27 June 2016

AL-KESAH: Homage to Ismail Zain @ Galeri Petronas

Semiological. Intertextual. Structuralist. These common descriptors of Ismail Zain’s oeuvre do a disservice to his artistic output, in its establishing of an academic distance between the viewer and the artwork. As Ismail once said, “I don’t want to think of my work as being unique, symbolic, visionary, not even privileged.” In this tribute exhibition, a number of works are chosen/ commissioned, and shown together with Ismail’s own works loaned from public collections. Such display approach demands its exhibits to only be interpreted against Ismail’s art philosophy, a difficult effort due to an arbitrary arrangement and unclear groupings. Wordy works by Nasir Baharuddin and Noor Azizan Rahman Paiman, demonstrate how challenging it is to visually represent concepts such as intertextuality (and perhaps should not be attempted?)

Redza Piyadasa – The Malays – A Cultural History by R Windstedt, 1961, First Published 1974 (2008)

‘The Pavilion’ greets the visitor, the decorative abstract painting produced at a time, when Islamic art was touted as a desirable component within a Malay artist’s output. Ismail’s mundane garden landscape illustrates a personal worldview, which contrasts with the constructed commentary about contemporary Malay identity by Redza Piyadasa hung opposite. Opposing too the reflective qualities of ‘The Pavilion,’ is Fadli Yusoff’s creation that invites introspection. Other exhibits literally present mirrors, such as Hamir Soib’s giant white canvas, or the broken glass mosaic by Razak Abdul Jabbar. The latter – ‘Spirit of the Hornbill Dance’ – reminds of Ismail’s role as an influential cultural bureaucrat (when he championed local performing arts), and is flanked by two paintings by Haron Mokhtar whose signature compositions appropriate the visual arrangement in ‘Al Kesah’.

Haron Mokhtar – Sisi Melaka I (Hang Li Po) (2015)

Walking past a lurid digital collage, one is confronted with the seminal artwork, and exhibition namesake. Moonlight illuminates a fictional family from a television show halfway around the world. Eagles soar in the in-between space, as I conjure an alternative title ‘Helang dah Sampai’, that pales in comparison with the colloquial wordplay of the original title. Kisah apa? Sapa tak kesah? Looking at two other works from the same series, it is apparent that pixellated forms emphasize the iconic nature of the images. Compositions are careful; Scale and density of dots matter, as in the censored nude lady in ‘Magic Marker’, and the faded mirror-image of ‘Vincent’. Illusion is negated in favour of allusion, as Ismail effectively portrays that Western values inherently manifest in art. Everyone is a content-creating artist on social media, but whose aesthetics are being adopted?

Ismail Zain – Al Kesah (1988)

Yee I-Lann’s doctored ‘Kopivosian’ presents an effective evolution of Ismail’s semiological art-making approach, although the juxtaposed images in Azlan Mohd Latib’s photographs are less effective due to nostalgia-inducing coffee stain effects. One rewarding exhibit is Umibaizurah Mahir’s ‘Secret Toys #2’, where a ceramic horse is decorated with floral prints, then affixed to a set of oversized wheels. The fragile body (and its identity) is progressing in this contemporary age, yet constrained by traditional labels. A similar resistance takes a different form in hands painted by Hasnul J Saidon, who mentions Ismail as a mentor. The sentimentality in Hasnul’s works can be overpowering; one exception is ‘Takungan’, the resin sculpture in an oil drum more potent here (a gallery owned by the national oil company), than I last saw it two years ago in a white box gallery.

[foreground] Umibaizurah Mahir – Secret Toys #2 (2007); [background] Fadzil Idris – Nusantara: Manusia & Anai-Anai (2016)

Good individual artworks are displayed, which fail to provide complementing perspectives to Ismail Zain’s art philosophy. Fadzil Idris’ beautiful found object assemblage questions the ontology of art. A large installation by Raja Shahriman terrifies as much as it is theatrical. Izaddin Matrahah’s paintings present Dada-like juxtapositions, while Sharmiza Abu Hassan’s transparent chair is more allegorical than symbolic. Coffee strainer head dresses by Bibi Chew qualify as interactive art, as I imagine donning it behind a backlit screen, like a wayang kulit character. One can deduce from wall statements that Ismail’s 1970 work ‘The Wayang Affair – Yield It! Yield It!’ was likely quoted in artists’ briefs. Walking in the circular exhibition space, “abstracted energies” materialise and dematerialise based on the aura of artworks, which describes an essentialist experience that Ismail resisted.

