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Friday, 31 May 2013


Echoes of Resent, Reasserting the ‘Others’ and Reclaiming History

The above-mentioned trajectories of a new generation of Malay artists have also been complimented by a diverse range of new trajectories chartered by young non-Malay Malaysian artists since the 1990s. Despite the diversity of their output and stance, most of their artworks have been stereotypically placed as echoes of lingering resent towards the so-called hegemony of Malay-Islamic nationalistic force. The resent was indicated by the sprouting of artworks with a very strong socio-political stance. In this regards, Michelle Antoinette writes:

 “A key concern of these artists was indeed to open a space for Malaysian artists of non-indigenous backgrounds – as evinced, for instance, by the efforts of Wong Hoy Cheong, Tan Chin Kuan and J.Anurendra. Alongside this objective was a need to forge an aesthetic sensibility (taken up by indigenous and non-indigenous artists), which was different to the earlier Malay-Islamic styles and reflective of avant-garde, postmodern orientations.”(88)

For Niranjan Rajah, ‘the expressions of identity amongst later generations of Chinese Malaysian artists must be set within the ethnocentric anxieties of the deepening communalism of our society’.(89) In this regards, Piyadasa wrote:

“Given the nature of multi-ethnic reality of the contemporary Malaysian situation, it is only to be expected that alternative artistic perceptions and re-definitions of the issue of national cultural identity will emerge. And these perceptions may not be in tandem with politically dominant officially-sponsored Malay-Islamic perceptions. They may be reactionary and in opposition to the officially prescribed idea of cultural identity and an officially politicized version of Malaysian history even. Marginalization will and does encourage reactions on the part of those artists who feel ethnically marginalized. And this has happened in recent years with the emergence of a significant number of younger non-Malay artists who have consciously projected non-Malay themes and issues in their art works.”(90)

Piyadasa had also credited Wong Hoy Cheong for the above-mentioned ‘impulse’ and even proposed that ‘the presence of newly-returned U.S. trained artists, Wong Hoy Cheong, at the MIA, during the early 1990s, as a teacher, proved consequential to the search for a more assertive Chinese-ness’. For Piyadasa, ‘this search for a Non-Malay point of view may be viewed as a counterpoint to the Malay-Islamic impulses.’(91)

It is interesting to note that in narrowing the output of young non-Malay Malaysian artists that have emerged in the 1990s as ‘the counterpoint to the Malay-Islamic impulses’ (or in giving Wong Hoy Cheong the credit for asserting ‘Chinese-ness’), Piyadasa might had again sidelined other possible readings on the output of these artists. Furthermore, the role of Malaysian Institute of Art (MIA) as well as other important individuals, events and moments (that were integral to MIA during the late 1980s) might have been obscured.

Certainly, many other things (or other proclivities) had transpired in MIA other than responding to the Malay-Islamic impulses. Reducing MIA and output of non-Malay Malaysian artists as an alternative to UiTM and the Malay-Islamic impulse is rather simplistic and confining (to a constricting ‘binary opposition’) reading. Artists whose artworks do not fall within such binary reading, may indirectly be sidelined. As pointed earlier, other smaller narratives in regards to MIA in the late 1980s and early 1990s should be further researched and forwarded.

Nevertheless, despite recently moving to many other trajectories, the works of artists such as Wong Hoy Cheong, J.Anu, Tan Chin Kuan, Liew Kungyu, Eng Hwe Chu, and Chuah Chong Yong, have usually been read by many writers within the context of resent towards ‘politically dominant officially-sponsored Malay-Islamic perceptions’, reasserting the ‘others’ (meaning non-bumiputera/indigenous Malaysians), and reclaiming their position and role of ethnic minorities in the history of Malaysia.

