June 2017: The Month to Visit Balai Seni Negara

With six exhibitions running concurrently in the National Art Gallery, one suspects that concentrating so much glorious art into one building, is either one fortuitous coincidence, bad planning, or a trial run before the KL Biennale opens in November. While its galleries are relatively quiet most of the time, the Balai seems even more still in the month of Ramadan. Perhaps the gallery guards have been removed? Barring minor renovation work, school children, or the customary hustle bustle before a minister’s visit, the spacious environs typically offer interested persons a pleasant gallery viewing experience.

A Aishah Abdul Latif – Pemandangan (1979)

Very large wall hangings greet visitors into the Balai’s new-look lobby, the displayed works being part of “Negaraku”, a collection of art from the national collection and a few private collectors. In contrast with the chronological survey “Mapping” staged last year (will there be a permanent hang?), “Negaraku” includes more works from the 1980s onwards. The lack of exacting curatorship is excused, assuming the show is likely staged to propagate a patriotic agenda. Nonetheless, the wide variety of mediums, themes, and approaches, provide a great display of Malaysian art. As one who is somewhat familiar with the oeuvre of presented artists, I take more notice about the arrangement of artworks, but there is no doubt the gallery is filled with many visually captivating artworks.

Din Omar – Antara Dua Hidangan (1991)

Crossing the hall to Reka Gallery, one finds respite in “As We See It: History Through Visual Design”, an exhibition of graphic design objects from colonial to post-war times. Organized by the Malaysia Design Archive, the demarcation of exhibition space into three compact rooms corresponds to three historical periods, present visitors an opportunity to imagine a bygone time through contemporary interpretations of preserved things. Nostalgia is invoked as visual cue, and not as lost memory. Before proceeding to the upper floors, I recommend stepping out to first visit the usually-forgotten National Portrait Gallery, which is now showing three series of artworks by former Anak Alam member Thangarajoo M.A. Kanniah. The artist’s spherical shapes and blooming patterns are mesmerizing, and each individual composition deserves a long look.

Thangarajoo – Anak-anak Alam I (1982)

Thangarajoo’s “Atomic Consciousness” functions as an opening act to “Bumi Larangan: Zulkifli Dahlan” in Galeri 2B, easily the star and best show at the Balai now. The short-lived and founding member of Anak Alam Zulkifli Dahlan, is canonized in Malaysian art history for his outlandish amalgamated characters. This presentation of sketches, together with well-known masterpieces, is a revelation, especially if one can also get hold of the comprehensive catalogue (unfortunately not on sale at Balai). Imagining a time when painting is fine art, when the 1969 riots are still fresh in the memories of Kuala Lumpur residents, when cross-continent travel is tedious – Zulkifli’s meandering lines manifest a rebellious yet wise-beyond-his-years record of modern living. Reflections about this exhibition deserves another blog post.

Zulkifli Dahlan – Akrobat II (1970s)

One will most likely be suffering from art fatigue at this point, so a cafĂ© break may be in order. Otherwise, the sound of waves and the smell of earth in Galeri 2A, may be enough for visitors to recuperate and reenergize. “Barehands” presents a collection of artworks by Malaysian and international artists, whom collectively completed residencies in five local studios. A diffused presentation in “Barehands” betrays the well-executed artworks by committed mid-career artists, and familiar styles raise questions about the presence of a universal aesthetic.

Installation snapshot of Shin Asato – Under the Same Sun (2017)

Visitors with children should head straight to the third floor, where interactive exhibits await – control a large marionette hung from the ceiling, run through pop-up passages, or use a slingshot to propel chalk? “101: Di Mana (where are) Young?” displays works by 101 Malaysian women artists, including striking pieces by lesser-known artists collected by the National Gallery before 1980. The large number of exhibits can be overwhelming, even negating the significance of womanhood as a factor in art creation/ interpretation. Looking past categories, one may relate Tetriana Ahmed Fauzi’s anthropomorphic plants, with Zulkifli’s creations downstairs; Why is Khatijah Sanusi not part of the “Negaraku” exhibition, when a later work also utilizing textiles by spouse Sulaiman Esa is shown there?

Tetriana Ahmed Fauzi – [top] Tiga Rasa (2011); [left] Keepers (2012); [right] The Veil (2011)

Cross-exhibition looking is fun – one sees Thangarajoo’s lines as having traces of Zulkifli Dahlan and Latiff Mohidin, or when noticing the differences between a wooden tower and a bamboo wheel made twelve years apart by the same artist (Ramlan Abdullah). Multiple visits are required to fully appreciate each of the six exhibitions, and re-looking only magnifies learning and self-realisation opportunities. In the past five years of immersing myself into looking at Malaysian art, this is the first time I felt that the Balai is teeming with life, although actual visitors are still lacking. Free of charge and fully air-conditioned, June 2017 is suiting up to be a wonderful month to visit Balai Seni Negara, which recently reverted to its original name (from Balai Seni Visual Negara). Yayoi Kusama who? Singapore where?

[foreground] Installation snapshot of Ramlan Abdullah – The Raw Generation (2005); [background-l] Joseph Tan – The Formation Series (1990); [b-r] Sharifah Fatimah Syed Zubir – Sri Jingga Indera Kayangan (1998)