Malaysia on show at Singapore Biennale 2013

  • Arts
  • Saturday, 16 Nov 2013

A unique curatorial model allows the Singapore Biennale 2013 to feature more Malaysian artists this year than ever before.

THE works of the Malaysian artists showing at the Singapore Biennale 2013 (SB2013) share very few similarities, except perhaps for a common geographical point of origin. Yet, this is exactly what makes their presence at the biennial contemporary art event so exciting: the multiple Malaysias being shown – whether overtly or subtly – through these pieces.

Organised by the Singapore Art Museum (SAM) with the theme If The World Changed, the fourth edition of the Biennale features works by 82 artists and art collectives from 13 different countries.

With nine Malaysians displaying the works at the SB2013, it is the biggest representation of our country at the event thus far, and certainly the first time artists from East Malaysia are specifically highlighted. The Malaysian artists showing currently showing at SB2013 are: Adrian Ho, Chi Too, Chris Chong Chan Fui, Jainal Amambing, Poodien, Sharon Chin, Shieko Reto, Tan Wei Kheng and Zulkifli Yusoff.

Ethnic identity: In Voices of Hope, the Marudi, Sarawak-born Tan Wei Kheng expresses the modern-day perils faced by tribal communities in his home state. The piece is showing at the Singapore Art Museum during the Singapore Biennale 2013.

This large presence was made possible by a collaborative curatorial effort where 27 curators from South-East Asia were brought together to allow a focused look at each country in the region – as such, 93% of the works on display are from South-East Asia. This panel of curators included Malaysians Faizal Sidik and Yee I-Lann.

Yee says she saw her postion as a curator as an opportunity to include as many “worlds” from Malaysia as possible, and was particularly excited about introducing artists from Sabah and Sarawak.

“Personally, I wanted our selection to be as wide and inclusive as it could. I was brought on board because the SB2013 organising committee didn’t know anything about art from Borneo, it was a black hole in their research. So I got very excited. This is the first time a Biennale has visited East Malaysia ever,” says the Sabah-born artist.

Longing by Chi Too is an installation/video work. At the Biennale, Chi Too extends the work by inviting
visitors to enter a small, empty room and attempt the spirit level balancing act.

“In the previous Biennales, we didn’t have a Malaysian specifically looking out for Malaysian artists, so it is very exciting to see so many Malaysians showing their works this year,” she ädds.

What she looked for when selecting artists to be showcased, she shares, were works that had resonance, were current and dealt with real and contemporary issues. This has resulted in a diverse range of works, from those that scream avant garde to those that people may even question is contemporary art.

“The word contemporary is contextual,” adds Yee.

“I think it’s contemporary to include works that may not appear contemporary. We must always have space for work that doesn’t fit neatly into categories.”

Jainal Amambing’s works, for instance, which are naive art paintings of his memories of growing up in a longhouse in Kudat, Sabah, are those don’t readily fit into these categories.

“However, within a larger context, Jainal’s My Longhouse Story (pic) recognises South-East Asia’s tribal component, and is so very contemporary in terms of the experiences it speaks about,” says Yee.

For Jainal, showing at SB2013 was an opportunity to share and reflect on his own culture and lifestyle.

“I don’t think about what style I paint in; instead, I look at the theme. And the SB2013 theme, If The World Changed, inspired in me thoughts of how the world of my childhood has changed,” he says, adding that he is immensely happy to be able to show his works at such a prestigious event.

Working with professionals from Institut Sains Teknologi in Malaysia, Sabah-raised Chris Chong Chan Fu has made detailed, cartographical illustrations of various ‘species’ of artificial flowers available today in his Botanic series.

In contrast, Chris Chong Chan Fui, who hails from Kota Kinabalu, merges art and science in Botanic. a series of botanical illustrations that are in fact of artificial flowers. They appear deceptively simple yet provoke thought on the increasing presence of the artificial in our lives.

“Having so many artists from Malaysia showing here is great, because it allows us to show so many different aspects. There’s still much more art in Malaysia that needs to be highlighted, and this is a step in that direction,” says Chong.

For Shieko Reto, showing at SB2013 was a platform to highlight an issue close to her heart: the plight of the transgender community. Her mixed media installation, Waiting Room (pic), is a recreation of a clinic waiting room, and is a tongue-in-cheek yet poignant reflection on the many episodes of “waiting” a transgender person faces.

“My work is a voice from a minority group, to shine a light on the situation in Malaysia, and being able to raise these issues in an international platform is very important,” says Shieko.

The wide array of works by Malaysians, she points out, speak of a variety of experiences and concerns.

“Sharon Chin’s Mandi Bunga (Flower Bath), for example, is a very important work. (Chin organised a mass flower bath where participants wore yellow costumes they had designed themselves). While it is about the colour yellow and how it has become politicised in the last few years, she also doesn’t want to impose her politics on anyone; it’s almost like a group hug,” she adds.

Other perspectives include Adrian Ho’s paintings, Fruits Of Life and Full Production, which ruminate on the nature and progress by contrasting the benefits of oil palm plantations with the potential damage, while Tan Wei Kheng’s Voices Of Hope expresses the threats faced by tribal communities in Sarawak through a large composition of paintings that are both visually-striking and symbolic.

Poodien’s digital collage mural Long Live Food! has also been given a new lease of life as it features prominently at the Singapore Art Museum cafe. For reasons unknown, the piece was taken down from the feature wall of the E.A.T. Food Village hall in Publika, Kuala Lumpur last year.

To conclude, Yee says the best thing Malaysians can do for our artists is to engage with these works, and visit the SB2013.

“The exhibits are so South-East Asia. It’s all about what’s happening in the region, and how Malaysian art joins or doesn’t join in that dialogue. For our art to grow, we have to participate, and that includes the audience.”

> The Singapore Biennale 2013 is being held until Feb 16, 2014, in a number of arts spaces in the Bras Basah, Bugis precinct, including the Singapore Art Museum and National Museum Of Singapore. Tickets, priced at S$10 (RM25.40) for adults and S$5 (RM12.70) for students and senior citizens, are available at the exhibition venues and online at SISTIC ( For more info, visit

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