Wong Hoy Cheong’s Migrant Series (1994) for example, according to Michelle:

“…presents the social history of his own family’s migration to Malaysia, but also symbolizes, more generally, the story of the Malaysian Chinese diasporas and their role in building the Malaysian nation. Replete with political commentary about social displacement, class conflict and colonial influence, the charcoal drawings of the Migrant series also illustrate Wong’s forceful reassertion of the importance of figuration in producing socially-relevant art.”(92)

Through his multi-dimensional installation Re:Looking (2003), which was shown in the 50th.venice Biennale of 2003, Hoy Cheong ‘rewrote history, proposing that Malaysia had conquered the Austro-Hungarian empire. To this end, he created a fictitious historical record, doctored archival photographs and enlisted prominent Austrian and Malaysian historians to take part in a fictitious documentary video discussing the conquest and its implication on modern Austria and Malaysia.’(93)

Known for his commitment in making research-intensive and socio-politically-charged artworks, Wong Hoy Cheong has also been tagged with many other different labels for his multifaceted roles in the Malaysian art scene post 1990. His diverse range of highly critical and internationally acclaimed multi-dimensional artworks have been locally and internationally exhibited, represented and explained by many local writers such as Laura Fan, Beverly Yong, Adeline Ooi, and Carmen Nge.

Despite his critical stance towards the establishment, Hoy Cheong’s artworks have ironically been included in the Permanent Collection of the National Art Gallery. In fact, he had organised several important exhibitions and experimental projects, including his own solo exhibitions in the National Art Gallery. He was even ‘mythified’ as ‘the most interesting and innovative artist of this era’ by The Encyclopedia of Malaysia (2007).

J. Anu, since the late 1990s, has already been known for his emphatic portrayal of Indian clichés, sadly taken by many as ‘by-default’ setting for the daily drama of a large majority of Malaysian Indian community. His Indian Couple (2001) and Running Indians and the History of the Malaysian Indians in 25 clichés (2001), provide a more ethnically, culturally, politically and locally-specific index for his viewers to decipher. Without going into further reading of his signifiers, Anu’s chosen subject is itself a statement of intent and reflective of ‘insignificant’ others in the social fabric of Malaysian society.  

Another artist that has engaged with the issue of the ‘other’ identity is Liew Kungyu, a graduate from Malaysian Institute of Art (MIA), who has been known for his inventive visual wit in making wry socio-political comments through his intricately elaborate kitschy artworks. Liew Kungyu’s Hungry Ghost Festival, Penang (1995) and Cheng Beng Festival, Kedah (1996) for examples, ‘appropriated images relating to Chinese tradition and custom and the impact of modernity, cleverly marrying humorous kitsch excess with cultural critique.” (94) Kungyu’s repertoire of artworks has also been diverse and multidimensional.

Kungyu’s wearable-art and performance piece Puteri Oriental for example, was carefully articulated in a very cunning and witty manner, usually defying the weightiness of the issues of tradition and consumerism at hand. Puteri Oriental features a seemingly ‘oriental’ princess dressed in what appears to be a traditional oriental costume, walking and interacting gracefully admits shopping malls crowds. Upon closer look, it was apparent that the costume was made of urban detritus from the fast-food industry’s ‘throw away’ advertisings and packaging. Kungyu fondness in making a cunning mockery and witty parody can also be traced his installation Wadah Untuk Pemimpin (Gifts for the Leader) (1999), in which Mahathir’s leadership is cynically translated into ‘altars of political worship’.         

The other version of cunningness can be seen in Niranjan Rajah’s provocative and hard-hitting digital photography Telinga Keling (Keling Ears) (2002) that touches on the delicate inter-ethnic relationship and stereotyping in Malaysia. The word Keling is considered as a degrading slur towards the ethnic Indian community. By compositing his ears as a local delicacy, Niranjan unveils a commonly veiled racial sentiment towards the Indian community in the use of such word as a name for a local Malay delicacy. Niranjan’s threatening facial expression with his eyes opened wide further adds a twist to the drama, as if daring anybody to use similar term straight to his face. Despite its serious racial and social undertones, the work is also witty and cunning.  

On the other side of wittiness and cunningness is a dark, gloomy, dramatic and sometimes bleak surrealistic expression of anguish and despair as epitomized by Tan Chin Kuan’s The Soul Under Midnight (1996) and Eng Hwe Chu’ The Great Supper (1999) (both also graduates of MIA).  These works, as described by Michelle Antoinette, reflect their ‘sense of cultural anxiety and alienation as a Chinese in Malaysia.’ Additionally, Hwe Chu’s work implies another layer of feminist undertone with the inclusion of her self–portrait in the pictorial field.(94)

