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Friday, 31 May 2013


Echoing and Responding to the perceived hegemony of ‘Malay revivalist proclivities’

Piyadasa’s proposition on what he perceived as the hegemony of Malay-centered nationalistic forces has been further referred, quoted and reinforced by many other writers (including by foreign writers). In representing the perceived dominance of Malay revivalist proclivities in UiTM, Piyadasa’s interpretation and its echoes by other English-speaking writers have turned into a seemingly new master-narrative of contemporary art in Malaysia since the 1990s. Yet, one may suspiciously ponder whether any of them has been in UiTM long enough to make substantial primary research and claims about it. In addition, some may not even be fluent enough with Malay language (used widely in UiTM as the mother-tongue of artists that are linked to it) to decipher its subtle nuances and complexity.  

Anyway, here are several examples:

June Yap quotes Piyadasa:
“He would continue to note how the policy would also affect the artists associated with UiTM’s School of Art & Design set up in 1967 exclusively for Bumiputera, that resulted in the institute becoming the “epicenter of Malay revivalist proclivities in art during the late 1970s and 1980s”’.(32)

June Yap also quotes Wong Hoy Cheong’s response to Krishen Jit’s interview:
“As artist and writer Wong Hoy Cheong argues, figurative representation in particular for artists from UiTM is a means to challenge the institution’s tenets, they are “not against Islam as much as they are against the non-orthodoxy of the figure””.(33)

“Rebellion is quite alien to a culture so ingrained in the ideas and practices of muafakat (negotiation), maruah (self-respect) and halus (refinement). Any form of dissent – seen as an act of kurang ajar (lacking education and understanding of cultural protocol) – sticks out like a sore thumb.”(34)

Ahmad Mashadi also refers to similar interview:
“The interview was significant for its speculative yet productive discussion on abstract art, ‘new art’ and the local context, and the return of the figure as a way to reinitiate connections with a broader public discourses.”(35)

He further quotes from Wong Hoy Cheong:
“The figure is one of the the things that make the difference. (…) they want to assert themselves into the mainstream. (…) Some are conducting a genuine rebellion, particularly the young artists from ITM. They are tired of doing art totally through the traditional and Islamic perspectives.”(36)

In asserting ‘the return of figure’ and conservatism of ‘many artists affiliated to ITM’, he writes about Bayu Utomo Radjikin:
“Bayu’s precarious talent had been evident in his highly charged figurative works, to be seen in contradistinction against the conservatism of many artists affiliated to ITM at the time.” (37)

Wong Hoy Cheong writes about the 1980s:
“The 1980s saw a society that had become more stifling, conservative and smug. The country went through cultural, economic, political and judicial crises one after another. Art and education were petrifying under the National Cultural Policy and purist interpretations in the name of Islam.”(38)

To further articulate the above-mentioned point, and in referring to Piyadasa, J Anu writes:   
 “Redza Piyadasa described the situation of Malaysian art as being a blinkered ethnocentric perspective.”(39)

Echoing similar sentiment, Valentine Willie gives his view of history:
“After the 1969 riots and the Malay Congress of 1971 there was an increased focus (as well as government-directed patronage) on Malay culture. This led artists and especially those who were dependent on the government for employment to explore Malay themes to the exclusion of all other aspects of Malaysian life”.(40)

“Whilst there is a realization even in official circles of the need for self-reflection and criticism, most government bureaucrats tend to view the community in blinkered and one-dimensional fashion, thereby rejecting many Malay artists, such as Tengku Sabri, Ahmad Shukri, Bayu Utomo Radjikin whose works challenge or at least tweak the accepted pre-conceptions of what it is to be Malay.”(41)

These are several examples of English-speaking voices at the forefront of Malaysian contemporary art discourses that represent a reaction to the perceived ‘hegemony of Malay nationalistic forces’ (if not Islam). The fact that the Malay revivalist proclivities could also be read as another impulse to question Western discourses of art history (as proposed by Michelle) has somehow been neglected.

Nevertheless, even though these voices may have sweepingly implicated ‘many Malay artists that are affiliated to UiTM’ as conservatives trapped within the ‘by default’ post-National Cultural Congress framework, they have significantly given a glimpse of perhaps a much deeper anxiety and lingering resent towards Malaysia’s political, educational, social-cultural and economic policies post 1969.(42) They may also signify a ‘climate of openness’ where ‘critique in art has emerged’ during the 1990s, as observed by Michelle Antoinette.

