MAPPING/ PEMETAAN @ National Visual Arts Gallery, Malaysia

Dzulkifli Buyong – Kapal Kertas (1965) [GIF file from Balai Seni Visual Negara II’s Facebook post dated 4th May 2016]
William Samwell – Dyak Campong Kapan Landak River (1890)
Yong Poh Sang, Milking Time (1959)
Mohamed Salehuddin, At the Kampung Shop (1959)
Untitled painting by Zakariah Noor (1960)
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“MAPPING” promises to be the most exciting initiative undertaken by the art institution in recent times. If all goes well, this progressively amalgamating two-year project will form the basis for a permanent exhibition of the national collection, a maiden achievement for the Balai Seni Lukis Negara.

TEXT: Shyan (Art KL-itique)
IMAGES: Courtesy of the artist and Art KL-itique

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Dzulkifli Buyong – Kapal Kertas (1965) [GIF file from Balai Seni Visual Negara II’s Facebook post dated 4th May 2016]

At Galeri Reka, “TANAH MELAYU: Pembentukan Dari Kolonisasi” offers an arbitrary start to local art history, with drawings and watercolours made in the 1880s by British colonial officers. Timelines and wall texts make the walkthrough an enjoyable one, as careful illustrations of figures and cross-hatched landscapes, are paired with humorous vignettes about inside jokes and local encounters. While drawing and painting are recognised as Western art practices, this show does not fully justify how its exhibits fit into Malaysia’s visual art history. Pictorial records of Tanah Melayu by European travellers and Chinese traders are decades older; Ahmad Suhaimi proposed in Sejarah Kesedaran Visual di Malaya, that Malay writer Munshi Abdullah (d. 1854) “had a huge talent in visual art…” Nevertheless, the presented starting point is a sufficiently credible one.

Moving on from colonial pictures, “FORMATION” highlights local artists active during the period from 1920s to 1960s. Galeri 1A is demarcated into ten sections corresponding to art groups, each segment clearly labelled with introductory wall texts. Such segregation sidesteps chronological issues, but risks pigeonholing artists and their affiliations. Nonetheless, this effective display approach works well to describe the burgeoning art scenes across Malayan locations and ethnic communities, hence turning the emphasis upon each artist’s unique background and influences. From court painter to Chinese artists in Penang & Singapore, to Kuala Lumpur’s turn as an art hub, the presented timeline is a straightforward one. Art societies such as the Penang Impressionists, Yin-Yin Art Circle, and United Artists Malaysia, were formed in the early 20th century, but the earliest exhibited artworks are made in the early 1950s. This highlights the main constraint of “PEMETAAN” – it has to utilise works within the 3,600+ strong national collection to narrate our visual art history.

William Samwell – Dyak Campong Kapan Landak River (1890)
William Samwell – Dyak Campong Kapan Landak River (1890)

Prints are an early highlight. Lee Joo For’s linocut and William K.K. Lau’s lithography intrigue with its mystical symbolism and spatial layers, while the cover design on old exhibition catalogues make great viewing. Some of these shows were held in Chinese schools where Penang artists taught, as I begin to notice the (overseas) places where artists trained, which contributed to the diverse art philosophies and visual output after this point in time. The Nanyang Academy of Fine Art sections appear to be the most challenging to set up. Its representative artists are predominantly Singaporean, yet the Nanyang School has casts a lasting influence on Malaysian artists. Nanyang pioneers are firmly established within Singapore’s art canon, so how should one present these artists while mapping Malaysian art history? (Parallel issues exists while narrating the official histories of both countries.) From socially-conscious woodcuts to cubist forms to post-impressionist colours, the diversity on show can be difficult to interpret.

I notice that the Equator Art Group section is not yet unveiled, where the group’s focus on social themes could provide a good counterpoint to Nanyang practitioners more inclined towards pictorial structures. Art historian Emelia Ong’s concise essay The Nanyang Artists: Eclectic Expressions of the South Seas provides a useful approach to distinguish the issues tackled by Nanyang artists. Three categories are proposed – those who “fuse elements from different artistic traditions”, those who “incorporate local or Nanyang subject matter into Chinese traditional painting”, and those who “formulate a distinctive Southeast Asian expression through the use of a combination of styles.” Great examples of these respective categories are seen in the vertical black ink lines of Chen Wen Hsi’s finger-painting, the bird’s eye view of a ‘Kampong Melayu’ backed by limestone mountains by Chen Chong Swee, and the fauvist depiction of nude native women by Cheong Soo Pieng.

