30 August 2017

12/16 Musings about Negaraku @ NAG

Malaysian artists who work predominantly in sculpture are only a handful; Moving on from conceptual heft and modernist pastimes, there is a fascinating allure to three-dimensional geometric shapes, the raw texture of natural or industrial materials, or forms that interrogate cultural motifs. Rarely is political commentary a subject matter in sculpture, but when it comes about – such as Multhalib Musa’s ‘Pedra Branca’ – the effect is oftentimes sublime and better than when presented in a painting. Middle Rocks and the boundary lines are carved onto steel, while structures on the disputed island are painted all-white, in contrast to the present state red-and-white colours. The rectangular base draws attention to the isle, hinting also at the geographical distance of the outlying rock to the Johor coastline, which is three times shorter than the distance to the current claimant. 

Exhibition snapshot of Multhalib Musa – Pedra Branca (2009)

27 August 2017

11/16 Musings about Negaraku @ NAG

If an American tourist can influence Malaysian art… I imagine that the middle-class Malaysian who likes art, probably started out with exposure from their family, saw classics from the Western art canon while travelling, and observed aesthetic preferences embedded within local cultural objects. To think that art should not be judged by visual criteria entrenched in Western art history, is a difficult notion. Even after visiting a few Southeast Asian countries, the idea of a Nusantara aesthetic, remains obscured to me. “What is Malaysian art?” is not a question asked by most local collectors, and I am tongue-tied if asked about why I think is it important to support the local art ecosystem. Are biennales organised with visitor numbers in mind, the right thing for governments to do? Hey, if a Singaporean artist can bring Nusantara narratives to the Venice Biennale…

Suhaimi Tohid – Journey (2001)

24 August 2017

10/16 Musings about Negaraku @ NAG

Greeting one into the exhibition gallery, is a large collage consisting of 13 state flags, the national flag, printed snapshots of scenes captured within this country, and brushy strokes of coloured patches. Completed by the American artist Robert Rauschenberg, on the 9th leg of a 10-countries self-funded tour, ‘Yang Teragung’ denotes a fascination with the country’s diverse landscape, and co-existence of many sovereign rulers under a single nation-state. The artist was known as a compulsive creator, and improvised upon what he had on hand, at any one point of time. That a personal document, can be turned into a gift of goodwill, then utilized by administrators to signify the grandiose image of one country, is a testament to the power of art. Some say Rauschenberg’s slapdash style & form have lived on in Malaysian contemporary art until now…

Robert Rauschenberg – The Greatest (1989)

22 August 2017

9/16 Musings about Negaraku @ NAG

Two works by Nik Zainal Abidin are exhibited in “Negaraku”, but these are not the artist’s signature paintings of wayang. ‘Corak Bendera’ is a ‘T’-shaped composition of lines, half of it filled with colours from the Malaysian flag, yet no crescent moon or stars are in the design. The other is a wide watercolour illustration of Malay cultural objects. Titled ‘Mural Muzium’, one suspects this work was submitted into the mural competition for the then-new National Museum, which was eventually won by Cheong Laitong. This exhibit appears to be one of two panels, and compares against the left mural currently on the museum’s façade. Nik Zainal Abidin’s depictions are detailed and elegant, consisting of practical objects either woven or built, some with artistic flourishes; Laitong’s design has less things but more people, and is highly stylized. What is culture, if people do not practice it?

Nik Zainal Abidin – Mural Muzium (1961)

19 August 2017

8/16 Musings about Negaraku @ NAG

Narrowing the timespan in looking at exhibits in “Negaraku”, I notice an inter-generational difference in making art. Looking at Fauzan Omar’s ‘Luminosity 3’ and Joseph Tan’s ‘The Formation Series’ – both made in 1990, and depict interesting surface textures (or lack of) using acrylic paint. It is abstract, yet formal. Contrasting with works from artists in the Matahati collective – screaming figures made in 1992/3 by Bayu Utomo Radjikin and Ahmad Fuad Osman, and Ahmad Shukri Mohamed’s 1994 assemblage of indigenous items & motifs – there is a stark difference in mood and intention, despite the virtuosity on display. The latter works channel an immediacy, but what that impulse relates to is not clear. The audience for the art, and philosophy behind the art, appear to cross a boundary – that has since ushered in Malaysian contemporary art as we know it today. 

