“The aim of every artist is to arrest motion, which is life, by artificial means and hold it fixed so that a hundred years later, when a stranger looks at it, it moves again since it is life,” said Nobel Prize-winning author William Faulkner. Such is the importance and immensity of art, especially in the context of national history.
Books and documents are too literal and leave very little room for imagination and interpretation. Art, on the other hand, sparks limitless insights and empathy by apprehending passing moments into paintings and emblematic figurines; it presents a powerful visual and physical embodiment of reality, in which every image, be it big or small, simple or complex, is capable of portraying an epic event or culture, or a social, political or historical atmosphere. While some explore an alternate and creative view of the past, present and future, others simply express the truth and so much more.
2010 heralds another momentous milestone in the 53-year history of our independence. Since Malaysia is a lot more than the black and white facts presented by chronicles and journals, our long lineage of artworks offer us a panoramic view of our history and society in every shade and colour, encapsulating Malaysia in its full flavour.
In search of artworks paramount to the telling of our legacy, we managed to consult one of the country’s finest art specialists and get an expert insight of art’s nature. Having worked with major art institutions around the world such as Christie’s London and art galleries in Southeast Asia and Australia, Beverly Yong, director and one-third of an art consultancy group called RougeArt (founded together with partners Rachel Ng and Adeline Ooi), has with her over 10 years of professional experience in curating and coordinating events and exhibitions for both young and veteran artists from around the region.
The question that often comes up when selecting a piece of art is “how does one appreciate art and recognise its values?” Although it’s a very subjective question, Yong believes that there are palpable elements that can be studied and revered. “One should appreciate the concept, the technique and skills applied; one should be interested in the subjects, shapes and colours. Pricing is a silly way of looking at art. It should be about its ability to make you think,” explains Yong.
Though Malaysia is a relatively young and small country, we have a solid amount of passionate artists and activists producing thought-provoking masterpieces. One generation after another, they work tireless to broaden the horizon of our aesthetic landscape and speak for the Malaysian public through their creations. “Most of the time, art reflects the artist’s experiences and the experiences of the people around. These expressions are important, they are voices,” says Yong. “We don’t have a proper art system like in overseas where artists get fundings and sponsorships; our local artists work very hard to keep these voices heard, for a lot of our experiences are based on politics, discriminations, history, progression, etc. Imagination is also what’s keeping them forward.”
With technology and artistic mediums constantly evolving, artists are beginning to find different means of presenting their work. “The art scene in Malaysia is very different from before. We now have more room for expression through new strategies like videos, electronic media, pop art, etc,” Yong explains, “Our artists are constantly getting themselves out there in public spaces like ‘Urbanscapes’. It used to be a very exclusive thing, but now it’s getting bigger, attracting a bigger audience to get the point across.” But art is not all about personal agendas, there are those whose work puts Malaysia on the map, “Artists like Wong Hoy Cheong who’s been showcasing his works internationally gets people to know more about our country. As a matter of fact, his previous works were all about Malaysia,” adds Yong.
In their latest effort to champion the Malaysian art scene, Yong and four other editors have banded together to produce a comprehensive tetralogy of important Malaysian art works. Called Narratives in Malaysian Art, the omnibus intends to “look into things that have shaped our art history.” While Yong explains that this is not a new idea, the sourcing and researching alone proves that this is indeed a groundbreaking task, considering our rich and wide gamut of artworks.
“Malaysian art has been around for a really long time. Many have thought of compiling all these works into one comprehensive literature, but there are just never enough resources, archives and amenities. This time around, I got together with four other editors, namely Nur Hanim Khairuddin, Hasnul J Saidon, Anurendra Jegadeva and Eva McGovern, writers and researchers, all of whom are experts in this field, to attempt this impossible task. For example, we have invited TK Sabapathy, a renowned art historian and lecturer, to be on our panel of specialists to edit and write about Malaysian art,” says Yong. She adds that the project will involve over 30 writers and feature important interviews, essays, original and republished dissertations.
The omnibus is comprised of four volumes. Volume One follows the journey of Malaysian art from past to present, chronicling pre- and post-independent incidents, immigration movements, local folklores, and inter-racial relationships, cultures and tensions. Volume Two is a reflection of contemporary techniques, new media and photography in correspondence to political topics. In the third instalment, the infrastructure of the art system in Malaysian is explored. The book delves into the market, art institutions and how artists survive their careers. Finally, the different discourses and artists’ perspectives on history, gender, ethnicity and so on, are put together in the fourth volume to allow a dynamic look at the industry.