Chuah Chong Yong’s Pre-War Building For Sale (1996), and his other Pre-War Building series deal with the issue of built heritage years before the emergence of the National Heritage Act. His installation and performance piece Pre-war Building for Sale; Poh Tor (1999) touches on the notions of ‘loss and preservation, permanence and ephemeral, through the reconstruction of ‘incense houses’. His use of incense houses (which were later burnt) further signifies the fate of the cultural site (related to the Chinese) ‘in the face of capitalist development’.(95)   

Tan Chin Kuan’s mixture of surrealistic and social realist rendition is also apparent in Chan Kok Hooi’s skillfully executed The Sour Milk of the Milky Way (2005) while Hwe Chu’s feminist and home setting undertones can also be traced in Yau Bee Ling’s Working Hard At The Kitchen (2005). Another young talented artist who has also been known for her exceptional skill in picturing the ‘insignificant others’ (in this case, an abandoned and alienated old Chinese man) is Wong Woan Lee, as displayed through Someone Forgotten (My Reflection in the Mirror) (2000).

These are several examples of contemporary artists and artworks post 1990s that have been predominantly considered as a part of the ‘periphery’ or the ‘otherness’ of Malaysian art. Many writers have framed their endeavors as reactions to the so-called ‘politically dominant officially-sponsored Malay-Islamic perceptions’. Nevertheless, most of these artists are today very much a part of the center or mainstream contemporary art, if not ‘mythified’ and made dominance by the level of exposures, coverage, achievement, acknowledgement and success gained by the artists themselves, in both local and international platforms. In fact, resents and dissents can be ‘staged as a part of dissident politics that ironically generate heated art markets and fabricate international brand star/cultural heroes.’(96)

        Beyond Polarity

Malaysia’s socio-cultural sphere has always been plural and diverse. With the increased intertwining of common issues of concern, more and more Malaysian artists of the new post 2000 generation are engaging in issues beyond specific ethnic concerns. Not all artists are preoccupied by the need to assert their ethnic identities through their artworks. Some of the more recent trajectories of contemporary Malaysian art today, have moved beyond the confine of ethnic proclivities, and have shifted to common issues of local and global concerns such as education system, fate of Malaysian diverse traditions, cultural pluralism, rapid urbanization, intervention of institutional control, social ills, rampant consumerism, social alienation, environmental degradation, gender, and many more. Furthermore, the notion of the ‘other-ness’ itself is very relative, slippery and always in a state of flux. Beyond the trappings of institutional politics and ethnic polarity, their artworks reflect a generation in search of its voice and struggling to adapt to the challenges of the 21st. century, impinged by the contradictions between local and global imperatives.

Artists such as Ivan Lam, Yap Sau Bin, Bibi Chew, Chang Fee Ming, Kow Leong Kiang, and Tan Vooi Yam, have been known for artworks that that cut across ethnic-essentialism. Yee I-Lan’s Through Rose-Coloured Glasses (2002) and Symrin Gill’s Small Town at the turn of the Century (2002) are two examples of works that engage with the notion of identity with a more inclusive and multi-cultural approach. Artworks by other artists that feature similar cross-cultural impulse include Kelvin Chap Kok Leong’s Belawing, Keramen, Mamat (1995), Shia Yih Ying’s Penghormatan Untuk Alam Yang Kian Pupus (1997), Lee Chee Siong’s Who Are You, Where Are You From, Where Are You Going To?, (1998), J. Anu Tribute, (2004) and Chin Kong Yee’s Hari Kuninggan Procession,(2005). Zanita Anuar outlines this interest as being ‘mindful of a local-regional perspective in the strive to understand Malaysia’s post-colonial identity…’(97). She further proposes that:

“If art is to function as a rheostat in a way that it becomes the instrument to allow the multiplicity of artistic current to thrive by varying the resistance of the homogenizing global circuit, then Malaysia must maintain the rheostat well” (98)

This form of cross-cultural eclecticism unveils an interesting postmodern paradox which in turns, has instigated a return to what was previously tagged as ‘pre-modern’ or ‘primitive’ traditional art.

