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All mapped out: 'Mapping' at National Visual Arts Gallery

Art KL-itique reviews ‘Mapping’, the latest exhibition at the National Visual Arts Gallery that chronicles the development of Malaysian art

Photo: Daniel Chan

Within National Visual Arts Gallery (NVAG) is ‘Mapping’, an exhibition that promises to be the most exciting initiative undertaken by the art institution in recent times. If all goes well, this progressively amalgamating two-year project will form the basis for a permanent exhibition of the national collection, a maiden achievement for NVAG. There will be four segments within the exhibition, chronicling the evolution and development of Malaysian art from the times of the British colonial rule up to the present day – ‘Formation’, ‘Transition’, ‘Assessment’ and ‘Synthesis’, each covering a specific period in history.

'As a stepping stone to establish a permanent exhibition of the national collection, this project looks very promising'

This year, NVAG is focusing on the first two segments, of which ‘Formation’ is already set up and available for public viewing. ‘Formation’ highlights local artists active during the 1920s to the 1960s. Galeri 1A is demarcated into ten sections corresponding to art groups, each segment clearly labelled with introductory wall texts. Such segregation sidesteps chronological issues, but risks pigeonholing artists and their affiliations. Nonetheless, this effective display approach works well to describe the burgeoning art scenes across Malayan locations and ethnic communities, hence turning the emphasis upon each artist’s unique background and influences.

From court painters to Chinese artists in Penang and Singapore to KL’s turn as an art hub, the presented timeline is a straightforward one. Art societies such as the Penang Impressionists, Yin-Yin Art Circle and United Artists Malaysia were formed in the early 20th century, but the earliest exhibited artworks are made in the early 1950s. This highlights the main constraint of ‘Pemetaan’ – it had to utilise works only within the 3,600+ strong national collection to narrate our visual art history.

Photo: Daniel Chan

Prints are an early highlight. Lee Joo For’s linocut and William KK Lau’s lithography intrigue with its mystical symbolism and spatial layers, while the cover design on old exhibition catalogues make great viewing. The Nanyang Academy of Fine Art sections appear to be the most challenging to set up. Its representative artists are predominantly Singaporean, yet the Nanyang School had cast a lasting influence on Malaysian artists. Nanyang pioneers are firmly established within Singapore’s art canon, so how should one present these artists while mapping Malaysian art history? (Parallel issues exist while narrating the official histories of both countries.) From socially-conscious woodcuts to cubist forms to post-impressionist colours, the diversity on show can be difficult to interpret.

I notice that the Equator Art Group section is not yet unveiled, where the group’s focus on social themes could provide a good counterpoint to Nanyang practitioners, who were more inclined towards pictorial structures. Art historian Emelia Ong’s concise essay ‘The Nanyang Artists: Eclectic Expressions of the South Seas’ provides a useful approach to distinguish the issues tackled by Nanyang artists.

Three categories are proposed – those who ‘fuse elements from different artistic traditions’, those who ‘incorporate local or Nanyang subject matter into Chinese traditional painting’, and those who ‘formulate a distinctive Southeast Asian expression through the use of a combination of styles’. Great examples of these respective categories are seen in the vertical black ink lines of Chen Wen Hsi’s finger-painting, the bird’s eye-view of a ‘Kampong Melayu’ backed by limestone mountains by Chen Chong Swee, and the fauvist depiction of nude native women by Cheong Soo Pieng.

'Jalan Yap Ah Loy' by Chia Yu Chian

Two out of three aforementioned works entered the national collection in 1981, thus underlining a curious observation – eight of these exhibits were acquired in 1981, and all eight are by Nanyang artists! Such focused collecting is rarely heard of in this day and age.

Two small sections nestle behind black partitions, which display artists associated to the Selangor Art Society and the Negeri Sembilan Art Society. Highlights include ‘Milking Time’, a wonderfully restrained painting by Yong Poh Sang, whose prize -winning sculpture is also memorialised in a black-and-white photograph. ‘Pokok-Pokok Getah’ by Lim Peng Fei demonstrates a skillful utilisation of pictorial space, his ink washes illustrating perfectly the hard brown bark and exposed panel of the rubber tree. Works by two founders of private art schools – Chung Chen Sun and Cheah Yew Saik – are exhibited opposite each other, thus forewarning visitors about the arbitrary arrangement that is to come when one enters the Wednesday Art Group (WAG) section.

Adopting the motto ‘art as a medium of self-expression’, representative WAG works include Patrick Ng Kah Onn’s seminal ‘Semangat Tanah, Air dan Udara’, Nik Zainal Abidin’s vivid ‘Wayang Kulit’ and Dzulkifli Buyong’s charming ‘Kapal Kertas’. Besides showcasing early creations by significant artists in the local canon, this eclectic presentation alludes to a cosmopolitan outlook that WAG artists possess, which reads as an anomaly among the artists exhibited in the rest of this exhibition.

Photo: Daniel Chan

An unexpected entry here is an early painting by Cheong Laitong, of Muzium Negara glass mosaic mural fame. Moving onto the Angkatan Pelukis SeMalaysia (APS) section, one gets to appreciate ‘At the Kampung Shop’ by 1950s intellectual Mohamed Salehuddin. The straightforward painting shows a Malay lady buying rice from a Chinese merchant, her driver and car waiting in the background.

‘Formation’ ends with a timeline that tells the formation of the Arts Council, the establishment of the National Art Gallery Act 1959, and its subsequent evolution into the National Visual Arts Development Board Act 2011. Graphic posters of past exhibitions and Syed Ahmad Jamal’s bronze eye logo are pretty exhibits, but present an abrupt end to this historical walkthrough.

The strongest aspect in this exhibition is its archival content. Fascinating anecdotal evidence include a mention of O Don Peris painting a picture of the British surrender to Japanese troops in Bukit Timah. Cynically humorous propaganda cartoons by Abdullah Ariff from the 1940s are displayed beside an idyllic watercolour landscape which the artist is famous for. A first-day cover is preserved in a vitrine, featuring landmark works by Latiff Mohidin, Chuah Thean Teng and Syed Ahmad Jamal from the national collection.

‘Pasar/Market’ by Phoon Poh Hoong

One artist fondly recounts the art lessons given by an Indian artist named NN Nambiyar, who ran art classes in Brickfields during the 1940s. I learn from a 1981 interview with Malaysian Institute of Art founder Chung Chen Sun that advertising was the most commercially rewarding career for artists, and the article mentions too about a student artwork so controversial that it was ‘banned from the exhibition at the last minute’.

Such newspaper snippets and exhibition catalogues provide fresh insights, and the invested visitor is offered an unprecedented opportunity to learn about Malaysian art history in a public space. Another curatorial decision that deserves applaud is that exhibits aren’t accompanied by wall texts that over-explain a particular artwork, which sometimes plague Singaporean museum displays.

As a stepping stone to establish a permanent exhibition of the national collection, this project looks very promising. Working within its constraints, the exhibition segments are sufficiently inclusive, and its curatorial approach well thought out. While eagerly anticipating the ‘Transition’ (1960s-1970s) exhibition to be properly fitted out upstairs, I’m reminded that the National Visual Arts Gallery was the first of its kind in Southeast Asia. It’s about time we have a permanent exhibition of our national collection.

Art KL-itique also writes at artklitique.blogspot.com.