Malaysian art, according to J. Anu, ‘is influenced by the racial polarity that dominates the social, racial and religious make up of the country.’(43)  The riots of May 1969 have always been perceived as the starting point for the polarity between bumiputera / indigenous and non-bumiputera / non-indigenous Malaysians, Malay hegemony and later, ‘institutionalization of Islamic aesthetic’. According to Niranjan Rajah, ‘the economic, educational, social and cultural policies that followed from the tragic events of this day effected the relative disempowerment and marginalization of the Chinese community in Malaysian society’.(44)

The terms ‘relative disempowerment’ and ‘marginalization of the Chinese community’ as far as the Malaysian art scene is concerned, can be misleading, if not ambiguous. Nevertheless, it has to be noted that such notions of disempowerment and marginalization have usually been touched by several writers in tandem with the National Economic Policy (NEP) and National Cultural Policy of Malaysia (45). The Policies have been propagated, interpreted, and translated as well as responded to in various different ways by several Malaysian artists. Despite the presence of such Policies, the issues and debates over the alarming polarity and the national cultural identity have been lingering indefinitely throughout the history of modern art in Malaysia. Malaysia is a country blessed with hundreds of different ethnic groups (not just the Malay, Chinese and Indian). Therefore, it is expected that any sign of hegemonic enforcement in the arts will normally create a counter-reaction, if not rejection.

Furthermore, not all Malaysian artists are really concerned with a singular and monolithic notion of ‘national art’ for Malaysia, nor subscribed to the idea of marginalizing any community. In fact, modern and contemporary art in Malaysia has been very multi-cultural, eclectic and diverse, and at times very commercial and global. On the other hand, interpretation of ‘Islamization’ in the arts or the drive towards Malay-ness did appear in the Malaysian art scene including in UiTM, as much as there were also interpretations of other spiritual traditions and ethnic proclivities. But it is rather too simplistic to presume that the focus on ‘Malay themes’ has excluded ‘other aspects of Malaysian life’ or other ethnocentric proclivities. Instead, the focus, together with other communal themes or forms of ethnic essentialism, have enriched the Malaysian art scene.

Unfortunately, by politically confining the discourses of modern and contemporary art in Malaysia within the framework of post-National Cultural Congress, Bumiputera and Non-Bumiputera dichotomy and the so-called hegemony of Malay nationalistic forces, many smaller and intertwined narratives might have been made obscured, including in regards to UiTM during the late 1980s.

Hegemony Beyond UiTM?

Beyond UiTM, it has to be noted that the perceived ‘dominance’ of ‘Malay nationalistic forces’, at least in regards to the Permanent Collections of the National Art Gallery of Malaysia (NAG), is rather questionable. The Gallery’s Collections feature a diverse range of styles, medium and approaches, without any sign of the perceived ‘forces’ at all.(46)  In fact, the Collections also feature a rather generous amount of Chinese-centered proclivities.

Even artworks by artists who were known to be politically-critical and not in tandem with the so-called Malay nationalistic forces have been purchased to become a part of the Permanent Collections. In fact, several Malaysian artists such as Roslisham Ismail and those who might have appeared (or want to appear) to be on the ‘periphery’, had received generous grants or financial support from the National Art Gallery. Despite whatever challenge or tweaking ‘of the accepted pre-conceptions of what it is to be Malay’, Tengku Sabri, Ahmad Shukri Mohamed, and Bayu Utomo Radjikin were never rejected. Other than having their (less seminal) works in the Permanent Collections, Bayu Utomo for example, had received support from the National Art Gallery for his solo exhibition.(47)

Certainly, not all ‘government bureaucrats’ perceive the world in a ‘blinkered’ fashion. The notions of dominance and marginalization as far as the National Art Gallery’s Permanent Collections and financial support are concerned, are highly relative, if not questionable. On the other hand, perhaps it is more pertinent to raise the issue of relevancy, direction, coherency and quality in regards to the collection and exhibition policies of the National Art Gallery. Prominent collectors of contemporary Malaysian art, Aliya & Farouk Khan for example, observe that the Collections of the National Art Gallery ‘are reminiscent of the past’ and that the Gallery itself  ‘does not move with the development of the local art scene.’(48)

In fact, there are numerous other pressing issues that the National Art Gallery has to resolve, instead of the perceived dominance of Malay nationalistic forces. The National Art Gallery is in a highly critical time and position to re-align itself with the realities and imperatives of globalization, free market capitalism and information revolution it order to maintain its relevancy and significance. It has to be alert to changes or risked being regarded as a white elephant or worse, a relic of the past. It needs to tackle real problems rather than the imagined ones.

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