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Friday, 31 May 2013


Hasnul J Saidon
(Originally published in Timeline, National Art Gallery of Malaysia, Kuala Lumpur, 2010)

For those who subscribe to a very linear reading of time and notion of progress, contemporary art in Malaysia after 1990 may seem a bit puzzling. In fact, writer Ooi Kok Chuen uses a colloquial term ‘syiok’ as a pun for future shock that the local artists had to encounter as Malaysia engaged with globalisation, free market capitalism and information technology during the 1990s.(1)

If one is willing to forsake one’s dependent on the dominant master-narrative that has been used to construct the history of Malaysian art, one may encounter a contemporary art scene that is marked by ironies, paradoxes and contradictions, as much as probabilities, possibilities and potentials. They are rather prevalent if we look into the fact that even the notions of history, modernism, and postmodernism are not spared from being ‘deconstructed’ and contested. It seems like the discourses of contemporary art in Malaysia since 1990 until today have been ‘under-deconstruction’ and in a state of flux.  

Michelle Antoinette in her essay Different Visions: Contemporary Malaysian Art and Exhibition in 1990s and Beyond describes the period during the 1990s as being marked by ‘a climate of openness’ where ‘critique in art has emerged’. She further states that it is a period where ‘constant flux and fragmentation is taken as a defining feature of Malaysian culture and society’.(2)

Thus, the term ‘under-deconstruction’ for this essay is used to represent a review or perhaps ‘hyper-view’ of such fragmentation, other than signifying a postmodern’s state of flux that has characterised contemporary art in Malaysia after 1990.(3) This essay will survey some of key issues that are pertinent in discussing about contemporary art in Malaysia after 1990.

1.    From Master Narrative to Multiple Discourses

        The paradox of deconstruction

Many institutions have acknowledged the role of  T.K. Sabapathy and the late Redza Piyadasa, especially through Vision & Idea: Re-looking Modern Malaysian Art (VI), as ‘the seminal art historians’ and ‘key individuals’ in driving the historical narrative of modern Malaysian art. Their books and writings have been referred to and quoted by many writers of the subsequent generations. In fact, Michelle Antoinette has argued that in a certain sense, both Piyadasa and Sabapathy ‘may be regarded as the pre-eminent ‘myth-makers’ of modern Malaysian art history’. (4)

Then again, such ‘myth-making’ recognition and fore fronting of art historians are rather ironic or paradoxical. The irony is apparent if one considers Michelle’s proposition that the ‘art-historical myth-making’ tendency itself has been contested since the period of the 1990s. In reference to Krishen Jit, she uses the term ‘ruptures in myth-making’ to imply the ‘demythifying’ impulse of the younger generation of Malaysian artists. Ironically, despite the demythifying impulse, Piyadasa himself had defended the relevance of myth-making and the role of art museum or institutions in constructing ‘hierarchical order in the discussion of art works’ in his book Masterpieces from the National Art Gallery.(5)  

In this regards, Piyadasa stated:

“We may be reminded here that the post-modernist trait to resist and dismantle hierarchies is only possible because properly constructed art traditions and art historical contexts already exist!” (6)

Notwithstanding the presence of deconstructive postmodern stance, the modernist myth-making, albeit in various versions, still persists until today. The interest of the younger artists-writers-curators in using art as a form of social critique and commentary has seemed to ironically induce more myth-making. Despite their fondness in shifting and shackling the master narrative of modern Malaysian art, many more artists, events and moments have ironically been mythified.

 Examples of the irony can be traced in several contemporary artworks such as Youthful Contention Not () to Detach from Parental Eclipse (2000) and…Who Gave Birth to the Great White One…? (2002) by Yap Sau Bin, On Air (2002) by Noor Azizan Rahman Paiman and Suhaila Hashim, Rumah (House) (2007) by Susyilawati Sulaiman, and The Artist (2004) by Ahmad Fuad Ariff. These works feature the use of postmodern ideas and strategies such as appropriation, ready-mades, intervention, situational art, mockery, parody, irony, satire and intertextuality in reassessing art history and institutional role in myth-making.(7)

Sau Bin’s …Who Gave Birth to the Great White One…?  for example, through a small caption, questions ‘who should be the producer of meanings? Who, in fact, should provide/has provided meaning to the piece of object? Who has conferred it as art?’. Noor Azizan and Suhaila’s work comments on the role of institutions, ‘mythified’ individuals and also petty gossips in creating the narratives of Malaysian art while Ahmad Fuad Ariff’s work ‘mythifies’ himself as a thinking artist. His recent work Interior Design Products for the Artsy and Fartsy People (2006) even made a (rather crude but frank) mockery of modernist artworks by several seminal Malaysian artists, suggesting the dissolution of modernist (or even postmodernist) rebellious impulse and Malay-Islamic nuances into a mere interior product for consumerist end.(8)

Susyilawati’s Rumah (house) provides an intriguing mental pun in regards to the dichotomy between the ‘personal’ and ‘official’ histories and memories. The pun is made more apparent by the close proximity of the house with the dominant presence of two official cultural myth-makers – the National Art Gallery and Istana Budaya of Malaysia.(9)