“With this book, we hope to create a valuable resource for students, artists, curators, writers and members of the general public. But we’re not trying to be definitive here. We’re doing our best to tell the story of our art as complete as we can,” says Yong humbly.
In anticipation of the release of Narratives in Malaysian Art in 2011, Beverly shares with us 10 important artworks that paint a vivid picture of Malaysia’s national identity.
MY FATHER & THE ASTRONAUT (1969)
BY DATUK IBRAHIM HUSSEIN
Famed for his manipulation of lines and shading to bring shapes and colours to life, Hussein had brought to his paintings fine levels of complexity and texture, making him one of the most beloved artists in Malaysia. My Father And The Astronaut was created shortly after America’s “man on the moon” mission in ’69. The painting shows a picture of Hussein’s father, who very much still belonged to the rural generation then. The image of the father is contrasted with the portrait of an astronaut, symbolising “the idea of a great leap forward, which was a very important thing in the 60s,” says Yong. “It tells the story of two different worlds and shows us who we were and how far we’ve come”. This evolution of identity is an on-going process for Malaysia, and Hussein had artfully captured it forever.
THE GREAT MALAYSIAN LANDSCAPE (1972)
BY REDZA PIYADASA
Piyadasa is known for his critical and conceptual work. “Through paintings, sculptures, installations and writings, Redza Piyadasa questioned the role of art and challenged the prevailing aesthetic values then,” describes Kakiseni. Working with early photographs of immigrant families in Malaysia, he gave us a unique outlook on old Malaya. However, the two scenes featured in the painting are not the only focus here. It’s the break-down of the frame, the hook, the signature, and so on, that makes the painting an intellectually stimulating masterpiece. “By deconstructing the standard structure of a painting, the artist has highlighted why paintings need to be in a frame, and presented a critical investigation of the notions of art,” explains Yong. In a way, you could say that Piyadasa had freed art from our traditional views and made us understand that art comes in many forms.
REALITI BERASINGAN: SATU HARI DI BUMI LARANGAN (1975)
BY ZULKIFLI MOHD DAHLAN
Although it is called “Separate Reality”, the painting reflects a lot about our society. It’s a caricature of the Malaysian populace, showcasing the chaotic structure then and now. The naked characters in the art suggest a bare-it-all concept by Dahlan. Though the technique appears to be simple and childlike, it is in fact a powerful, honest, one-of-a-kind statement piece that the world should take note of. For that one day in Realiti Berasingan, you’ll be able to find beauty amidst the social bedlam and infrastructural mayhem of Malaysia.
LOVE ME IN MY BATIK (1975)
BY JOSEPH TAN
As one of Malaysia’s most respected heroes of pop art, Joseph Tan had brought upon us a distinct universe that combines tradition and pop culture. Many admire him for his ability to approach culture and art in an irreverent manner, and inject a touch of humour and provocation into the otherwise sombre art scene. Love Me In My Batik is a potent example of his expertise. While it thrills our senses with seduction, it also exhibits the effect of commercialisation by mixing Batik and a sleazy-posing female character. Yong explains that “Batik is an important form of art in Malaysian. This painting has debased the art by adorning it on a flirtatious woman who’s been objectified as a sex object. It corresponds to how society has been ‘cheap-selling’ ourselves and our cultures as a result of popularisation.”
THE DETRIBALISATION OF TAM BINTI CHE LAT (1983)
BY ISMAIL ZAIN
Malaysia has come a long way since the days of our forefathers, and our achievements today are something we should be proud of, considering the fact that we used to be a relatively modest and traditional country many years ago. Along the way, many of our customs and long-standing cultures have been ‘detribalised’, as Zain would describe. The artist managed to capture that point of transition in perfect balance. The Detribalisation of Tam Binti Che Lat cleverly portrays the invasion of modern hallmarks. It shows a typical middle-class Malay home being urbanised with contemporary features such as the iron grill gate, local and foreign publications, a tennis player, wicker furniture and a sexy belly-esque dancer. Surrounded by these new elements, the weary Tam binti Che Lat represents the age-old Malay world being encroached by urban development and a new way of life.
