Looking at an early painting by Cheong Laitong, one is reminded of the glass mosaic mural on Muzium Negara’s façade. Perhaps a photograph can better pique public interest; another suggestion for curators is to work together with external parties, such as the Malaysia Design Archive who currently hosts articles about art & culture written in the 1950s. One featured writer is Mohamed Salehuddin, whose ‘At the Kampung Shop’ hangs in the Angkatan Pelukis SeMalaysia (APS) section. The straightforward picture shows a Malay lady buying rice from a Chinese merchant, her driver and car in the background. That this scene be proposed as an “…indictment of Chinese economic exploitation…”, infers that critic Redza Piyadasa’s sensitivities were ahead of his time.

Mohamed Salehuddin – At the Kampung Shop (1959)

A 1995 newspaper article by Ooi Kok Chuen describes Salehuddin as a social activist, who was once imprisoned for his anti-colonial writings for Majlis, a magazine that eventually ceased publication after being boycotted by UMNO. Hoessein Enas is quoted as saying that Salehuddin was neither a full-time artist, nor an APS member. This contradictory statement recalls the issues of segregating this exhibition into art groups, and point to the fissures within historical narratives that make history a fascinating subject. Although not mentioned here, art historian Zainol Abidin Ahmad Shariff had suggested that the formation of APS was to compete with cultural groups friendly with the Arts Council, who was supported by the British and local government at that time.

Yusoff Abdullah – Wayang Kulit (1960)

“FORMATION” ends with a timeline that tells the formation of the Arts Council, the establishment of the National Art Gallery Act 1959, and its subsequent evolution into the National Visual Arts Development Board Act 2011. Graphic posters of past exhibitions and Syed Ahmad Jamal’s bronze eye logo are pretty exhibits, but present an abrupt end to this important exhibition. While eagerly anticipating the Equator Art Group section to be opened, and the “TRANSITION” (1960s – 1970s) exhibition to be properly fitted out upstairs, I am reminded that the National Art Gallery was the first of its kind in Southeast Asia. Now, one of the most well-known painting in its collection – Soo Pieng’s ‘Tropical Life’ – is on loan at the National Gallery Singapore’s inaugural exhibition. 

Cheong Soo Pieng – Gadis Bali Dua Beradek (1956) 

The strongest aspect in this exhibition is its archival content. News snippets and exhibition catalogues provide fresh insights, and the invested visitor is offered an unprecedented opportunity to learn about Malaysian art history in a public space. Jotting down my personal notes gleaned from the exhibited content – O Don Peris made his name with a portrait of the Johor Temeggong, and drew “a large oil painting” depicting the surrender of British troops to the Japanese army at Bukit Timah heights; Abdullah Ariff is a talented caricaturist and illustrated potent propaganda cartoons, thus countering the perception of an idyllic watercolourist who charmed British housewives; The Japanese cracked down on Penang Chinese art groups in 1941…

Kuo Ju Ping – Kilang (1958)

…Joo For wrote a scathing critique in 1966, proclaiming the death of the Penang art scene “…because no matter how much beauty or quality any painting radiates (…) no paintings are ever purchased”; First day covers highlighting works from the national collection exists; Tay Hooi Keat was teacher and president of the school art club where my father studied; Indian artist N.N. Nambiyar ran art classes at Brickfields during the 1940s; In a 1981 interview, Chen Sun promotes Malaysian Institute of Art as the training ground for a commercial art career; The snippet also describes controversial artworks (e.g. ‘The Embryo Snatcher’) at its annual exhibition, even mentioning a work titled ‘Roach I’ that was “…banned from the exhibition at the last minute.”

Snapshots of archival content on display

Having only read about it, I finally got to see Redza’s writings in local newsprint. Displayed here is a 1994 rebuke to an article by Kok Chuen, titled ‘Hoessein never stunted the Malay mind!’ Useful archival material masks another curatorial decision that deserves applaud – exhibits are not accompanied by wall texts that over-explain a particular artwork, which sometimes plague Singaporean museum displays. As a stepping stone to establish a permanent exhibition of the national collection, this project looks very promising. Working within its constraints, the exhibition segments are sufficiently inclusive, and its curatorial approach well thought out. Time to plan another visit in a couple months, this time to the second floor…

Sivam Selvaratnam – Malapetaka (1962)

“… some of those who graduated from the Nanyang taught in Malaya and some artists like Zakariah Noor had dual membership in both the WAG and the APS, but in terms of identity these three groups go in three different directions (…) These different preoccupations are not surprising, as the different directions of these art groups reflected the void of the Malayan/sian identity as the artists were unsure of the form of Malaysian identity in the new nation as reiterated by Cheah Boon Kheng. He claims that during the 1950s and the 1960s, no one was certain about the nature of Malaysian identity since the term bangsa, ‘nation,’ and ‘race’ were still ambiguous.”
- Absenteeism of Malaysian Identity in Art in the Early Years of Independence, Sarena Abdullah, Jati Vol. 15, 2010

Untitled painting by Zakariah Noor (1960)