2019: The year in Malaysian art

2019: The year in Malaysian art

From notable exhibitions to news that shook up the scene, Ellen Lee looks back at the highlights (and some lows) of the Malaysian art community in 2019. Hindsight is always 2020.

By Ellen Lee

The Year in Conditional Freedom

It’s been a year since the historic election victory of GE14, a victory that signalled hope and long-awaited change for many people. Yet the changes are happening only incrementally, if at all, and every small slice of freedom always comes conditionally.

In the arts, a small victory was won when the 28-year-long ban on mak yong performances was lifted in Kelantan — but with conditions, as always. The dance, which was declared by UNESCO as a “Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity” in 2005 is led by women and involves elements of cross-dressing. The conditions of the repeal state that mak yong performances need to be Syariah compliant, meaning that performers would have to cover their aurat, which would change the costume traditions of the dance.

It was previously banned for its roots in and continued references to animism and Hindu-Buddhist mythology, so its revival would necessarily have to exclude forms of worship so that it is “Islamic-related”. The responses are bittersweet — many Kelantanese youths grew up with the ban, so its revival is a plus for heritage preservation, but with the sad fine print that the performance, in its most original and classic form, may still be lost after all. 

Ray Langenbach also explored the conditions put on freedom in his exhibition, Gulag Archipelago Zig-Zag, borrowing its title from the Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn novel of the same name — a novel of the excesses of communism, but transplanted into the most capitalistic state on earth, i.e. America and its “gulag archipelago” of mass incarceration.

Ray Langenbach during his performance-lecture for Gulag Archipelago Zig-Zag. Author’s own photo.

The exhibition, held in the Piyadasa Gallery of University of Malaya and curated by Luqman Lee, also acted as a throwback to the days where academic institutions used to be more involved with the arts by hosting exhibitions and discussions.

The exhibition presented a mini library of texts about prisons and incarceration, along with photos and sketches of prison layouts, and two video interviews with Malaysian activist Hishamuddin Rais and Singaporean artist, Seelan Palay, both of whom have been incarcerated for expressing themselves.

The exhibition drew together experiences of incarceration all over the world, from lands of supposed freedom and prosperity like America and Singapore to the highly-contested land that has become the “world’s largest open-air prison”, Palestine. As part of the exhibition, Langenbach delivered a performance-lecture — a signature feature of his artistic practice — before taking the exhibition on tour in America. 

The Year in Floods

This year, Malaysia debuted its first-ever Pavilion at the Venice Biennale, the most prestigious art event in the industry. Curated by Lim Wei-Ling, the Pavilion, titled Holding Up a Mirror, brought together four Malaysian artists: Anurendra Jegadeva, Ivan Lam, H. H. Lim, and Zulkifli Yusoff.

Anurendra Jegadeva, Yesterday, in a Padded Room, 2015. Courtesy of the artist.

The closest that us Malaysians stuck in Malaysia would get to the works were the highway billboards put up in the Pavilion’s honour, but it did stir up a sense of pride at making it into the Venice Biennale — hopefully, this translates into a stronger national engagement with next year’s KL Biennale.

In more general Venice Biennale news, Venice was flooded in the final weeks of the Biennale, leading to the temporary closure of some sites. The word of the year for 2019 as chosen by Oxford Dictionary is “climate emergency,” while Dictionary.com chose “existential”. All our efforts, even those channelled idealistically into art, seem futile in the face of the relentless, indifferent force of the elements. The only human effort that seems to produce results is our collective effort towards killing the earth.

Still, maybe some art can be saved. In 2017, Penang-based artist Foo May Lyn’s studio was also struck by flash floods — the logical result of overdevelopment in Penang — and her studio filled with eight inches of water. Over a hundred of her paper-based works were afflicted. She despaired, thinking they couldn’t be saved, but with the help of fellow artists Sharon Chin and Hoo Fan Chon, she was able to find a renewed beauty in the water-damaged works and also integrate the flood into the narrative of the exhibition. 10,000 Mosquito Hearts, showing both “flooded” and dry works, opened at OUR ArtProjects in February.

Installation shot for 10,000 Mosquito Hearts. Photo courtesy of OUR ArtProjects.

10,000 Mosquito Hearts was May Lyn’s attempt at visualising the incredible requests made by the legendary Puteri Gunung Ledang in exchange for her hand in marriage by Sultan Mahmud Shah. Among the requests: 7 trays of mosquito hearts. What would a mosquito heart look like, how would you go about procuring one (let alone 7 trays’ worth), and, having achieved that, what would you even do with them?

If the story took place now, it would parallel the same excessive, selfish, and ruinous demands that modern development places on our land — such demands as those that caused the flooding of May Lyn’s studio, or the weeks of haze in the middle of this year.

In other “floods”, Balai Seni Negara’s Bakat Muda Sezaman (“Young Contemporaries”) exhibition was probably the most discussed event in Malaysian art this year — for all the wrong reasons.

