Six decades of Malaysian abstract art and 60 years of Merdeka – they are almost like twins. One is fractionally older than the other, but these are siblings with a lot in common. Abstract art became mainstream in this country more than half a century ago. Like Malaysia, it’s not about rebelliousness or nasty surprises. It rarely shocks public sensibilities or crosses religious red lines. Sometimes it even appears to have been overlooked.
The Unreal Deal puts the spotlight back on a field that is at the heart of Malaysia’s 60-year creative history. It is the nation’s abstract artists who monopolise the aesthetic hall of fame. The exhibition is a meeting place of young and old. Every generation is represented here: on canvas.
Malaysia’s leading exponents of the genre have been gathered at the Bank Negara Malaysia Museum and Art Gallery to provide what is probably the largest ever display of abstract art in the country. The Unreal Deal comes 50 years after the epoch-defining ‘Grup’ show of 1967. Half a century ago, artists such as Syed Ahmad Jamal, Ibrahim Hussein, Latiff Mohidin, Yeoh Jin Leng and Jolly Koh could never have imagined they would revolutionise the way that art is seen in their homeland. They dragged a young nation into the modern world.
The paintings in the exhibition show the continuity of abstraction. The artists have rejected realism in favour of something that challenges viewers, if they want to be challenged. As the title of the exhibition suggests, the unreal can be as significant as anything else. The appearance of abstract art is removed from reality but it has substance. Six decades on, it also has longevity. Very much like Malaysia, whose 60th anniversary is on the same day that The Unreal Deal is opened to the public.
by Prof. Madya Dato' Tajuddin Ismail
30 September 2017
10.30am to 12.30pm
MAG Theatrette, Sasana Kijang
Open to All and It's Free
The spirit of a new decade saw a breakthrough in Malaysia’s cultural development. The Special Teachers’ Training Institute was established in Cheras, attracting art graduates who had returned from studying abroad. Among those who began their teaching careers here were Syed Ahmad Jamal and Yeoh Jin Leng. This was also where the country’s first art department was initiated, producing artists such as Redza Piyadasa, Ahmad Khalid Yusof and Chew Teng Beng.
By 1966 the Malaysian Institute of Arts had been opened, and a year later the Institut Teknologi MARA came to existence with the faculty of art and design being one of the key initiatives put in place. The faculty members included Jolly Koh, Choong Kam Kow, Redza Piyadasa and Joseph Tan.
This was a decade that featured works from artists of the stature of Syed Ahmad Jamal, Yeoh Jin Leng, Cheong Laitong, Ibrahim Hussein, Latiff Mohidin, Jolly Koh and Khalil Ibrahim. These are names that have gone on to be among the most revered in the nation’s art history. Most were involved in the Wednesday Art Group, founded by Peter Harris, Art Superintendent of the Federation of Malaya, in 1952.
This decade got off to a strong creative start with the National Culture Congress of 1971. Held at the request of the second Prime Minister, Allahyarham Tun Abdul Razak, the main purpose of the congress was to look into Malaysian cultural issues and to advise the government on formulating a national cultural policy. Royal Professor Ungku Aziz was a strong advocate of 'art for society’, which was accepted by majority vote despite some strong opposition.
During the 1970s, art activities received considerable support from the Ministry of Culture, Youth and Sports. The National Art Gallery actively held art exhibitions in Kuala Lumpur and beyond, giving artists of the decade more international attention. Both Latiff Mohidin and Syed Ahmad Jamal were given retrospective exhibitions at the National Art Gallery, in 1973 and 1975 respectively.
The spirit of regional art also emerged in this decade, with the 'ASEAN Mobile' exhibition being held in several ASEAN member countries. The National Art Gallery played an important role in promoting and discovering new talent by organising the ‘Young Contemporaries' exhibition and competition for the first time in 1974.