Bayu Utomo Radjikin – Bujang Berani (1991)

16 August 2017

7/16 Musings about Negaraku @ NAG

Why is the consciousness towards cultures outside one’s own ethnicity, so low among Malaysians? Despite the hollow calls to celebrate diversity, monoculturalism is practised among the ethnic groups that control the economy and politics. This concentration of capital and power is centred in Kuala Lumpur and diffused along the west coast of Peninsular Malaysia; Incidentally where the local art scene also is, which continuously underpins the status of art as luxury object. This is my main problem when viewing contemporary artworks that touch upon topics about indigenous or non-mainstream cultures – if the audience is middle class and liberal, cultural understanding is often turned inwards and desensitised into clichés. In this example, the triptych format appears ill-conceived without a clear purpose, apart from attracting eyes accustomed to Western art. Aku enda mereti…

Shia Yih Yiing – Homage to the Vanishing World (1996)

13 August 2017

6/16 Musings about Negaraku @ NAG

Re Kuala Lumpur, KL – the former Railway Station is a beautiful building. Few will dispute that the architecture of the former National Gallery, is more elegant than the current one. Old KL remains a beguiling place, every time I step foot into it. Refurbished spaces such as 2 Hang Kasturi, or the many hipster cafes, or paintings by artists such as Victor Chin, Gan Chin Lee, and Chin Kong Yee, still cannot fully capture the charm of old KL. What is it about the neoclassical façade? Is it an imagined past tinged with nostalgia? So, what if only lowly-paid migrant workers stay there now? Why is there still anger when I look at Chuah Chong Yong’s painting? Not like I disagree completely with gentrification. There is an existing sentimentality for old KL, and I am still trying to understand why that is so. 

Chuah Chong Yong – Pre-War Building for Sale (1996)

10 August 2017

5/16 Musings about Negaraku @ NAG

Most exhibits in “Negaraku” are culled from the National Collection, except for a small number that are loaned from local collectors. Institutional curatorial selections involving private collections in a loosely-curated group exhibition, should always be questioned. A successful example of such collaboration is the Ismail Hashim photograph ‘The Pool Table and the Painting on the Wall’, which giant painting referenced (by A.J. Rahman?) is also shown, together with Redza Piyadasa’s deconstruction ‘The Great Malaysian Landscape’. As noted in a Fergana Art Facebook post, Ismail’s snapshot is taken in the saloon bar of the former KL Railway Station, close by the former National Gallery, and probably a former popular hangout with artists. Inspiration can be propagated in many ways, and it is this creative possibility inferred in this three works together, that make this installation memorable.

Installation snapshot

08 August 2017

Getaran @ White Box

Stopping in front of the monumental ‘Perentas Ribut No. 18’ on my way to White Box, I grinned in anticipation at visiting Mad Anuar Ismail’s long-awaited solo exhibition. The last couple times Fergana Art brought in works by the artist were astonishing steel sculptures, or so I thought – ‘Belangkas #4’ is in fact made from painted canvas wrapped around a steel wire structure! Off pedestals, onto walls. Nevertheless, there are two steel creations from the “Pahlawan” series, among the wall-hung fixtures exhibited. With its sharp contours and headdress outlines, these striking sculptures showcase the artist’s masterful technique, where glittering welded joints and bronze fillings accentuate its presentation. As indicative in the series’ namesake, these are heroic and awesome sculptures. In contrast, the majority of exhibits utilize a new approach of painted canvas on steel structure.

Pahlawan #6 (2017)

Upon inspection, these recent works recall soft sculptures. Gestural figures become stately portraits, its static presentation concentrating the semangat/tenaga onto an emblematic icon instead of allegorical characters. “Yes, it’s a bust portrait”, Mad Anuar says, referring to the five works from the “Wayang” series. Like figureheads carved onto boat prows, these are not reverential figures on plinths, but a group of personalities with individual characteristics. Its cast of characters resonate little with me, although the applied forms fascinate. From triangular sunrays on ‘Rama’ and ‘Laksamana’, to ‘Sita’s and ‘Rawana’s wiry flourishes, the shapes are minimalist yet effective. Tudung saji-like weavings connect these portrayals to a cultural tradition; Strangely, its colours remind me of the five elements 五行 of Chinese cosmology…

Ibu dan Anak (2017)