Another earlier work, Fashion Parade (Smiling Van Gogh and Smiling Gauguin)(1994) by Hasnul J Saidon, appropriates scenes from the paintings of two important icons of Western art history, whilst making a parody of how traces of their influence have been locally domesticated, neutralized, commodified and ‘mythified’.(10)

These artworks ‘directly and indirectly implicate institutional roles in the increasingly complex matrix of cultural contestation’.(11) In questioning and deconstructing, they have now been infused into the history of modern Malaysian art and may ironically themselves be ‘mythified’ in the future. Thus, it is not a surprise ‘that even the most uncompromising dissident and critic (within the context of Malaysian art history) can be framed, neutralized, championed and ironically welcomed with a red carpet.’(12 ) Nevertheless, beyond the paradox of deconstruction, these artists have shown an interest in ‘critical reassessments of the history that came before them’ as described by Michelle:

“Evidently, the examination of Malaysia’s art history –that is, art production and reception in the Malaysian context – has increasingly preoccupied many artists in recent times. In the process, localised discourse of art history and theory have been appropriated as tools for investigation by contemporary artists who seek to question existing artistic and social histories which nevertheless continue to inform their present-day art making context”.(13)

        The ‘Other’ Narratives

Other than the above-mentioned irony or paradox, several artists and writers have also responded to, if not refuted Piyadasa and Sabapathy’s version of history. Their efforts may imply that there is no singular master-narrative that can be taken as the official or absolute history (thus seminal art historians or myth-makers) of Malaysian art.

One example is Social Responsibility in Art Criticism (Or Why Yong Mun Sen is the Father of Malaysian Painting) by Dr.Tan Chee Khuan. Whilst defending Yong Mun Sen as the ‘father of Malaysian Painting’ and emotionally refuting some remarks in VI, Dr.Tan Chee Khuan offers his own account on the history of ‘Malaysian painting’.(14)   

Dr. Tan Chee Khuan himself was indeed very active in self-publishing several books during the 1990s, perhaps signifying a different trajectory (from Piyadasa and Sabapathy) in approaching the history of Malaysian art. Amongst his long list of publications is 200 Malaysian Artists which contains A Comprehensive History of Malaysian Art, written by Ooi Kok Chuen. Through this essay, Kok Chuen narrates his version of Malaysian art history complete with detail listings of seminal figures and important moments.(15)

Other prominent Malaysian artists such as Jolly Koh and Lee Kian Seng had also published their writings, providing yet other ways of reading and engaging with Malaysian art. In his essay Some Misconceptions in Art Writing in Malaysia, Jolly Koh criticises Piyadasa and Sabapathy’s explication of abstract expressionism:

“It could be said that T.K Sabapathy and R. Piyadasa have dominated art writing in Malaysia for most of the 70s, 80s, and 90s. It could also be said that their writings, especially as they pertain to the artists of the 60s, are inadequate. Also, up till now, nobody has disputed their views regarding those artists of the 60s. On the contrary, their mistaken views that the Malaysian artists of the 60s were Abstract Expressionists are generally accepted.”(16)

Jolly Koh further claims that:

“In the case of art history as practiced by art historians, one of their main roles is to explain how and why artistic styles evolved. In this sense of art history, Malaysian art has no history, for any stylistic changes that occur in Malaysian art is not a result of anything occurring within Malaysian art but is a result of stylistic changes that occur abroad.” (17)

Jolly also refutes Piyadasa and Sabapathy’s inclusion of academic and naturalistic painters such as Raden Salleh, Abdullah Ariff, Lim Cheng Hoe and Hoessein Enas as modern artists. He further proposes the need to properly distinguish Modern art from Western art. The ethos of modern art, according to Jolly is ‘one of rebellion against tradition and to forge something new and radical. Modern art is also anti-naturalistic and is opposed to the rendering techniques of naturalistic painting.’(18)

Along the line of providing ‘other narratives’ is a book written by Ahmad Suhaimi Mohd. Noor’s Sejarah Kesedaran Visual di Malaya (The History of Visual Awareness in Malaya) which contains well-researched materials on other obscured narratives in regards to the early history of Malaysian (or Malayan) visual culture.(19) Suhaimi’s thesis proposes the importance of Malayan’s earlier illustrations as the catalyst for visual culture awareness in Malaya, thus also a significant prelude for the infusion of Western naturalism and modernist art in Malaysia.

Other than the late Piyadasa and T.K. Sabapathy, even the role of the National Art Gallery (NAG) of Malaysia as the caretaker of history and major repository for Malaysia’s modern and contemporary art, was not spared from being refuted, questioned and deconstructed.(20) In addition, the emergence of internet-based forums, chats, and websites such as has further fueled a hyper-view of opinions and narratives about the Malaysian contemporary art practice.

These are several examples of ‘other narratives’ or discourses that suggest an impulse during the 1990s and beyond, to contest any ‘authoritarian’ and hegemonic approach towards history. Even though some of their propositions and contestations can be further argued, they may pave a way for further research and other ways of reading the history of Malaysian art. They have also indicated a shift from Piyadasa’s version of ‘master narrative’ to multiple narratives or discourses, a shift that probably the late Piyadasa himself might have anticipated and appreciated. Despite the shift from singular to hyper-view and regardless of whatever view one may have about him, the name ‘Piyadasa’ will probably remain as an enigmatic presence in the history of Malaysian art.

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