Ismail Zain – DOT – The Detribalisation of Tam binte Che Lat’ (1983)

I appreciate another significant work ‘DOT – The Detribalisation of Tam binte Che Lat’, which visual experience suppresses its surrounding exhibits. A household is dissected into chunks of perspectives, where projected images and material objects occupy the painting’s flat surface as markers of modernity. Development over Tradition? Destiny of Things? An exhibition that intersperses works, by the person being honoured, and by those paying homage, inevitably leads to messy interpretations. History has not been kind to Ismail, who is now remembered as an “intelligent” artist, and it is expected that the exhibiting artists read and interpret his legacy differently. That this arbitrary arrangement unwittingly presents Ismail Zain as an icon, is perhaps most ironic among all reflections, as I glance at ‘The Pavilion’ one more time before stepping out of the gallery.

Noor Azizan Rahman Paiman – Random Access Memory (2001)

“Ismail abjures the divisions and disjunctions that are framed in art histories between primitivism, tradition and modernity as well as those between “high and “low” art. One other effect of this strategy is to expose the fragility of the modern Malaysian art tradition placed against the expressive and metaphysical coherence of traditional art. Ismail’s single-minded desire to recapture form from its entrapment by content pulls him to accord priority to intuitive procedures in artistic expression. Actually, in his eagerness to salvage the vivacity of form in understanding art, he comes close to arguing that form is content. To be sure, his artistic sensibilities endows him with an acute consciousness of intuition and the perception that the artist while making art may be unconscious of the meanings he is generating.”
- Ismail Zain: A Protean Appearance in Malaysian Art, Krishen Jit, 1995

Installation snapshot of Hasnul Jamal Saidon – Hijab Nurbaya Series (2003); ‘Takungan’ in foreground

22 June 2016

Narratives in Malaysian Art: Infrastructures (II)

...In the next section, Nur Hanim Khairuddin’s concise and illuminating essay traces the development of independent “Artist Initiatives” that “…challenge the hegemonic control of institutional and commercial sectors”. Self-expression and public engagement go hand in hand, and associating these initiatives with the underground music scene is rightfully highlighted. That collectives grow into institutions, is indeed food for thought. Most fascinating is the discussion around interdependence, where Hasnul J. Saidon remarks, “(i)t’s [about] power. No matter what you call it, you want to call it independence, there is a structure behind it and I’m interested to see that structure. I want to see it visible. If it is possible, I want to see who gives you money, who supports you, who writes about you, who creates discourse, who creates the taste.” Yes, I want to see it too.

Hasnul J. Saidon - KDEK!KDEK!ONG! (1994)

Quotes from the roundtable discussion in “The Art Market” section include, “I’m looking for an artist who can think and a reason to paint what he paints”, “[art collectors are] not accountable to anyone”, “(p)lease, whoever writes art criticism, don’t underestimate the intellect of the collector”, and “(t)he truth is I want to sell a painting and I’m trying very hard to make a painting that is saleable.” The emergence of “new market platforms” indicates a growing demand, although it is acknowledged that only paintings/ “buyable” art are supplying this demand. Art buyers are not sufficiently interrogated, which could draw out the reasons people buy artworks from artists, e.g. art as luxury collectible, art as asset class, art as taste making, art as culture marker, etc. Actually, I just want to know why a number of well-known Malaysian collectors buy large figurative paintings only.