Works by women artists that emerged during the late 1990s and early 2000 such as Susyilawati Sulaiman, Sharmiza Abu Hassan, Shia Yih Ying, Chong Siew Ying, Noor Mahnun, Nadiah Bamadhaj’s, Hayati Mokhtar, Fariza Azlina Isahak, Fariza Idora AlHabshi, Diffan Sina, Umi Baizurah and Ily Farhana Norhayat, have further suggested that meaning about a particular subject or subjects can be constructed as a system of patriarchal (man/male) and institutional thinking to a point that the thought system be taken as natural or inevitable. They also imply that media,  images and objects have become sites of contestation in which the notions of culture, nature, lifestyle, education, gender, ethnicity, identity and spirituality can be artificially constructed, exploited and hyped to feed a targeted mass and market.

Even Matahati artists who were popularly known for their Malay angst impulse in the early 1990s have indicated a shift in their recent works. Bayu Utomo’s London-inspired paintings in his recent solo exhibition Mind Your Gap (2007), Ahmad Fuad Osman’s paintings based on his sojourns in Vermon and South Korea in his solo exhibition Dislocated (2007), and Masnoor Ramli’s expedition-inspired artworks in his Bumi Manusia exhibition (2007), can be taken as examples of a significant shift to a more articulate, cross-cultural and semiotic approach towards painting.(99). Moving away from their earlier neo-expressionist impulse, paintings in these exhibitions reflect a more temperate treatment in capturing their personal experience of cross-cultural encounters and cultural dislocation.

Another example is Susyilawati’s installation and performance piece Emotional Library (2008), shown in Documenta 2008. It used what she termed as an ‘intention space’ to explore the innate power of intention and notion of energy transfer in intimate encounters. Using her two books cum diaries on imaginary friend and botany as catalysts, Susyi created an enclosed (yet transparent in certain parts) circular space within the public space of the exposition to allow her visitors to enter her space and interact with her and her books.


8. The Future Stance

In such a postmodern’s state of flux, under-deconstruction and fragmented scenario as presented by this essay, can there be a glimpse of a common anchor in discussing about contemporary Malaysian art after 1990? With a ‘hyper-view’ of contesting territorial forces, opinions, narratives, stories and trajectories, one may find it rather puzzling to make a conclusive statement about one’s encounter with the Malaysian contemporary art scene.

For someone grounded in the established canons and tradition of modern art, the probable answer might be a pessimistic and flat NO! Those who hold on to a secured vision of fine art as a practise safely demarcated by drawing, printmaking, sculpture and painting will be subjected to an unpleasant encounter. In fact, those who have been fertilising their ‘ground’ with an idealised vision of narrow ethnocentric utopia will probably be heart-broken as they encounter the many facets of contemporary art in Malaysia.(100)

For a generation conditioned by capitalist free-market liberalism and globalization (gobble-lisation and its impinging consumerist imperatives in all fronts), the answer is probably in questioning the question itself!  Is there a ‘standard’ or a ‘ground’ to return to in this age of fragmentation? What are the constituents within the matrix of Malaysian contemporary art? Is the matrix firmly established and fixed or changed according to the ebb and flow of ‘capitals’, parading under so many different pretexts?

Too much questioning…too little comfort. Symptomatic of postmodern encounters.

Questioning, contestation, fragmentation, flux, and deconstruction may not be suggestive of gloomy days ahead. Instead, they may suggest numerous potentials and possibilities, in which anybody may claim his/her stake and proposition, chart his/her future and create his/her own niche in a fluid and open field. Perhaps, the future stance for contemporary art practice in Malaysia will be determined by the way all the present and future key players and movers respond to the several paradigm shifts listed in fig.1.

Perhaps, after undergoing uncomfortable and disturbing deconstruction, we will hopefully witness an emergence of a new phase of creative practice in Malaysia. By then, hopefully, the art scene will not be under-deconstruction anymore.


7.    Discussions of key artworks

 Neo-expressionist impulse, Malay angst and dilemma

Thematically, most of the seminal contemporary artworks produced by Malay artists such as Zulkifli Yusof, Bayu Utomo Radjikin and Raja Shahriman Raja Aziddin during the 1990s were initially placed and read within the context of ‘angst’ which according to Wong Hoy Cheong, ‘is a sensibility so much a part of modernism and an inevitable outcome of modernity’.(75)  In comparison, Niranjan Rajah, in his book Bara Hati Bahang Jiwa, contextualizes the angst within the notion of semangat (life force) as well as the tension between amok (sudden burst of violent emotion) and adab (following a certain code of behavior) that typifies the works of several contemporary Malay artists in the 1990s.(76)  