During the 1980s, artists received valuable encouragement from the corporate sector and statutory bodies. ESSO Malaysia, Lembaga Letrik Negara, United Malayan Banking Corporation (UMBC) and Bank Negara Malaysia were among the leading supporters of local creative effort. Private collectors also played an important role in developing the Malaysian art market. In 1982, the National Art Gallery brought together for the first time the collections of prominent art collectors, including Tan Sri Azman Hashim, Hijjas Kasturi, Tan Sri Kamarul Ariffin, Tun Musa Hitam, Tan Sri Shahrir Samad and Zain Azhari. The following year saw another historic event for the National Art Gallery; with the support of the then Ministry of Culture, Youth and Sports, the gallery was relocated from MATIC to a larger space, occupying the former Hotel Majestic building.
The abstract painters of this era were a combination of well-known names from previous decades and newcomers who would also go on to achieve prominence. Among the artists who became established in the 1980s were Yusof Ghani, Fauzan Omar, Ismail Latiff and Awang Damit Ahmad.
Abstract art continued to flourish in the 1990s. Artists who had emerged in the previous decade were still acclaimed, especially Sharifah Fatimah, Tajuddin Ismail, Yusof Ghani, Fauzan Omar, Ismail Latiff and Awang Damit. Among the new names to establish a reputation in the 1990s were Nizar Kamal, Suzlee Ibrahim and Jack Ting.
Sharifah Fatimah continued her customary interweaving of colours and shapes, while Yusof Ghani maintained his characterstically bold and vivid brushwork. Tajuddin Ismail’s work developed a new maturity using the method of hard-edge painting. For Fauzan Omar, the emphasis was still on the ‘Layered’ series in the 1990s. Ismail Latiff’s colour selection and its interpretation have never been disappointing; in the 1990s even the darkest night could acquire a whimsical beauty through his brush. Images of nature cannot be separated from the work of Awang Damit. During this decade, his attachment to his surroundings was clearer than ever. A new artist who emerged during this decade was Nizar Kamal Ariffin, who created the ‘Metamorphosis’ series depicting the process of the physical transformation of caterpillar to pupa. For Suzlee Ibrahim there is a somewhat wider spectrum of colours. As a nature lover, the environment was a popular theme for Suzlee. His contemporary, Jack Ting, has often seen nature in dynamic terms, making powerful use of strokes of condensed colour painted across his entire canvas.
Innovation with abstract art continued into the new millennium while interest in more realist and conceptual approaches came to predominate around the world. Of the generation of Malaysian abstract artists who had emerged in the 1990s, Suzlee Ibrahim was among those to bring additional expressiveness to his work. There was also a change in Jack Ting's output during the 2000s, with a new intensity to the brushwork. Another artist who loves to travel, Tajuddin Ismail, also channelled new energy into his paintings.
During the new decade, the country’s art lecturers inspired a new generation of abstract artists to emerge. Hamidi Hadi, Sabri Idrus and Choy Chun Wei were among the young artists to go a step further than merely using acrylics or oils. Hamidi Hadi, by combining enamel and polyurethane paint on his canvas, explores new dimensions to colour. Sabri Idrus is another artist who focuses on the usage of medium in his work. His newer paintings are characterised by their clarity, with straight and circular lines. Choy Chun Wei, on the other hand, became known for his collage images. As with much of the art that has been produced in the past two decades, there is an emphasis on the isolation of city life and a yearning for something simpler.
A decade into the new millennium, and diversity within the art scene can be seen to be growing. This has been enhanced by the opening of more private galleries and, in particular, Publika at Hartamas. The role of these venues in raising the profile of new talent has been indispensable, especially with activities such as biennales, art festivals, expos and artists’ residencies. The proliferation of auction houses in Malaysia has also affected creators as well as collectors.
Young artists have increasingly been choosing fine-art disciplines such as digital, installation, surrealism and new media. However, there are still those who remain loyal to the abstract idiom. Among them are artists from the previous decade, with the addition of new talent such as Saiful Razman, Zulkifli Lee, Yeoh Choo Kuan, Haffendi Annuar, Ajim Juxta, Fazrin Abd Rahman and Shafarin Ghani. The influence of earlier masters of abstraction remains strong to the present day. Formative figures such as Ibrahim Hussein and Latiff Mohidin are not only favourites among collectors; they have had a profound effect on the latest generation of abstract artists.