2020: The year in Malaysian art

2020: The year in Malaysian art

2020 was chaotic. In politics, everything happened; but for the ordinary person, nothing happened. Through the lens of art, one writer presents her meditations in an emergency.

By Ellen Lee


We should have known, given how the year began.

Before the pandemic overshadowed everything else, we had a rather dramatic January with the censorship showdown between artist Ahmad Fuad Osman (“Fuad”) and the National Art Gallery (known as “Balai” within the Malaysian art community) when four works were abruptly removed from Fuad’s retrospective, At The End Of The Day Even Art Is Not Important (1990 – 2019).

Artists circulated a petition that got 396 signatures, collectors publicly demanded for their works to be returned, a Balai board member resigned in protest, and even the then Deputy Minister of Tourism, Arts, and Culture tut-tutted at it all. By mid-February, the fiasco was resolved in a somewhat happy, nasi-lemak-fueled ending. Nobody suffered any consequences for it, not to the best of public knowledge, anyway. Names were only named through whispers between those who know people who know other people.

The name of Fuad’s exhibition was an uncanny portent of what was to come. Later in the year, artist Izat Arif would riff on this in his RMO = RM 0 series commissioned by ILHAM Gallery during the lockdown. One of the works in the series, which featured Fashion Valet founder Vivy Yusof along with the text, “At the end of the day art is not essential pun”, got embroiled in its own censorship scandal when Vivy’s lawyers told Izat to remove the work or suffer legal repercussions. The multilevel irony here did not go unremarked in the art scene.


What started off badly only got worse…

As a result of the pandemic, art events all over the world were postponed or cancelled. These two words were so ubiquitous that they later became the name of a post-lockdown exhibition by A+ Works of Art. The 2021 iteration of the Venice Biennale was postponed to 2022, while the 2020 iteration of the Kuala Lumpur Biennale was called off by Balai. Somewhat abruptly, Balai also took this opportunity to announce that their main gallery in Kuala Lumpur would be undergoing “renovation works” in a year-long hiatus. It was a tragedy when four of Fuad’s works were taken down, but now the entire Balai had shut down—a strange “censorship” of the arts that had nothing to do with politics or religion. Would art ever be relevant again?

A new dichotomy structured our way of life: that of “essential” and “non-essential” services. The community was shaken, and numerous opinion pieces and Facebook commentaries started appearing. It didn’t help that when the government’s PRIHATIN stimulus package was announced, the Minister of Tourism, Arts, and Culture, Nancy Shukri, appeared on Astro Awani with some vague and insensitive comments about how confident she was that Malaysian arts would be “the fastest to recover”. Her source(s): online singing competitions…  

As an antidote to Nancy Shukri’s glib comments, initiatives such as Art Kepoh’s “PAUSE” and ILHAM Gallery’s Instagram-based artist takeovers gave valuable insight into the work and inner life of an artist.

A talisman by Jerome Kugan, submitted for Art Kepoh’s PAUSE.
Photo courtesy of PAUSE

If there’s anything good the lockdown did, it’s that it fostered an atmosphere of mutual support and encouragement, in which everyone just wanted to do whatever they could to make each other feel seen despite the absence. RogueArt and Art Kepoh collaborated on a roundtable called “Art Goes On?” in which over 100 industry players in the visual arts community came together to take stock and make plans for the future. However, as RogueArt noted themselves in a post-mortem, artist voices were deafeningly absent during this roundtable. With spaces shut and movement restricted, it seemed that the lockdown had a greater impact on the art world’s professional-managerial agents than artists themselves.


As the weeks passed during lockdown, galleries and curators started to move operations to the only public space where people were allowed to gather: the Internet.

Virtual exhibitions had a bit of a moment, thanks to 3D-simulation platforms such as Artsteps and Kuula. These made exhibitions accessible to a wider public, but they failed to really replicate the experience of seeing works of art in person, and still felt like a rather clunky method of adaptation.

Despite the increased Internet usage, traditional media works and methods still prevailed over new media. One stand-out was A+ Works of Art’s artist-curated Online Festival of Video Art, featuring 23 works from a range of local and international artists. Outside the commercial gallery circuit, The Healing Art Project’s experiments with multi-sensory, multi-media soundscapes as a form of healing—informed by Dr Kamal Sabran’s research in musical therapy—continues to stream their curated sounds online for anyone in need of some sonic solace.

As for festivals, the major music-centric ones like Urbanscapes and Good Vibes Festival had to take the year off. Nevertheless, those who could adapt their content for the web, did. Kakiseni’s Ipoh-based The Other Festival moved to the arts organisation’s Instagram Stories with an ingenious choose-your-path storyline that audiences could direct using the in-app voting sticker. Gerak Angin Virtual Arts Festival (a debut virtual arts festival sponsored by the Ministry of Tourism, Arts, and Culture), George Town Festival, and George Town Literary Festival organised virtual livestreams of their talks and performances. Meanwhile, Port Ipoh launched an online pre-festival to complement and build excitement for their 2021 International Art Festival.

