Ahmad Fuad's censored artworks back up at NAG, artist calls for dialogue on artistic freedom

  • Arts
  • Sunday, 16 Feb 2020

Visitors at NAG viewing Ahmad Fuad's installation 'Mak Bapak Borek, Anak Cucu Cicit Pun Rintik (2016-2018)' on Feb 16. The fibreglass pigs, which were removed on Feb 4 by NAG, have been restored to the art piece. Photo: Courtesy of a reader

The censorship saga and public standoff between the National Art Gallery (NAG) and Malaysian contemporary artist Ahmad Fuad Osman surrounding four artworks that were taken down from his exhibition At The End Of The Day Even Art Is Not Important (1990-2019) finally came to a conclusion earlier today.

The national art institution, in a rare instance of backpedaling, reinstated all four works this morning. The works were taken down on Feb 4, allegedly for being too political and obscene. That decision to censor the works led to a public outcry, with local and international artist communities, collectors and patrons, and the media rallying behind Ahmad Fuad to get his artworks returned to the show.

An official NAG public statement has yet to be made, but a recent posting on NAG's official Facebook page announced: "Ahmad Fuad Osman's works have been reinstated."

Ahmad Fuad confirmed NAG's decision in an open letter to the media yesterday evening.

"On Feb 15, I was informed by phone that Balai (NAG) would reinstate all four artworks. The integrity of the exhibition, which had been compromised, is now restored. This has been my request all along," says Ahmad Fuad, 50.

The four artworks that were removed are an untitled two-part 2002 work featuring “Missing” poster paintings of Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim; an LED panel/UV print on mirror titled Dreaming Of Being A Somebody Afraid Of Being A Nobody (2019); an oil painting, Imitating The Mountain (2004); and an installation work, Mak Bapak Borek, Anak Cucu Cicit Pun Rintik (2016-2018).

Ahmad Fuad met with NAG officials on Feb 13 regarding the fate of his censored works. No outcome was forthcoming from that meeting.

"At the meeting on Feb 13, I also explained at length that the removal of these four artworks had compromised the flow of the exhibition’s narrative. I shared that the (Singapore-based) guest curator, Shabbir Hussain Mustafa, and I had deliberated extensively on the merits of each and every artwork and their placements.

"The exhibition is a series of deliberate juxtapositions between different artworks to amplify the contexts and meanings within each section. I repeated that the artwork list had been vetted and approved by Balai well in advance. Suffice to say, my position remained unchanged: it was either the full reinstatement of all four artworks, or the immediate closure of the exhibition. Balai requested for some time to deliberate on the matter," elaborates Ahmad Fuad.

The fallout of this long-drawn censorship episode is expected to impact NAG's reputation as a public institution. NAG issued Ahmad Fuad a written notice on Jan 21, citing a complaint from a board member about the four works. Throughout the exhibition, which opened last October, no public complaint was received.

"I also renew my call for Balai to initiate public consultations on how transparency and accountability can be enhanced in public art institutions. This is an initiative that has to be inclusive and driven by Malaysian intellectuals for Malaysia while remaining open to points of view presented by our friends and colleagues from overseas. Balai can become a platform for public debates on a range of issues confronting our society and people. I truly believe this is possible if Balai extends an invitation," says Ahmad Fuad.

Apart from reinstating the artworks, NAG is also hosting a artist-curator talk on Feb 21.

Ahmad Fuad is aware of the ferocious responses from the public and the art world throughout this unfortunate saga, but the Kedah-born, Selangor-based artist is also issuing a plea for everyone to keep a dignified front.

"Many discussions have emerged as a result of this censorship, largely on social media. The digital realm is enabling a whole series of debates that are participatory and have mass access. It has become a powerful tool that, if used wisely, can move and unite people towards certain actions and goals confronting humanity today.

"Having said that, I would urge our digital citizens to refrain from name calling and posting inflammatory messages. If we are to ask public institutions for transparency and professionalism in their communications processes, we must hold ourselves to the same standard," says Ahmad Fuad.

The exhibition At The End Of The Day Even Art Is Not Important (1990-2019) is open daily at NAG. It ends on Feb 28. The exhibition is rated PG-13.

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