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Friday, 6 January 2012

MATRIX UMS

The following are several final year projects by students from the Department of Visual Art, School of the Arts, Universiti Malaysia Sabah (UMS). 

Thank you so much for inviting me to evaluate the final year students' projects for the past few years. Thank you also for inviting me to evaluate the progress of your programme. I felt honored. 

Other than UNIMAS in Sarawak, the Visual Art Programme at UMS has a very special place in my heart since I was partly involved in designing its initial curriculum way back in 2004. It has become one of many 'gardens' that I was privileged to be involved in. I remember staying up late with Fuad Bebit and Allahyarham Zul (Alfatihah for his soul) to finish up the proposed programme. Now I have another privilege to witness the 'fruits' of this garden. Going to UMS every year for the past few years to witness how this garden has grown, has been a trip that I look forward to. I am also blessed to have so many good friends at UMS.

The works churned out by the students have a very distinct 'local' flavor. The works are predominantly based on the students' interpretations of the rich cultural landscape of Sabah. There are samples of cultural texts decontextualized (if not deconstructed) by the imperatives of 'modern art' cultural industry. Some have been 'Andy Warholed' through the language of pop art. If Andy Warhol is still alive, he would be proud looking at some of the works. 

The works can also be read as a marriage (not sure legal or not) between cultural texts of ethnic tradition with cultural texts of modern art indsutry. In certain ways, the whole scenario can be read as an inter-textual field of semiotic contestation (even confusion). Still, such scenario can be taken as a crucial material for cultural studies. It yields an interesting hypothesis - can a traditional visual language (fundamentally a spiritual language coded through various arrangements of motives) be re-contextualized as a form of modern (read secular) art, as framed by free market capitalism? Should the works be taken and read as a form of deep spiritual expression or read as an extension of the marketing language of commercialized traditional folk art? Are they merely meant for the consumption of cultural and tourism industry? Mmmm... loads of critical discourse here. Well, I just can't get rid of my academic posturing!
 
As usual and expected, there are also derivative works, that remind me of Bayu Utomo, Haron Mokhtar, Awang Damit, Yusof Gajah and Raja Shahriman. It is also interesting to witness how the students read (or misread) the rich palette of colors found in many traditional ethnic arts in Sabah. Some may border on recycled 'exoticism of the Orient' and 'savage/primitive others', re-visiting colonialism in a reverting fashion (instead of taking on a post-colonial stance). This is made more apparent by the fact that most of the students come from outside Sabah, therefore they are subjectively reading Sabah as a cultural text from an 'outsiders' position. Their works may be taken as results of their dialogues with the referred or studied cultural texts. The tendency to flatten Sabah cultural texts into merely 'formal' elements to 'play' with are of abundance.

But, there are plenty of ways to improve and many obstacles to take. 

I don't know whether this would be my last invitation. Perhaps, the faculty members would want to invite other professionals/scholars/academicians to provide new perspectives in further improving the Department of Visual Art, School of the Arts, UMS. I can still fly to UMS on my own to enjoy your friendship. Anyway, thank you for sharing your creative vibes and all the best. UMS will forever be close to my heart.  

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