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Saturday, 13 December 2014

THE PREDICAMENT SURROUNDING ART WRITING.

(From left) Paka, Beverly, U-Wei, yours truly, Bang Usop, Nur Hanim and Jai during the launching of the second volume of Narrative in Malaysian Art series.
A music to the ears upon hearing an an award has been given to "Narratif Seni Rupa Malaysia - Menanggap Identiti", and congrats to all who were involved . It is a deserving reward too, especially to the editors, Nur Hanim and Beverly, who had worked so hard on the book.  Syukran, let us extend our gratitude as well.

Now allow me to indulge a bit, sorry, can't help it. I can personally relate to the hard work and challenges of writing and publishing art books in Malaysia, perhaps due to my 'seposen' experience of trying to initiate a 'publication profile' for the Muzium & Galeri Tuanku Fauziah (MGTF) USM during my seven years tenure as the director from 2005 until 2012. The initiative came from a persistent urge by the then Vice-Chancellor, Tan Sri Prof. Dzulkifli Abdul Razak.  With his support, and the support of the then Deputy Vice Chancellor, Prof. Asmah, and together with two of my most dedicated and hard-working staffs, Fina and Laila, we managed to publish quite a number of books, including few that involve Nur Hanim and Beverly, plus other promising young writers. We also managed to secure a special ISBN pubisher code for MGTF USM.  Now, this active and enriching writing, translating, editing and publishing phase (institutional wise) is increasingly becoming a distant echo for me.

I have been involved in numerous art book publications under different capacities, I lost count already. Recently, I was privileged to be a part of yet another excellent art book on Sooshie Sulaiman entitled "Sulaiman itu Melayu". Its a good book worth buying and reading. Of course, I can be accused of practicing 'kronisme' here, but heck, the community of writers on modern and contemporary art in Malaysia is small. We don't really have much choice except to know and support each other, even though at times we may disagree with each other. Plus, credits must be cited and given to those who deserve them. 

Writing and publishing books on modern and contemporary art in Malaysia have not really been a 'celebrated' or highly appreciated endeavor, as compared to making art and exhibiting them. They have also not been a 'luxurious' job. Sometimes, they may even backfire, as not everyone welcomes critical judgments and writings. In addition, the larger Malaysian public don't really like to buy (not to mention read) books about art.

For those interested in reading about some of the polemics of art writings in Malaysia, they have to wait for the forth-coming publication of volume (3rd. or 4th.) of the Narratives in Malaysian Art series. I have just finished translating an essay by Dr. Sareena Abdullah of USM, on the predicament surrounding art writing vs art criticism in Malaysia. 

Therefore, the award can also be taken as a timely acknowledgement and encouragement to all writers who have contributed in so many different ways, to the discourse of modern and contemporary art in Malaysia. Being a subjective and interpretive practice, there is no one single absolute (or 'right') way of writing about modern and contemporary art in Malaysia. To streamline art writing and criticism to only one narrow 'method' or 'objective' criteria would not create a healthy setting for a discursive visual art ecology in Malaysia. It would be too prescriptive (if not restrictive), autocratic, didactic, rigid and counter-intuitive as well. 

All approaches (even those that one may strongly disagree with) that have been deployed by numerous individuals who have written about modern and contemporary art in Malaysia, should be given due credit, acknowledgment and respect. One may disagree with another writer's approach, or even counter his or her argument; but surely it would be unwise to discredit his/her contribution all-together in one generic or lazy sweep. We should rather be thankful to them.

Now, another personal indulgence. 

In my humble 'Kebun Rupa' (personal repository of reading materials and resources), I have hundreds of books and written materials on modern and contemporary art in Malaysia, that I have lovingly bought, collected, kept, arranged, archived and managed, for so many years. Even books with writings that I may not favor (totally disagree) are given a place and respect in the 'Kebun'. 


I went through lots of challenges, troubles and problems to keep them together too, especially whenever I had to move them from one place to another. Once, I was directed to empty the space (Kebun Rupa) where I used to keep the books and other written materials for my students, other students, fellow friends and visitors to use as references.  The directive came during a very testing time when I had to be with my dying father then, who later passed away in June.




Kebun Rupa also used to serve as a semiotic register for the spirit of 'writing and publishing' since I edited, translated and wrote few important materials on contemporary art in Malaysia there. 


Now Kebun Rupa is tucked tightly in the living room of my small rented terrace house. Nonetheless, the directive reminds me of the predicament surrounding learning, writing and publishing about art; it also reminds me that life is not only transient, but also full of interesting twists and ironies. That is why any acknowledgement or credits given to fellow writers (and editors) on the modern and contemporary art in Malaysia, will always be a music to my ears.

Tahniah, and syukran. 

     

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