By Yelena Gluzman
Many people I have spoken to say that the Malaysian art scene is in some or all ways “lacking”, and this perceived lack interests me. I am a foreigner and, as such, I view and react to Malaysian art with the tentativeness of an outsider. But I think it is important to say, right up front, that my artist friends, colleagues and heroes in New York often complain that the New York art scene is lacking, that the American art scene is laughable. I’ve known American artists who attempted to escape their lack in Ireland, India, Italy, only to find that it has been with them all along (to mis-paraphrase Ivan Lam’s new mixed media work ‘Malaysia’ 1).
But back to Malaysia, since it is not my intention to prove the largely useless truism that art is, by its nature, difficult to make, value, and show everywhere in the world. More interesting and useful is to understand the “lack” here, in the community of Malaysian artists, and to offer alternatives.
It was at the Petronas Gallery that I saw the exhibit Koleksi Seni Petronas: Siri 1 (Petronas Art Collection: Series 1). It features 29 artists, with works created between 1948 and 2003. Galeri Petronas is not a privately-owned commercial gallery through which artists hope to sell their work, but a corporate gallery run along the museum model. This type of art venue has proliferated since the 1980’s, as corporations responded to privatization efforts and tax incentives to support cultural activity that once was funded primarily by the government sector. These corporations collect, commission and exhibit art, often touring shows internationally like any major museum2. The Altria in New York, run by the Philip Morris Corporation, is as good an example as the Galeri Petronas in Kuala Lumpur, run by Malaysia’s only Fortune 500 corporation, the multi-national oil and gas company Petronas.
First impressions are everything, and the first thing I saw walking into the gallery was the curatorial signboard, which reads:
This exhibition of selected artworks from the Petronas Art Collection is the first of a series of exhibitions of items from the collection to be organized by Galeri Petronas. It presents a glimpse of a collection that aims to contribute towards preservation of local artistic heritage and the development of a resource on Malaysian art. (…) This exhibition speaks of certain aesthetic and symbolic concerns of particular Malaysian artists as artistically recorded. By no means comprehensive in terms of the history of modern Malaysian art, it attempts nonetheless to offer some kind of flavor of the development. (my italics).
The works in the Petronas show are hung and chosen with a careful unobtrusiveness, as if with cautious gloves the curators avoided upsetting any possible narrative of the progression of modern Malaysian art. So, artists are arranged sort-of by lineage with small nods to unmistakable movements within a lineage (the Batik art of Chuah Thean Teng and Khalil Ibrahim together, for example, or Sharifah Fatimah Syed Zubir following Jolly Koh). Chronology is followed at times, though not consistently, as the works of any given artist (sometimes spanning 50 years of activity) are grouped together.
Some art works (though by not all) are accompanied by curatorial commentary giving just enough important information that an art initiate can check key words off the list of what must be mentioned about, say, Tang Hooi Keat (” a contemporary of Yong Mun Sen and Abdullah Ariff… first Malaysian artist to have been awarded a scholarship to study art in England… founded the Penang Art Teacher’s Council… asserted an important influence on the local arts scene.”), but not enough information to give a novice any real idea of the social, cultural, or personal contexts of the work. So, never mentioned: Tang Hooi Keat’s scholarship was one of the first given by the British, part of their post-WWII realization that art activity could be encouraged and harnessed to more effectively colonize Malaya. Also not explained is the actual influence Tang Hooi Keat’s sophisticated use of cubism had on the development of Malaysian formal and structural art.
The other major narrative created by the layout of the exhibit functions to exclude the works that are not easily contextualized along the canonical binary of Malaysian art, the movement from abstraction to culturally-sensitive figuration. The one formalist piece (‘Pavilion’) created by the intriguing semiotician and bureaucrat Ismail Zain hangs at the end of a long nook off the main room, underscoring the Malaysian canon’s reluctance to include Zain’s important work into a narrative relating to other art made in same period.