Yong Poh Sang, Milking Time (1959)
Yong Poh Sang, Milking Time (1959)

Two out of three aforementioned works entered the national collection in 1981, thus underlining a curious observation – eight of these exhibits were acquired in 1981, and all eight are by Nanyang artists! Such focused collecting is rarely heard of in this day and age… Two small sections nestle behind black partitions, which display artists associated to the Selangor Art Society and the Negeri Sembilan Art Society. Highlights include ‘Milking Time’, a wonderfully restrained painting by Yong Poh Sang, whose prize-winning sculpture is also memorialised in a black & white photograph. Pokok-Pokok Getah by Lim Peng Fei demonstrates a skilful utilisation of pictorial space, his ink washes illustrating perfectly the hard brown bark and exposed panel of the rubber tree. Works by two founders of private art schools – Chung Chen Sun and Cheah Yew Saik – are exhibited opposite each other, thus forewarning visitors about the arbitrary arrangement that is to come when one enters the Wednesday Art Group (WAG) section.

Adopting the motto “art as a medium of self-expression”, representative WAG works include Patrick Ng Kah Onn’s seminal Semangat Tanah, Air dan Udara, Nik Zainal Abidin’s vivid Wayang Kulit, and Dzulkifli Buyong’s charming Kapal Kertas. Besides showcasing early creations by significant artists in the local canon, this eclectic presentation alludes to a cosmopolitan outlook that WAG artists possess, which reads as an anomaly among the artists exhibited in the rest of this exhibition. An unexpected entry here is an early painting by Cheong Laitong, of Muzium Negara glass mosaic mural fame. Moving onto the Angkatan Pelukis SeMalaysia (APS) section, one gets to appreciate ‘At the Kampung Shop’ by 1950s intellectual Mohamed Sallehuddin. The straightforward painting shows a Malay lady buying rice from a Chinese merchant, her driver and car waiting in the background. That this scene was once proposed by art critic Redza Piyadasa as an “indictment of Chinese economic exploitation”, infers that Piyadasa’s sensitivities were ahead of his time.

Mohamed Salehuddin, At the Kampung Shop (1959)
Mohamed Salehuddin, At the Kampung Shop (1959)

A 1995 newspaper article by Ooi Kok Chuen describes Salehuddin as a social activist, who was once imprisoned for his anti-colonial writings for Majlis, a magazine that eventually ceased publication after being boycotted by UMNO. APS founder Hoessein Enas is quoted as saying that Salehuddin was neither a full-time artist, nor an APS member. This contradictory statement recalls the issues of segregating this exhibition into art groups, and point to the fissures within historical narratives that make history a fascinating subject. “FORMATION” ends with a timeline that tells the formation of the Arts Council, the establishment of the National Art Gallery Act 1959, and its subsequent evolution into the National Visual Arts Development Board Act 2011. Graphic posters of past exhibitions and Syed Ahmad Jamal’s bronze eye logo are pretty exhibits, but present an abrupt end to this historical walkthrough.

The strongest aspect in this exhibition is its archival content. Fascinating anecdotal evidence include a mention of O Don Peris painting a picture of the British surrender to Japanese troops in Bukit Timah. Cynically humorous propaganda cartoons by Abdullah Ariff from the 1940s, are displayed beside an idyllic watercolour landscape which the artist is famous for. Lee Joo For writes in a critique published in a 1966 newspaper snippet, proclaiming the death of the Penang art scene “because no matter how much beauty or quality any painting radiates (…) no paintings are ever purchased”. A first day cover is preserved in a vitrine, featuring landmark works by Latiff Mohidin, Chuah Thean Teng, and Syed Ahmad Jamal from the national collection. One artist fondly recounts the art lessons given by an Indian artist named N.N. Nambiyar, who ran art classes in Brickfields during the 1940s. I learn from a 1981 interview with Malaysian Institute of Art founder Chung Chen Sun, that advertising was the most commercially rewarding career for artists, and the article mentions too about a student artwork so controversial that it was “banned from the exhibition at the last minute.”

Untitled painting by Zakariah Noor (1960)
Untitled painting by Zakariah Noor (1960)

Such newspaper snippets and exhibition catalogues provide fresh insights, and the invested visitor is offered an unprecedented opportunity to learn about Malaysian art history in a public space. Another curatorial decision that deserves applaud is that exhibits are not accompanied by wall texts that over-explain a particular artwork, which sometimes plague Singaporean museum displays. As a stepping stone to establish a permanent exhibition of the national collection, this project looks very promising. Working within its constraints, the exhibition segments are sufficiently inclusive, and its curatorial approach well thought out. While eagerly anticipating the “TRANSITION” (1960s – 1970s) exhibition to be properly fitted out upstairs, I am reminded that the National Art Gallery was the first of its kind in Southeast Asia. It is about time we have a permanent exhibition of our national collection.

 

MAPPING/ PEMETAAN
National Visual Arts Gallery, Kuala Lumpur
15 Feb – 31 Aug 2016

 


Shyan is a visual arts enthusiast from Kuala Lumpur, and occasional buys art. His observations of the local art scene are documented at artklitique.blogspot.com.

 
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