More Art Acquisitions for Penang

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Penang may be home to countless artists as well as a source of, and an inspiration for, classic works. But the collection of publicly viewable masterpieces in the state still leaves much to be desired.

Zulkifli Yusoff, "Rest a while" Steel sculpture Donated by Datuk Dr Tan Chee Khuan.

The figure stands at an impressive 578. This is the number of art pieces amassed by the Penang State Art Gallery (PSAG) from 1965 to 2011.

While many of them are certainly of high quality, the poser is whether they express enough artistic merit and stylistic innovation, possess the “ka-pow” factor of the respective artists and contain enough social context to offer a credible narrative of art developments in Penang and the country.

Unlike institutions such as the National Visual Art Gallery, Bank Negara, Galeri Petronas, Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM), Universiti Malaya (UM) and Khazanah Nasional, the PSAG cannot really be expected to own a grand suit of masterpieces. After all, the others have generous funds for art purchases every year. USM’s core collection is based on one of the Frank Sullivan collections and boasts as well of major works by Datuk Ibrahim Hussein (Ib), Datuk Syed Ahmad Jamal (DSAJ), Latiff Mohidin, Patrick Ng Kah Onn, Seah Kim Joo, Zulkifli Dahalan and Dzulkifli Buyong. UM in its turn has three important works by M.F. Hussain, India's and later Qatar's greatest artist, as well as murals by Ib and Datuk Chuah Thean Teng!

Even individual collectors such as Pakharuddin Sulaiman have works that are the envy of most institutions. In Indonesia, for example, schoolteacher Suteja Neka and farmer Agung Rai have collections that are second to none, and they both also own world-class museums.

So, why is the PSAG, art custodian in a place considered the cradle of Malaysian art, the poor church mouse? The harsh facts are sobering! It really boils down to “No Money, No Talk.”

Datuk Tang Hong Yin.

    1. In an unrelated turn during an interview, Datuk Tang Hong Yin, the PSAG's committee chairman and an artist himself, revealed that when he was PSAG chairman in 1994-1997, the gallery was given RM10,000 annually to run activities such as exhibitions, receptions, printing of catalogues and invites. Then, one day, he found out that as much as RM30,000 was given for a two-day Pesta Pulau Pinang fishing competition!
    2. Nearly half of PSAG’s collection – 275 in total – are actually prints from the Penang International Prints Exhibition 2010! These include works by 269 artists from 51 countries. Such works have a downside. Prints demand proper technical care and storage, and the PSAG just doesn’t have the expertise or possibility to care for them properly.
    3. Over the last 47 years, the state purchased only 56 works! The only time the state government earmarked funds for acquisition was in 1996. The sum was RM50,000 and that year, the PSAG managed impressively to raise RM200,000 to buy art. The most number of pieces bought were eight each in 2008, 2010 and 2011. Outstanding purchases included Kedai Gunting Rambut (Ismail Hashim), Penang Museum (Chong Hon Fatt), Museum Building (Tan Choon Ghee), Kew Ong Yeah Festival (Datuk Tay Mo-leong), two small works by Chan Kok Hooi, Kota Baru (Anuar Rashid), Museum Building (Eric Peris), Harvesting (Datuk Hoessein Enas) and Hari Minggu & Hadyai (Zulkifli Yusoff). With buying funds in short supply, it looked like profligacy and miscued priorities when the PSAG board plumbed for a Hassan Djaffar and a Lim Cheng Hoe, great as the Indonesian and Singapore artists are.
    4. No works by pioneers Abdullah Ariff and Datuk Reverend Zhu-mo (Chuk Mor) or the award-winning artist-poet Latiff Mohidin are included, although Latiff has been based in Penang for decades. While there is no Ib, thanks to Leader Universal Cables, DSAJ's Hujan Rahmat (1995) takes pride of place. Other masterpieces include Teng’s batik, Plenty To Do which was donated by Malayan Tobacco Company, and Chia Yu-chian’s major work, Untitled (1957), which preceded his Fauvism style of his later Parisian days, donated by H.R. Crawford.
    5. In 1968, 1970-1976, 1986, 1991, 2000, 2004 and 2006, nothing came in. Zilch! Not even donations from artists or corporations.

Datuk Syed Ahmad Jamal, Hujan Rahmat 1995, 121cm x 245cm Donated by Leader Universal Cables.

Yong Mun Sen, Harvest 1939, Oil on canvas, 87cm x 107cm Donated by Khoo Family in memory of Constance Violet Khoo.

  • The collection does not include an important cache of early Malayan works by British maritime artists such as Capt Danielle and Capt Cazalet, which by a quirk of history were classified under “artefacts” and were therefore put under the Penang Museum.
  • Peter Harris, sometimes dubbed The Father of Malaysian Art Education (though on curriculum, programmes and outreach, I think Datuk Tay Hooi Keat is the Real MCoy), is strangely shunted to the “International Artists” section in the recent book on the PSAG's Collection from 1965-2011, when he should obviously be placed within the country’s art historical mainstream. He is, after all, the progenitor of the Wednesday Art Group.
  • Some 383 artists have presented works to the PSAG, but very few of these pieces are iconic/defining pieces. Why? Is this due to grouses about the lack of proper care/conservation/storage, and/or questions such as “Why give when some other artists got to sell their works?”

Two of Datuk Tay Mo-leong's eight works in the PSAG collection. The batik paintings are called Prawns.

But things are looking up. At the recent opening of the main exhibition cum book launch at the Dewan Sri Pinang, Chief Minister Lim Guan Eng announced an allocation of RM500,000 for art acquisition, to be doled out over three years – RM150,000 each in 2012 and 2013, and RM200,000 in 2014. He also gave the assurance that he would write to multinationals for support to start an acquisition fund or at least ask them to donate any important work that they might have or to underwrite the purchase of important works.

With the potential funds, the PSAG could and should be able to address the serious gaps in its collection with a view to acquiring works by contemporary young/younger artists engaged especially in forms of art such as electronic and multimedia and installations.

Apart from Abdullah Ariff and Latiff (go get a full-fledged painting or sculpture and don't waste time getting only a sketch or print), the PSAG might want to look at works by Penang-born Yuen Chee Leng, Nirmala Dutt Shanmughalingam, Wong Hoy Cheong and Choo Beng Teong, and even a proper Joseph Tan.

Then, there is the question of the PSAG home, now at the Dewan Sri Pinang and Macalister Road. While suggestions have been made for an adaptive-reuse conversion of the Dewan Undangan or the Municipal Council building, the hard facts point to a purpose-built gallery-museum with lots of land, and preferably with it as part of a cultural precinct.

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



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