Initially, we mourned the loss of in-person events. Then, we started to explore the full range of alternatives that the Internet offers and spiralled briefly into a Zoom mania. Now, people are thinking: why not both?


When the #KitaJagaKita movement took off earlier in the year to signal boost charities and struggling enterprises, many artists soon followed suit, leveraging their talent and reputations to raise money for communities in need. There was a utopian feeling in our forms of communal solidarity with our fellow man, but “Kita Jaga Kita” also had a dystopian undertone. Kita mesti jaga kita, because our actual leaders were nowhere to be found.

Sabahan art collective Pangrok Sulap and Melaka-based artist and lecturer Dr Rosli Zakaria are examples of artists who got busy during the lockdown producing, respectively, pandemic-inspired woodcut prints and wood-carved sculptures, which were sold off to fundraise for social causes. Over in Port Dickson, artist Sharon Chin has used artwork sales as a fundraising strategy twice this year: first for the hospital cleaners union in Ipoh, and later for Borneo Komrad after the October surge of COVID-19 cases in Sabah.

Dr Rosli Zakaria’s sculptures on display at his home in Melaka.
Photo courtesy of Dr Rosli Zakaria (Facebook)

For struggling arts practitioners, the Cultural Economy Development Agency (CENDANA), an agency supported by the Malaysian government, chimed in with a few helpful funds. They offered food aid during the lockdown, and once restrictions were loosened, they launched a string of new funds for arts practitioners, on top of opening more slots for their existing funds. While many artists and galleries continue to take advantage of CENDANA’s generous grants, these grants also showed the limits of the agency’s abilities.

The major loss felt during the lockdown was that of income, not passion or talent, and the grants did not necessarily alleviate every day anxieties such as being unable to make rent, bills, or feed growing families. On a national scale, most people just had to count their losses and start again.


Given how apocalyptic the general mindset was during the full lockdown, it feels bizarre to think that it only lasted six weeks. The Recovery Movement Control Order (RMCO), which began on 10 June, allowed us to slip back into a semblance of (masked) normality and stretch our legs with some exhibition-viewing again.

In Kuala Lumpur, ILHAM Gallery went all-out with a major photographic survey show titled Bayangnya itu Timbul Tenggelam: Photographic Cultures in Malaysia featuring three curators and over 1,400 photographs and artifacts. Commercial galleries bounced back with new exhibitions and operations were resumed on an appointment-only basis.

A section in ILHAM Gallery’s Bayangnya itu Timbul Tenggelam, which also exists online as a virtual walk-through.

BOXED IN (one foot at a time), an exhibition conceptualised and curated by Ivan Gabriel pre-lockdown, had a prescient sense for what was to come. 30 Penang-based artists were each given wooden boxes, to be utilised in whatever manner they saw fit, for their final artwork. When the lockdown shut operations all across the nation, the exhibition launched as an online preview on Facebook, accompanied with live-streamed curator-artist conversations. At the start of December, BOXED IN finally got its physical exhibition, running till the end of the year at Hin Bus Depot.

BOXED IN (one foot at a time) physical exhibition finally opened to the public at Hin Bus Depot on 1 December 2020.

However, despite all the adaptations, innovations, and attempted returns to normal, the question persists: What can art do in a crisis? By operating virtually or on an appointment-only basis, it seemed that the art world was actually receding.

The future of art doesn’t look particularly bright nor particularly dim. Perhaps that’s what the problem is. Either way things go, we’ll roll over onto the other side and wait for the chaos behind our backs to subside, so we can go back to the way things were before.


…The crisis may have brought out the worst in some (see: the numerous immigration raids and other moments of political opportunism this year), but for the most part, on the level of the ordinary person, the crisis brought out the best. Throughout the year, a mood of camaraderie has prevailed—everyone just wants to support each other in any way they can.

And yet, there’s also no point in false optimism. The pandemic happened and continues to happen, which means that not much else is able to happen. Despite the virtual tours and other attempts at adaptation, there’s no real way to profit from a pandemic, unless you’re Netflix, Grab, or a mask-manufacturer.

An iconic photo by Ismail Hashim that perfectly sums up how it feels to live in a collapsing world. Tidur Begitu Nyenyak Bom Meletup Pun Tak Sedar (I Can Sleep Through Even If The Bomb Explodes), 1984, hand-tinted photograph, collection of the National Art Gallery of Malaysia.
Photo courtesy of National Art Gallery

We spent most of the year in our homes, trying to process our shock over innumerable Zoom roundtables. It was the year of trying to find our footing on new, unfamiliar ground, and much of our unproductiveness, confusion, rage, frustration, and endless questioning can be justified. There are some vaccines on the horizon, but many experts also warn that we should anticipate more unnatural outbreaks, on top of catastrophes caused by climate emergencies previously unseen in the history of humankind. In 2021, we should not hope for a return to the way things were—which is pretty much how we spent our RMCO—but start turning roundtable suggestions into actions, and start to reimagine radical new definitions of sustainability.

Cover image: Balai being disinfected as a precautionary measure during the lockdown. Photo courtesy of National Art Gallery.

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.