The remaining wall pieces project more accomplished and less moralistic depictions, without the scale constraints of “bust portraits”. A captivating example is ‘Ibu dan Anak’, with its canopy-like crowns and stretched canvas (instead of woven strips). Sewn ridges recall the textured surfaces of Mad Anuar’s steel creations, where the sculpture is now dressed in painted clothes, thereby augmenting tenderness to a delicate portrait. ‘Penari’ displays joyful colours, the wavy trails describing a spiritual uplift, its shape recalling also a soaring eagle. Hung next to it is ‘Kelibat’ and its floaty impression of torn fabric, with sides bent outwards like burning paper. Metal rods join two sections at the middle to form a pattern, its filling left bare against the white wall, for viewers to complete the (hopefully) chromatic image. The centre seems to hold a sacred truth; Perhaps this space offers a glimpse of the ideal sublime form?

Kelibat (2017)

The exhibition, however, is overshadowed by the towering presence of ‘Meditasi #4: Penghormatan kepada Ibu’. Placed off-centre in the gallery, intertwining forms emerge from a single 7-feet tall block of raintree wood. Its mild steel base resembles a keris hilt, but looks more like a mismatched container that can barely hold the majestic carving. Yes, mother nature provides, but how empty is its core? Organizer Jaafar Ismail describes in his foreword, “(t)his is a work that forces itself into the show, offering its role as a cardinal centrepiece, from which the others radiate; The ‘Semangat’ of Meditasi must have emanated out of the ‘Primordial’ Mad Anuar. The raw power which reinforce the autonomy of the artist is much evident…” The exhibition catalogue also includes writings by artist and collector peers, providing insights to the artist’s philosophy of art, and formative snippets that led to the making of wall pieces.

Installation snapshot of Meditasi #4: Penghormatan kepada Ibu (2017), with “Wayang” series in the background

Interviewed by studio partner Mansoor Ibrahim, Mad Anuar gives a simple explanation behind these wall pieces. “Sekiranya saya buat pameran solo nanti… dinding saya sangat bogel! (…) Jadi why not saya buat “3D painting!” This recent approach successfully expands Mad Anuar’s repertoire, while preserving his artful concerns. The ductile and fully-formed wire shape denotes a literal framework for cultural motifs and personal observations. Canvas strips recall Zulkifli Yusoff and a uniform shredding of the painting tradition; Yet the colours of wall pieces have symbolic tones, and its banded swathes showcase the artist’s unwavering dedication to craftsmanship. Should Malay painting be hanging off Malay cultural forms? Are these creations depicting a personal belief, or a critique? The tremors I feel then, is the yawning gap that separates the consummate craftsman, with contemporary art.

Close-up snapshots of wall pieces

“Seniman membaca alam.  Di dunia yang terbentang.
Dengan cakerawala yang memayungi siang atau malam.
Pohon-pohon, logam, pasir dan batu batan bagai aksara
Kalimat-kalimat yang kemas, lurus, lengkung atau panjang.
Dia merumuskan cerita yang tidak nyata meskipun yang terang.

Bacalah! Dan renungilah wajah.  Arca-arca yang diam, tetapi diam-diam memadam.
Takrif seniman yang memaknakan persekitaran: Sejarah, tradisi, bakat dan warisan
Atau hanya pergelutan sia-sia tentang masa depan.”
- excerpt from Tentang Arca dan Persekitaran (Untuk Mad Anuar: Seniman dan Pembaca Alam), poem by Baha Zain, July 2017

Penari (2017)

02 August 2017

4/16 Musings about Negaraku @ NAG

As the Malaysian art canon goes, the late 1970s and early 1980s seem like a dry well. The conceptual act by Sulaiman Esa & Redza Piyadasa was a once-off, while Ismail Zain’s “Digital Collage” was not yet ready. Modernist paintings and abstract works remain the norm, and had a small existing market. The 1971 National Cultural Policy had apparently encouraged the proliferation of non-figurative art, although this conclusion is being challenged nowadays. One proponent of figurative work during this time is Samjis Mat Jan, whose ‘Rendezvous’ comes across as a cheeky and self-assuring statement. The young, confident man is wearing a pink polo shirt, while his (assumed) friend sits dangling a foot with untied shoelaces and rolled-down yellow socks. The expression is optimistic, and a nostalgic one.

Samjis Mat Jan – Rendezvous (1984)