Jalaini Abu Hassan - Bomoh Urut (2004) [picture from trfineart.com]

That artworks apart from paintings are not sought after locally, denote a lack of awareness and ability to judge art by its private audience. Art will continue to be seen as Science’s poorer cousin within the existing education system. Such outmoded thinking and methods take a back seat in the “Art Education” section, which focuses on tertiary education, and its methods and issues. Starting from a nationalist agenda, pioneering teachers developed syllabuses based on their overseas training, which then evolved into more market-centric courses for private colleges. Musings from former lecturers such as Yeoh Jin Leng and Zainol Shariff provide keen insights, whereas Tengku Sabri Ibrahim proposes the best form of education one can attain, that of “self-learning by practice and understanding, and tacit education…” Is visual art part of the knowledge economy?

Yeoh Jin Leng - Sawah, Dusun, Bukit, Langit (1963)

In the volume’s last section “On Writing and Publications”, Sharon Chin writes in her essay – ‘When Everyone Does Everything: Crossing Disciplines and the Predicament of Wearing Many Hats in Malaysian Art’ – about the “under-professionalism” of the local art world, and how “…it may yet lead to an unforeseen blossoming of ideas, thoughts, and ways of making and looking.” In the Narratives in Malaysian Art project managed by consultants, sponsored by institutions and collectors, and writings contributed by many artists, one comes away impressed by the instigating impulse of those passionate about Malaysian art. There is no doubt our art infrastructure will continue developing for the better; in one roundtable discussion, Angela Hijjas says, “(w)hatever you wanted to do, you did, and it would have an impact on somebody. So it was fairly easy to make a difference.”

Installation view of Sharon Chin - Mare Clausum/Closed Sea (2006) [picture from 4ourthworld.blogspot.com]

19 June 2016

Narratives in Malaysian Art: Infrastructures (I)

Infrastructures is the easiest book to read among the three volumes of Narratives in Malaysian Art published so far, even though it contains no colour pictures. Topics revolve around people and structures in the local art scene, that support how art comes into being here. Essays which document historical events are incorporated with transcribed forums and interviews, to combine into a straightforward read about facts and opinions. The volume begins with an abridged (39 pages!) essay by Syed Ahmad Jamal – ’25 Years of Malaysian Art, 1957-1982’ – which lays the groundwork for the topics elaborated in this book. Instigators drive the development of the art world, be it pioneering makers, passionate collectors, or curriculum designers. The remarkably strong-willed independent spirit described, still applies to the current situation, and that is comforting.

Syed Ahmad Jamal - Lencana Balai Seni Lukis Negara (1984)

It is imperative to consider the idea behind each of the five sections – that government and organisations should support the arts (“Institutions”), that artists should organise themselves (“Artist Initiatives”), that art is a commodity (“The Art Market”), that tertiary education is beneficial to the artist (“Art Education”), and that writings about art is a productive endeavour (“On Writing and Publications”). As one who does not agree completely with these ideas (except the second one), the presented perspectives become useful references. Contributors’ biographies, and frameworks utilised in putting together this compilation (such as Yap Sau Bin’s ‘MappingKLArtSpace’, or the conversation about art education ideas with three lecturers), are made transparent to the reader, who can then deduce inherent biases.

Yap Sau Bin - …who gave birth to the Great White One…? (2002) [picture from arty-arty.blogspot.com]

For a book about material structures, it is ironic that the main content is described via personal viewpoints of people operating within these infrastructures. The art world defines itself. This approach demands a level of critical self-awareness, and plays out accordingly in a number of roundtable discussions organised by the editorial team, who laments about “the lack of discourse” in the volume’s introduction. When successful (‘…on the Practice of Malaysian Independent Art(ist) Initiatives’), facets of genuine discourse emerge; When unsuccessful (‘…Art Market Dynamics in Malaysia Today’), the conversation turns into a sham where participants talk past each other. Such settings encourage people to express ideals, and deny some in elaborating about things being done, to achieve these ideals.

Yee I-Lann - Sulu Stories: Barangay (2005) [picture from yeeilann.com]

The moderator is sometimes at fault, like when different set of questions are fielded to past and present directors of Balai Seni Visual Negara. The latter’s response conforms to his role as a public official, which when compared to previous interviewees, unfairly portrays a bureaucratic and stuffy outlook. From conversations recorded in the “Institutions” section, Balai’s role in developing local art seems to be overly broad and impractical to execute. That Bank Negara received a “backlash” for purchasing Southeast Asian artworks, also point to a lack of understanding of what an art institution should be. Not discussed in depth are the impacts of the National Visual Arts Development Board Act 2011, or acquisition policies, although it is implied that only a select few determine what art is collected. In a patriarchal society like Malaysia’s, such regulations have a suppressive effect...

