Covid-19 Exclusives: The Art World in Quarantine

loading Charles Cham, Masks on Mask En Masse.

You read it here first!
We are pre-publishing features on Covid-19 slated for our May 2020 issue.

WHAT DO ARTISTS and galleries/dealers do during lockdowns? Suffering a severe money crunch, they know sanguinely that it will be a new art market and landscape they will be returning to once the MCO is ended. For Malaysia, the MCO, implemented on March 18-31, then extended to April 14, has been further pushed to April 28.

How will Art move on from this Ground Zero after the global impact of the Covid-19 pandemic? For now, with most exhibitions, auctions, fairs, biennials and triennials postponed or cancelled, and MCO in place still in most countries, the “action” has invariably migrated online.

Let’s look at some of the adaptations taken in the Art World so far:

  • Online group drawing classes (five lessons, starting April 14) for those in the Klang Valley.
  • Random updates: Most leading art museums are closed because of lockdowns, a recent casualty being the National Gallery Singapore with its impending major Matisse-Picasso exhibition kaput. The Sydney Biennale also went digital from March 24. The National Gallery of Victoria in Australia has online-streamed its Jean Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring exhibition of 200 works from March 28 in virtual format, while Tate Modern in Britain has condensed a 7-minute video clip on the Andy Warhol exhibition (set to run until September 6).
  • The solo and redemption of Artemisia Gentileschi at the National Gallery London has been postponed; the Tate Museums are closed until May 1, with Art Basel pushed to September 18-20. The New York Metropolitan is closed until July, at a projected loss of USD100mil. The San Francisco Art Institute is closed indefinitely.
  • Trivia, the (Duncan) Phillips Collection in Washington DC was set up in 1921 in memory of his brother, James, who died of the Spanish flu in 1918.
  • With self-isolation in certain parts of the US, Getty Museum came up with a challenge for art buffs to re-enact the masterpieces in its collection, but it’s just for fun and there are no prizes or reward.
  • Leading Indonesian contemporary artist Eko Nugroho set a date on April 8 for painting and Q&A sessions.
  • With the lull, local galleries like Wei-Ling Gallery and KLAS Gallery cum Auction House chose to feature a daily roster of prominent artists in their stables or top draws in auctions. Wei-Ling’s artists include Dublin-based Rajinder Singh, Rome-based H.H. Lim, Ivan Lam, Cheng Yen Pheng, Cheong Kiet Cheng, Choy Chun Wei, Hamidi Hadi, Indonesia’s Dadang Christianto, Pakistan’s Amin Gulgee and Cambodia’s Anida Yoeu Ali.

From left: Khairudin Zainudin, Desperate (ink on t-shirt with Corona brand label), Haris Abadi, a “revised” Tugu Peringatan Negara tribute to health workers, Janet Teo, Ghost-catcher Zhong Gui stabbing a pail infested with the Coronavirus, and Alicia Lau, Mind, The Gap (acrylic on canvas).

Wei Ling also organised a lottery for only RM100 a ticket for a 2019 Ivan Lam work worth RM15,000, in graphite pencil on semi-gloss Fontaine paper.

With an increasing number of exhibitions gutted, digital showcases have become the new norm.

  • Like Segaris Art Centre’s No(W) Showing exhibition (until April 14), with part-proceeds for a Covid-19 Relief Fund. As if prescient, its earlier WRWT (What Reasonable Women Think) exhibition was also online. G13 also had to go digital with its Mending Fence: Tales From an Isolation exhibition (April 1-30). Ditto, Artemis Art-Art Serpong Gallery’s Monochrome exhibition in April featuring six Malaysian and Indonesian artists (Afdhal, Ajim Juxta, Dedy Sufriadi, Syahbandi Samat, Muhammad Yakin and Danni Febriana).
  • The Albanian chapter of the International Watercolour Society posted a Virtual Gallery of its Spring International Watercolour Festival on April 5, with Jansen Chow as Malaysia’s sole representative. Chow had to cancel several solos, workshops and demonstrations in five countries.
  • A dedicated group on local sculpture called Persatuan Seniman Arca (Sculptors Association) was created, with the more active being Tengku Sabri Tengku Ibrahim and Rosli Zakaria. Tengku Sabri, who turned 59 on April 10, had his Bujukan Semilir: Feather The Breeze and Di Tangkap Gergasi events postponed indefinitely.

