Sunday July 22, 2012
By ANDREW SIA
An extensive study of Malaysian art kicks off with a volume of essays, and lots of ambition.
WHAT is or should be the identity of Malaysian art? What is “local” – indigenous, inherited or borrowed – about our art forms? How do you define “modern” or “contemporary” art? How does art reflect the identity of our nationhood, society and culture?
These and many other concerns are being addressed in an ambitious four-volume publication project called Narratives In Malaysian Art, which brings together essays and papers by academics, artists, curators and writers.
The consulting editor for the project is T.K. Sabapathy, an adjunct associate professor of art history at the National University of Singapore who has published extensively on Southeast Asian art. When fully realised, he believes the four volumes will be a “significant benchmark in the scholarship of art” in Southeast Asia, promoting continuous critical study and engendering deep historical appreciation for Malaysian art.
Volume 1, entitled Imagining Identities, was launched in Kuala Lumpur earlier this month. It’s a rather serious study and analysis of local art over 21 essays (accompanied by 140 small colour illustrations).
A catchy essay title in the volume is From Paddy Fields To Fake Plastic Palm Trees: Negotiating A Changing Social Landscape. Herein, Beverly Yong and Adeline Ooi, the co-founders of Rogue Art (an arts consultancy which is also the publisher of the book) look at how the portrayal of the Malaysian landscape has evolved over the last half century.
For one, painters in the 1950s and 60s such as Hoessein Enas and Cheong Soo Pieng largely had a “romantic” and “idealised” vision of kampungs or coastal and agricultural scenes but did not go into a more “real” portrayal of the lives of the people. In some ways, these “exotic” depictions seemed to perpetuate a British colonial vision of an “exotic” tranquil rural life.
Compare this to Wong Hoy Cheong’s Ranjau Sepanjang Jalan (1985) which goes more into the “social landscape”, a term used to denote physical environments seen in the context of how they relate to human experiences. In contrast to the earlier pastoral visions of kampung life, Wong instead refers to a 1966 novel by Shahnon Ahmad bearing the same title (translated as No Harvest But A Thorn by Adibah Amin) about the hardships of a family of rice farmers.
In another essay, This Is Where We Live – The Ongoing Search For A National Narrative, artist, writer and curator Anurendra Jegadeva (a former Star journalist) explores the racial perspective of art before and after the May 13 riots of 1969.
In the 1960s, various state-sanctioned art projects such as Cheong Laitong’s mural on the National Museum, Ismail Mustam’s grand mosaic at Dewan Bahasa Dan Pustaka and the murals at Stadium Negara by Yee Chin Ming and Phoon Poh Hong depicted an inclusive approach which captured the essence of multi-racial Malaysia through the integration of historical, cultural, social and economic elements.
However, after the riots, a National Cultural Congress was convened and decided to focus on Islam and Malay culture as the primary bases for an “official culture”, resulting in the fracturing of the national artistic narrative. As artist, critic, writer Redza Piyadasa (1939-2007) lamented: “The Malay paints the Malay, the Chinese is only interested in the Chinese, and the Indian can’t get past the Bharatanatyam dancer…”
Yet Anurendra adds that the fractured post-69 narrative has also resulted in a “diverse, confrontational and enjoyable dialogue” which has added considerably to the dynamism of Malaysian art. However, a national artistic narrative that everyone can subscribe to, something that collectively communicates our sense of belonging, remains a work in progress.
Another interesting essay is Malay Folklore In Malaysian Art by Rahimidin Zahari, a poet, short-story writer, novelist, dramatist and wayang kulit dalang (shadow puppet master).
Rahimidin points out that the tapestries by Ahmad Badarudin Fadzil that grace the entrances to the Panggung Sari theatre at Istana Budaya in Kuala Lumpur are modern-day reinterpretations of legends from ancient historical texts such as the Sejarah Melayu and Hikayat Hang Tuah.
As for wayang kulit, a whole range of Malay and non-Malay artists such as Nik Zainal Abidin, Yusof Abdullah, Romli Mahmud, Mohamed Najib Ahmad Dawa, Termize Mukhtar, Yong Chien Chin, Ivan Lam and Tew Nai Tong have used elements of shadow puppets in their works.
The chief editors for Narratives In Malaysian Art are Yong and Nur Hanim Khairuddin, an artist, writer and former curator of the Perak Arts Foundation. The project was funded by a broad range of art enthusiasts.
“It wasn’t just a few people giving us lots of money,” says Yong. “Many people chipped in with a few hundred ringgit here and there. We also got support from some corporations and the National Visual Arts Gallery.”
Imagining Identities delves into intellectual, philosophical and thematic preoccupations that have shaped art practices in Malaysia since their beginnings.
Volume II, Reactions – New Critical Strategies, will examine the development of artistic strategies from the late 1960s to today, taking into consideration socio-political and technological changes and new art methodologies.
Infrastructures, the third volume, will assess the development of the Malaysian art scene – its history, the current situation and future prospects – and look at art education, institutions, the market and other supporting initiatives, as well as the role of artists and artist groups.
Finally, Perspectives, will present diverse viewpoints on key issues in reading and discussing visual art in the Malaysian context, so as to stimulate further discourse in this growing field.
The project began in December 2009 and the remaining three volumes are slated for completion by December 2013.
“We aim to expand on earlier efforts to document and explain the development of Malaysian art and artists, which is crucial to the portrayal of our nation’s story,” says Yong. “But instead of a strictly chronological telling of this history, we have gathered a range of narratives, while retaining some sense of developments unfolding over time.”
She notes that what has been interesting is the “sense of conversation” created by the various essays, which are often passionate and partisan. In places, there seem to be a Malay-Islamic narrative of Malaysian art, a Chinese narrative of Malaysian art, and a “muhibbah” version, in a colourful juxtaposition.
Another approach is to integrate the viewpoints of different generations.
“We began the editorial process by selecting existing texts from the 1970s, 80s and 90s by influential figures such as Syed Ahmad Jamal, Piyadasa, Sabapathy, Sulaiman Esa and Zainol Shariff,” Nur Hanim explains. “These form a basis for comparison and expansion by the mostly younger writers invited to contribute to Volume I.”
A sampling of other essays in this volume include: A Study On The Subjectivity Of The Malaysian Chinese Painters (by Chai Chang Hwang); 16 Malaysian Landscape Paintings (Zakaria Ali); Nanyang Style: Bygone Dreams Of Paradise? (Ooi Kok Chuen); Menulis Dan Melukis: Writing And Drawing in Malay Traditional Art and Their Impact In Contemporary Art (Siti Zainon Ismail); Islam And Modern Art In Malaysia: An Introduction (Safrizal Shahir); The Practice Of Watercolour At The Dawn Of Modern Art In Malaya (Kelvin Chuah), and Love Me In My Batik (Yee I-Lann).
The book is divided into two parts. The first deals with the country-city divide, and how movements between the two fuelled ways of seeing and representing the nation whether through portrayals of landscape or human figures. Part Two grapples with conceptions of modernity and traditions, of competing ideologies and worldviews interwoven with claims of identity.
For this depth of artistic writing, it’s a bargain at RM35 per copy.
“We wanted as many people as possible, including students, to be able to buy the book,” quips Yong.
Proceeds from the sale of Imagining Identities will be used to develop and promote the Narratives In Malaysian Art project. Visit narrativesinmalaysianart.blogspot.com for details.