Back in 2010, shortly after RogueArt’s co-founder and director Beverly Yong and four other editors namely Nur Hanim Khairuddin, Hasnul J Saidon, Anurendra Jegadeva and Eva McGovern had banded together in an effort to produce a book on themes and ideas that have shaped art practices in Malaysia and how artists have contributed to a picture of our experience, thus kicking off the Narratives in Malaysian Art series with the first volume, Imagining Identities, we took the opportunity to consult Beverly for 10 important Malaysian artworks that best paint a vivid portrait of our national identity.
The result of our discussion was unveiled in our August 2010 issue, featuring the works of such eminent artists as Datuk Ibrahim Hussein, Redza Piyadasa, Zulkifli Mohd Dahlan, Joseph Tan, Ismail Zain, Kok Yew Puah, Yee I-Lann, Wong Hoy Cheong, Liew Kung Yu and Anurendra Jegadeva.
In Ibrahim’s My Father and the Astronaut (1969), a picture of his father, who belonged to the rural generation, is shown in contrast with a portrait of an astronaut, a symbol of progress, to tell a story of our society in the face of change. In 2003, at a major turn of an era with the retirement of then Prime Minister Mahathir, Yee managed to encapsulate the dilemmas and uncertainties Malaysia was facing at the crossroads in The Horizon Series (2003). Depicting “the over-the-topness of our people and the festivity of our culture and urban landscapes” in epic-size pieces featuring monumental architectures, highways, etc, Liew created Cadangan-Cadangan Untuk Negaraku in 2009.
Following the launch of Imagining Identities, Beverly and her co-editor-in-chief Nur Hanim, together with other collaborators, would go on to publish their second volume in 2013, titled New Critical Strategies – exploring the development of artistic strategies, technological developments and the emergence of new methodologies in art practice and thinking; and third volume in 2016, titled Infrastructures – examining the development of the structures and systems that support art and art appreciation, with an outline of the key areas of art institutions, artist-run initiatives, the art market, art education as well as art writing and publication.
At the advent of 2020, Beverly and Nur Hanim, together with co-editors Yap Sau Bin and Simon Soon, launched the fourth and final volume, Perspectives, completing the 10-year journey of Narratives in Malaysian Art, a collective effort that represents over 200 voices from across generations and disciplines bringing together a broad and diverse knowledge sharing platform on art practices, history and infrastructure in Malaysia.
Perspectives brings together the voices of members of the public, activists, art workers, critics, curators, academics and artists in a collection of commissioned interviews, conversations, essays and short reflections. It seeks to stimulate alternative ways of thinking about art and its significance in the past, present and future. The final volume in the series features essays by eminent regional academics such as Patrick D. Flores and Lai Chee Kien, as well as contemporary artists Ray Langenbach and Au Sow Yee, to name a few; and also conversations with Yuarajah Kandasamy, National Art Gallery assistant for almost forty years, Janet Pillai, Arts-ED founder, and young local curators, among others.
Co-editor Yap Sau Bin, Faculty of Creative Multimedia, Multimedia University, said, “Perspectives is an eye-opening publication that will energise how we look at Malaysian art, and how it may shape the future. As both an artist and a lecturer, I am sure it will appeal to both the art and academic worlds, as well as an increasingly culturally-minded younger public, inspiring further conversations on the topic.”
Simon Soon, senior lecturer of the Visual Art programme at the University of Malaya, said “I hope this volume and the series as a whole underlines for readers the importance of art in helping us to look at ourselves, to appreciate and be critical about our past and contemporary experiences and understand how our stories, or narratives can be read in so many different ways.”
Divided into three main sections, Perspectives first explores the interaction between art and the public, discussing the relevance of art and its impact on society. Highlighted in the section is the role that art has played in activism and building communities, including street art and protest art. For example, the #ReclaimMerdekaPark initiative in 2013 used posters and direct participation from the public as a means to express the people’s desire to preserve the historic space against privatisation. In the same year, protesting against the construction of the MRT on Jalan Warisan in KL, the Save Jalan Sultan group hung a 160m-long banner, with activist artist Yeoh Lian Heng saying that, “Just as the Great Wall of China had defended that country against nomadic armies, his arts group created the ‘Great Wall of Jalan Sultan’ to protect the heritage neighbourhood against commercial invasion.” The book also recalls the controversial removal of woodcut prints Sabah Tanah Air-Ku by Sabah art collective Pangrok Sulap, which puts a spotlight on the rampant deforestation and political corruption in Sabah.
The middle-section of Perspectives is dedicated to curatorial frameworks and agendas, highlighting the important role that curators play in shaping the way we read our art history and what we know about our artists, along with their motivations, approaches and ideals going forward. Interestingly, through our interview with Beverly and her RogueArt co-founder Rachel Ng, we’ve discovered that Malaysia still lacks the undergraduate academic degree in Art History.
In the final chapter of Perspectives, readers take away with them important writings and influential texts of Malaysian art history to help them study the past and better define the future. Among the selected texts is Beverly’s dissertation on TK Sababathy and Redza Piyadasa’s 1983 publication Modern Artists of Malaysia. Here, she highlights the different ways in which we understand the conditions of modernity and the art produced under such conditions.
In addition to the books, the team at RogueArt also launched Walking the Talk, a programme of presentations and discussions springing from the Narratives in Malaysian Art project, designed to engage with art spaces, educational institutions and different publics around Malaysia from September to December 2019.
an audience with rogueart’s beverly yong & rachel ng
In the following interview with Beverly and her co-founder and Arts Management expert Rachel Ng, we find out more about Perspectives and their personal outlook on the Malaysian art scene.
Congratulations on the launch of the fourth and final volume of Narratives in Malaysian Art. Please share with us the gist of Perspectives.
