Narratives in Malaysian Art: Infrastructures (I)

Infrastructures is the easiest book to read among the three volumes of Narratives in Malaysian Art published so far, even though it contains no colour pictures. Topics revolve around people and structures in the local art scene, that support how art comes into being here. Essays which document historical events are incorporated with transcribed forums and interviews, to combine into a straightforward read about facts and opinions. The volume begins with an abridged (39 pages!) essay by Syed Ahmad Jamal – ’25 Years of Malaysian Art, 1957-1982’ – which lays the groundwork for the topics elaborated in this book. Instigators drive the development of the art world, be it pioneering makers, passionate collectors, or curriculum designers. The remarkably strong-willed independent spirit described, still applies to the current situation, and that is comforting.

Syed Ahmad Jamal - Lencana Balai Seni Lukis Negara (1984)

It is imperative to consider the idea behind each of the five sections – that government and organisations should support the arts (“Institutions”), that artists should organise themselves (“Artist Initiatives”), that art is a commodity (“The Art Market”), that tertiary education is beneficial to the artist (“Art Education”), and that writings about art is a productive endeavour (“On Writing and Publications”). As one who does not agree completely with these ideas (except the second one), the presented perspectives become useful references. Contributors’ biographies, and frameworks utilised in putting together this compilation (such as Yap Sau Bin’s ‘MappingKLArtSpace’, or the conversation about art education ideas with three lecturers), are made transparent to the reader, who can then deduce inherent biases.

Yap Sau Bin - …who gave birth to the Great White One…? (2002) [picture from]

For a book about material structures, it is ironic that the main content is described via personal viewpoints of people operating within these infrastructures. The art world defines itself. This approach demands a level of critical self-awareness, and plays out accordingly in a number of roundtable discussions organised by the editorial team, who laments about “the lack of discourse” in the volume’s introduction. When successful (‘…on the Practice of Malaysian Independent Art(ist) Initiatives’), facets of genuine discourse emerge; When unsuccessful (‘…Art Market Dynamics in Malaysia Today’), the conversation turns into a sham where participants talk past each other. Such settings encourage people to express ideals, and deny some in elaborating about things being done, to achieve these ideals.

Yee I-Lann - Sulu Stories: Barangay (2005) [picture from]

The moderator is sometimes at fault, like when different set of questions are fielded to past and present directors of Balai Seni Visual Negara. The latter’s response conforms to his role as a public official, which when compared to previous interviewees, unfairly portrays a bureaucratic and stuffy outlook. From conversations recorded in the “Institutions” section, Balai’s role in developing local art seems to be overly broad and impractical to execute. That Bank Negara received a “backlash” for purchasing Southeast Asian artworks, also point to a lack of understanding of what an art institution should be. Not discussed in depth are the impacts of the National Visual Arts Development Board Act 2011, or acquisition policies, although it is implied that only a select few determine what art is collected. In a patriarchal society like Malaysia’s, such regulations have a suppressive effect...

Nur Hanim Khairuddin - seRANGga (2003-2004)