Reviews

March 2007, Dr Michelle Antoinette

...and Malaysia?

It is already paying off. The trend is there. We are now seeing customers from Europe who have changed their holiday plans to come to Malaysia instead. Kamarudin Meranun, Executive Director, Air Asia.

I came by my opening quote printed in neat bold type across the bottom of a whimsical drawing by the Malaysian artist Noor Azizan Rahman "Paiman". The watercolour and ink drawing, Kamarudin Meranun, 2005, featured at the recent 5th Asia-Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art in Brisbane, Australia, and it juxtaposed this quote against the backdrop of a crazed, caped, superhero-like figure who we might infer to be the named Air Asia Executive Director, Kamarudin Meranun. This drawing from Paiman's The Code series signalled a number of things to me, among them: the socio-political consciousness that is frequently encountered in Malaysian contemporary art; Paiman's witty and satirical aesthetics based on his astute observations of particular episodes in Malaysia's socio-political history; and more specifically, his jab at Malaysia's frenzied drive for economic success. Regarding the latter, he satirises Kamarudin Meranun's index of Malaysian economic success in the area of tourism - that is, Malaysia's ability to lure global capital in the form of European holiday tourists to Malaysia.


Tapestry of Justice, 1998
Wong Hoy Cheong
Image reproduced courtesy of Valentine Willie Fine Art Gallery and the artist.

Ironically, what Paiman also manages to remind me of is the apparent lack of Malaysian allure for foreigners when it comes to an interest, not in tourism per se, but in Malaysian art. In this regard, it is worthwhile recalling another story of absence. In early 2006, David Elliott's DiAAAlogue piece, "Reviewing Reviews", offered a reflective analysis of contributions to the DiAAAlogue column for the year prior. In this, he noted the "distribution of where the different pieces come from" and the fact that "South-East and Eastern Asia do well with the exception of both Koreas, Cambodia, Laos, Malaysia, Indonesia, Myanmar ... ", alongside a host of other countries that might be classified under the label of "Asia".(1) For this contribution, I have been asked to share my views on the Malaysian contemporary art scene - one of those localities Elliott correctly lists in his own editorial as an exception to those that do well on the DiAAAlogue column. Of course, the DiAAAlogue column has only been running since 2003 but, we might note that since its outset, there have not been any articles focusing on contemporary Malaysian art. The call for this piece, albeit from my Australian-based perspective, shows an expanding scope of commitment by the Asia Art Archive to report across all areas of Asian art. The absence of Malaysia is not so much a DiAAAlogue specific issue but, of course, a reflection of the broader dearth of critical discussions on Malaysian contemporary art, both in Malaysia and in the global art sphere. I have spoken about some of the reasons for this in another context, particularly with reference to Malaysian art critic Eddin Khoo's remarks on the lack of "a sustained meditation on the meaning of art movements in Malaysia" since the pioneering efforts of art historians, T.K. Sabapathy and Redza Piyadasa.(2) However, I suspect there are other reasons for the lack of a committed international interest in Malaysian art which I wish to think through here.

With regard to arts dissemination and publishing, the informative newsletter Kakiseni.com was established in July 2001, and is the only publication in Malaysia, online and offline, dedicated exclusively to the arts.(3) It reports regularly, in English, on arts events in Malaysia, delivers critical discussion on the arts, and has been successful in reaching an array of people interested in the Malaysian arts scene. One suspects that part of the viability and sustainability of Kakiseni stems from the financial costs saved through electronic dissemination. It is unfortunate that Malaysia-based print publications such as Art Corridor and Tampa Tajuk! have packed up. In their stead, the refereed journal Wacana Seni was introduced in 2002 by the Universiti Sains Malaysia as a new "Journal of Arts Discourse" published once a year. The quarterly publication sentAP! (Seni Tanpa Prejudis meaning "Art Without Prejudice") is the most recent addition to art publications from Malaysia, demonstrating the potential for print dissemination of quality art criticism to regional and international audiences. Mainstream entertainment and art magazines such as KLue and Off the Edge also assist in communicating art events to local audiences. So, what we can say is that despite the usual struggles to keep print publications alive, there are continuing efforts by local publishers to maintain arts dissemination in Malaysia and to develop outlets for critical art discussion. I don't think the same can be said of many foreign arts publishing houses.


Outside view of Balai Seni Lukis Negara, National Art Gallery of Malaysia.
Image reproduced courtesy of Balai Seni Lukis Negara, National Art Gallery of Malaysia.