The exhibition happened concurrently with the Leonardo da Vinci Opera Omnia exhibition, which flooded Balai with an unprecedented number of visitors. The spillover into the Bakat Muda Sezaman exhibition led to various damages and even a theft as visitors flouted gallery rules by touching, sitting, and stepping on artworks for the sake of selfies.

As the images of the selfies and of the damaged artworks circulated around social media and mainstream news sites, it unleashed a second flood in the form of Internet backlash. Some commentators recommended that Balai should install more guards or CCTV cameras to monitor the space better, while others scolded the Instagram culture vultures for failing to give art its due respect. The fiasco gained the exhibition its reputation, more so than the artworks.

The Year in Monumental Strength

It was a big year for art in many ways, but scale can be relative. The Venice Biennale was huge, in terms of both size and prestige. Bakat Muda Sezaman was huge in terms of the amount and the size of artworks shown. May Lyn exhibited a huge body of work, and each individual work also bursts at the seams with her fine detailing.

Another huge work, recently unveiled, is Yee I-Lann’s Tikar-A-Gagah, commissioned for the National Gallery of Singapore’s OUTBOUND series and on display in the foyer of its Supreme Court Wing for at least three years. Intricately planned and detailed, it took 18 months to complete with the assistance of a long credit list of weavers: first with Bajau Sama DiLaut weavers led by Kak Roziah in Semporna, then continued by Dusun and Murut weavers led by Julitah Kulinting in Keningau. The final artwork literally interweaves motifs and patterns from both the sea and land communities of Sabah, mixed in with motifs of colonial administration such as a table, the more quote-unquote “civilised” version of a tikar’s utility as a gathering space. The work is a monument of love — love for the craft and for the people who carry it forward, love for the unity between land and the sea.

Front: Pandanus weave with commercial chemical dye

Back: Split bamboo weave with black natural dye; stitched with bamboo weave

Tikar-A-Gagah, 2019, Yee I-Lann with weaving assistance from Bajau Sama DiLaut weavers led by Kak Roziah: Kak Anjung, Makcik Bagai, Makcik Billung, Makcik Braini, Kak Budi, Kak Ebbuh, Makcik Gangah, Kak Ginnuh, Kak Gultiam, Makcik Indah Laiha, Kak Kanuk, Kak Kinnuhong, Makcik Kuluk, Adik Lornah, Kak Norbaya and Kak Sana; and Dusun Murut weavers led by Julitah Kulinting: Lili Naming, Siat Yanau, Mohd Shahrizan Bin Rupin, Juraen Sapirin, S Narty Abd. Hairun, Zaitun Abd. Hairun and Julia Ginasius. Photos courtesy of the National Gallery of Singapore.

Also in Singapore is Sharon Chin’s In The Skin of a Tiger: Monument to What We Want (Tugu Kita), a work huge in size and aspirations. Commissioned for the Singapore Biennale, it involved 100 participants and was performed in Malaysia before travelling across the Causeway. The title is a Malaysian riff off a phrase from The Epic of Gilgamesh, in which Gilgamesh dons “the skin of a lion” to mourn the death of his friend, Enkidu. Similarly, Chin’s work is a monument to the “collective hope and effort” born of the people’s grief, a recognition that grief is the state in which we are our bravest.

Installation shot of In the Skin of a Tiger: Monument to What We Want (Tugu Kita), 2019, Sharon Chin, 13 banners made from reclaimed fabric. Photo courtesy of Chincarok Studio.

In other news of beloved friends, of the strength required to carry our weights, and of giants in the scale of their impact, artist Roslisham Ismail a.k.a. Ise passed away on July 23 at the age of 46.

As a founder of artist space Parkingproject and co-founder of sentAp! magazine, he was a figurehead for artist-led initiatives; as an artist, he was prolific and will continue to be exhibited extensively. When people bring up his name, they almost always do so as an immortal influence in the history of Malaysian art.  

The Year in Perspective

As we look back upon the year, we are also in a unique position to be looking back upon a decade. In September, Rogue Art published the fourth and final instalment of their decade-long project, Narratives in Malaysian Art. The book was published on the 10th anniversary of the project’s inception in 2009, and so it is aptly titled, Narratives in Malaysian Art: Perspectives.

The four-book project, which will see its Penang launch in Jan 2020, is a collection of writings, academic essays, and roundtable discussions across all generations of Malaysian artists. It features Redza Piyadasa and Sulaiman Esa’s Towards a Mystical Reality (1974) alongside newly commissioned essays, for example. Sometimes, certain texts in newer instalments speak back to texts of past instalments: the final product is a palimpsest of voices from the art scene (art historians, art custodians, curators, and artists) talking to and over each other.

Looking through their blog dedicated to the project is a strange time capsule into the past decade of the Malaysian art scene. In less than a month’s time, we will be entering Mahathir’s Vision 2020. May the haze finally clear up so we can see better.

Ellen Lee is a writer and art worker based in Kuala Lumpur. She is interested in all forms of culture, from fine art and poetry to trap music and anime.