How the arts community won this one battle against censorship

How the arts community won this one battle against censorship

After numerous cases of censorship, an avalanche reaction shows us a highly frustrated arts community questioning the state of creative freedom in Malaysia.

By Sonia Luhong Wan

On 10 February 2020, Malaysian multidisciplinary artist Ahmad Fuad Osman wrote an open letter on Facebook and Instagram. It condemned the National Art Gallery’s (NAG) decision to remove four of his exhibited artworks following a single complaint as ‘arbitrary, unjustified, and an abuse of institutional power’.

The post quickly became hot news for the week.

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It has been a lot of ups and downs for me for these past few weeks re my show at Balai Seni Negara, Kuala Lumpur. I was really hoping that this thing never happen since everything went very well, from the first day of meeting and discussions until the show opens. Undeniably Balai had given me a very good support n opportunity for the show in which i thank them again and again. Unfortunately, something unexpected happened and I have no other way than writing this open letter below : 1. On 4 February 2020, Balai Seni Negara (henceforth Balai) removed four works from my mid-career survey exhibition, At The End Of The Day Even Art Is Not Important (1990-2019). 2. The exhibition has been open to the public since 28 October 2019. It has received enthusiastic reviews, and I have received many positive comments from peers in the art community, as well as on social media. The show was originally scheduled to close on 31 January 2020. It was upon Balai’s request that the show has been extended until 29 February 2020. 3. Balai sent me a letter on 21 January 2020 officially informing me that they wanted to remove the four works because a Board Member complained about them. Prior to the letter, they had contacted me on the phone through whatsApps on 24 December 2019 about their intentions. On 23 January, Balai had temporarily removed two of the four works from display, before returning them to the exhibition on 24 January. 4. On 7 February, I wrote to Balai stating that I found this act of censorship profoundly troubling and unacceptable. It is arbitrary, unjustified and an abuse of institutional power. I asked them to fully explain their reasoning, requesting answers to my questions about their process and reasoning. Their decision, and the explanation provided lacks transparency and accountability. 5. I also requested that Balai close the entire exhibition immediately, rather than let it remain open in its compromised state.

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Curated by Shabbir Hussain Mustafa, senior curator at the National Gallery Singapore, At The End Of The Day Even Art Is Not Important (1990-2019) is Fuad’s mid-career solo exhibition; an exploration of how narratives and histories are told through seven cycles of research spanning three decades of his artistic journey. The exhibition has been showing at NAG, also known as Balai Seni Negara, since 28 October 2019 and is slated to end by 29 February 2020.

It is worth noting that the four ‘controversial’ artworks—untitled (2002), Dreaming Of Being A Somebody Afraid Of Being A Nobody (2019), Imitating The Mountain (2004) and Mak Bapak Borek, Anak Cucu-Cicit Pun Rintik (2016–2018)—were among those approved and publicly exhibited by NAG itself to a generally positive reception for nearly four months until the alleged complaint by one of its board members.

In response to Fuad’s open letter, NAG’s media statement defended its National Visual Arts Development Board’s (NVADB) decision to protect ‘the dignity of any individual, religion, politics, race, customs, and the country’, with its Director-General, Amerruddin bin Ahmad, asserting—very reassuringly, no doubt—that ‘the exhibition is a process and not the final product’.

Indeed, NAG, also the organiser of the upcoming KUL Biennale 2020, has a notable track record of treating exhibitions as a mere process. Local and international recipients of this curatorial approach include: Vienna Parreno and Krzysztof Osinski’s Self Mark 1 and Self Mark 2 (in 2006), Cheng Yen Pheng’s Alksnaabknuaunmo and Izat Arif Saiful Bahrin’s Fa Qaf (in 2014), as well as Pusat Sekitar Seni and Population Project’s Under Construction (in 2017).

However, NAG is only one out of many. Other instances include the Japanese Foundation Kuala Lumpur’s and Bank Negara’s treatments of Pangrok Sulap’s Sabah Tanah Air-Ku (in 2017) and Azizan Paiman’s MKKEN (in 2019) respectively. In a more extreme example, well-known artist Zunar was arrested and charged under the Sedition Act in 2016 after holding an exhibition of his political caricatures in Penang.