Nur Hanim Khairuddin - seRANGga (2003-2004)

14 June 2016

Framing the Common @ PORT Commune

Sidestepping the capitalist mode of defining spaces as private versus public, a collective of architects presents the Common, hereby referred to as “…the commonly-owned shared spaces of the modern project of housing…” This initiative is currently exhibited at the Tehran and Venice Biennales of Architecture, and local enthusiasts are treated to a “copy” of the exhibition with a focus on the Razak Mansions estate scheduled for demolition in 2017. These “spaces of encounter” project a uniformity which repeating patterns are aesthetically pleasing, yet restrained in its socially-binding proposition. Neighbours come and go, where common issues debated relate to the inhabited environment. Are corridors a sufficiently large space to produce useful discourse?

Snapshots of pictures in catalogue for Framing the Common: Kuala Lumpur 

“How do we frame Razak Mansions’ idea of the commons, as a concept that stages itself around the term “pubic”, “community”, and the “social”, as it addresses a common space? A common, as a space, indicates space, either by location or context, paved or green, owned wholly by the community. The community, inhabits these spaces, usually public in nature and are united by either a common way of life, cultural, ethnic identity or other factors. Here, the commons are physical, visible and accessible spaces of encounters outside one’s own contained and constructed realities, where the public enact rituals and make claim on the city, their right to the city.”
- from catalogue for Framing the Common: Kuala Lumpur

[l] Abdul Hakim Abdullah – Courtyard; [r] Nazmi Anuar – Common Space/ Common Ritual

10 June 2016

MARANG Experiments in Colour 1952-70 Pt 1 @ Modern Art Transact

After admiring the precise compositions and abstract sandscapes in photographs of a famous coastal area, one has to ask – why did Sultan Ismail Nasiruddin Shah not develop these coloured Ektachrome slides during his lifetime? The current custodian of Sultan Ismail’s archive made it known that Photoshop was utilised to equalise faded colours and remove unsavoury stains. Which makes appreciating these pictures an interesting experience – was this red head scarf as vivid now as then? Are the faint lines among the sand an original design or a current development? How many authors are there in each photograph? Notwithstanding conceptual concerns, looking at the output of this pioneering Malaysian photographer remains hugely enjoyable, as I await the subsequent follow-on exhibitions.

Installation snapshot 

06 June 2016

MAPPING (III): PEMBENTUKAN @ NVAG

Looking at an early painting by Cheong Laitong, one is reminded of the glass mosaic mural on Muzium Negara’s façade. Perhaps a photograph can better pique public interest; another suggestion for curators is to work together with external parties, such as the Malaysia Design Archive who currently hosts articles about art & culture written in the 1950s. One featured writer is Mohamed Salehuddin, whose ‘At the Kampung Shop’ hangs in the Angkatan Pelukis SeMalaysia (APS) section. The straightforward picture shows a Malay lady buying rice from a Chinese merchant, her driver and car in the background. That this scene be proposed as an “…indictment of Chinese economic exploitation…”, infers that critic Redza Piyadasa’s sensitivities were ahead of his time.

Mohamed Salehuddin – At the Kampung Shop (1959)

A 1995 newspaper article by Ooi Kok Chuen describes Salehuddin as a social activist, who was once imprisoned for his anti-colonial writings for Majlis, a magazine that eventually ceased publication after being boycotted by UMNO. Hoessein Enas is quoted as saying that Salehuddin was neither a full-time artist, nor an APS member. This contradictory statement recalls the issues of segregating this exhibition into art groups, and point to the fissures within historical narratives that make history a fascinating subject. Although not mentioned here, art historian Zainol Abidin Ahmad Shariff had suggested that the formation of APS was to compete with cultural groups friendly with the Arts Council, who was supported by the British and local government at that time.

