Abstract art is the kind of art that makes some people frown, scratch their heads, and say that their four-year-old could do the same. Yet at the same time, questions abound: What is this painting supposed to be? What does it show? What does it say?
The Unreal Deal: Six Decades Of Malaysian Abstract Art exhibition currently on at Bank Negara Museum and Art Gallery in KL does not provide answers to these questions. Not directly, at least.
What it does offer, however, is a walk-through of the country’s abstract art history and development through the years.
From pioneering artists such as Ibrahim Hussein, Jolly Koh, Latiff Mohidin and Yeoh Jin Leng, to young talents like Ajim Juxta, Choy Chun Wei, Haffendi Anuar and Saiful Razman, The Unreal Deal takes visitors through an impressive display of almost 100 paintings from the 1960s through to present day. Works from 28 Malaysian artists are featured here.
“The exhibition gathers some of the country’s senior and young abstract artists and their works under one roof, showcasing the masters’ influence in shaping the local abstract art scene and paving the way for prominent modern and contemporary artists,” says Noreen Zulkepli, acting deputy director and head curator of Bank Negara Malaysia Museum and Art Gallery.
“It highlights the importance of abstract art in Malaysia, which has been a significant mark of modernity in arts since the 1960s and later went on to become mainstream,” she adds.
Bank Negara has more than 2,000 art pieces in its collection, with 20 featured in The Unreal Deal. Half the works in this show are from the artists’ own collections, with the remaining art pieces on loan from private collectors and organisations.
The works were selected based on their technical and aesthetic value, and the artists on their prominence in the abstract art scene.
“Apart from showcasing the story of Malaysian abstract art and the unique creativity behind it, the focal objective of the The Unreal Deal is to provide the general viewer with an introductory experience to abstract art, as well as an aesthetic appreciation of works of art that are still widely considered difficult to decipher and, to some, even a mystery,” shares Noreen.
Yusof Ghani comments that while Malaysian abstract art might have been an underappreciated style at one point due to a lack of information and appreciation of how diverse art expressions can be, things have changed a lot in recent years.
“With more Malaysians studying abroad and travelling overseas, they are exposed to international art galleries and museums which offer a huge spectrum of modern art. This includes abstract art. It simply now boils down to the basic question what art is to us,” observes Yusof.
No doubt, the exhibition and its layout was conceptualised with the everyman kept in mind. With the works arranged chronologically by the decade, the viewer can experience the transformation of abstract art in Malaysia, both in terms of style and choice of medium.
The Malaysian abstract story started to gain momentum in the 1960s, primarily due to the return of artists who studied abroad, most of them in the United States, Britain and Germany. Among the pioneers was Tay Hooi Kiat, who was the first Malayan artist to be given a scholarship by the then British government to study art in Europe. Shortly after, he was followed by Syed Ahmad Jamal.
“Abstract art has a long tradition in Malaysian art. The late Redza Piyadasa once claimed that the painting by the late Syed (Ahmad Jamal) titled Umpan (1959) was an avant garde artwork at that time,” says Saiful Razman, who was one of the two winners of the National Visual At Gallery’s Bakat Muda Sezaman prize this year, with his installation You’re Here to Disappear.
“This was the result of the first wave of Malaysian artists returning home after studying abroad. Since then, artists who dabble in the abstract nuance of visual arts have grown in terms of style, strategy and direction, giving a new and fresh meaning to what abstract art is.
“Abstract art now is not only about the expression but a thinking process of image-making, constructing non-conventional medium and giving a new visual language to the history of Malaysian art,” he adds.
As you walk through the gallery, you will notice the acrylic and oil paints of the 1960s gradually giving way to the abstract artworks of recent years that boldly venture into unconventional media.
“The 1960s was a formative time for art and society and this exhibition explores the explosion of abstract art and the related artists from that era. The exhibition journey then continues with the emergence of younger abstract artists with their own pieces that are no less dynamic in their appeal,” says Noreen.
For instance, Fazrin Abdul Rahman toys with spray paint on aluminium strips, arranged to resemble a woven piece of work, while Sabri Idrus combines rubber, lacquer and industrial material in his wonderfully rustic-looking creation. Zulkifli Lee goes back to basics with soil – in multiple shades – on canvas, giving it a textured effect.
“One of the discernible observations is the advancement of the medium used by the artists throughout the decades. These days, young artists have become very experimental as their works are not presented solely in 2D. Some of them are keen in using different media to produce textures, reliefs, collage and other effects,” she muses.
The works in The Unreal Deal reflects Battersea project artist Haffendi Anuar’s opinion on abstract art, in that it is open-ended and diverse. He points out that some abstract works could be read figuratively, while some interesting figurative works can be appreciated through a formal abstract language.
“The most common style, gestural abstraction, characterised by expressive brushwork and tactile surfaces, can be seen in almost all commercial galleries in Kuala Lumpur and are favoured among collectors,” says Haffendi.
However, he also points out that these works are different from the modern Western counterpart that originated from the US, made during a politically and socially restless and uncertain period.
“They were then very experimental, challenging and in opposition to the heavy and loaded tradition of ‘easel painting’,” he says.
The Unreal Deal has no sculptures, it is confined to flat surfaces and how the artists, drawing on their skills and imagination, manipulate this to create different effects.
The exhibition title The Unreal Deal, according to Noreen, is an attempt to deviate from the accepted norm and venture into an elusive and paradoxical approach instead, with the “unreal” referencing the way that abstraction takes a deliberate path away from realistic representation.
Indeed, with abstract art unencumbered by the shackles of realism, anything is possible – both on canvas as well as in your mind’s eye.