5. The Catalysts of Change in the 1990s
The Imperatives of Globalization
Niranjan Rajah in Gema:Resonance exhibition catalogue, explains,
“In fact, the artworks in this exhibition reflect the reactions of Malaysian visual arts towards Postmodernism. There is no more impinging nationalism in determining the official contexts for the artworks. They reflect maturity and confidence of the country as a whole in encountering the local and international visual arts contexts.”(59)
In another essay, “Towards A Southeast Asian Paradigm : From Distinct National Modernism To An Integrated Regional Arena For Art” Niranjan writes:
“What is necessary, to serve both as a bridge and as a barrier to the inevitable globalization of Southeast Asian art, is a strong regional arena. Indeed, the challenge for future curatorship in the region lies in transcending individual nationalism and in negotiating curatorial protocols that will enable the sharing of artistic values, resources, expertise, infrastructure and finances” (60).
The dichotomy between local and global, as well as the growing interest in regionalism, has created a climate marked by ironies, paradoxes and contradictions and much as probabilities, possibilities and potentials, as mentioned earlier. The impinging notion of neo-imperialism brought about by globalization for example, has been answered by an adoption of a post-colonial-reflex or awareness. Ismail Zain referred to this as ‘critical regionalism’ in his Digital Collage (1988) solo exhibition catalogue.
The late Redza Piyadasa had dedicated one special chapter in his Rupa Malaysia to elaborate on the imperatives of globalization, free market capitalism and information revolution. For Piyadasa, it is important for non-Western artists to chart their own path and claim their own position by being critically engaged in the larger regional and global contexts of contemporary art practice.(61)
In encountering the imperatives of globalization, even the notion of postmodern itself has been questioned, if not mocked. Zainol Abidin Shariff for example, made the following (cynical) remarks about entries in the Malaysian Young Contemporaries 1994:
“Hooray for good old postmodernism!(at its worst). “Old” did you say? (Never mind about the “good”.) Why not? Does not “post” mean “later”? In postmodernism, one can get born at 42 years off age. And go through middle age crisis before 30! Could it be that when that happens to a “young contemporary artist”, when she or he is full of “angst” and clear about what she or he is not clear about, then she or he stands a good chance of winning the major prize?”(62)
As Malaysia braves the challenges of globalization and free market liberalism, the fate of her rich and diverse cultural traditions may be uncertain, or perhaps bleak. Will such traditions be marginalized, sidelined or pushed to the periphery with the influx of globalization? What will be the reaction of Malaysian contemporary artists towards globalization?
Notwithstanding these questions, the borderless mantra of globalization and deconstructive nature of postmodernism have lead to a growing pressure for local artists to adopt a more trans-national and regional stance in engaging with the contemporary art. Initially, artworks with social context and strong political stance (in both local and global contexts) began to gain popularity in the early 1990s. Definitive and prescriptive definition of cultural identity began to be contested, if not redefined within the larger regional and global contexts. Several Malaysian artists began to map their position within the cultural challenges of ‘new order’ globalization (or ‘gobble’ism for some).
Instead of relying on Euro-American art centers, more local artists (and curators) began to gravitate towards regional galleries and museums in cities such as Brisbane, Sydney, Fukuoka, Osaka, Tokyo, Oita, Shanghai, Beijing, Singapore, Bangkok, Jakarta, Bandung, and Jogjakarta. More and more local artists began to be active participants of regional exhibitions, festivals, exchange projects and residencies.
Institutions such as Fukuoka Asian Art Museum, Queensland Art Gallery and Singapore Art Gallery began to attract artists and curators from all over the Asia-Pacific region by organizing regional events, exhibitions, art exchange projects and competitions such as the Asia-Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art (APT), Fukuoka Asian Art Triennial, Gwangju Biennale, Philip Morris ASEAN Art Awards, 36 Ideas From Asia, Oita International Sculpture Competition and many more.
Concurrently, the National Art Gallery of Malaysia continued to collaborate with local and international partners in bringing exhibitions from other countries, while at the same time, bringing out works by Malaysian artists by organizing exhibitions outside Malaysia such as Continuities: Contemporary Art of Malaysia at the turn of the 21st. Century at Guangdong Museum of Art, China in 2004. Several other regional projects such as Project Pre Fx Pt (1994), 12 ASEAN artists (2000), and Wahana (2003/04) involved collaborations between galleries, artists, curators and writers from the South East Asian region. Upload:Download (U.D)(2003) an internet-based project and Off Walls Off Pedestals (2003) an open space installation exhibition, involved collaborations between artists from Japan and Malaysia.(63)
Several Malaysian artists began to chart their international careers after being selected or receiving invitations to participate in the-above-mentioned exhibitions. Amongst them include APT alumni such as Sulaiman Esa, Liew Kungyu, Mastura Abdul Rahman, Eng Hwe Chu, Wong Hoy Cheong, Hasnul J Saidon, Fauzan Omar, Raja Shahriman Raja Aziddin, Yee I-Lan, Fatimah Chik, Tan Chin Kuan, UNIMAS artists, Simryn Gill and Noor Azizan Rahman Paiman. Other artists such as Chuah Chong Yong, Chang Yoong Chia, Faizal Zulkifli, Zulkifli Yusof, Susyilawati Sulaiman, Nur Hanim Khairuddin, Hayati Mokhtar, Nadiah Bamadhaj and Nasir Baharuddin, have also been selected and invited to exhibit their works in other international exhibitions outside Malaysia since the early 1990s.
In addition to the above-mentioned artists, several others such as Tengku Sabri Tengku Ibrahim, Ahmad Fuad Osman, Roslisham Ismail, Tengku Azhari Tengku Azizan and Multhalib Musa had participated in residency programs in countries such as Japan, U.S.A, Poland and Australia. Some of them have had their artworks bought by galleries in other countries, including Singapore and Japan. Many more young Malaysian artists such as Yap Sau Bin, Tan Nan See, Goh Lee Kwang, Sand T, and Chong Siew Ying have been active in exhibiting (some even working) outside Malaysia. All these artists have now become the epitomes of Malaysian artists’ engagement with globalization.
Artists such as Wong Hoy Cheong, Zulkifli Yusof and Susyilawati Sulaiman for examples, represent the ‘success stories’ of Malaysian artists for being selected to exhibit their works in prestigious international expositions such as Venice Biennale and Documenta. Many others such as Ramlan Abdullah and Multhalib Musa have won international awards for their sculpture work. Despite some alarming remarks on globalization, it has nevertheless opened-up new possibilities for Malaysian artists to enter the world stage and acquire an international profile.