No Creative Inertia for Malaysian Artists, Thank You

By Ooi Kok Chuen

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Exhibition view at Yee I-Lann & Collaborators: Borneo Heart, Sabah International Convention Centre, Kota Kinabalu, May 1-28, 2021. Photo by Intan Munirah Hamzah

WITH MORE PEOPLE getting vaccinated against Covid-19 with a view to achieving herd immunity, art spaces are opening up again, albeit still under SOPs such as wearing masks, physical distancing, staggered visitorships or appointments. Arts, culture and sports have been the hardest hit by the pandemic with various permutations of MCO over one and a half years.

But with no end in sight soon as the virus transmogrifies into more challenging variants, the mantras of Life Must Go On and Living With Corona are the new words of wisdom.

Some events have even gone exclusively online, while art auctions like Henry Butcher, Kuala Lumpur Lifestyle, Raffles and Younie have opted for “live” streaming with online, phone and placed biddings. The major casualties include the (2nd) KL Biennale, Art Expo Malaysia and the George Town Festival.

Collectively or via galleries, artists have resorted to pooled exhibitions. In the three HOM monthly instalments, 50% of works sold go to those artists with unsold works. Groups like the Persatuan SeniRupa Malaysia (PeRupa) and the Red Umbrella project (September 15-October 30) also help raise funds. Individually, artists use social media like Facebook to list and sell works, while some get portrait commissions.

Yee I-Lann, Tikar Reben, 2020 with weaving by Kak Roziah, Kak Sanah, Kak Kinnuhong, Kak Koddil. Bajau Sama DiLaut Pandanus weave with commercial chemical dye. Photo by: Andy Chia

With the main exhibition spaces of the National Art Gallery (“Balai”) in KL under renovation (since June last year) and in cryonics, the Balai has undertaken several outreach programmes, besides supporting others like Borak Arca. Its Lorong Seni project serves to identify and collate the ecosystems of artists and spaces in various States, for sustained cell activities.

While several galleries have folded, new ones have also emerged. Like Zhan Art Space ( Jaya One, Petaling Jaya), Tun Perak Co-Op and Studio ( Jalan Tun Perak, KL), REXKL (formerly Rex Cinema) and KongsiKL (formerly Gudang Yee Seng stainless steel factory).

In the international arena, a group of Malaysian artists took part in the 29th Asian Invitational Art Exhibition, held at the Kyushu Geibun-kan in Fukuoka, Japan on August 7-29, in conjunction with the Tokyo Olympic Games. Wong Hoy Cheong’s 10m-high pentagon structure glows in the Folkstone Mosque as part of the Creative Folkestone Triennial ( July 22-November 2, 2021), and Swindon-based Caryn Koh, a qualified medical doctor, painted her Sister&I mural on a building’s side facade on Exeter Road, Bristol for the Upfest 21, Bristol’s urban street art festival. In August, she was featured in the interface exhibition with Wong Ming Hao, Between Spaces, at G13 gallery, Kelana Jaya.

Yee I-Lann, Tinukad Sequence #01 (Ridges at the roof of the mouth), 2021. Split bamboo pus weave with kayu obol black natural dye, matt sealant, 210cm x 303cm. Woven by Keningau, Dusun Minokok weavers Julitah Kulinting, S. Narty Raitom, Julia Ginasius and Zaitun Raitom. Showing at Indian Ocean Craft Triennial, Perth, September-November 2021. Photo by Yee I-Lann
Exhibition view at Yee I-Lann & Collaborators: Borneo Heart. Photo by: Intan Munirah Hamzah

The Rimbun Dahan art residencies have seen Kim Ng’s Shadows That Flourish ( July-August 2020) and Syed Fakaruddin’s Tindih (March 2021), while Chang Yoong Chia completed Goethe-Institut’s three-month residency (April- June 2020) in Leipzig, Germany.

“We artists are a resilient bunch. We thrive on adversity,” averred Ivan Lam, who had taken part in solos, The Soil on Which I Bleed (March-April 2021) and Small Works + Drawings exhibition (May-July 2020) at Wei-Ling Gallery, with the latest, a group show called Aesthetics of Silence with other Malaysian-born H.H. Lim and Rajender Singh, in August-September 2021.

Malaysian artists are definitely not wallowing in creative inertia and self-pity, but are making good in exploring alternative avenues in their art expressions.

Exhibition view: Yee I-Lann: Until We Hug Again, CHAT (Centre for Heritage, Arts and Textile), Hong Kong, 2021. Photo by: CHAT, Hong Kong
Photo by: CHAT, Hong Kong

Here are the major art events held during these strange and challenging times:

  1. One must be amazed at the prodigious energy, power and vision of Yee I-Lann in her epic collaborations with weavers, dancers and filmmakers to achieve her magnum opus, Borneo Heart, held at the Sabah International Convention Centre in Kota Kinabalu (May 2021, curated by Rogue Art), with spinoffs in the Indian Ocean Craft Triennial ( John Curtin Gallery, Perth, Australia) and the Until We Hug Again exhibition at CHAT (Centre for Heritage, Arts and Textiles) in Hong Kong (curated by Takahashi Mizuki, September-November 2021). Her collaborations, some of the experimental kind, were with indigenous Sabah communities like the weavers of Keningau in the Borneo interior and Pulau Omadal, Semporna, in the Sulu Sea; the Tagaps Dance Theatre, huntwostudios, and Third Rice Culture. A homecoming for this KK-born with a pointed Off-Centre (KL-centric) reorientation, it also empowered women and traditional communities and resituated “crafts” as an aesthetic paradigm, as what was propagated by the 2nd Asean Workshop and Symposium onto the global crafts marketplace, with its own tradition and geopolitical histories.

