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Sunday April 22, 2012

Sasana: Bank Negara’s new art gallery

Bank Negara’s new art gallery has arresting architecture amidst lush greenery, easy access and cafe latte at just RM1.50. And, oh yes, 50 years worth of Malaysian art works.

PROBABLY one of the grandest, yet the most under-appreciated, venues for art must be Sasana Kijang, the new Bank Negara Malaysia art gallery in Kuala Lumpur. The striking structure with gleaming glass and steel lies near the Lake Gardens, just opposite the Tunku Abdul Rahman Memorial.

I am struck by how the organic theme continues inside the building as I ascend to the gallery via a pewter staircase resembling a spiralling nautilus seashell, growing asymmetrically as it climbs. On the third floor, the artworks seem to be perched on a giant platform with stunning views of the surrounding greenery. This lofty perch seems a suitable setting for the bank’s trove of some 1,700 art works which serves almost like an overview of Malaysian creativity.

The Bank Negara Malaysia Museum and Art Gallery is housed in a sparkling new building in Kuala Lumpur with lots of natural light.

Bank Negara has been collecting art since 1962 and one is immediately struck by an unmistakably retro feel when visiting the 1960s-1970s section. Mohd Hossein Enas’ painting, Beach Beauty (1961), evokes the era of the movies South Pacific and P. Ramlee’s Aloha, while Rubber Tapper by Yee Chin Ming (circa 1960s) has a Cubist view of a core pillar of our economy back then.

Works closer to our time are of course also well represented here. Warrior by Mohd Taquddin Bahro hints at a looming showdown between two forms of children’s entertainment from different eras, a wayang kulit character and robot cartoons, and asks whether the traditional form will survive the onslaught of modernity.

Yong Look Lam’s Sembahyang (1996) juxtaposes how village meets city as it peers through a thicket of coconut tree trunks at Masjid Jamek, located in the heart of KL, while Zulkifli Yusof uses a chess metaphor to comment on the use and abuse of power in Siri Catur IV (1989).

From a distance, I see a painting that resembles an abstract Hindu temple gateway, only to find that it’s Choy Chun Wei’s intriguing statement of urban overcrowding in Construction Series: The Living Space Of The Materialist Dwellers (2003).

There are departures from styles commonly associated with certain artists. Ibrahim Hussein’s Snow Landscape Or Car Parking (1963) and Growth (1971) are not in his trademark “combed lines” mode. Hossein Enas, best known for his portraits and figurative works, has a Banjir Kuala Lumpur (1971) which records the great floods that hit the city that year.

Gallery director Lucien de Guise at Sasana Kijang, which is surrounded by greenery.

The collection includes a whole slew of familiar names – Datuk Syed Ahmad Jamal, Chuah Thean Teng, Yong Mun Sen, Ahmad Zakii Anwar, Chang Fee Ming, Jalaini Abu Hassan, Abdul Multhalib Musa, Yusof Ghani, Redza Piyadasa, Bayu Utomo Radjikin, Sulaiman Esa, Amron Omar and Tan Choon Ghee – and not all the works can be displayed, even with the generous 1,100sqm of space available.

Most of the works are paintings, but there are also about 100 sculptures and I cannot help but be infected by the energy of Mad Anuar Ismail’s metallic Storm Riders (circa 1990s). While the focus is on Malaysian art, there is also a small Asean section – look out for Bunga Kana by Indonesia’s renowned Affandi.

“Bank Negara has displayed its collection at the (nearby) headquarters before,” explains gallery director Lucien de Guise. “But that is a slightly intimidating place to get into whereas this feels much more like a public space.”

Some works have not been seen publicly, even by the artists themselves, for several decades. One example is Latiff Mohidin’s Demon (1965).

“When Latiff visited, he was so happy to see his work again,” de Guise recalls. “All these years, it has been in one of the corporate offices.”

One of the bank’s roles has been to stimulate the art market. “The bank has been buying art works every year over the past 50 years. This is part of its contribution to society.”

Yong Look Lam’s Sembahyang (1996) juxtaposes how village meets city as it peers through a thicket of coconut tree trunks at Masjid Jamek.

Bank Negara Governor Tan Sri Dr Zeti Akhtar Aziz is personally into the arts, he adds. “She has come a few times to see the art works herself.”

De Guise says the gallery has asked all the main art schools in Malaysia to send in their best student works for an exhibition cum sale in late May.

“These works will be the best of their generation, and the price limit is set at RM3,000. Our art market currently has a small number of big buyers, but not a large number of small buyers.”

How much has Bank Negara’s collection appreciated in value over the years? After all, it had acquired works such as Rubber Tapper, Snow Landscape and Demon way back in the 1960s.

De Guise says he is not allowed to reveal financial details, “but I think we can say that some works have appreciated by over 1,000%. The bank bought many works when the artists were not so well known, and the works are much sought after now.”

Besides the art gallery, there is also an interesting Numismatic Museum featuring interactive computer games, plus curiosities such as cockerel coins (once used in Kedah) and 1920s Sarawak bank notes.

As for practicalities, admission is free and the gallery is only a 500m walk under shady trees from the Bank Negara KTM Komuter stop. There is also ample underground parking. And where else in town can you get a cafe latte for only RM1.50 except at the gallery cafe? The croissants are scrumptious too.

Finally, there is the name of the place, Sasana. It’s so refreshing not to have some English-wannabe word (like KL Sentral) but a proper Malay word that means a “place where communities gather”. (Kijang means deer, which is on the bank’s emblem.)

With impressive architecture, a large and wide-ranging art collection, easy access and a cosy cafe, there’s every reason for Bank Negara’s new art gallery to truly become a Sasana.

> The exhibition, Then And Now: 50th Anniversary Of Bank Negara Malaysia, is on at Sasana Kijang (Jalan Dato Onn, KL) until Sept 19. Viewing from 10am to 6pm daily. For details, call 03-9179 2784 or visit museum.bnm.gov.my.

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