Art That Found Immortality in 2016

loading Images from the Great Leap Forward exhibition in KL.

Artists cannot live forever, but their works certainly can.

Artists tend to be linked to two deathrelated myths: that they lead longer lives, and that their stature grows the longer they live. But death comes to all, with 2016 claiming many artists, including two notable Malaysians, Zakaria Awang (1954-January 29), and Penangborn Nirmala Dutt Shanmughalingam (1941-December 5).

Art That Found Immortality

Zakaria Awang, Lambai II, 1985, Mixed media on plywood, 178cm x 128cm. Collection of UiTM.

Zakaria was an art tutor and was in the team that won second prize in the Hong Kong Sand Sculpture competition in 1988. He was known for his three-dimensional works studded with Islamic calligraphy and informed by its principles.

The searing sociopolitical and environmental thrust in the works of Nirmala (or Nim to her fans), were created with deft manipulations of media and strong content and colour symbolism, and bristled with truth and social justice.

Nirmala’s standouts include the self-explanatory May 13 1969; the Chico Mendez-inspired Do Not Log Carelessly Lest Misfortune Befall You which railed against indiscriminate logging in Sarawak, and used rust-red mengkudu; as well as Friends In Need, on the powerful US-UK collusion for world supremacy; and Save The Seed That Will Save The Black People on apartheid, both of which were removed from the opening of the British-Malaysia Side-By-Side exhibition in KL in 1986.

Her works also include Petruk Jai Raja, a side-winding wayang kulit on the abuse of power; Africa I and II, on famine and civil strife in Ethiopia; Anak Asia, on refugee children in Beirut; Great Leap Forward, on overheated development before the 1998 currency contagion; Tsunami on the 2004 disaster; Virgin Spring Today, on child abuse; as well as Berbanding on squatters – which even saw Nirmala standing defiantly with the Kampung Polo squatters when the bulldozers came.

Nirmala got her first break when she won one of two major prizes in the Man and His World competition in 1973. Her winning work, Statement I (1973), used photographs on pollution and a pile of debris and industrial waste from Damansara for good measure. Using photography as art and rubbish as an installation was still considered radical, when the gestural (mainly abstract) and the conceptual dominated. She was then selected for the 5th Indian Triennale in 1982, and ARX ‘89 Metro Mania in Perth.

Art That Found Immortality

Arie Smit Pura (oil on canvas).

Trained in figure-drawing at Angkatan Pelukis SeMalaysia, Nirmala took up art courses at the Concoran School of Art, Fogg Museum, Harvard University, and the Boston College of Art. This was followed by a BSc in Mass Communication and courses in graphic art and psychology at the Oxford Polytechnic, from 1975 to 1978. But Nirmala will not be forgotten; a posthumous reprise of Great Leap Forward marks OUR ArtProjects’ debut exhibition at the Zhongshan Building in KL, from January 7-27, 2017.

Among others who passed on last year were Conlay artist Za’azhar “Burn” Jantan in February, and British-born Penang-based Christopher Dally in June.

2016 claimed artists of all ages, including three centenarians – American-Chinese Disney and Warner Brothers animator Tyrus Wong (1910-December 30), British ceramist Marianne de Trey (1913 October 18) and Australian sculptor Inge King (1915-April 23). Dutch-born Balinese legend Arie Smit succumbed to old age three weeks short of a hundred, while the “youngest” on the tombstone roll for the year was Canadian Inuk artist Annie Pootoogook at 47, who was found dead in a river.

Wong, nee Wong Gen Yao or Wong Gaing Yin, was finally acknowledged to have inspired Disney’s 1942 flick, Bambi. He joined Disney in 1938 as an “in-betweener” (repetitive stills drawings), and was honoured with a retrospective at the Disney Museum.

Tyrus Wong, inspiration behind Disney's Bambi.

De Trey, who was trained in textiles at the Royal College of Art, was a pioneer of the British functional studio ceramics movement. Thanks to her husband, Sam Haile, she switched to pottery, and became a founder of the Crafts Potters Association. De Trey became a Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire in 2006.

Berlin-born King became an Australian institution after moving to Melbourne in 1951. Her monumental sculptures include Forward Surge in the Melbourne Arts Centre. King had a double retrospective at the National Gallery of Victoria in 1992 and 2014, became a Member of the Order of Australia 1984, and won the Australian Arts Council Emeritus Award and the Dame Elizabeth Lifetime Achievement Award in 2009 and 2015 respectively.

Pootoogook, winner of the coveted Sobey Art Award, presented the darker side of Inuit life with her inks and crayons.

Art That Found Immortality

Lugi Lugiono.