    Also shown in Hong Kong was her Through Rose-Coloured Glasses (collaboration with Pakard Photo Studio; 2002, updated 2021). It is similar to a retrospective, like the one held at Ayala Museum in the Philippines in 2016. A sampling of the methodologies and materials in the array of installations include: PVC vinyl commercial billboard sticker, inkjet pigment prints, vintage picture frames and family photographs; inkjet pigment print on Hahnemuhle paper; split bamboo pus weave with kayu obol black natural dye / clear PVC glue, matt sealant; Pandanus weave with commercial chemical dye / charcoal dye; direct digital mimaki inkjet print with acid dye, batik chop, Remazol Fast Salt dyes on 100% silk twill; Kain Panjang with Parasitic Kepala / Carnivorous Kepala / Petulant Kepala; single-channel video, on loop; dye sublimation print on metallic sheet, aluminium bones; Dusun Karaoke mats; photo-mediated batik.

    The year 2021 is indeed a banner year for Yee I-Lann.

  2. Ilham Gallery’s Bayangnya itu Timbul Tenggelam: Photographic Cultures In Malaysia ( July-December 2020), a breakthrough photographic survey. With some 1,400 photographs and artefactal paraphernalia mostly culled from the collection of archivist-photographer Alex Moh, and curated by K. Azril Ismail, Hoo Fan Chon and Dr. Simon Soon.

  3. Rosli Zakaria’s Borak Arca Zoom streaming jaw-jaw meetings with Rosli as moderator-facilitator. Later, the project extended to studio-home visits (Penang Monthly, March 2021).

  4. Fadilah Karim 2010-2020 A Decade, an unprecedented survey for the 33-year-old female artist tracing her incipient flushes, marriage (2017), childbirth and motherhood with her two-year-old daughter Aira and menagerie of pets, of cats and rabbits, making cameos. Fadilah had her first solo, Vague, at Pace Gallery, Petaling Jaya, in 2012, and has an auction record of RM53,760 for her work, Light Inside These Dreams (2012) at the Henry Butcher Art Auction on April 29, 2018. Boldly mounted by Segaris Art Centre at White Box MAP Publika, KL (December 2020-January 2021), it was commemorated with a 180-page hardcover monograph and the exhibition also featured loan of works from collectors.

  5. The 55-year political struggles of DAP strongman Lim Kit Siang told in art in various media by some of the finest Malaysian artists, including Ahmad Zakii Anwar, Kow Leong Kiang, R. Jeganathan, Chong Siew Ying, Al-Khuzarie Ali, Cheong Tuck Wai, Abdullah Jones and Louise Low (fibreglass roly-poly doll). Apart from portraits, there is the dramatisation with incidents like the Sheraton Move skulduggery, with the eponymous debut work painted by politician Tony Pua (Penang Monthly, June 2021). Kit Siang was a seven-term Member of Parliament in five States and a State Councillor in Penang and Melaka.

  6. A largesse of 330 works valued at RM1.3mil donated by collector-gallerist-artist-psychiatrist Dato’ Dr. Tan Chee Khuan to the Penang State Art Gallery, with a commemorative 210-page monograph and exhibition in November 2020. The donated works included big names such as batik pioneer Dato’ Chuah Thean Teng, Yong Mun Sen, Abdullah Ariff, Khaw Sia, Dato’ Tay Hooi Keat, Dato’ Hoessein Enas, Kuo Juping, Lee Cheng Yong, Sudjono Abdullah and Roland Strasser (Penang Monthly, December 2020).

  7. Asean Watercolours at the National Art Gallery’s Langkawi outpost (exhibition: October-November 2020, with several guest artists on painting outings on the Island). Altogether, some 226 works by 118 artists from nine Asean countries were collected and shown. The foreign icons included Myanmar’s Min Wae Aung and Myint Naing, Thailand’s Derek Kingnok and Singapore’s Ong Kim Seng. The local brood was a combination of self-taught and college-trained artists, and started from the youngest but hugely competent Azman Nor (b. 1985) to Sharifah Zuriah al-Jeffri (b. 1938). The works included figures and landscapes and sceneries, tracing the commonalty and diversity of the peoples, the traditions and transformations.

  8. Tengku Sabri Ibrahim’s mini-retrospective, Feathering the Breeze (Bujukan Semilir) at White Box, MAP Publika, KL, organised by Fergana Art (October 2020). A totem of 10 sculptural installations with 75 drawings, the event was planned for two years and coincided with the launch of his book of 20 short stories, Di Tangkap Gergasi.

  9. The performatory protest at Dataran Merdeka in July 2021 against the handling of the Covid-19 pandemic scourge by the Perikatan Nasional administration under Muhyiddin Yassin that had resulted by then in 13,000-14,000 deaths. It was a Lawan protest organised by the Sekretariat Solidariti Rakyat (SSR). Also the political satires by Fahmi Reza which had the police interrogate him seven times and even led to an arrest. His defiant riposte: “They can jail a rebel, but they can’t jail a rebellion.”

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.