Yusoff Abdullah – Wayang Kulit (1960)

“FORMATION” ends with a timeline that tells the formation of the Arts Council, the establishment of the National Art Gallery Act 1959, and its subsequent evolution into the National Visual Arts Development Board Act 2011. Graphic posters of past exhibitions and Syed Ahmad Jamal’s bronze eye logo are pretty exhibits, but present an abrupt end to this important exhibition. While eagerly anticipating the Equator Art Group section to be opened, and the “TRANSITION” (1960s – 1970s) exhibition to be properly fitted out upstairs, I am reminded that the National Art Gallery was the first of its kind in Southeast Asia. Now, one of the most well-known painting in its collection – Soo Pieng’s ‘Tropical Life’ – is on loan at the National Gallery Singapore’s inaugural exhibition. 

Cheong Soo Pieng – Gadis Bali Dua Beradek (1956) 

The strongest aspect in this exhibition is its archival content. News snippets and exhibition catalogues provide fresh insights, and the invested visitor is offered an unprecedented opportunity to learn about Malaysian art history in a public space. Jotting down my personal notes gleaned from the exhibited content – O Don Peris made his name with a portrait of the Johor Temeggong, and drew “a large oil painting” depicting the surrender of British troops to the Japanese army at Bukit Timah heights; Abdullah Ariff is a talented caricaturist and illustrated potent propaganda cartoons, thus countering the perception of an idyllic watercolourist who charmed British housewives; The Japanese cracked down on Penang Chinese art groups in 1941…

Kuo Ju Ping – Kilang (1958)

…Joo For wrote a scathing critique in 1966, proclaiming the death of the Penang art scene “…because no matter how much beauty or quality any painting radiates (…) no paintings are ever purchased”; First day covers highlighting works from the national collection exists; Tay Hooi Keat was teacher and president of the school art club where my father studied; Indian artist N.N. Nambiyar ran art classes at Brickfields during the 1940s; In a 1981 interview, Chen Sun promotes Malaysian Institute of Art as the training ground for a commercial art career; The snippet also describes controversial artworks (e.g. ‘The Embryo Snatcher’) at its annual exhibition, even mentioning a work titled ‘Roach I’ that was “…banned from the exhibition at the last minute.”

Snapshots of archival content on display

Having only read about it, I finally got to see Redza’s writings in local newsprint. Displayed here is a 1994 rebuke to an article by Kok Chuen, titled ‘Hoessein never stunted the Malay mind!’ Useful archival material masks another curatorial decision that deserves applaud – exhibits are not accompanied by wall texts that over-explain a particular artwork, which sometimes plague Singaporean museum displays. As a stepping stone to establish a permanent exhibition of the national collection, this project looks very promising. Working within its constraints, the exhibition segments are sufficiently inclusive, and its curatorial approach well thought out. Time to plan another visit in a couple months, this time to the second floor…

Sivam Selvaratnam – Malapetaka (1962)

“… some of those who graduated from the Nanyang taught in Malaya and some artists like Zakariah Noor had dual membership in both the WAG and the APS, but in terms of identity these three groups go in three different directions (…) These different preoccupations are not surprising, as the different directions of these art groups reflected the void of the Malayan/sian identity as the artists were unsure of the form of Malaysian identity in the new nation as reiterated by Cheah Boon Kheng. He claims that during the 1950s and the 1960s, no one was certain about the nature of Malaysian identity since the term bangsa, ‘nation,’ and ‘race’ were still ambiguous.”
- Absenteeism of Malaysian Identity in Art in the Early Years of Independence, Sarena Abdullah, Jati Vol. 15, 2010

Untitled painting by Zakariah Noor (1960)

03 June 2016

MAPPING (II): PEMBENTUKAN @ NVAG

Moving on from colonial pictures, “FORMATION” highlights local artists active during the period from 1920s to 1960s. Galeri 1A is demarcated into ten sections corresponding to art groups, each segment clearly labelled with introductory wall texts. Such segregation sidesteps chronological issues, but risks pigeonholing artists and their affiliations. Nonetheless, this effective display approach works great to describe the burgeoning art scenes across Malayan locations and ethnic communities, hence turning the emphasis upon artists' background and influences. From court painter to Chinese artists in Penang & Singapore, to Kuala Lumpur’s turn as an art hub, the presented timeline is a straightforward one.

