'Untitled' by Dato' Hoessein Enas
'Self-portrait' by Dato' Hoessein Enas
'Portrait of Muhammad Ali' by Dato' Hoessein Enas
'Perempuan Melayu' by Ahmad Zakii Anwar
'Run, Malaysia, Run!' by Vincent Leong
Ilham gallery, owned by former Finance Minister Tun Daim Zainuddin, opened to much fanfare two months ago. First, it features the earliest works of Dato’ Hoessein Enas (1924-1995), a venerable figure who defined portraiture in our country post-Independence. He’s the ‘Father of Malaysian Portrait Painting’, if you will. Second, Ilham gallery also boasts two international names: On the grassy front lawn of the award-winning Foster + Partners-designed Ilham Tower, Ai Weiwei’s commissioned ‘Divina Proportione’ – an installation with polyhedron forms constructed of bronze and assembled using stainless steel joints – marks his first permament public sculptural work in Southeast Asia. Walk around the corner and you’ll find Pinaree Sanpitak’s steely ‘Breast Stupa Topiary’, a collection of eight freestanding objects designed to shape the growth of plants.
Taking the spotlight at inaugural exhibition ‘Picturing the Nation’ is Hoessein, whose work has made an appearance at the National Portrait Gallery (which is part of the National Visual Arts Gallery) previously. This time around, his collection – more than 30 paintings and over 200 sketches from 1948 to the 1990s – is displayed at the main gallery on Level 5 while four contemporary homegrown artists, Yee I-Lann, Ahmad Zakii Anwar, Dain Iskandar Said and Vincent Leong, take over the third floor in a group exhibition.
‘He’s one of the first artists to give a face to Malaysia when Malaysia was just an abstract idea,’ explains curator Valentine Willie, who recalls Hoessein’s commissioned piece by Shell Ltd to commemorate Malaysia’s formation in 1963. Hoessein travelled around the country to paint all kinds of people: politicians, the indigenous tribes of Dayaks and Kadazans, ordinary everyday citizens, and even celebrities. His artistic processes took place in his studio, which has been painstakingly replicated at Ilham gallery to give the public an insight into his creative space. Paint brushes, photographs, books, a vinyl player and his personal desk – every item on show was procured from his actual studio. In fact, your viewing experience will be accompanied by a soundtrack sourced from his private vinyl collection.
Moving on to the group exhibition on the third floor, Yee I-Lann responds to the idea of picturing a nation through her two works, ‘Fundamental Liberties’ and ‘Through Rose-Coloured Glasses’. The latter is a special one; it features a collection of found studio portraits (which were commonly taken by families to commemorate a special occasion) from a traditional photography studio in Malacca she used to work at. On the other hand, Ahmad Zakii Anwar was commissioned by Ilham gallery to capture the various facets of ordinary Malaysian women. The results are life-sized portraits of charcoal drawings, depicting individual Malaysian women as they are with titles such as ‘Perempuan Melayu’, ‘Perempuan Cina’, etc.
For something more immersive, Vincent Leong’s video installation ‘Run, Malaysia, Run!’ mocks the promotion of racial harmony in stereotypical government campaigns. He portrays a cross-section of Malaysian society, dressed in their respective cultural attire and running around in circles without any goal in sight. In the last room, Dain Said invites viewers into his film ‘Bunohan: Tanah Air’ once again – only this time, the film has been edited into three videos to study the characters of the three male siblings who are alienated from each other.
After ‘Picturing the Nation’, Ilham gallery aims to host at least three to four major exhibitions every year. The best way to explore art is to get out there and visit them on your own. In the words of Valentine, ‘To educate yourself is by looking, opening your eyes and keeping your mind open to ideas. You’d look at things differently after viewing an exhibition.’