It's no surprise that the pages which fill international art magazines and journals, art libraries and bookshops are usually replete with news and discussion on the Asian art heavyweights but have little to tell us about art events in smaller locales such as Malaysia. While Southeast Asian contemporary art has experienced unprecedented visibility in recent decades as part of a broader international interest in the contemporary art of Asia, East Asia and, to a lesser extent, South Asia, continue to dominate in contemporary international art contexts where Chinese, Japanese, Korean and Indian art practices have proved the most visible. My recent research(4) on Southeast Asian contemporary art, including that from Malaysia, was motivated by the relative lack of curatorial and scholarly attention to the thriving contemporary art practices of artists from the region. Unlike their East and South Asian counterparts, Southeast Asian contemporary artists feature less prominently on the international art stage and their art histories remain relatively under-explored in art literature.

This lack of a critical arts discussion belies the dynamic and vibrant contemporary art being produced by Malaysian artists and the contemporary reality of burgeoning art practice in Malaysia, particularly in the country's capital, Kuala Lumpur. Granted, the Malaysian art community is young, but there is certainly an absorbing history of modern art in Malaysia spanning pre- and post-independence, and an exhilarating energy and vigour by artists to discover and invent new means of creative expression. The most obvious and internationally renowned examples of this energetic activity are evinced by the practices of now established Malaysian contemporary artists who have made their mark on the international art scene since the early 1990s with inclusion in major art bi- and tri-ennales; such artists include Wong Hoy Cheong, Liew Kung Yu, Simryn Gill and I-Lann Yee. More recently, a proliferating number of younger artists seem to be less reliant on government and commercial art support, undertaking inspiring, independent initiatives to produce, exhibit and disseminate their artwork. These artists have often coalesced in the form of artist groups and/or artist-run spaces such as Matahati, SpaceKraft, Rumah Air Panas (RAP), Lost Generation Space, and Gudang Alternative Space, as well as for festivals such as the burgeoning Notthatbalai festival. More specifically, they include the likes of the aforementioned Nor Azizan Rahman "Paiman", as well as Chang Yoong Chia, Ahmad Fuad Osman, Anurendra Jegadeva, Bayu Utomo Radjikin, Susyilawati Sulaiman, Bibi Chew Chon Bee, Hayati Mokhtar, Yap Sau Bin, Roslisham Ismail (Ise), Jalaini Abu Hassan, Chong Siew Ying, and Nur Hanim Mohamed Khairuddin, among many other talented artists with diverse art practices.


Kamarudin Meranun (from 'The Code' series)
Noor Azizan Rahman 'Paiman'
Image reproduced courtesy of the Queensland Art Gallery and the artist.

Indeed, independent art spaces and artist-led initiatives in Malaysia have been instrumental to contemporary art development in the face of a lack of will and interest by government and the related shortfall of public arts infrastructure, as well as the lack of resources at the major public art institution, Balai Seni Lukis Negara - the National Art Gallery of Malaysia. However, these under-financed artist initiatives, like many others, have had to forfeit their physical art space for ongoing retail and business developments. In addition to artist initiatives, the art market has proven an impressive force in developing Malaysian contemporary art. Highly successful and growing commercial or corporate-funded operations such as Valentine Willie Fine Art Gallery, Galeri Petronas, XOAS Gallery, TAKSU, and Galeri Seni Maya have been active supporters of contemporary art and committed to promoting visual arts in Malaysia. After ten years of operation, it's clear that Valentine Willie, in particular, has had a major influence on the development of art in Malaysia, exceeding the usual tasks associated with a commercial art space and, like Galeri Petronas and Galeri Seni Maya, encouraging extra-curricular activities such as art forums, non-sale exhibitions for emerging artists, fund-raising activities, and the development art libraries and other educational resources. Other lively venues include the gallery and artist-residency spaces at Rimbun Dahan, which runs "a range of artists' residencies to encourage visual artists, writers and other creative individuals to explore and develop their artistic work",(5) and the art studio and gallery at Reka Art Space. Alongside visual art, there is a flourishing "indie" film scene and thriving developments in mainstream and experimental theatre.

However, in a country that strives to be the biggest and the tallest, proud of its world-class infrastructure, we might recall that the tiger-economy Malaysia is yet to be marked on the biennale calendar. Kuala Lumpur, as one arts writer has put it, is that capital "city without a biennale".(6) Is this because Malaysia's mainstream public are disinterested in contemporary art and its international currents? Is this the only means to address the growing need for greater access to international contemporary art and, conversely, for Malaysian contemporary art to be more widely represented in international art exhibitions? Does Malaysia need or desire a biennale anyway? These issues began to be addressed at a forum in Kuala Lumpur in early 2006 entitled "Bila Boleh Biennale?", where local artists, curators and critics gathered to discuss the question of when Malaysia can have a biennale of its own - although the exciting Kuala Lumpur International Photography Biennale (KLip program) was launched in 2005 it cannot be considered at the same scale and level of major international surveys of art. At present, Malaysia appears to lack the necessary level of government support and political will to equip artists and curators with adequate arts infrastructure, operational expertise, and funding to support a major international art biennale. Moreover, it seems that in some sectors of the art community there is a genuine disinterest in global art currents. However, the desire by artists and other arts professionals for greater access and participation in international contemporary art is certainly growing, particularly with sprouting private galleries and artist-run spaces, increasing arts literacy, and the vast expansion of the middle-classes leading to a rising consumer demand for art.


