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Friday, 31 May 2013


3.    Another Prelude - Rethinking ‘Malay revivalist proclivities’

 Which master narrative?

Michelle’s proposition on the role of ‘Malay-Islamic art movement of the late 1970s and 1980s’ in forming the basis of ‘postmodern investigations’ is rather refreshing, in comparison to Piyadasa’s narration of what he referred to as ‘Malay revivalist proclivities’. Taking off from Michelle’s proposition, and in response to Piyadasa’s narration, the issue of ‘Malay revivalist proclivities’ certainly needs to be revisited, especially in regards to Universiti Teknologi MARA (UiTM) during the late 1980s.

Being regarded as the ‘seminal art historian’ and ‘pre-eminent myth-maker’ in driving the historical narrative of modern Malaysian art, Piyadasa’s narration in interpreting what he termed as ‘Malay-Islamic art movement’ has been featured quite prominently, including in several major publications by the government-support National Art Gallery of Malaysia.

Piyadasa’s narration was largely political, and framed within the context of post-National Cultural Congress and its subsequent socio-political repercussion. He expressed:

“What is interesting about the Malay-Islamic art movement referred to above was that it was motivated by politicised, ideological considerations rooted in the new post-Cultural Congress governmental policies.”(23)

According to Piyadasa, the movement had two distinct phases:

i.              Search for Malay ‘roots’ (1970s) and
ii.             ‘Malay-Islamic revival’ in art (1980s) (24)

In regards to the ‘Malay-Islamic revivalism’, Piyadasa further explained:

“The Malaysian government’s Islamisation processes, begun in the early 1980s, had also given an added impetus to the Islamic dimension that appeared within the Malay-centered artistic movement. The projection of Islamic culture and civilisation now became the rallying cry within the larger Islamic world as well and many Malay-Muslim artists linked to the ITM art school responded emotionally to new impulses, which saw the introduction of radical new ideas about an Islamic religious world-view being introduced” (25)

According to Piyadasa’s lenses, ‘Muslim intellectuals’ during this period, began to denounce Western modernism, considered as ‘hedonistic, not moralistic but decadent’. He later painted a scenario:

‘”There was now a rejection of the underpinnings of the modernist movement in art and the Western-derived idea of modernity and secularism itself. At the ITM art school, figurative art was now discouraged and a new prescriptive, abstract approach to art making, founded on Islamic religious and design principles, began to be encouraged, in earnest.” (26)

The above-mentioned scenario, especially in regards UiTM from 1985 until
1990 was partly imagined than factual, as the following sections will elaborate. In addition, reference to Piyadasa’s personal take on such revivalist proclivities, especially in relation to UiTM, should be done in comparison to the late Ismail Zain’s essay Masa Depan Tradisi – Dikhususkan Kepada Pengalaman Kuno di Malaysia (The Future of Tradition – Focusing On Primitive Experience in Malaysia) and Syed Ahmad Jamal’s Rupa & Jiwa (Form & Soul).(27)

Ismail’s works Permukaan Dalam Ruang # 3 (Surface in Space) (1969) and The Wayang Story – Yield, yield (1970) for examples, despite their apparent reference to the shadow puppet tradition and Malay domestic space, contain traces of his early interest in the semiotics of Malay visual nuances within a modernist context. Syed Ahmad Jamal’s Rupa & Jiwa as well as his work Tumpal (1975), despite their Malay postures, were presented within a highly Western modernist gallery context.

Furthermore, Piyadasa’s observation should be read in tandem with Sulaiman Esa’s essay The Reflowering of the Islamic Spirit in The Contemporary Malaysian Art, and Ruzaika Omar Basaree’s essay Kesenian Islam – Suatu Perspektif Malaysia (Islamic Art – A Malaysian Perspective) as well as other essays, seminars and exhibitions related to the interest in revisiting tradition and its relation to the notion of nation-state or nationalism. Amongst them are writings by Harun Abdullah Coombes, Khatijah Sanusi, Zakaria Ali and Mohamed Najib Ahmad Dawa. (28) This interest or ‘proclivities’ employed the writings of several prominent scholars as an inspiration and sources. Amongst them include Seyyed Hossein Nasr, Ismail and Lois Lamya Al-Faruqi, Osman Bakar and Titus Burckhardt. (29)

Perhaps, such proclivities should now be read within the context of ‘post-colonial’ reflex, as championed by Edward Said, and Syed Hussein Alatas’s ‘the myth of the lazy native’. Both were instrumental in deconstructing ‘colonial representations of African and Oriental peoples in order to reveal how they were produced in the course of Western imperialism’. Malay-Islamic proclivities can thus be taken as an example of a critique of ‘Western discourses of art history’ or as a ‘reconstructive attempt to approach modernism based on a local term’.(30)

Interestingly, Piyadasa had placed narratives provided by the above-mentioned scholars as a part of a ‘government-support master narrative’ that propagates a ‘politically-defined cultural vision’, founded on ‘Malay-centered discourse and dominance’. Such discourse, as Piyadasa had stated, ‘reinforced the hegemony of Malay nationalistic forces’ in the Malaysian art scene. In this regards, he wrote:

“We may also notice the shift from earlier artistic search for a broad-based multi-cultural Malaysian-ness to a new notion of Malay-ness, as the defining cultural paradigm. This new shift in emphasis inevitably caused the emergence of a new Malay-dominated force within the Malaysian art scene.”(31)

Ironically, Piyadasa himself, as stressed by Jolly Koh, had ‘dominated’ art writing in Malaysia for most of the 70s, 80s, and 90s. One is therefore made to oscillate between Piyadasa’s ‘dominating’ narrative (which has been published by government-support National Art Gallery of Malaysia) and what he termed as the government-support Malay-centered master narrative in deciding which one is more dominating. This is symptomatic of postmodern’s irony, paradox and fragmentation. Interestingly, except for Piyadasa, none of the above-mentioned writers related to the Malay revivalist proclivities have been credited as the pre-eminent myth-maker of modern Malaysian art history.

Nevertheless, artworks such as Ahmad Khalid Yusof’s Alif, Ba, Ta (1972),Ruzaika OmarBasaree’s Dungun Series (1979), Sulaiman Esa’s Nurani (1983), and Fatimah Chik’s Meditation # 1 (1986) do represent Piyadasa’s notion of Malay-ness or Malay proclivities. On the other hand, upon closer look, none of these artworks indicates a ‘rejection of the underpinnings of the modernist movement in art and the Western-derived idea of modernity and secularism’. In fact, they were paradoxically presented in a highly Western modernist gallery context. Evidently, instead of total rejection, they represent revaluation and negation of Western modernism based on local term. Thus, these works should indeed be taken as preludes to an early impulse for postmodern revaluation of Western art historicism in the Malaysian art scene.

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