Portraying a Political Icon and Malaysia’s Torturous Tale

loading Hot Seats, 63.5 (h) x 30.5 (w) x 16cm (d). Encased ceramic and mixed media. Al-Khuzairie Ali, 2019.

The Battle of Tanjong, 150x102cm. Oil on canvas. Amar Shahid, 2020.

FOR LIM KIT SIANG, turning 80 in February marked 2020. a turbulent 55-year “the best of times / the worst of times” political crusade for a better Malaysia as strongman of the Democratic Action Party. It is a chequered career marked by seven terms as Member of Parliament in as many constituencies in five States, and also as State councillor in Penang and Melaka, apart from being imprisoned thrice for his political work.

Such was the ambivalence as summed up by Charles Dickens in his immortal opening lines of his novel, A Tale of Two Cities: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.”

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The drama of blood, sweat and tears of Kit Siang’s political journey is complex, and can be chronicled as a film, a book (there are already several), and as in the permanent Theatre Impian “monument” in Bukit Jalil’s Aurora Place shopping mall, a visual art cavalcade of some 100 art gems by 80 of the best contemporary creative minds in the country. The artists commissioned to tackle various aspects of Kit Siang’s life, as seen through their “canvas”, span three generations, and spring from various races, genders, concepts, artistic pedigree, styles and media.

Doubtless, one would expect single portraitures, each rendered in the individual artist’s own vein; some with telling jigsaw fragments dovetailing Kit Siang’s tussles within the party and on the hustings.

The luminaries in the portraiture category include Jeganathan Ramachandram’s Pied Piper emblazoned in the front cover; Ahmad Zakii Anwar whose 2008 Disclosure mega-exhibition still reverberates; Chong Siew Ying with her giant face ala Yue Min Jun in mock Chinese landscape tapestry; and Kow Leong Kiang, the sole Malaysian winner of the Philip Morris Asean Art Award (1998) series. There are also stalwarts and emergent stars like Gan Chin Lee, Suddin Lappo, Trixie Tan, Lee Sin Bee, Nik Shahfix, Liu Cheng Hua, Hisyamuddin Abdullah, Aizat Amir… Kow attempts an inscrutable “Smiling tiger, hidden dragon” persona, though Kit Siang was born in the Chinese lunar Year of the Snake (1941), in Batu Pahat. Mercifully, not all are giant billboard faces, otherwise the frequency would seem a tad narcissistic.

(Clockwise from top left):

  1. 1965 (A New Beginning), 80x80cm. Acrylic on non-woven fabric (latex and rabbit glue with gloss gel finishing). Cheong Tuck Wai, 2019;
  2. 1969 (Detained Without Trial), 80x80cm. Acrylic on non-woven fabric (latex and rabbit glue with gloss gel finishing). Cheong Tuck Wai, 2019;
  3. 1987 (Operasi Lalang), 80x80cm. Acrylic on non-woven fabric (latex and rabbit glue with gloss gel finishing). Cheong Tuck Wai, 2019;
  4. 1999 (Beaten, Not Defeated), 80x80cm. Acrylic on non-woven fabric (latex and rabbit glue with gloss gel finishing). Cheong Tuck Wai, 2019; and
  5. 2018 (Vindicated, A New Malaysia), 80x80cm. Acrylic on nonwoven fabric (latex and rabbit glue with gloss gel finishing). Cheong Tuck Wai, 2019.

The selected artists are sophisticated and mature enough, to tread on the furrowed track of historical or personal documentation instead of airy-fairy pedestal-ensconced iconism.

Khairuddin Zainuddin captures Kit Siang with family and public persona in Generations (colour pencil on moleskin sketchbook), with Family, Peers and Today & Tomorrow (future generations), each stretching 247cm, as did Yuki Tham, with Kit Siang as parent and as grandparent (seven grandchildren, aged 10 to under 30).

In The Eye Of The Storm, 77x130cm. Charcoal on paper. Ahmad Zakii Anwar, 2019.

Kit Siang himself had no inkling about the exhibition, carefully planned over two-and-a-half years with the art-loving Tony Pua, working indefatigably with G13 Gallery co-curators Kenny Teng and Wendy Chang, from an incipient idea by Dato’ Chan Kong Yew, the Theatre Impian director.

Tony Pua, who is MP for Damansara, also penned the text of the 180-page tome, and himself turned show-stealer with a well-rendered Langkah Sheraton, about the putsch that brought down the Pakatan Harapan Malaysia Reborn (May 9, 2018) government, replete with the shenanigans “arraigning” the main stakeholders in a claustrophobic Parliament space, while co-curator Wendy Chang provided a bar-stool space installation to toast the DAP patriarch in a life-sized cut-out called Yam Seng!