Many artists resorted to posting pictures of their artworks online, maybe in the hope of angling some sales, while most did so as a chain challenge. In a lockdown mantra of “Now Artists Can Cook, and Sing”, some have taken to whipping up some culinary delights or practising untrained vocal chords or playing musical instruments.

From left: C.K. Koh, Stay Home, Min Yin Thant, Watercolour on paper, a pretty medical personnel with face mask, and Nik Mohd Shazmie, Tribute to Medical Frontliners, Acrylic on metal gas tanks.

While there are some, even those who are used to painting alfresco, who carry on with their painting routine, others create new works addressing the novel coronavirus impact on them and society. Here’s a random sample from what’s gleaned from Facebook.

  • Copenhagen-based Amir Zainorin’s response to the lockdown is in the “punitive” art of writing lines, a la Hanne Darboven, “I Promise Not To Do Boring Art Again", with a performance of lying down with legs upraised and balancing toilet rolls on the feet; while Chang Yoong Chia posts on how he is coping with his Goethe-Institut residency in Leipzig, Germany.
  • Haris Abadi extolling the health workers to be our Independence fighters in his Tugu Peringatan Negara. Yong Look Lam and KL-based Myanmar artist Min Yin Thant painted tributes to frontline medical personnel. Also, Nik Mohd Shazmie, stranded when balik kampung in Kelantan, did the same with acrylic on metal gas tanks.
  • Khairudin Zainudin’s Desperate (ink on t-shirt with Corona brand label).
  • Alicia Lau’s Mind, The Gap (acrylic on canvas), with the double entendre on social distancing and the social hierarchical gaps.
  • Charles Cham’s Masks on Mask En Masse, Love In The Time of Corona (oil on canvas) and F*** Covid-19 (mixed media, 19cm diameter).
  • Haslin Ismail on anxiety pangs from watching TV coverage of coronavirus.
  • Janet Teo’s Chinese brush painting of ghost-catcher Zhong Gui stabbing a pail infested with the coronavirus.
  • Artist-educator Mei Kei Ho doing daily sketches using toilet paper, face masks, cupboard of instant noodles. Also, Ryuna Qian’s drawings of a supermarket scene.
  • Ali Rahamad doing pencil sketches of the lockdown.
  • Fawwaz Sukri, on Elmo Under Quarantine (acrylic on package box).

From left: Cartoon (source unknown) on the Sisyphus Myth of the prevaricating and procrastinating US President Donald Trump, and Artwork by Haslin Ismail highlighting the anxiety pangs from watching TV coverage of coronavirus.

With the pressure governments are facing, are they able to support Art, a sector that is somewhere at the bottom of the food chain?

The United Arab Emirates allocated USD408,314 (RM1.77mil) to buy works of Emirati artists, while Singapore budgeted a SGD55mil (RM167.7mil) support package on top of a SGD1.6mil (RM4.88 mil) to help artists’ groups under the Google Art and Culture platform. In Malaysia Cendana helps out through an unspecified food aid programme for artists and cultural workers in the Klang Valley with a household income below RM4,000.

As Twyla Tharp intones, “Art is the only way to run away without leaving home.” But we are also reminded of the prophetic title of Ahmad Fuad Hassan’s eponymous exhibition, At The End of the Day, Art Is Not Important.

But what form will Art take in the post-Covid 19 world? Maybe, Covid-19 is a game-changer that forces us to view Art beyond the physicality of space and object.


From left: Yong Look Lam, Watercolour on paper, medical personnel attending to a critical patient, Zunar’s spoof on the Doraeman antics and a Tik Tok competition of Perikatan Government ministers, and Ryuna Qian, At the Supermarket.

Novelist and social activist Arundhati Roy has a sanguine spin: “Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next. We can choose to walk through it, dragging the carcasses of our prejudice and hatred, our avarice, our data banks and dead ideas, our dead rivers and smoky skies behind us. Or we can walk through lightly, with little luggage, ready to imagine another world. And ready to fight for it.”

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

Related Articles