In search of old masterpieces

M.F. Husain’s Bird Cage. M.F. Husain visited UM twice, first in 1959 and then again in 1964.

Latiff Mohidin’s Seascape, oil on canvas, 132cm x 64cm, 2010.

Soh Boon Kiong at his penthouse apartment-studio in Wisma R&D at Jalan Pantai, Kuala Lumpur.

The works were left like forgotten laundry bags in one corner of the numerous buildings dotting Universiti Malaya’s (UM) sprawling 750-acre campus. Not one, not two, but three – they were found to be significant art pieces done by the great M.F. Husain (1915-2011).

At last count, the UM art collection totalled 200 works by various artists, and was estimated roughly to be worth RM30mil! The M.F. Husains were one rare self-portrait, one street scene and another on figures huddled over a bird-cage – all in a mock Cubist idiom.

The inventorying started when university authorities wanted to demolish its dilapidated Sports “Centre” but were told it contained a mural by Datuk Ibrahim Hussein (Ib, 1936-2009) that had been painted over with cheap lime wash. The university salvaged the image at a cost of RM100,000. Ib, perhaps Malaysia’s best known international art icon, was resident artist at the university in 1971-1978 when it was under the aegis of the vice chancellor, Royal Prof Tun Ungku Aziz Ungku Abdul Hamid.

Under Ungku Aziz, the university amassed some of the finest museum-quality works by artists who are now titans in the nation’s art history. Admittedly, some 150 works were recent acquisitions, of less than a year old. But the old collection includes works by world-acknowledged batik-art founder Datuk Chuah Thean Teng (Teng, 1912-2008), Datuk Syed Ahmad Jamal (DSAJ, 1929-2011), Latiff Mohidin, Singapore pioneers Cheong Soo-Pieng (1917-1983), Chen Wen-Hsi (1906-1992 – his Balinese Women, gift of Sir Malcolm MacDonald) and Liu Kang (1911-2004). It boasts too of a six-metre Malayan Agriculture mural by Teng.

Latiff Mohidin’s Pago-Pago series.

The present vice chancellor, Tan Sri Dr Ghauth Jasmon, is instrumental in the university’s art revival. He turned 1,800sq ft of the new Chancellery Centre into the UM Art Gallery, with one-half housing part of its permanent collection and studio spaces, and the other half handling current exhibitions.

Launched in February 2012, it saw the revival of the great career of Sivam Selvaratnam, nee Ponampalam, an important player of the Wednesday Art Group in the 1960s. Also notable was the Faces 2012 exhibition (October to November 29, 2012) which showcased recent watercolours by Dr Wong Seng Tong, Maamor Jantan, Calvin Chua Cheng Koon and Yong Look Lam.

Under Ghauth, the university also revived its AIR (artists-in-residence) programme with four artists – Japan-based Soh Boon Kiong, Yusof “Gajah”, Juhari Said and Maamor Jantan. Boon Kiong’s 1-plus-1 (extended by a year) stint has been especially beneficial as attested by the large abstracts of gorgeous pastel hues that adorn his penthouse “CEO-styled” pad in Wisma R&D, which is owned by the university.

Datuk Chuah Thean Teng’s Malayan Agricultural mural, 10ft x 20ft, 1960; originally hung in the Faculty of Agriculture in 1960.

Datuk Syed Ahmad Jamal's Suasana Kuning, oil on Masonite Board, 59cm x 121cm, 1990s.

The university, which first started in Singapore in 1949 before the acrimonious political split, is also known for its Museum of Asian Art set up by the great ceramic scholar William Willetts (1918-1995). He was succeeded by DSAJ. The collection includes a bronze Buddha head (Chiengson period, 1400-1550), Thai kendi (water vessel) dating back to the 11th century and 14th-15th century Sawankhalok pottery figurines.

The revival of the UM art collection raises questions if other important old works are stashed away somewhere in dark corridors of unsuspecting institutions. In one such institution, a staff member was paid by an outsider to remove a work by a famous artist without anyone being the wiser, while in another, a work by a famous artist belonging to a private entity was gifted to the new chairman by his appointee. Luckily, this was duly returned when found out.