The early version of neo-expressionist ‘angst’ can be traced in the works of Yusof Ghani, Ahmad Shukri Elias and Riaz Ahmad Jamil. The neo-expressionist undertone of Shukri’s Larangan (Forbidden) series and Riaz’s Larangan Hilai (Forbidden to Laugh), Larangan Jerit (Forbidden to Scream) and Larangan Pandang (Forbidden to see) can be taken as early preludes to loud angst-ridden theme that has characterized the works of several other Malay artists in the 1990s such as Ahmad Fuad Osman, Hamir Shoib, and Masnoor Ramli Mahmud. These artists, together with Bayu Utomo Radjikin and Ahmad Shukri Mohamed, have been popularly known as Matahati group that emerged in the early 1990s.

Other than responding to the notion of culture and identity, future shock and post-modern raves, some of the more surreal and abstract angst-ridden works of the Matahati artists reflect a trajectory that seems to be moving away from the external cultural conundrum to an inner voyage, suggesting a more personal and idiosyncratic journey into the subconscious. They also resonate with a sense of cathartic release and usually lean towards a much darker personal sentiment. Such rendition emanates a haunting feeling of despair, hopelessness, alienation, sorrow, anguish, desolation, misery and sadness.

The Matahati group itself has been very prolific in organizing solo and group exhibitions as well as local and regional collaborative projects since its formation in 1989. The repertoire of their productive output has also been marked by social commentaries, skillfully expressed with loud and an expressive sense of angst, rage, rawness, boldness and urgency. Branding themselves almost like a group of 1980s Malay rock band, their illustrious career as a group (as well as individual artist) has been captured by a major retrospective, organised by the Petronas Gallery in 2008, which was also held concurrently in three other venues – Matahati Hom, the Annexe Gallery and 12 Art Space.(77)

J. Anu refers to Matahati’s neo-expressionist trajectory as a ‘much more confronting version of a Malay aesthetic – one that is less concerned with niceties or politeness’. While acknowledging the Matahati artists as a part of ‘key influences in the rise of figurative social commentary that has dominated Malaysian art, particularly Malaysian painting since 1990s’ he proposes that their readings of issues ‘are told from their very distinct Malay-Muslim and incidentally South East Asian point of view, symbology and visual vocabulary’.(78)

Zulkifli Yusof is another prominent Malay artist who has emerged into the contemporary Malaysian art scene during the late 1980s with a prolific series of emotionally-charged constructivist installation. Zulkifli himself has been read by several writers as an epitome of Malay angst during the late 1980s and early 1990s. Locally and internationally acclaimed, Zulkifli’s expressive impulse, urgency and boldness in responding to several pressing socio-political issues related to the emerging ‘new Malays’ have been noted by many critics. His aversion towards the abuse of power amongst Malay bureaucrats and aristocrats has been expressed through a wide range of cynically caricatured characters in his paintings and sculptures.(79)

His installation Don’t Play During Maghrib (1996) which was shown at the Venice Biennale in 1997, can be read as a visual pun and parody of a Malay folk taboo, which is captured by the title itself (children are not allowed to play outside the house at dusk when evil forces are abound). Upon closer reading, the work unveils Zulkifli’s fondness in making a mockery of moral hypocrites (who despite their pious exterior and moral sermons, posses certain bad traits, including subscribing to religiously prohibited social activities after dusk). Recently, he has shifted into a more architectonic paintings based on Malay literatures and colonial history.

Raja Shahriman is another epitome of Malay angst who emerged during the early 1990s. Shahriman’s repertoire of battling iron warriors in various mutated forms displays his impressive skill and mastery of medium, which in his case, scrap metal bits. Known for his dramatic, liveliness and energetic rendition of human forms in forceful combating postures, Shahriman’s gothic-like expression reveals an interesting counter-point to the stereotypically polite demeanor of the Malay socio-cultural nuances.(80)

The other side of angst-ridden and neo-expressionist impulse is an inclination towards comedic absurdity, ponderous literalism, schizophrenic appropriation and random deconstruction as epitomized by the works of Noor Azizan Rahman Paiman. His recent drawings and paintings (2007/08) feature random quotations and absurd characters that relate to the political economy (if not absurdity) of mass media.