Redza Piyadasa is represented by one painting, from his most recent “Malaysian Series”, titled ‘Za’aba, his Father and Brother’ 3. Though Piyadasa (born in 1939) is acknowledged as a “second generation artist,” his piece is segregated from the main (i.e. canonic) exhibition space, past a wide empty corridor, to a smaller exhibit of contemporary artists, 20 to 30 years his junior. The curatorial signage here claims that Piyadasa’s works “sits comfortably among this group.” We can infer, then, that Piyadasa, his concern with conceptual possibilities in visual art (which he introduced in very public ways in the 1970’s), and his insistence on considering socio-political realities in the creation of (and discussion of) art, does not “sit comfortably” among his peers and contemporaries Sharifah Fatimah Syed Zubir, Ahmad Kalif Yusof, and Ismail Zain. While the fact that these works don’t “go together” is acknowledged, the reasons for this are left unexamined and unchallenged.
The contemporary artists hung near Piyadasa’s well-known silkscreen are works by J. Anurendra, Wong Hoy Cheong, Simryn Gill, Ahmad Shukri, Nadiah Bamadhaj, and Yee I-Lann. Again, the narrative accompaniment is problematic, grouping all these artists as being concerned with”…the environment, the construction of identity, pluralism and difference, history and authority, knowledge and information, in a multi-cultural post-colonial society.” The description includes everything without saying anything. Where did these artists come from? Who did they study with, and where does each locate an artistic lineage? Spacially and textually, this work is set apart from the canon, and seems to appear spontaneously, a big bang of ideational art totally unrelated to the history of Malaysian art.
In fact, an interesting curatorial proposition could have been made by hanging the work of Tang Hooi Keat, lzmail Zain and Redza Piyadasa together, since the work of the latter two artists owes a lot to the early efforts of the first. The contemporary artists can follow on the heels of this new narrative, which would give their highly conscious use of signs and space a lineage.
On the Petronas website, the company summarizes its Brand Essence thus: “PETRONAS receives energy in the form of natural resources, human talent and commitment. This energy is returned to the nation and the world as both physical and emotional energy, supporting people everywhere in their aspirations for the future.” Petronas wants the public to characterize their company as: “Trusted, Passionate, Progressive, Enriching.”
Galeri Petronas was among the first major corporate art collectors in Malaysia. Their collecting, particularly in the past five years, has been widespread, including contemporary and classic Malaysian modern art, as well as traditional fabrics and artifacts. It is generally acknowledged that Galeri Petronas’ art activities have legitimized a national body of work, and, with their purchases, contributed to financial well-being of many Malaysian artists. Petronas curator Shahnaz Said describes their project as “a very genuine sense of giving back to the people,” and they have shown themselves to take this responsibility seriously.
Chin-tao Wu, in her excellent study Privatising Culture, analyzes the legitimating power of corporate art collections, creating cultural value around symbolic works in the public mind (i.e., making art into Art) that then translates back into economic capital for the corporation (i.e., Art is worth money, sometimes lots).
“The exercise of economic power in art can, as we see, be converted ultimately into status and legitimacy, or into what [French Sociologist] Bourdieu terms ‘cultural capital’. Conversely, the control of cultural capital can be converted back into monetary capital. Here lies the most attractive quality of corporate art collecting, both as a valuable investment in itself and as a PR tool.” 4
In 1998, Petronas relocated their Art Gallery to Kuala Lumpur’s most prestigious shopping mall, the Suria KLCC, which itself is located inside Kuala Lumpur’s most prestigious monument, the Petronas Twin Towers. The KLCC, which I like to think is an acronym for “Kuala Lumpur’s Conspicuous Consumption”, but can also be thought of (with the help of Petronas’ influence) as the site of “Kuala Lumpur’s Cultural Capital”, is a place where products of all kinds are granted legitimacy and status by the agents who have the financial power to place them there, and by all the others who notice.
The location of Galeri Petronas allows for an unprecedented flow of “regular people”; curious KLCC shoppers and tourists often wander in and have a look around. While this functions as a brilliant outreach strategy, it also places a formidable responsibility on the Galeri’s curators. They must respond to a highly mixed audience of experts and novices, and provide a context appropriate to all.
Petronas is careful to note in their first curator’s signpost that they are not offering a survey of Malaysian art (nor will they attempt this in parts 2 and 3 of this exhibit). Let’s say this in another way, because it is important: Petronas is not to be held accountable for presenting or promoting a narrative of Malaysian art, because they are not presenting a narrative per say. They are simply taking some treasures from their art collection and letting the public (from art experts to weekend shoppers) have a look at it.
