Modern Artists of Malaysia @ NVAG

Over the past 30 years, a singular version of local art history has persisted. Much of the credit/ blame is attributed to the authors of Modern Artists of Malaysia - T.K. Sabapathy and R. Piyadasa. As it is with the nature of history, where physical documentation takes precedence, the list of artists chosen is subjective at best. Alternative histories do exist and narrative questions will arise, as more educated persons offer their views. Nonetheless, exhibiting works which reference this accepted account of events, presents a good opportunity for the Malaysian public to appreciate seminal works from the local art canon. Patrick Ng's 'Semangat Tanah, Air dan Udara' is commonly quoted as an early masterpiece, which I am inclined to agree despite classical posturing and a dark palette. Elongated features exaggerate movement in 'The Big Fight', depicted by Patrick's student Ismail Mustam in a dynamic composition that recalls El Greco.

Ismail Mustam - The Big Fight (1962)

Oil paintings by ethnic Chinese artists typically illustrate agricultural scenes, the pastoral landscape romanticised also by Hoessein Enas in 'Memetik Daun Tembakau di Kelantan'. Creative and local approaches towards similar subjects emerge in Chuah Thean Teng's batik and Dzulkifli Buyong's naive works. In the 1960s, Jolly Koh begin painting opaque hard-edges, a feature utilised prominently by Ibrahim Hussein to frame his drawings. Joseph Tan's fancy and equivocal 'Love Me in My Batik' presents a cheeky and free-spirited commentary before the 1969 riots. One decade later, a much darker aesthetic appears in Sulaiman Esa's contemplative print 'Waiting for Godot I'. Ismail Zain completes this collection of Modern Artists, presenting an outstanding colour study and copy of Rembrandt's 'A Woman Bathing in A Stream'. Author Redza's birdcage-take on conceptual art, remains very much in one's imagination.

Syed Ahmad Jamal - Perhubungan (1964)

Anthony Lau's modern metal sculptures possess interesting forms but ultimately feel dated, in comparison with Syed Ahmad Jamal's 'Perhubungan' which melted form still resonates strongly in multi-racial Malaysia. At this critical juncture to re-establish its credibility, NVAG has a tremendous opportunity to turn this show into a permanent exhibition. Supplement introductory texts to individual works, then allow camera captures, also relieving visitors off the unpleasant scrutiny of misguided guards. Let it run for six months to a year and promote the show heavily - the crowds might just turn up to understand what Malaysian art was, which justifies the permanent showcase. Now is the time for a national institution to play catch-up, with how the rest of the modern world stages an art exhibition. Dialectical discussions about local art history will surely intensify in the future, but for now, great art on display is sufficient to feed the masses.

Ismail Zain - Woman Crossing the Stream - After Rembrandt (1967)