya Ini, Jika Anda Tidak Sukakanya. Gunakan Tukul Tersebut. (2016)

02 August 2016

Fragile @ The Edge Galerie

During my visit, an elderly Caucasian couple strolls from one Umibaizurah Mahir artwork to another, admiring and discussing each piece with the gallery attendant. Ten roughly A3-sized black & white reproductions of classical European paintings, hang high on the rough brick wall, where one can barely see it under glaring spotlights. Another series of wall hangings project a collection of mini ceramic townhouses on oblong plates, recalling a stroll along the river of a Dutch countryside. Black crows that resemble the Eames House Bird perch upon larger sculptures, which are placed upon roman pedestals and dark-coloured plinths. Among the sculpted figures are a pair of sacrificial lambs, queen chess pieces, and a flying elephant. This is an art exhibition targeted at a European audience, or what its aesthetic values inform this visitor.

Installation snapshots of The Giver (2015–2016) [foreground]; 2 of 4 pieces for Share Location (2016) [background]

In a recent interview, Umibaizurah explains that “(h)er designs are derived from imagination and inspired by vintage toys found at European flea markets.” Plants and animals are utilised directly as abstruse signs, to represent topics such as the environment, or an assumed primal characteristic. In ‘The Orchard’, a toy giraffe sitting on a pile of bricks and vegetables, “is a depiction of willpower”. One Kewpie doll (of Japanese mayonnaise fame) stands atop a pyramidal stack of cylinders, ‘The Giver’ “…based on the idiom ‘charity begins at home’.” For ‘Yes, Sir!… On Duty’, a group of 32 toy soldiers encased in a large acrylic box, the artist says, “I am interested in the meaning of ‘enemy in the blanket’ besides exploring political affairs, leadership and loyalty”. 

Close-up view of Yes Sir!... On Duty (2015–2016)

“…amongst the stand outs include Yes Sir!... On Duty, a hierarchical array of tiny green soldiers poised in eternal salute, amassed on weighted dices painted with appealingly-feminine florae in blush. The contrast between machismo and almost effeteness is staggering; perhaps the artist’s conjectures on the world’s current state — in our zealousness for ‘power-covet’, we trample on and kill beauty. In retrospect, and perhaps relevant, my brother used to have hundreds of these microscopic plastic soldiers as a child, which he’d arrange to resemble a war zone, each side carefully divided by a sand dune. I recall asking him how he would be able to distinguish one over another as they all looked alike. The (then) 9-year-old solemnly replied, “Does it matter?.”"
- Keeper of Fragile Things, Sarah NH Vogeler, New Straits Times, 24 July 2016

Installation snapshot of The Lady “Smoky Haze” (2015–2016)

Tony Godfrey describes Umibaizurah’s works in the catalogue essay, as “potentially alien and strange”. “I am uncertain what they may mean. They are richer than decorative works but more difficult to grasp.” The observation about a “…toy that cannot be played with is odd”, is a potent one, thereby pigeonholing the ceramic creations into exhibition objects only. Play is most fun when the end goal is fuzzy; one imagines the artist in fervour to create, choosing shapes to mould and patterns to print as visual images spring to mind, the resulting end product informed by a streak of automatism. The focus on modularity – replication of basic shapes & figures – mimics Lego, alluding also to the toy manufacturer’s ability to produce en masse. Umi’s sculpture installations effectively present this capitalist ideal, where production is masked and selection drives its presented value. 

Installation snapshot of Love “Word of the Day” (2015–2016)

The “Unexpected Visitor” series best represents this approach, where various parts are tied down to a steel disc with metal strings. Zoomorphic characters sit precariously atop stacked I-beams like totem poles, projecting an ever-present risk of the sculpture breaking into pieces. With its beautiful motifs, handmade qualities, recognizable symbols, abstract meaning-making, and feigned Constructivism, the sculpture installations by Umibaizurah succeed as indisputable works of art. Arcane Surrealist images have historically found commercial success; one thinks of Dali and Koons, although Umi’s works do not rely on sensationalism, it is equally polished on the surface. If one is looking to buy art, this is it. Of course, overly-conservative Malaysian collectors are likely to still consider the wall hangings first. “Ceramic sculpture too fragile la”…

Installation snapshots of Unexpected Visitor (2016): [from l to r] #4; #6; #2