…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 It is disappointing that the curators have chosen to go with this outdated storyline, even if it is a convenient excuse to fit pieces from the national collection, into two galleries of different sizes.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)