Peasants and Proletariats @ Xin Art Space

Tracing its respective histories, framed paintings aggrandize the powerful and evoke reverence, while prints on paper record images that are circulated for a wider audience. This analogy likewise describes the social strata of art patrons, who traditionally regard prints as a lower class in the hierarchy of art mediums. Going strong after hosting artworks by national laureate Pak Samad and the KL Life Drawing Community, new gallery Xin Art Space puts together a cross-generation exhibition in conjunction with the 44th year since Malaysia begin celebrating Labour Day. The published catalogue includes Long Thien Shih’s 1993 essay about the development of printmaking in Malaysia, along with a useful glossary of printmaking terms and international definitions of an original print

Shieko Reto - Sex Workers Series III (2015)

Going along with history which presumes art printmaking originated from China, small woodcut prints by Chuah Thean Teng attract immediate attention with its organically-framed scenes and dense fine lines. Done in the late 1930s with his Romanised name inscribed in signature, Teng’s works already display great compositions, exemplified by the slanted angles in ‘Working’. Hung next to it are striking pictures of workers like ‘Key Maker’ and ‘Durian Seller’, Lai Loong Sung’s scraggly figures adhering to a dramatic but overbearing aesthetic that recall Egon Schiele. More contemporary are city scenes by Adeputra Masri, whose crowded cartoons draw busy diners seated in front of heritage buildings, with the Petronas Twin Towers visible in the background. 

Lai Loong Sung - The Drunkards (1976)

Bitumen marks create a dusty effect in Kim Ng’s “Street Walker” series, his desolate portrayals of foreign workers projecting an uneasy class consciousness when exhibited collectively, perhaps indicative of the reason it is less popular with collectors. Also testing the tolerance of fine art collectors are stencilled works by Rat Heist and Shieko Reto; Bright graphics by the former look better on a wall than on paper, while the latter’s depiction of transgender sex workers is restrained behind colourful design, as I repress the urge to spray paint stencilled telephone numbers over these works. Shaifuddin Mamat’s clever silkscreen ‘Pemisahan telah lengkap’ admits failure in empathising with the construction worker, his incomplete picture representing a mindful and social detachment from oft-ignored nation builders

Shaifuddin Mamat @ Poodien - Pemisahan telah lengkap (2015)

Samsudin Wahab returns to printmaking since joining a fellowship, here presenting a monstrous figure that resembles Davy Jones from Pirates in the Caribbean. Metaphorical creatures are popular subject matter in local art, but few can be regarded as masterpieces, until one sees the bees and ticks of Abdul Mansoor Ibrahim. Sinuous lines and organic shapes transform insects into stunning images, his monochromatic prints demanding the viewer to go closer and inspect its exacting details. Less attention grabbing but equally powerful are works by Mansoor’s mentee Fuad Pathil, the former firefighter paying tribute to the profession via heroic scenes. Awkward composition and amateurish scale in the older ‘Rescuer’, has since matured into the panoramic ‘Fire Fighter’, which line-up of firefighters makes for a beautiful film still. 

Abdul Mansoor Ibrahim - Pollen Bath and Nectar Collection (2015)

Outline is visibly absent from Madzi’s figures, the artist relying on the contrast between printed areas to illustrate forms. Fire and smoke is inscribed brilliantly in ‘On Duty’, its foreground figures and background action capturing drama in a manner that recalls French Romanticism. Exhibiting twelve works and nearly selling out on opening day, Pangrok Sulap’s prints combine poster design with social activism, and serve as the exclamation mark in this remarkable group show. Although some works feature a raw aesthetic, the RM 150 price tag is an irresistible offer for an original print, especially when collectively made works carry slogans like ‘Capitalism Kills My Nostalgia’, ‘Jangan Beli Bikin Sendiri’, and ‘Di Belakang Saya Ada Orang Kampung; Di Belakang Orang Kampung Ada Saya’.

Fuad Pathil @ Madzi - On Duty (2015)

Also interesting is to appreciate the individual style of the collectives’ members – Jerome Manjat’s formal compositions, Rizo Leong’s attractive perspectives, and personal favourite Mohammad Bam’s incisive two-dimensional caricatures. This exhibition triumphs with its focused subject matter and its humbling yet inclusive presentation, and it is a bonus to find out that GST is not charged for its sale of artworks. As another May Day rally passes by, curator Tan Sei Hon writes in his typically offbeat manner, “(b)y celebrating them [workers], we also celebrate our own humanity which we sometimes forget exists under the weight of various job titles, positions and authority which we hold now but becomes meaningless once we are no longer ‘working’.” 

Mohammad Bam (Pangrok Sulap) - Labour of Love (2015)

“The government, the workers, the employers work constructively together on growing and upgrading our economy. We may not agree all of the time but there’s give and take because we trust one another and we can rely on one another to take a longer term view of our enlightened collective interests. This is a system which has delivered results, not just over one or two terms of government but for 50 years, half a century. Our unions are equal partners with employers and with the government.”
- Lee Hsien Loong's May Day Rally speech, 1st May 2015, The Star Performing Arts Centre

Kim Ng - Street Walker XI (Going Home) (2008)