Pangrok Sulap’s Sabah Tanah Air-Ku. Courtesy of Sonia Luhong Wan.

It is important to recognise that NAG’s high-handedness and lack of transparency over the incident are merely a product of Malaysia’s long-standing culture of censorship and top-down way of handling matters. Too often, censorship is initiated by a few without first consulting all stakeholders involved, including the artists themselves and members of the public.

That a handful of people get to independently decide how society should think, feel, and express, contradicts a culture of critical thinking, insults the intellectual capacity of Malaysian society, and subsequently stunts the development of arts in Malaysia.

Unlike previous cases of censorship, however, Fuad’s has garnered an unprecedented outpouring of support. After nearly a week of public outcry, NAG finally reinstated all four artworks on 16 February 2020.

While undoubtedly a victory and a step forward for the Malaysian art scene, this incident also reveals the disturbing reality of arts censorship in the country: that arts institutions such as NAG and other galleries are also proponents of censorship. One is tempted to ask: Who then, can artists truly rely on to safeguard their freedom of expression? Is the artist merely a content provider? Or is the artist also a primary stakeholder, whose interests and rights are equally worthy of protection?

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Berikutan dari tersiarnya Surat Terbuka ('Open Letter') seniman Ahmad Fuad Osman & Kenyataan Media Balai Seni Negara ("Balai") - kedua2nya disiarkan melalui Instagram masing2 (@osmanahmadfuad & @nationalartgallerymy) semalam - berhubung dengan isu tindakan Balai menurunkan 4 buah karya Fuad dari pameran solo beliau di Balai, 'At the End of the Day Even Art is Not Important (1998 - 2019)' maka saya dengan ini terpanggil untuk menyatakan solidariti saya dengan Sdr Fuad dalam isu ini! Balai jelas telah bertindak secara 'arbitrary, unjustified & an abuse of institutional power' sebagaimana yg dinyatakan Fuad di dalam Surat Terbukanya itu! Saya juga bersetuju dengan seruan beliau agar Balai menutup terus pameran solonya itu kerana pameran itu sekarang ini sudah jelas dikompromikan keutuhannya. Harus saya isytiharkan kepentingan saya dalam perkara ini di sini kerana salah sebuah daripada 4 buah karya Fuad yg terbabit ya itu, 'Imitating the Mountain' adalah dari koleksi saya. (Sehubungan dengan ini sila rujuk 2 pos IG saya yg terdahulu masing2 bertarikh 29 Januari 2020 & 4 Februari 2020). Seterusnya selaku kolektor/pemilik kepada 6 buah karya Fuad yg dipinjamkan untuk menjayakan pameran itu - dimana 5 daripadanya masih berada di dalam pameran yg sudah dikompromikan itu - maka, selaras dengan permintaan Fuad melalui Surat Terbukanya itu, saya dengan ini meminta pihak Balai untuk berhenti dari melibatkan kelima2 karya yg lain itu di dalam pameran yg sudah dikompromikan itu & memulangkanya kembali kepada saya!

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The level of moral and practical support that Fuad received—from fellow artists, art collectors and other members of the art community, government representatives, the media, and the public—is what every artist rightly deserves when confronted with censorship. However, it also signals a high need for the Malaysian arts community to earnestly gather and formulate a cohesive support and response system.

Commenting on the incident to Plural Art Mag, Joshua Lim, Director of Malaysian art gallery A+ Works of Art, reminds us to ‘keep pushing so that our cultural institutions fully appreciate what it means to be transparent and accountable, and so that open dialogue becomes the rule and not the exception’.

In his comment to the Malay Mail, poet and art activist Pyanhabib reiterated the need for art administrators who are ‘brave enough to do their work and defend their collective decisions’.

Will Fuad’s case go down as yet another viral post, or the start of active, sustained efforts by all quarters to safeguard creative freedom in the country? Hopefully, we wouldn’t have to wait until the next censored artist to know.

A timeline of events. Courtesy of Sonia Luhong Wan.
(Click to expand image)

Cover image source: Facebook.

A Sarawak-based artist, Sonia Luhong Wan’s foray into the art world began early on in life with colourful scribbles on encyclopaedias, and she has never looked back since.