PORTRAIT OF AN INSURANCE SALESMAN IN PULAU KETAM (1993)
BY KOK YEW PUAH
In his efforts to capture urban and suburban life (Klang in particular, where the artists grew up) during the rapid progression of the 80s to the 90s, Kok Yew Puah created a new brand of realism in the Malaysian art scene. Our country’s multi-ethnic society and mundane, daily events were expressed without pretension and embellishment. In this masterpiece, the smart-looking working-class salesman in the foreground is contrasted with the rural setting of Pulau Ketam, highlighting the most prevalent living objective amongst the middle class in that era – aspiration. Back then, many Malaysians had begun to come out of their hometown and build their careers in big cities. These were the people who helped build our country into where it is today.
RUNNING INDIANS & THE HISTORY OF THE MALAYSIAN INDIAN IN 25 CLICHÉS (2001)
BY ANURENDRA JEGADEVA
“A picture says a thousand words”, this is best reflected in modern figurative painter Anurendra Jegadeva’s works. In this masterpiece, he gives us 25 clichés of Malaysian Indians. Close-up and partial views of symbols reminiscent of the Indian migrant lifestyle, such as the rubber tree, the Alleycats afro hair and Thaipusam’s kavadis and piercings, are put together to recapitulate the Indian community in Malaysia. Through this, Jegadeva has presented visually our superficial way of stereotyping each other in recognition of our racial identities. Yong commends Jegadeva’s aspiration and successful outcome by saying, “it’s a contemporary painting that tells a really big story.”
THE HORIZON SERIES (2003)
BY YEE I-LANN
A graduate in cinematography and photography, Yee weaves the most intricate lacework of memoirs, landscapes and cultural identities, drawn from history, pop culture, urban lifestyle, icons and everyday entities. At a major turn of an era in 2003, Yee managed to encapsulate the dilemmas and uncertainties Malaysia was facing at the crossroads. It was the retirement of then Prime Minister Mahathir, our nation’s longest serving PM. Specialising in the manipulation of black and white images, she came up a series of art pieces centred around the horizon, featuring the absence and presence modern, traditional and cultural icons, such as the twin towers, the four women of different racial backgrounds, oil palm trees and our national identity card. “I was looking at the Malaysian political landscape by taking away the monuments – physically and metaphorically. It is essentially about putting the horizon line into Malaysia and recognizing the obstacles that block our vision,” explains Yee of her art in an interview. “We rarely stretch our minds, our vision to the horizon, or beyond. We’re kept safe within fencing, within rhetoric. I showed it two weeks before Mahathir retired; it’s an ode to him.”
RE: LOOKING (2002 – 2003)
BY WONG HOY CHEONG
To Wong Hoy Cheong, history is nothing more than mere passing moments. Constantly driven with the mission to reinvent history and jolt our memory, Wong has produced a series of mockumentary videos that has reshaped our country and past. In RE: Looking, he poses Malaysia as a colonising empire. The videos zoom in on Austria as one of our colonies. Mock interviews and footages are cleverly woven together to tell the story of Malaysia’s colonial expansion, and her over 250 years’ reign. Filmed in Austria and Malaysian, mixing real-life historical photos and footages with ‘fabricated’ scenes, the filmmaker portrays Austrians as a colonized society and how they assimilate our culture. It appears the turf has turned “It’s the ultimate Malaysian dream!” exclaims Yong. The project was met with critical acclaim when Wong was invited to take part in the 50th Venice Biennale art exhibition.
CADANGAN-CADANGAN UNTUK NEGARAKU (2009)
BY LIEW KUNG YU
From far, it looks like an extremely striking kitsch of architectures and infrastructures. If you look close enough, you will notice that it is actually made up of a collage of cut-out images. Either way, it’s a sight to behold. One of the most sought-after contemporary artists in Malaysia, Liew has put together monumental buildings, highways, animals and roman columns of all sorts, in epic-size pieces that measure up to 20 x 7 feet each, to give us glimpses of what Malaysia could be in future or in an alternate universe. “It represents the over-the-topness of our people and the festivity of our culture and urban landscapes,” explains Yong. Apart from being just a visual feast, the collection also inspires us to open up our minds to the limitless possibilities of what our country can be, challenging our creativity and our direction in the shaping of Malaysia.
This story was first published in the August 2010 issue of August Man Malaysia.