It’s just what a corporate art collection should do: procure a generous portion of its vast revenue to collect, preserve, and display/legitimate the cultural energy of a community from which it takes (resources) and for which it provides (commodities including Art). But is that enough? In the Malaysian art landscape, where art buyers and collectors and museums are few, and where government or public art bodies have their national/racial agendas to fulfill, Galeri Petronas is in a unique position to return (without any additional cost) even more energy to the community it serves, a community that doesn’t need more Art for Art’s Sake (i.e., a collection), but a nation that needs History.
Despite their assurances to the contrary, Galeri Petronas, in their exhibit Koleksi Seni Petronas, is indeed presenting a highly public and influential history of Malaysian Art. To order the work at all, to hang it even haphazardly is to create a narrative. To miss the opportunity of making that narrative meaningful, to not consciously create art history when it is history that is needed is to do a disservice to the future of art and, therefore, to a stated core brand value of Petronas: to be Progressive.
The challenge, as I see it, is to acknowledge the crucial role of the curator and presenter in forming a history of Malaysian art. For Galeri Petronas, and other art presenters, the next step is in developing the art of curating – staging innovative exhibits with strong premises, unexpected juxtapositions, and historical revelations. Digging deeper and highlighting contradictions, instead of trying to make everything fit.
The curator of Koleksi Seni Petronas mentioned to me that the Galeri is considering mounting a Batik show soon. In seems to me that Batik is a significant medium in Malayisia, often associated with efforts of finding Malay (non-western) forms, or with the movement toward an Islamic art in Malaysia. An exhibit of Batik can be supremely non-confrontational in the politics of Malaysian art, as in the Batik show at the National Art Gallery earlier this year.5
Personally, I’d like to see a Batik exhibit that explores the multiple uses and meanings of Batik in Malaysia, that includes not only anonymous Batik fabrics, and decorative fine art created with Batik techniques (by Chuan Thean Teng, Khalil Ibrahim, Tay Mo Leong), but also later attempts to use Batik as a socio-political signifier, like those in a few of lzmail Zain’s works, or in Piyadasa’s later work from his ‘Malaysian Series’, milestones like Joseph Tan Chan Jin’s 1968 ‘Love Me In My Batik’, and more recent experiments like Haji Hashim Hassan’s 1987 work ‘Intruder’ and Shia Yih Ying’s 1996 ‘Homage To The Vanishing World’. This dream exhibit would not leave out modern machine-made “Batik” clothing and examples of Batik used in the popular media, in advertising and in tourism campaigns.
You see my point; the call here is for shows that can open a discussion about Malaysian art, rather than neatly file the discourse away with the catalogue. Galeri Petronas is in a unique position to take the lead in a local effort to raise standards of viewing (and making) art. Petronas has the financial and political cache to mount influential exhibits, borrow pieces from other major collectors and institutions, and commission the region’s most interesting thinkers to get involved.
Corporations are demonized in liberal circles all over the worlds. They are characterized as greedy, ruthless, and parasitic. Ironic, then, that in Malaysia’s “lacking” art scene, it is a corporation, necessarily embedded in the political and economic realities of this place, that can (if it dares) bridge the gap. Progressive, in deed.
1 Ivan Lam’s ‘Malaysia’ is a silkscreen map, with peninsular Malaysia on the far left, and East Malaysia on the symmetric far right. On the white field that separates the two parts is written: ”traveled the world to search for what I need/ only to realize that it has been with me all along.” Currently showing at the Darling Muse Gallery, in KL.
2 Chin-tao Wu Privatising Culture: Corporate Art Intervention Since the 1980’s. Verso: London, 2002.
3 For an excellent overview of Piyadasa’s work, see T.K. Sabathy’s Piyadasa: An Overview, 1962-2000. National Art Gallery: Kuala Lumpur, 2001.
4 Chin-tao Wu, 269.
5 REVIVAL: Evoking the Batik Tradition featuring works of canonized Batik artists Chuan Thean Teng, Khalil Ibrahim, and Tay Mo Leong. 14 Feb – 9 Apr, 2004, National Art Gallery, Kuala Lumpur.
Yelena Gluzman is a theater artist from New York. Currently she lives in Kuala Lumpur and researches the history of Malaysian art practices.
First Published: 15.10.2004 on Kakiseni