BY: The final book is about how we are going forward; how people might start looking at Malaysian art; it’s not so much about current art practices than it is about what the different generations are currently thinking about in respect of Malaysian art. For example, what have we been writing about our art history; do we need to look at things like new media, gender equality and how women are being portrayed; what are the new stories we should be telling in Malaysian art?
The book opens with the interaction between art and the public. Please tell us more about the interviews conducted for the book.
BY: In Perspectives, Jason Tan and Danny Lim provide a survey of the current public opinion on art, asking people questions like – what does art mean to you; did you like art in school; what’s your favourite public sculpture; how much should people pay for an artwork, etc?
What are the new narratives in art and how have artists evolved?
BY: It’s very diverse. With so many new artists emerging every day, there’s simply so much more art.
RN: A lot of the artists now do not pigeonhole themselves in the typical set of traits expected of an artist, like graduating from an art school with a Fine Arts degree. Nowadays, a designer can be an artist, so can a filmmaker. They are making art by putting together their own knowledge and whatever they employ in their practice. It’s no longer just about painting; it has spilled over the canvas and into things like street art and more.
BY: If you’ve noticed, Malaysia has quite a strong street art scene coming up in different places now. So that’s kind of interesting to see how art is shedding the elitist misconception surrounding it.
What are the things that have brought artists and their audience closer to each other?
BY: There are also so many ways of accessing art these days; we are discussing social media, like Facebook and Instagram, and how people are accessing exhibitions and artworks.
RN: It’s penetrating many levels and layers. Traditionally, when you want to see what art is being shown, you need to go to an art gallery. Today, art is everywhere. Some artists are even using social media like Facebook and Instagram to reach out to their clients. Some collectors are even buying artworks through apps and online platforms, which they subscribe to in order to see more art.
Has there been any issue since the rise of online technology in art?
BY: One of the concerns is that some may think that just because they can sit at home and view everything on the phone, they might not actually go out and see a show.
RN: The issue that I had was with UNIMAS in Sarawak, where I studied before. When I revisited the university a few weeks ago for the roadshow, I was surprised to learn that the students’ main complaint is that KL is too far away and, as a result, they are incapable of knowing what’s going on here. I said to them, “All of you have Facebook and Instagram. How can you say that you don’t know what’s happening in KL.” Every gallery is online. Most of them publish their catalogues online, so that they are available not just to Malaysians, but also to researchers and curators around the world. They come with all the related information and images. There’s no excuse for not knowing what’s happening in KL. I asked them, “Are you studying to be an artist, or are you trying to be an influencer? Why are you following other influencers and not art galleries that can feed you the knowledge you need for your art education?” If you’ve come to study Art, you had better be following Guggenheim. That said, I’ve also come to know a lot of young artists who are using social media to promote themselves and their work. In addition, they also document the process and use that as an opportunity to fish for potential buyers. It’s important to make good use of technology.
In conjunction with the launch of the final volume, you’ve also started the Walking the Talk series. Please tell us more about that.
RN: With Walking the Talk, we have been doing roadshows and reaching out to different communities, such as those in Sabah and Sarawak, and next in Penang.
BY: I’ve called it “Missing Links: Piecing Together a Penang Art Scene”, because we realised that a lot of young artists there don’t know much about the history and development of the local art scene. So we hope to share more with them in discussions that will be moderated by Sarena Abdullah, senior lecturer at the School of the Arts, Universiti Sains Malaysia, in collaboration with Penang-based collective Ruang Kongsi, just to get these people together, to exchange their views and thoughts, and also for a chance to get to know each other better.
And how are the seasoned artists and the younger generation getting along?
BY: We recently had a roundtable at CENDANA with artists from different generations and there’s definitely a generation gap.
RN: The seasoned artists felt that they’ve been left out. They largely follow the established system of making art and exhibiting and selling them in art galleries. The younger generation, on the other hand, doesn’t see it that way.
BY: They try to change the existing model by doing their own things, like heading their own art festivals, to reach new demographics. By bringing them together and starting the dialogue, we hope to be able to help bridge the gap.
Please elaborate on the second section of the book that’s dedicated to curatorial frameworks, as well as the issues faced by the industry at the moment?
BY: It’s about how people frame art, what curators do, their agendas, because that affects how we read our art history and what we know about our artists. Simon Soon and Yap Sau Bin had organised a forum of young, emerging curators to just talk about what their aspirations are, what they are interested in curating, how and so on.
RN: Curators are professionals who are driven to create more meaningful exhibitions, rather than just solo exhibitions. They want to build a story, send a message. Curators conceptualise.
BY: We have curators from the National Art Gallery, independent curators who have worked in the market, as well as those who are interested to train as curators and take it further.
RN: Yet, there’s no Art History degree in Malaysia, just MA (Master of Arts). Most of the curators we have are usually trained on the job. Hopefully, one day we’ll have an undergraduate programme for Art History.
What do you hope to achieve from the complete series of the Narratives in Malaysian Art?
BY: We hope the whole project serves as reference material to help everyone be more informed and give a sense of just how much has been going on and how far we’ve come. Hopefully, this will inspire more people to join in and help expand the “Narratives in Malaysian Art” as we go forward.
*Distributed by Gerak Budaya, Perspectives is priced at RM35 and is available in both English and Bahasa Malaysia at selected bookstores nationwide. For more information, contact +60379541355, or visit www.gerakbudaya.com.
*To celebrate the completion of the project, RogueArt is offering a special limited edition boxset of four volumes priced at RM180, with 80 sets each in English and Bahasa Malaysia. Profits from book sales after distribution will be re-channelled into the development and promotion of the project. For interested parties, contact +60163085037, or email firstname.lastname@example.org. For the latest updates, visit NarrativesInMalaysianArt.blogspot.my.