If you are looking for issues of gender and identity, feminism and struggles of women at the Di Mana (Where Are) Young exhibition of 101 works by Malaysian contemporary women artists, you might be disappointed.
What you get at the all-women show currently on at the National Visual Arts Gallery (NVAG) in Kuala Lumpur is more of a fuzzy, meandering voice in the conversation of what it means to be a woman in the 21st century world.
But then again, why should our gaze on today’s women, much less women artists, be confined to the singular lens of sociopolitical labels?
Women in this age are an intricate and diverse group of people, so perhaps we owe it to them to look beyond the conventional canons and recognise their individual uniqueness.
That was the challenge faced by Tan Hui Koon, the NVAG curator for the Di Mana (Where Are) Young, as she sourced for 101 works by Malaysian contemporary women artists. “I was worried about how to represent their different voices and create some sort of coherent dialogue. It couldn’t be a general hanging show, but at the same time, it cannot be limited to a show on women’s struggles.
“I hope people can see this as an art show that happens to have an abundance of women artists – handling various materials and styles, dealing with a range of issues and themes,” she says, quoting arts administrator and writer Syar S. Alia’s observations that this is too large and too significant to flatten into merely women’s art or an all-women’s show.
“One cannot say that gender is the only thing that ties these motley individuals together as their understanding and experience of their own gender is too diverse to be common,” states Syar.
The array of works speaks for itself, from the intimate personal stories in oil from Fadilah Karim to the interactive classroom fantasy of Eddie Choo’s Madline series and the sexual political comment of Sheika Khunz Corona’s Moulding/Puissy.
Tan admits she was initially worried about the challenge of finding 101 local contemporary women artists, but as she discovered, Malaysia definitely has more than the specified number.
Di Mana (Where Are) Young features works from the NVAG permanent collection, latest artworks from invited artists and entries through an open call.
“It was great to discover that women artists in the country have the opportunity to create and are thriving,” she notes.
While the local contemporary art scene is male dominated, Tan believes any “setback” for Malaysian women artists is more from a question of opportunities and priorities rather than any real gender discrimination.
“There are quite a few established women artists who are no longer actively producing artwork but have moved on to fulltime motherhood and teaching,” she asserts.
Then there are some women artists who are difficult to track down due to the incomplete records, hence the title “Where are you ‘young’”, which is supposed to be a play on the Malay term of endearment yang (short for sayang, which means darling), in appreciation of women artists who persisted in their art against all odds.
Suzy Sulaiman, with her intersectional experience in the fields of architecture, education and visual arts, longs for the day when all-women art shows will be such a norm that we wouldn’t need to highlight them.
“After all, we don’t need to label an all-men’s show,” says Suzy.
Despite the distinct voices of the different women artists in the Di Mana (Where Are) Young show, Suzy feels there is subtle, gentle force linking them.
Her origami installation Ruang Kita (Our Space), she says, proves the fact that women’s experiences, background and roles as constructed by society cannot be divorced from their work. But this notion should also be seen as strength.
The interactive work is specially customised for her beloved daughter and all the children who come to the national gallery.
“I often go to art galleries with my kid and she always complains about how ‘art galleries are sooo boring!’ So I decided that as an artist, I just want to make a fun ‘space’ that everyone can enjoy,” explains Suzy.
Elsewhere, artists like Wong Pey Yu and Marisa Diyana Shahrir choose to look at a more universal issue – how digital technology development is impacting our world.
Wong’s installation Pink Angel is a reflection on human communication today, specifically the growing usage of “emoji”, which she says is simplifying and freeing interaction while constricting it.
Marisa’s sculpture Loop, which showed at the 2014 Venice Biennale, maps out innovation over time, from analogue to digital. The piece, which is a social critique on how we are letting technology rule our lives, symbolises how we have let technology become larger than life itself.
“As the piece focuses more on human behaviour, gender was viewed in a more inclusive way,” says Marisa.
Both agree that it is not necessary to emphasise gender in the creation of art or have a specific “Women Artists” show.
“Why is there a necessity to emphasise the art produced by women? The fact is art is art, science is science, and philosophy is philosophy. The existence of a valuable message and the worldview of the artist expressed in each artwork itself is captivating regardless of whether it’s done by a male or female artist. When one is looking at an amazing artwork, how can one possibly identify if the artwork is done by a male or female artist?” muses Wong.
For architect/artist Marisa, the tension lies not in the gender struggle but between her professional life and artistic soul.
“It’s a very competitive playing field and when you are juggling your profession with your hobby, you don’t want to surrender one for the other – you can just hope that both feed into each other and it enables you to thrive ... you just have to manage your expectations and never stop creating,” she shares.
Marisa believes the Di Mana (Where Are) Young exhibition is providing a vital platform for the expression of ideas and issues faced by women, particularly Malaysian women.
“It is giving the general public a sense of reference and history and for art students and enthusiasts to take stock of the existing talent that we have,” notes Marisa.
This is echoed by Tan, who stresses that rather than looking at the exhibition as a statistical feat, the “101” should be read in the American college custom of “basic introduction.”
“With works on urban space, history, environmental issues, technology and communications, among others, expanding the idea of what it means to be a woman, this quest of surveying works by contemporary female artists in Malaysia has only just begun,” concludes Tan.
Di Mana (Where Are) Young is on until July 31. The NVAG gallery is open daily (10am-6pm). Visit: www.artgallery.gov.my.