Jejak Politik Lim Kit Siang, 148x148cm. Mixed media on canvas. Trixie Tan, 2020.

Founding Fathers, 120x120cm. Oil on canvas. Lee Sin Bee, 2020.

The artists are not only well chosen for their skills and styles, but the media arrayed are wide-ranging. Apart from the conventional acrylic and / or oil and / or charcoal staple, there are also video with sound installation; typography print on perspex sheet with light installation; digital illustration; (scratch) printed image on aluminium / sticker on acrylic sheet; e-waste on panel finished with epoxy clear resin and 2k matte resin; on canvas, paper, jute, leather, woodwork and industrial paint, and lithophine 3D printed resin coating.

Pied Piper, 90x122cm. Acrylic on canvas. Jeganathan Ramachandram, 2019.

Langkah Sheraton, 121x152cm. Oil on canvas. Tony Pua, 2021.

Yam Seng! A life-size cut-out Installation. Wendy Chang, 2021.

Undefeatable, 55 (h) x 32 (w) x 28cm (d). Fibreglass. Louise Low, 2019.

Cheong Tuck Wai adopts a mock commemorative-stamp approach using acrylic on non-woven fabric (latex and rabbit glue with gloss gel finishing) telescoping five dates 1965 (A New Beginning); 1969 (Detained Without Trial); 1987 (Operasi Lalang, where he spent 17 months in prison); 1999 (Beaten, Not Defeated); and 2018 (Vindicated, A New Malaysia), while Al-Khuzairie Ali presents Kit Siang’s parliamentary constituency triumphs like trophies with encased ceramic and mixed media. He was MP of Bandar Melaka (1969-74), Kota Melaka (1974-78, 1982-86), Petaling (1978-82), Tanjung (1986-99), Ipoh Timur (2004-2013), and Gelang Patah (2013-2018, renamed Iskandar Putri, since 2018). He had been a concurrent State assemblyman in Penang and Melaka.

Wong Ming Hao’s Malaysian Dilemma highlights the perennial quest, with the crinkled effect from the gloss gel pitting the younger generation with cagey, uncertain challenges, on acrylic on canvas, with crude red-ink graffiti like “Nepotism”. Poet-painter Abdullah Jones presents a mock caricature eight panels, while Louise Low known for her brassiere art-coctions, has a fibreglass roly-poly model in the image of Kit Siang with the label, Undefeatable.

There’s also Chong Kim Chiew’s poignant pixelated portrait, to signify censorship, while Ho Mei Kei delves into the national vs vernacular education dilemma and the proliferation of “political” identity cards.

Kit Siang is also depicted with “Bapa Merdeka” Tunku Abdul Rahman (Samsudin Mohamad), the great PAS spiritual leader Tok Guru Nik Aziz (Nik Shazmie, Meramahi Murabbi), and fellow DAP founding father Chen Man Hin (Lee Sin Bee).

Three of the five Gans of Malaysian Art namely Chin Lee, Sze Hooi and double UOB prize-winner Tee Sheng have their signature marks. Sze Hooi’s three-panel painting has Kit Siang in the middle, mini-arrows all over him, and on his right his son Guan Eng handcuffed for defending an under-age rape victim against a powerful UMNO politician, and on his left Karpal Singh, the “Tiger of Jelutong”, ferocious and combative even from his wheelchair. Also, two of the three Nik brothers, Shazmie (b. 1991) and Shahfie (b. 1993), are represented.

Amar Shahid’s The Battle Of Tanjung captures Kit Siang’s giant-killing feat toppling Penang Chief Minister (Tun) Lim Chong Eu in 1990, defeating Gan Tee Sheng at the Battle of Gelang Patah (2013), and ousting Johor Menteri Besar and UMNO strongman Abdul Ghani Othman in 2018. The devotion and unflinching support of his wife, Neo Yoke Tee (married in 1960) is paid tribute by Shermen Chu Seok Boon. Political toadies are derisively dealt with in Nik Shazmie’s Lompat Si Katak and Juhari Said’s woodcut on canvas Katak Hendak Jadi Lembu.

Overall, it is a well-orchestrated visual art diorama on one of Malaysia’s most controversial political personalities, one who has authored some 38 books including Time Bombs in Malaysia (1978), The BMF Scandal, Constitutional Crisis in Malaysia, Prelude To Operation Lalang, Samy Vellu and MAIKA Scandal, The Bank Negara RM30 Billion Forex Losses Scandal; and who was first editor of The Rocket, the party’s mouthpiece.

Theatre Impian is at C-03-03 Aurora Place, Jalan Persiaran Jalil 1, KL. Opening hours (when MCO is lifted): Tuesday to Saturday, 11am to 5pm.

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.

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