Installation view of RAP's SPACE[S] exhibition of 2003. The former space occupied by artist group Rumah Air Panas (RAP) until February 2006.
Image reproduced courtesy of RAP.

Malaysia's closest neighbour, Singapore, had its inaugural biennale in 2006, placing it within the ranks of world-class art biennale cities (in that exhibition the Malaysian artist I-LannYee presented her stunning photographic installation, Sulu Stories, 2005). Notably, the Singapore biennale on the theme of "Belief" arose out of the particular multi-religious and multi-cultural social context in Singapore. The choice of religious sites (a mosque, synagogue, Hindu and Buddhist temples, and varied churches) to exhibit artworks was a controversial decision by the curators but one which proceeded even within the tight controls of Singapore's notoriously strict government. Added to this was the mix of sexually provocative and shocking work which some found surprising within the usually firm censorship guidelines for art display in Singapore.

I raise the Singapore Biennale because the Malaysian context provokes a similar set of questions for the representation of international art in that country, and Singapore's culturally challenging exhibition may be a good point of reference for Malaysia in this regard. "Beyond Belief" posed issues of religious and cultural diversity that are equally significant to Malaysian society. Given this, the issue of cultural sensitivity becomes an important consideration. One must ask, what kind of negotiations would need to take place in order to allow curatorial and artistic freedom to realise the exhibition of an artwork by independent artists and curators? How would a Malaysian biennale be sensitive to its local context and at the same time, cater to international audiences? How would an international art biennale supported by the Malaysian government be sensitive and open to the politics of nationalism, identity, religion, sexuality, and globalisation as it is experienced by diverse international audiences that are the viewing publics of international art biennales? While many have been shocked at the seeming openness of Singapore's 2006 Biennale, such openness goes hand-in-hand with Singapore's endeavours to become a "global city for the arts" and to present itself to the world as a centre of modern art. In order to achieve this, it has forfeited its usually strict stance and permitted a diversity of avant-garde practice from around the world, provocative as they might be. What would a Malaysian program and rationale for setting up a biennale look like?


Quilt of the Dead, 2002-ongoing
Chang Yoong Chia
Image reproduced courtesy of the artist.

While a biennale may not be necessary in Malaysia, or even desired, the idea of it does raise important questions concerning local politics, art censorship and the policing of art practice in Malaysia, and how all of this sits in relation to international art practice and exhibition. Just days ago, the Malaysian Film Censorship Unit banned director Amir Muhammad's documentary film Apa Khabar Orang Kampung (Village People Road Show), which documents the lives of former Malay Muslim Communist Party Malaya members. Artist collectives such as Artis Pro Activ (APA) have condemned this action, arguing that the ban contravenes Article 10 of the Malaysian Federal Constitution which guarantees freedom of expression ... [in] any democracy the right to a different point of view is fundamental ... A country cannot call itself a democracy and demand that all its citizens share a singular, official point of view. The Malaysian government must begin to accept that Malaysian citizens have differing views on many things and they have the right to voice those views. It is through healthy debate that we grow as a nation... (7) This incident drives home the point that censorship of artistic expression is an ongoing issue and that art is very much political in Malaysia. Yet another case of censorship was reported last year at Balai Seni Lukis for the Asialink-sponsored "Open Letter" exhibition, when elements of an art installation were removed without permission of the artist, Vienna Parreno.(8)

To return to my earlier point in relation to questions of race and religion, I continue to be struck by the lack of international attention to the Islamic-inspired, non-figurative aesthetics of many contemporary Malaysian artists (although one significant exception to this is the Universes in Universe online magazine, Contemporary Art from the Islamic World, recently changed to the title of Nafas, and published four times a year since March 2003). This was indeed a particularly controversial issue in Malaysia's early days of independence, as it strove to define its own unique national identity, with the Malay identity dominating Malaysia's other cultural groups (Chinese, Indian, Javanese and others). The consequent social and institutional separation of Indigenous Malay (Bumiputera) and non-Indigenous (non-Bumiputera) groups affected the art scene immensely, as Malay-Muslim artists came to dominate with their Islamic-inspired, abstract art styles which were also complimentary to the State's prescribed ideology regarding Malaysian national identity.(9) However, this changed in the 1990s, as more diverse, socio-politically driven art forms expanded the definition of Malaysian art and engaged in artistic debates about the constitution of Malaysian identity. Partly in response to the privileged exposure of Malay-Muslim artists - and, in particular, the hegemony of the abstract styles they propounded - Malaysian art since the 1990s saw a flourishing of figurative and other pictorial art forms which have sought to grapple with various social and political issues, including that of ethnicity and race. Alongside this objective was a felt need to forge an aesthetic sensibility (taken up by both Malay and non-Malay artists), which was different to the earlier Malay-Islamic and abstract expressionist styles, and reflective of avant-garde, postmodern orientations. As a result, the formalist and stylistic sensibilities that prevailed in earlier decades were replaced by a heightened socio-political consciousness and a renewed relationship between art and politics.


