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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.

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