Alma Mater to Master Artists

One has to wonder how much poorer the Malaysian art scene would be without the Malaysian Institute of Art.

Choong Kam Kow. Vitalizing the Qi-4 (Fit For Life 23 - Taiji Series 20). 2013. Acrylic. 122cm x 122cm.

“Here’s looking at you, kid.”

This stirring toast by Rick (Humphrey Bogart), from the 1942 Hollywood classic Casablanca, could well go to the Malaysian Institute of Art (MIA) now that it is celebrating its golden anniversary.

It is an amazing feat for the institution – founded as a non-profit private higher art education provider by Chung Chen Sun in 1967, when it had only a paltry enrolment of 16 students – to be what and where it is today.

Other art institutions have not been so lucky, and have become footnotes of history: the Kuala Lumpur College of Art, the Central Academy of Art, the West Malaysian Art Academy, the Penang Art Centre, the Conservatory of Fine Arts, and the Sain Academy.

MIA offers three-year diploma courses in foundation, graphic design, fine art, illustration, interior design, industrial design, music, and fashion and textile. Its first premises were at 28, Jalan Treacher (now Jalan Sultan Ismail) where it stayed for only six months; then it moved to 11, Jalan Freeman (now Jalan U Thant); before it rented a two-storey shoplot at 225, Jalan Bukit Bintang with a branch campus in a four-storey building at Sungai Besi. Currently, its main campus is in Taman Melawati, KL (294-299, Jalan Bandar 11; music at 213, Jalan Negara 2), but it is the updated facilities and curriculum – and of course, the board, lecturers and administrators – that count the most.

Alexandra Hon. The Elephant in the Room. 2017. Oil on wooden panel. 84cm x 60cm.

Helen Guek Yee Mei. Our Stories - The Layering Portraits (Hakka).

Coming 10 years after Merdeka, the MIA’s entry was opportune. It filled the void after Singapore split from Malaysia on August 9, 1965, which resulted in a gradual but drastic drop in Malaysians studying at the Nanyang Academy of Fine Art (NAFA) in Singapore (founded in 1938). After the internecine May 13, 1969 strife, government policies impacted its growth, such as the National Cultural Congress in 1971, the New Economic Policy, credit transfers to foreign institutions, MyQuest evaluations and more stringent accreditation.

Peter Liew.

Chong Kok Choon. Sacred Rivers VI.

Chung Chen Sun.

Chooi Mun Sou became chairman of the first board of directors in 1970. While Chung laid the foundations, helming the institution until 2000, it was Dr Choong Kam Kow who steered it into the twenty-first century to match higher educational pre-requisites in a highly competitive high-tech, globalised environment. Choong took over as CEO-president until 2009, after serving as vice-president from 1994 to 1999.

Not surprisingly, MIA’s early lecturers were mostly NAFA-trained, including Chung, its first principal who studied at NAFA in 1952-1955. The staff included Cheah Yew Saik (NAFA 1959-1961), Cheah Thien Soong @ Cheah Mei (1960-1962), Yee Sze Fook (1960-1962), Wong Nai Chin (1964-1966) and Tew Nai Tong (1957-1958), and later Goo Kee Chong and Loo Foh Sang (NAFA 1963-1965).

Nai Tong taught at MIA from 1969 to 1980. Other notable lecturers include Tan Tong (1942-2013, registrar and senior lecturer, 1977-2002), Yeoh Jin Leng (dean from 1983-1993 and Head of Ceramic Department), Wong Hoy Cheong (1988-1989 and 1990-1994, and gallery director), Ng Buan Cher (retired as head of fine art in 2006 after 23 years), Lok Chik Wah (1975, Head of School of Art and Design), Lok How Yuan (taught 1985-2012), Chin Wan Kee (taught 1986-2013), Peter Liew (taught 1981-October 1994), Bibi Chew, Anna Chin, Tan Chin Kuan (1981-1983), and the late Teh Leong Kooi and Yee Chin Ming.

Among the pioneering 1967-1968 students were two who studied only for a year – Yip Sek Quai and Chin Kon Yit.

As the teaching staff in the 1970s showed a decided Chinese brush-painting bias, graduates like Puah Kim Hai, Chong Buck Tee and Foo Yong Kong followed the same impetus although Yong Kong opted for canvases. Mention should be made of the photographer Khong Miaw Leong and actor-artist Loh Bok Lai. Peter Liew bucked the trend with his panoramic landscape vistas of thick impastos.

Phillip Wong. The human mind - face by face. Glass paint on canvas. 101.5cm x 76cm.

In 1970, there were five Malays including Anak Alam stalwart Yusof “Volkswagen” Osman, who taught there in 1977. Over different periods, more Malays were recruited into its teaching staff including Raja Shahriman Aziddin, Norlisham Selamat, Fatimah Chik, Azlan Ismail, Samsuddin Abu Bakar, Wan Nor Atikah Wan Hussin, and part-timers Noor Mahnun, Haslin Ismail and Khalid Othman.