K. K. Lau – Let There Be Space for All Things (1970)

Art societies such as the Penang Impressionists, Yin-Yin Art Circle, and 南洋书画社, were formed in the early 20th century, but the earliest exhibited artworks are made in the early 1950s. This highlights the main constraint of “PEMETAAN” – it has to utilise works within the 3,600+ strong national collection to narrate our visual art history. Prints are an early highlight. Lee Joo For’s linocut and K.K. Lau’s lithography intrigue with its mystical symbolism and spatial layers, while the cover design on old exhibition catalogues make great viewing. Some of these shows were held in Chinese schools where Penang artists taught, as I begin to notice the (overseas) places where artists trained, which contributed to the diverse art philosophies and visual output after this point in time.

Snapshots of graphic posters and exhibition catalogues on display

The Nanyang Academy of Fine Art sections appear to be the most challenging to set up. Its representative artists are predominantly Singaporean, yet the Nanyang School has casts a lasting influence on Malaysian artists. Nanyang pioneers are firmly established within Singapore’s art canon, so how should one present these artists while mapping Malaysian art history? (Parallel issues exists while narrating the official histories of both countries.) From socially-conscious woodcuts to cubist forms to post-impressionist colours, the diversity on show can be difficult to interpret. I notice that the Equator Art Group section is not yet unveiled, where the group’s focus on social themes could provide a good counterpoint to Nanyang artists more inclined towards pictorial beauty.

Tay Chee Toh – Ibu Dayak dengan Anak (1968)

Emelia Ong’s concise essay The Nanyang Artists: Eclectic Expressions of the South Seas provides a useful approach to distinguish the issues tackled by Nanyang artists. Three categories are proposed – those who “…(fuse) elements from different artistic traditions…”, those who “…(incorporate) local or Nanyang subject matter into Chinese traditional painting…”, and those who “…(formulate) a distinctive Southeast Asian expression through the use of a combination of styles…” Great examples of these respective categories are seen in the vertical black ink lines of Chen Wen Hsi’s finger-painting, the bird’s eye view of a ‘Kampong Melayu’ backed by limestone mountains by Chen Chong Swee, and the fauvist depiction of nude native women by Cheong Soo Pieng.

Yong Poh Sang – Milking Time (1959)

Two out of three aforementioned works entered the national collection in 1981, thus underlining a curious observation – eight of these exhibits were acquired in 1981, and all eight are by Nanyang artists! Such focused collecting is rarely heard of in this day and age… Two small sections nestle behind black partitions, which display artists associated to the Selangor Art Society and the Negeri Sembilan Art Society. Highlights include ‘Milking Time’, a wonderfully restrained painting by Yong Poh Sang, whose prize-winning sculpture is also memorialised in a black & white photograph. ‘Pokok-Pokok Getah’ by Lim Peng Fei demonstrates a skilful utilisation of pictorial space, his ink washes illustrating perfectly the hard brown bark and exposed panel of the rubber tree.

Lim Peng Fei – Pokok-Pokok Getah (1965)

Works by two founders of private art schools – Chung Chen Sun and Cheah Yew Saik – are exhibited opposite each other, thus forewarning visitors about the arbitrary arrangement that is to come when one enters the Wednesday Art Group (WAG) section. Adopting the motto “art as a medium of self-expression”, representative WAG works include Patrick Ng Kah Onn’s seminal ‘Semangat Tanah, Air dan Udara’, Nik Zainal Abidin’s vivid ‘Wayang Kulit Kelantan’, and Dzulkifli Buyong’s charming ‘Kapal Kertas’ (which became even more fun recently when transformed into a GIF file). Besides showcasing early creations by significant artists in the local canon, this eclectic presentation alludes to a cosmopolitan outlook that WAG artists possess, which reads as an anomaly among the artists exhibited in the rest of this exhibition

Dzulkifli Buyong - Kapal Kertas (1965) [GIF file from Balai Seni Visual Negara II's Facebook post dated 4th May 2016]