Latiff Mohidin’s An Nur: 23:25, mixed media, 137cm x 168cm, 1991.

Of course, there was the infamous disappearance of Ib’s Lebai Malang and Rawana from Wisma Putra, during Tun Ghazali Shafie’s tenure – a case yet unsolved.

Even in the National Art Gallery, the Auditor-General highlighted in its 2004 report that 127 works were missing. Eighty nine of these including a donated Qi Bai-shi have since been recovered. An unusually large Qi Bai-shi work sold for US$65.4mil (RM199.7mil) at the China Guardian auction in May 2011.

With prices of works from the 1960s making quantum leaps today, the search for works not in institutions is getting to be a near Holy Grail quest. A Latiff canvas, for example, which cost between RM350 and RM1,000 during his first Retrospective at the National Art Gallery in 1973, can now easily sell for between RM200,000 and RM715,000.

Happily, many important masterpieces by art greats bought in the early 1960s and later are now safe and sound in repositories of institutions such as Bank Negara, Petronas, Khazanah Nasional, Maybank, Tenaga Nasional, Sime Darby, Shell Malaysia, Universiti Sains Malaysia, UM and Soka Gakkai Malaysia.

M.F. Husain’s Self-Portrait.

Apart from the usual suspects, they also have important works by Yeoh Jin Leng, Anthony Lau, Datuk Sharifah Fatimah Zubir, Lee Kian Seng, Ismail Latiff, Sulaiman Esa, Dr Chew Teng Beng, Choong Kam Kow, Yusof Ghani, Khoo Sui-Hoe, Nik Zainal Abidin, Ismail Zain, Datuk Tay Mo-Leong, Mastura Abdul Rahman and Ahmad Khalid Yusof.

Tenaga Nasional notably has a fine collection of portraits by Datuk Hoessein Enas (1924-1995) including Admonition (1963), apart from a Latiff Pago-Pago and DSAJ’s Creation (1963) and Blessing I (1967).

Among notable Bank Negara works are Chang Fee Ming’s award-winning River Market (1967), Teng’s Malaysian Life mural (213cm x 516cm), Datuk Tang Hon Yin’s Water Margin No. 24, Jaafar Taib’s Pemain Gasing (1982), Yong Mun Sen’s Kelong (1946), two pointillist batiks by Toya (Lim Khoon Hock), a batik by Yong Cheng Wah and Wong Hoy Cheong’s Midnight on the Beach (1984).

The Petronas repertoire is just as impressive, if not more so. It includes an important Teng Self-Portrait (1999), Anuar Rashid’s Inderaputra Purple and Green themes (1977/1978), Datuk Sharifah Fatimah Zubir’s Link (1967), Nik Zainal Abidin’s Wayang Kulit (1983), DSAJ’s Heaven and Earth I (1998) and St Ives, Abdullah Ariff’s Threshing Padi (1950), Datuk Tay Hooi Keat’s Chingay Procession (1979), and two 1960s works by Cheong Soo-Pieng.

Datuk Ibrahim Hussein’s Untitled, acrylic on canvas.

Galeri Petronas started by collecting more contemporary works in the 1970s before it decided to predate its collection’s origin of works to the 1940 peg. It relocated to its purpose-built gallery at the Kuala Lumpur City Centre in 1998.

One of the most important early modernist Malaysian/Singapore paintings in the 1960s belonging to Dolores Wharton, who was in Malaysia from 1958-1964, was eventually donated to the Cornell University (Herbert F. Johnson Museum) in New York in January 2002. Dolores authored the seminal book, Contemporary Art of Malaysia (1972, Asia Society of New York).

The immediate post-Independence years were significant as a time of can-do creative innovations and daring. It was the Golden Age of Malaysian Art with great art-activism personalities such as Frank Sullivan (1909-1985), Datuk Loke Wan Tho (1915-1964), Tan Sri Mubin Sheppard (1905-1994), Peter Harris (1923-2009), Willetts, Loh Cheng Chuan and Prof Michael Sullivan (in Singapore).

Ooi Kok Chuen has been writing on the art scene at home and abroad for 30 years.

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