Artists such as Tengku Sabri Tengku Ibrahim, Hasnul J Saidon, Mohd Nasir Baharuddin, Juhari Said and Suhaimi Tohid have been known for their less expressive but more cerebral, methodical and investigative approach in articulating modern and postmodern encounters.

Their works, whilst being rather less loud or attention-grabbing, are marked by a more conceptual and inter-textual semiotic approach, with a touch of humor, parody, satire and even mockery. In addition, their artworks are best read in tandem with theories related to semiotics, information system and the political economy of global media, and now, the Islamophobia of post 9-11 Islamic fundamentalism cum terrorism.

Along this line, it has to be noted that Malay-Muslim artists of today have to encounter misguided fear, resent, prejudices and stereotypical labeling of Muslims as terrorists (or potential terrorists) and Islam as a breeding ground for religious intolerance, both inside and outside Malaysia. Conversely, they also have to encounter their own misguided prejudices towards the ‘others’, and of the position of their ‘special privileges’ in an increasingly globalized and plural world. Intra-religiously, they have to confront and respond to hate-preachers, dogmatist killers and intolerant bigots within the Muslim communities.

Tengku Sabri’s installation Inside Series : Mari Kita Berperang Lagi (Lets Have Another War) (2002) reflects his cynical response to the U.S.A sponsored ‘war against terror’ by reconstructing a fake toy missile for his children to play with (whilst making a parody of associating terrorism with Muslims).(81) Hasnul J Saidon’s video installation kipASAPi (1999) on the other hand, raises the problem of ‘truth’ in today’s complex streams of broadcast and interactive media, in the context of the Malay political crisis in Malaysia.(82)

Mohd Nasir Baharuddin’s Iqra’ (1995) for example, features the use of text, photography and found objects in articulating the verse Iqra’ in the holy Quran that translates as ‘to recite’ or ‘to read’. Nasir’s deployment of conceptualist’s style indicates a shift from Malay ethnic vocabulary, geometry, calligraphy and craft tradition to a more contemporary expression of everyday reality in manifesting the spirit of Islam. Juhari Said’s Katak Nak Jadi Lembu (The Frog Wants To Become A Cow) (1998) on the other hand, features a use of bold woodblock graphic images to visually re-interpret traditional Malay proverbs with a touch of humor, parody and contemporary nuance.(83)

Suhaimi Tohid’s Journey (2001) refers to a double-edged sword and ‘devious and dubious nature of global economy most specifically in the form of foreign loans that developed countries normally offered to most developing Third world countries’.(84) Another work that reverberates with similar sentiment is M.O.U. Takkan Melayu Hilang Di Dunia (Malay Will Never Cease to Exist) (2006) by Hazrul Mazran Rosli. His sentiment reiterates an under siege fear of the ironic impact of globalization and free market capitalism towards the Malay community (and their nationally protected political, economic and cultural privileges).(85)

Multhalib Musa’s keris-laden By Default (2002), makes a parody of the over-simplistic notion of Malay communal emblem and ethnic symbolism while Sabri Idrus’s Bangau oh Bangau (2004), uses a Malay colloquial folk song or lullaby to subtly comment on an endless bureaucratic blame game that is prevalent in many public departments.(86)

Nur Hanim’s installation Laga-laga (2002) and video art called se(RANG)ga (2005) comments on the power of global media in demonizing Islam. Her works echo ‘the growing distaste for media imperialism and how the hegemony of global media capitalizes on conflicts to achieve economic and political domination. Nur Hanim’s works make a wry comment about fabricated reality, which seems to affirm the post-modernist’s proposition that we live within the sway of mythology conjured for us by the mass media, movies and advertisements.(87)

Over the past few years, other younger generation of Malay artists such as Roslisham Ismail, Khairul Azmir Shoib, Kamal Sabran, Fathullah Lokman, Rahmat Haron, Tengku Azhari Tengku Azizan, Zaslan Zeeha Zaini, Muhd Sarip Abdul Rahman, Aswad Ameir, Saiful Razman, Hazrul Mazran Rosli, Md Farid Abdul Jalil, Yusri Sulaiman, Ilham Fadhli Shaimy, and Samsuddin Abdul Wahab have been making their presence felt in the contemporary Malaysian art scene today by engaging in broader issues of concern.