2019 in review: The Malaysian art scene's 5 most important stories


  • Arts
  • Wednesday, 25 Dec 2019

The 'Leonardo Opera Omnia' digital reproduction exhibition at the National Art Gallery in KL in July attracted nearly 90,000 visitors in a month. No prizes for guessing which was the most photographed work in this Leonard da Vinci show. Photo: Bernama

Can the National Art Gallery keep up the quality in the lead-up to KL Biennale 2020?

Three shows at the National Art Gallery (NAG) this year can probably answer that question. The first: At The End Of The Day Even Art Is Not Important at the National Art Gallery marks a milestone in contemporary artist Ahmad Fuad Osman’s career.

It is an epic – yet thoughtfully structured – mid-career survey exhibition that charts his evolution as an artist, highlighting his iconic works, including paintings, sculptures, installation and video work. You get to revisit Ahmad Fuad’s past chapters, while leaving the gallery, knowing this Malaysian artist has more good years to come. A new standard has been set by this show, curated by Shabbir Hussain Mustafa, a senior curator at the National Gallery Singapore.

The late Ismail Zain’s (Mem) Bayang Maksud Foreboding Purpose exhibition, a new retrospective (the last one was 24 years ago) did a good job in challenging the notion that the artist was just a digital art pioneer. It was a critical reappraisal of Ismail’s body of work (his painterly skills given fresh appreciation) as well as an accessible entry point for newcomers, who now can view the artist as a true Malaysian art innovator.

Looking back is always good, but the Bakat Muda Sezaman 2019 (Young Contemporaries) exhibition gave us a glimpse of where young and restless art is headed in Malaysia Baharu. The curatorial team picked a strong line-up, with 40 works across four galleries at NAG. Samsudin Wahab’s Rambu-Rambu Memori installation, a meditation on personal memory and rural Malaysian life, won this year’s Bakat Muda Sezaman main prize.

The wishlist for 2020? More significant exhibitions from NAG, please.

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Leonardo Opera Omnia crowd madness at the National Art Gallery

A crowded NAG –no selfie room! –happens only once in a lifetime? That was certainly the case when Italian travelling exhibition Leonardo Opera Omnia at NAG attracted nearly 90,000 visitors during its one-month run in July.

Where else can you see 17 of the master’s paintings all in one place? Sure, they weren’t the real deal – the originals are scattered around the world, housed in different museums. But it is as close as you can get to it, with these true-to-size digital reproductions under one roof.

Still, there were detractors who turned their noses up at such an exhibition in a gallery because “it isn’t real art”. But hey, what’s stopping us from enjoying these exhibits simply for what they are: high quality reproductions that offer us a glimpse into a world not many of us would otherwise be privy to.

We hear it’s Raphael’s 500th death anniversary next year. Another reproduction show next?

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The Leonardo Opera Omnia exhibition at NAG.The Leonardo Opera Omnia exhibition at NAG.

A consistent vision at Ilham Gallery in KL

Ilham Gallery has had a solid year, with half a dozen exhibitions checked off its list.

In early 2019, Private Lives, featuring the paintings of the late French-trained Malaysian artist Chia Yu Chian, captured the scenes of his life and the Malaysia of the late 1960s and the following three decades. Chia’s use of rich colours and eye for heartfelt stories from the streets (and hospital bed) left a lasting impression.

The year has seen a lot of exchanges with a regional flavour in this KL art space, including its current exhibitions Domestic Bliss, a Malaysia-Vietnam collaborative project, and the Ilham x SAM Project: The Body Politic And The Body show, which is a collaboration between Ilham and Singapore Art Museum.

The hidden gem of the year, if you were a photography enthusiast, was the Rediscovering Forgotten Thai Masters of Photography show, curated by Thai artist Manit Sriwanichpoom.

Ilham’s public programmes – over 20 this year – also also proved that the masses have time for art talks and after-hours performances. Turner Prize-winning British artist Martin Creed and US-based Taiwanese performance art legend Tehching Hsieh were the big names welcomed to meet Malaysian art enthusiasts at Ilham. Not too bad, indeed.

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Chia Yu Chian's exhibition at Ilham Gallery.Chia Yu Chian's exhibition at Ilham Gallery.

Enter the Ipoh International Art Festival 2019

Ipoh International Art Festival 2019 curators aimed for an artist-forward vision throughout its programme.

Art was the main element of this newly-revived festival in December. The only problem was there was no state art gallery in Ipoh. But the festival’s Climate exhibition had to go ahead and the use of Muzium Darul Ridzuan, a heritage building, was the solution.

The building’s exhibition space was partitioned with pop-up plywood walls (no nails in a heritage space!). Presto, an amazing exhibition took shape, with a “toilet-smashing” performance art piece on climate by Azizan Paiman and the Percha Art Space group.

A total of 33 artists, including regional names, delivered a show filled with pertinent issues surrounding environment, politics, media and technology, identity, and empowerment.

From Sharon Chin’s community-based placard art activist workshop and Saiful Razman’s gauze and paper installation to Cheng Yen Pheng’s paper-based art and Kuching-based collective Aftermath Thinker’s plastic waste statue, there was a diverse array of artworks on parade to outshine the best shows in KL. Yes, Ipoh has woken up. Watch this space.

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A performance art work called 'Si... Tua... Si' by Azizan Paiman and Percha Art Space at Muzium Darul Ridzuan on Nov 30. Photo: Ipoh International Art FestivalA performance art work called 'Si... Tua... Si' by Azizan Paiman and Percha Art Space at Muzium Darul Ridzuan on Nov 30. Photo: Ipoh International Art Festival

If you need to read more about Malaysian art

'Perspectives' concluded the four-volume Narratives In Malaysia Art project.'Perspectives' concluded the four-volume Narratives In Malaysia Art project.In September, Perspectives, a book by South-East Asian art specialist RougeArt, concluded the Narratives In Malaysia Art project. It was the fourth and final volume of this series, which began 10 years ago.

This four-volume series (available in both English and Bahasa Malaysia) represents over 200 voices from different generations and disciplines, conveyed through writing, interviews, forums and surveys.

The ensuing Art That Makes Malaysia book tour also underlined the fact that Malaysians, if given a chance, are more than ready to participate in the nation’s art narrative. Fact: if you want a better-informed young public when it comes to art, publish more books. The new generation is waiting for knowledge.

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