...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