Pre-War Building for Sale: Poh Tor IV artist meditating at the beginning of Poh Tor ceremony: the burning of the 1st incense house, August 1999
Chuah Chong Yong
Image reproduced courtesy of the artist.

In the context of an increasingly globalised art world and in the aftermath of the events of September 11, there is a need to re-read the notion of Islamic-inspired art practice (in a curatorial essay accompanying a solo exhibition by Ahmad Fuad, Malaysian artist Hasnul Saidon wrote about the "global Islamaphobia" as a spectre haunting the Malay artist in particular, and one which they will have to contend with in their art practice). Indeed, we need to redefine "contemporary" art from non-Western locales such as Malaysia so as to recognise the importance of contemporary art practices that seem to fall outside the purview of Euro-American discourses of avant-garde art, including Islamic-inspired art and "traditional" Malay design and craft. How might inclusion of this kind of art challenge those fashionable streams and lend diversity to the meaning of contemporary art? Importantly, a number of young artists are turning to other means to address the contemporary politics of race and religion, especially in response to Euro-American-centric politics, as well as to re-dress and even transcend issues of race within Malaysia itself. This new current of art has been assisted by new ideas of national belonging in Malaysian society, forged in the early 1990s through the new national vision of a New Malaysian nation - Vision 2020 (Wawasan 2020). In this vision, the country strives towards a new bangsa Malaysia (Malaysian race/nation) by the year 2020, through which, it is hoped, Malaysian society would be dramatically reconstructed, expunged of race and racism. The new ideal of Malaysian nationhood would be based not on a privileging of Malay or Bumiputera (indigenous Malay) ethnic interest over others, as in the few decades prior, but on a more inclusive vision of belonging, which would ultimately transcend divisive factors of race and religion. Running parallel to this greater national project have been critical reflections by artists in Malaysia towards a new artistic and social vision of multi-ethnic Malaysian belonging.

It is in this renewed social milieu, and with the opening up of Malaysian society and economy to the rest of the world, that some of those who form part of the most recent generation of Malaysian contemporary artists appear to be reviewing their pasts, helping to create a more inclusive national art scene - comprising artists of all races and diverse art practices - as well as hoping for increased art dialogue and exchange with others outside Malaysia.

Thanks to Yap Sau Bin for his invaluable assistance.

Footnotes

  1. David Elliott, 'Reviewing Reviews', DiAAAlogue, Asia Art Archive Newsletter, No.2, 6 April 2006.
  2. Eddin Khoo, 'The Problem of Writing Malaysian Art', Art Corridor, Issue 11, 2003, pp.11-12; Michelle Antoinette, 'Different Visions: Contemporary Malaysian art and exhibition in the 1990s and beyond', in Caroline Turner ed., Art and Social Change: Contemporary Art in Asia and the Pacific, Pandanus Books, Canberra, 2005, pp. 229-52.
  3. See http://www.kakiseni.com/about
  4. Michelle Antoinette, Images that Quiver: the In/Visible Geographies of 'Southeast Asian' Contemporary Art, unpublished thesis, Australian National University, Canberra, 2005.
  5. See the Rimbun Dahan website at http://www.rimbundahan.org/art/residency_programme/index.htm
  6. Gina Riley, 'The Starting Line is Yellow', ArtsHub Australia, 11 Jan 2006, at http://www.arts.hub.com.au
  7. Artis Pro Activ (APA), 'Press Statement on the banning of Apa Khabar Orang Kampung, at Kakiseni.com, 22 February, 2007, http://www.kakiseni.com/articles/features/MTA1NQ.html.
  8. As reported by Gina Fairley, 'Protocol 101', in Kakiseni.com, 15 March 2006 at http://kakiseni.com/articles/reviews/MDgxNg.html.
  9. See the Universes-in-universe website at: http://universes-in-universe.org/eng/islamic_world/countries/mys.

Editorial disclaimer - The opinions and views expressed in the Diaaalogue column do not necessarily reflect those of the Asia Art Archive, staff, sponsors and partners.