Era Mahathir @ ILHAM

Is it coincidence that the years which a Malaysian prime minister was in power (1981 – 2003), can be transcribed into an art exhibition? No doubt it is convenient, as organisers like utilising a fixed duration to fix the scope of a gallery exhibition. Since the guy is still regularly in the news, the free publicity is an added bonus, right? On the fifth floor, the visitor is greeted by comic panels that were first published on newsprint in the early 1980s, and a History Channel documentary produced in 2009. On the third floor (the fourth floor boys are absent from this building?), newly commissioned works include coffee-stained photographic collages, and recorded interviews which exhibited form (as a three-channel video installation) undermines its candid content. Is this exhibition capturing a zeitgeist, a legacy, or neither?

Detail installation snapshots of Liew Kung Yu – Pasti Boleh (Sure Can One) (1997)

The incoherence extends to the exhibits’ nonsensical arrangement, where convenience and spectacle are deemed more critical factors over the artwork’s individual context. Liew Kung Yu’s larger-than-life collage-sculptures ‘Pasti Boleh (Sure Can One)’ occupy one end of the gallery, and feature interactive elements to entertain visitors. The artist’s disarming use of icons – from golf balls to classical motifs to DBKL tong sampahs – is delightful and ironic for the most part, but it is the repeating image of the Petronas Twin Towers which is problematic. Relegating Kuala Lumpur’s most famous building to an opportunistic phallic symbol is an effective artful approach, but falters here when the work is situated in another steel tower built by one associated with the same authoritarian regime, that made the Twin Towers a Malaysian reality.

Hamidah Abdul Rahman – Self-portrait (2000)

The exhibition space itself is a potent element which neutralises the majority of works, especially Chuah Chong Yong’s towering installation at the gallery’s other end. Metal sculptures by Multhalib Musa and Zulkifli Yusoff are placed side-by-side with Hamidah Abdul Rahman’s black-eyed ‘Self-portrait’, thereby pitting heroic gestures against a personal reaction, to events grounded in Malay feudalism. On the opposite wall, Azizan Paiman’s droll illustrations make fun of rhetorical quotes, yet missing are works from the same series that feature Mahathir Mohamad and Daim Zainuddin. General commentaries in the form of metaphors provoke a cynical chuckle – such as Phuan Thai Meng’s leaking pipes, and Juhari Said’s corsage-flaunting gorilla – while one wonders the relevance of showing prints from the “Digital Collage” series by Ismail Zain.

Vincent Leong – Lot 3-75 (2012)

Therein lies the crux of this exhibition’s problems. By naming him, all issues and circumstances that occurred during a fixed duration are correlated with only one person, thus granting further agency to one powerful individual. Was an international tourism marketing campaign led by Mahathir? Why is the controversial National Economic Policy associated to just Mahathir? What does the Malaysian middle class’ liking for roman columns have anything to do with Mahathir? The reaction by artists to Ops Lalang – a political oppression that can be directly attributed to Mahathir – is only presented as documents in a glass box. Photographs and newspaper snippets overlay each other, denoting the carelessness and nonchalance of the organizers. Opposite, small screens play recordings of the eight-hour long ‘Skin Trilogy’ by Five Arts Centre, nary a chair nearby to ease one’s viewing experience.

[Jo Kukathas) #TanyaYBeeee – Will the petrol price affect the poor? [video published on 18th September 2013 on popteevee YouTube channel]

A compilation of Jo Kukathas’ ‘YBeeee’ videos offer welcome humour, as I pivot away from the proposed theme, to focus upon logical groupings of artworks. The found object aesthetic seems prevalent amongst MIA graduates, while painters prove that figurative depictions can portray strong emotions as effectively as abstract brushwork. One wall displaying works by Yee I-Lann, Nirmala Dutt Shanmughalingham, and Vincent Leong, project great examples of socio-political artwork, where the artists’ vantage point (i.e. perspectives) are literally embedded in the creation of pictures. Despite my detestation for large paintings, Ahmad Fuad Osman’s intense self-portrait stand out as an effective protest symbol in this politically-saturated gallery space, where the repressed sentiment is still present 17 years later. Also relevant today is the visual elucidation of the impact of media images, in Nur Hanim Khairuddin's video 'se(RANG)ga'.

Detail snapshots of Anurendra Jegadeva – Running Indians and the History of Malaysian Indians in 25 Clich├ęs (2001)

A missing strain in this narrative is the emergence of collectors who were supportive of politically-charged expressions, masquerading as the thinking person’s art (a notion still popular now, as if the Moderns thought lesser). They likely belong to a social class that patronised one of the curator’s former private gallery, where more than half of the current exhibits have shown before. Further convoluting the presentation are the four catalogue essays, which cover broad topics related to authoritarian rule, but only one relating to Malaysia's visual art history. So what if Mahathir had no interest in visual art? Why is there no mention of Anwar’s role in the nation’s gradual Islamization? Who decided to include ‘Puncak Purnama’ into the exhibition’s chronological timeline at the last minute? Where is Syed Ahmad Jamal’s logo design for Parti KeAdilan Nasional? APA? SIAPA? KENAPA?

Nirmala Dutt Shanmughalingham – Great Leap Forward VI – Bakun (1998)

“The reductive Era Mahathir branding is the sound of the first mine going off. I wonder why you would want to brand an exhibition of progressive, independent art with the name of a politician, no matter how important you consider him to be? It immediately brings to bear issues of power, gender, patriarchy, ethnicity and ideological interpellation. It has the effect of branding all the work in the show. And it underscores the impression that the exhibition, and the gallery itself, are tied into the game of thrones of Malaysian politics. The public will be forced to confront the spectacle of a supposed struggle between Barisan power elites, with Mahathir and Daim on one side vs Najib and his cronies on the other. But when boiled down to a paste, don’t both sides really represent the same ethos and ideology? And is it an ethos and ideology shared by the exhibited artists?”
‎- excerpt from Ray Langenbach‎’s 5th July 2016 letter to Rahel Joseph, as published in a posting dated 13th September 2016 on ILHAM gallery’s Facebook page

Ahmad Fuad Osman – Syhhh..! Dok diam-diam, jangan bantah. Mulut hang hanya boleh guna untuk cakap yaaaa saja. Baghu hang boleh join depa... senang la jadi kaya (1999)