Moving on from colonial pictures, “FORMATION” highlights local artists active during the period from 1920s to 1960s. Galeri 1A is demarcated into ten sections corresponding to art groups, each segment clearly labelled with introductory wall texts. Such segregation sidesteps chronological issues, but risks pigeonholing artists and their affiliations. Nonetheless, this effective display approach works great to describe the burgeoning art scenes across Malayan locations and ethnic communities, hence turning the emphasis upon artists' background and influences. From court painter to Chinese artists in Penang & Singapore, to Kuala Lumpur’s turn as an art hub, the presented timeline is a straightforward one.

K. K. Lau – Let There Be Space for All Things (1970)

Art societies such as the Penang Impressionists, Yin-Yin Art Circle, and 南洋书画社, were formed in the early 20th century, but the earliest exhibited artworks are made in the early 1950s. This highlights the main constraint of “PEMETAAN” – it has to utilise works within the 3,600+ strong national collection to narrate our visual art history. Prints are an early highlight. Lee Joo For’s linocut and K.K. Lau’s lithography intrigue with its mystical symbolism and spatial layers, while the cover design on old exhibition catalogues make great viewing. Some of these shows were held in Chinese schools where Penang artists taught, as I begin to notice the (overseas) places where artists trained, which contributed to the diverse art philosophies and visual output after this point in time.

Snapshots of graphic posters and exhibition catalogues on display

The Nanyang Academy of Fine Art sections appear to be the most challenging to set up. Its representative artists are predominantly Singaporean, yet the Nanyang School has casts a lasting influence on Malaysian artists. Nanyang pioneers are firmly established within Singapore’s art canon, so how should one present these artists while mapping Malaysian art history? (Parallel issues exists while narrating the official histories of both countries.) From socially-conscious woodcuts to cubist forms to post-impressionist colours, the diversity on show can be difficult to interpret. I notice that the Equator Art Group section is not yet unveiled, where the group’s focus on social themes could provide a good counterpoint to Nanyang artists more inclined towards pictorial beauty.

Tay Chee Toh – Ibu Dayak dengan Anak (1968)

Emelia Ong’s concise essay The Nanyang Artists: Eclectic Expressions of the South Seas provides a useful approach to distinguish the issues tackled by Nanyang artists. Three categories are proposed – those who “…(fuse) elements from different artistic traditions…”, those who “…(incorporate) local or Nanyang subject matter into Chinese traditional painting…”, and those who “…(formulate) a distinctive Southeast Asian expression through the use of a combination of styles…” Great examples of these respective categories are seen in the vertical black ink lines of Chen Wen Hsi’s finger-painting, the bird’s eye view of a ‘Kampong Melayu’ backed by limestone mountains by Chen Chong Swee, and the fauvist depiction of nude native women by Cheong Soo Pieng.

Yong Poh Sang – Milking Time (1959)

Two out of three aforementioned works entered the national collection in 1981, thus underlining a curious observation – eight of these exhibits were acquired in 1981, and all eight are by Nanyang artists! Such focused collecting is rarely heard of in this day and age… Two small sections nestle behind black partitions, which display artists associated to the Selangor Art Society and the Negeri Sembilan Art Society. Highlights include ‘Milking Time’, a wonderfully restrained painting by Yong Poh Sang, whose prize-winning sculpture is also memorialised in a black & white photograph. ‘Pokok-Pokok Getah’ by Lim Peng Fei demonstrates a skilful utilisation of pictorial space, his ink washes illustrating perfectly the hard brown bark and exposed panel of the rubber tree.

Lim Peng Fei – Pokok-Pokok Getah (1965)

Works by two founders of private art schools – Chung Chen Sun and Cheah Yew Saik – are exhibited opposite each other, thus forewarning visitors about the arbitrary arrangement that is to come when one enters the Wednesday Art Group (WAG) section. Adopting the motto “art as a medium of self-expression”, representative WAG works include Patrick Ng Kah Onn’s seminal ‘Semangat Tanah, Air dan Udara’, Nik Zainal Abidin’s vivid ‘Wayang Kulit Kelantan’, and Dzulkifli Buyong’s charming ‘Kapal Kertas’ (which became even more fun recently when transformed into a GIF file). Besides showcasing early creations by significant artists in the local canon, this eclectic presentation alludes to a cosmopolitan outlook that WAG artists possess, which reads as an anomaly among the artists exhibited in the rest of this exhibition

Dzulkifli Buyong - Kapal Kertas (1965) [GIF file from Balai Seni Visual Negara II's Facebook post dated 4th May 2016]