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 clich├ęd 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)