As MIA believes in letting students develop their own individual niches, the 1980s saw a shift from its Chinese-art forte, although Yong Chien Chin advanced iconography with his terracotta warriors. The biggest name must be the two-time winner of the prestigious national Young Contemporary Artists (YCA) Tan Chin Kuan with his installations, while Eng Hwee Chu, later his wife, with her rare “Magic Realism" touches, also excelled on the international scene like the Asia-Pacific Triennale in Brisbane. Sand T. Kalloch made her name in the US, where she is based, with her textured Minimalist monochromes. Other notables are sculptor Chin Wan Kee, Anna Chin, Ng Hon Loong, Tai Suk Hian, Wan Hui-jyu, Lee Sin Bee, Yap Kim Boon, Norlisham Selamat and Christina Chan.

Sand T. Kalloch. Starry Night Sky Over West Carry Pond. 61cm x 61cm.

The 1990s saw peak enrolment, with 2,000 students in 1996 with another 1,000 not full-time. Enrolment has since dwindled, but that was a time of flowering diversity with big players like Phuan Thai Meng, Chan Kok Hooi, Chuah Chong Yong, Gan Siong King, Wong Perng Fei, Lim Ah Cheng, Chang Yoong Chia, Wong Chee Meng, Jasmine Kok Lee Fong, bird artist Teh Yew Kiang, photographer Chong Kok Choon and graphic designer Lim Oon Soon. The 1990s saw MIA students grouping loosely, like the 1996 Periphery led by Chuah Chong Yong, who also founded the Rumah Air Panas collective that also included Phuan and Lim Kok Teong.

In the New Millennium, there’s Findars art space founded by Lim Key Soon, Wong Eng Leong and Tey Beng Tze. Paris-based Ken Yang, known for his portraiture, held a major Paris-to-KL exhibition at the National Art Gallery in 2013. While Ng Swee Keat had clinched several major awards, the two young ones to watch are Yau Sir Meng, now studying for her masters in Taiwan and Nia Khalisa Abdul Aziza, who won the UOB Painting of the Year (Most Promising Artist) in 2015.

Wong Twing Twing (2017). Oil on canvas. 32cm x 24cm.

Haslin Ismail. Dark Portfolio 2.46cm x 30cm.

   1970 Foo Yong Kong, Cheah Wun Chow (a.k.a. Chia Woon Chu)
   1971 Loh Bok Lai, Sum Kwai Fong
   1972 Puah Kim Hai, Chong Buck Tee, Khong Miaw Leong
   1974 Low Yi Chin
   1978 Teh Yew Kiang
   1979 Peter Liew
   1980 Tai Suk Hian, Liew Soo Wong
   1981 Chong Kon Fook
   1982 Husin Hourmain
   1983 Yap Kim Boon
   1984 Chin Wan Kee (post 1986), Christina Chan, Wan Hui-jyu
   1985 Raja Fadzilah Raja Brima Sulong, Yong Chien Chin
   1986 Sam Long Fee, Chung Lim
   1987 Tan Chin Kuan, Sand T. Kalloch
   1988 Ng Hon Loong
   1989 Eng Hwee Chu, Lee Sin Bee, Anna Chin Chui Han, Norlisham Selamat
1990 Lim Ah Cheng, Chai Chang Hwang, Phillip Wong, Tommy Chen Keng Wah, Velvet Wee Siang Hoon, Teoh Chew Bin
  1991 Pheh It Hao, Eston Tan, Chao Harn Kee, Yap Chin Hoe, Teoh Joo Ngee, Lim Oon Soon, Hamidah Abdul Rahman
  1992 Shia Yih Yiing, Sivarajah Natarajan, Khoo Boon Want, Pang Heng Khan, Liew Teck Leong
  1993 Chuah Chong Yong, Wong Twing Twing, Jasmine Kok Lee Fong, Bernard Goh, Lee Swan Pong
  1994 Kelvin Chap, Lim Kok Teong, Tan Wei Teng
  1995 Yau Bee Ling, Helen Guek Yee Mei
  1996 Chan Kok Hooi, Phuan Thai Meng, Gan Siong King, Wong Chee Meng, Chang Yoong Chia, Chong Kok Choon, Ong               Chia Koon
  1997 Chan Thim Choy, Liong Mei Yin, Theresa Moo Chin Woon
  1998 Wong Perng Fey, Tang Yeok Khang
  1999 Lau Mun Leng
   2000 Ng Swee Keat, Ken Yang
   2001 Sharon Ong
   2003 Lim Key Soon, Wong Eng Leong
   2005 Shirley Wong
   2007 Tey Beng Tze
   2009 Annabelle Ng Ying Wah, Izat Arif Saiful Bahri, Dhavinder Singh
   2012 Shahrum Zainal Abidin, Mohana Kumara Velu
   2013 Yau Sir Meng, Tan Mee Hoon

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.

Related Articles

Feb 2013

In Awed Appreciation of PAGO-PAGO

Artist Latiff Mohidin is honoured through an extensive exhibition that mirrors his life.

Jun 2017

Wandering Souls in a Forbidden Land

A tribute to the late Malaysian artist Zulkifli Mohd Dahalan.

Feb 2012

Chew Teng Beng - A pioneering artist and teacher

Dr Chew's success in the US has not stopped him from returning to Penang.

May 2015

So much of Ismail Hashim to unpack or repack

A tribute? A retrospective? Or an archival reconnaissance lab test? The Unpack/ Repack exhibition on the late Ismail Hashim definitely pushes the envelope.