Mapping, Khabar dan Angin @ NVAG

Balai’s ground floor galleries get refreshed with two new exhibitions – a selection of its modern art collection hangs at Galeri 1A, while Projek Dialog presents a show subtitled Excurses on Faith in Kelantan at Galeri Reka. In the former space, “Mapping” aims “…to examine the development of Malaysian art…” and is split into two parts that will continue into 2017. Typical of Balai-organised shows, its curator/ial team is not stated anywhere, as questions about re-visiting the Malaysian art canon remain unresolved. Segregated by art groups (e.g. Penang Art Group, Nanyang artists, Equator Art Society, etc.) where two works by one artist represent each group, the chronological hang echoes the approach of National Gallery Singapore’s “Siapa Nama Kamu?”, albeit in a smaller scale. 

Khoo Sui Hoe – Mandi di Sungai (1965)

Such mnemonic triggers, however, immediately highlight the exhibition’s inadequacies. Although the gallery opened its doors in February, some exhibits will not be ready until April, including works representing the significant Wednesday Art Group and Angkatan Pelukis SeMalaysia. The lack of visitors also invoke a sense of melancholy, as I recall the enthusiastic crowds during my brief visit to NGS. Nevertheless, it remains a delight to appreciate works from Balai’s permanent collection, where early output by the likes of Lee Cheng Yong and Lee Joo For are displayed. Pastoral life is the overwhelming theme, which makes Georgette Chen’s exquisite still-lifes an astounding exception by comparison. Archival documents are laid out and provide interesting contexts, about how local art is written about decades ago.

Comic illustrations by Abdullah Ariff

At “Khabar dan Angin”, eight artists record their observations, after visiting religious sites and witnessing cultural performances in Kelantan. The artist’s approach and statement-making take precedence over its visual presentation in the majority of exhibited works, thus resulting in a vague depiction of the Northern state or its local peculiarities. After shining UV light onto the partitions of a dark room, then pressing one’s ears against the wall to hear background noise, even KG Krishnan’s straightforward photographs become illusory objects. A miniature re-construction of a construction site, and the accompanying comic by Alex Lee, draw one back to the people of this place. Sticking post-it notes on illustrations of the back of head portraits, Engku Iman too employs ironic humour in her casually incisive manner.

Installation snapshot of Khatijah Rahmat (2016) – Ingat-Ingat Lupa; Biar Mati Melayu

Khatijah Rahmat’s multi-layered paintings behind a black veil draw (up)on the traditional healing ritual of Main Puteri. Performative poses are covered with imagined gestures and thoughts, where self-assigned guilt (the original sin in monotheistic faiths) remains unresolved in the double act of being Malay and Muslim. Poodien’s installation recalls a similar theme, where landscape fades into nothingness and singular subjects of meditation. The artist’s mother rendered in monochrome looms large over this transition, which implies this fading out as an enlightened choice. In times when religious headwinds fog our understanding of cultural diversity, this exhibition pairs well with “Mapping” in the opposite gallery. Academic history is juxtaposed with contemporary interpretation, its collective breadth offering reflections, about art exhibiting approaches to the committed visitor.

Installation snapshot of Poodien – Dari Ketiadaan Sampai ke Sini (2016) [from l to r: Ada; Wan; Tiada]