The American folk artist of animal carvings, Isaac Smith, also passed away on Christmas last year. 2016 was a closing chapter for several other pioneers: Harold Cohen (computer art, 1928-April 27), Marvin Lipofsky (studio glass, 1938-January 15) and Klaus Moje (studio glass, 1936- September 24), Ben Patterson (Fluxus co-founder, 1934-June 24), and Gyula Kosice (kinetic and luminal art, 1924-May 29).

Cohen was also the developer of Aaron, a computer software programme that generates art autonomously, while Kosice (born Ferdinand Fallik) co-founded the Arturo magazine, the multidisciplinary 1940s group Madi, and an art form he dubbed concrete art invention.

India lost abstract art pioneer Jeram Patel (1930-January 18), and Dinanath Bhargava (1927-December 24), a Shantiniketan disciple, who with five others designed the lion capital of India’s state emblem.

Indonesia, meanwhile, lost several legendary artists besides Smit, including the sculptor Edhi Sunarso (1932-January 4), Made Wijaya (1953-August 29), Maria Tjui (1934-November 16) and Tedja Suminar (1936-June 24).

Art That Found Immortality

Ho Fan 1950s Hong Kong.

Smit went to Batavia (present-day Jakarta) in 1938 as a lithographer and survived the Death Railway during the Japanese Occupation. After taking up Indonesian citizenship in 1951, he made Bali his home in 1956, starting the Penestanan “Young Artists” style, and was known for his luminous, riotous colours. He set his auction record for Pura (Temple, 101cm x 88cm) which fetched a premium of HK$1.6mil (about RM766,410) at Christie’s Hong Kong in 2016.

Sunarso, who was imprisoned by the Dutch in 1942-1949, has several landmark monuments in Jakarta, including the Monas Diorama and the towering Pancoran. Australian-born landscape designer Michael White, better known by his Balinese moniker, Made Wijaya, had six coffee-table books to his name, and designed a garden for David Bowie, who also died last year.

Other sculptors bowing out were “outsider artist” Thornton Dial (1929-January 25), Geoffrey Rigden (1945-January 26), Fred Holland (1952-March 5), Marisol Escobar (1930-April 30), François Morellet (1926-May 11), Eduardo Castrillo (1942-May 18), Tunga (1952-June 6), Tony Feher (1956-June 24) and Ernst Neizvestny (1925-August 9), while architecture lost its supernova in Iraqi Briton Zaha Hadid (1951-March 31).

In photography, the big losses were Howard Bingham (1939-December 22), the personal photographer of boxing legend Muhammad Ali, who also died last year; Magnum master Marc Riboud (1923-August 30 ); Shanghai-born American Ho Fan (1931-June 19); Iranian Palme d’Or-winning filmmaker-photographer Abbas Kiarostami (1940-July 4); street-life and fashion photographer Bill Cunningham (1929-June 25); American Deep South photographer William Christenberry (1936-November 28); Andy Warhol’s former lover Billy Name (nee William Linich, 1940-July 18); photojournalist Kippa Matthews (1962-July 28); and reggae photographer Dave Hendley (1952-July 19).

Art That Found Immortality

Marc Riboud's Flower Girl.

It was also requiem for Japanese anime artists, such as Michiyo Yasuda (of Spirited Away and Princess Mononoke fame, 1939-October 5) and Studio Ghibli’s Makiko Futaki (1958-May 13). Preacher artist Steve Dillon (1962-October 22) also died last year, along with MAD founding cartoonist John “Jack” Davis (1924-July 27), and Catwoman artist Darwyn Cooke (1962-May 14).

Several artists died in their 80s, such as Croatian conceptual artist Mladen Stilinović (1924-July 18); Marino Marini apprentice Kengiro Azuma (1926-October 15); and Spanish-born Chilean artist José Balmes (1927-August 28). And the money trail ended for Welsh portrait artist Andrew Vicari (1938-October 3), whose nett worth was estimated in 2006 to be worth GBP92mil.

Art That Found Immortality

Abbas Kiarostami.

Art That Found Immortality

The poster of the anime classic, Spirited Away.

Other requiems: perennial bridesmaid of the Archibald Prize Kerrie Lester (1953-April 5); American Naïve artist of Kiowa folklore Robert Redbird (1939-March 5); wildlife artist Harry Titcombe (1934-July 13); Alan Vega (1938-July 16); Anne Chu (1959-July 25); Shirley Jaffe ( 1924-September 29); Singapore’s Chan Chang How (1943-October 22); Taiwan’s “Big Tail Elephant” founder Chen Shaoxiong (1962-November 26); Alaskan water-colourist Byron Birdsall (1937-December 4); and Quebec artist Corno (aka Joanne Corneau, 1952-December 21).

Ooi Kok Chuen, art-writer and journalist, is the author of MAHSURI: A Legend Reborn (Ooi Peeps Publishing), an adult contemporary ‘movel’ (a novel conceived as a mock movie) fantasy spun from a local legend.

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