Vibrant diversity of 20 Malaysian female artists captured in virtual exhibit


A screen shot of Leong How Yi's 'My Mercedes' (joss paper, resin and white glue, 2019) (left) and Esha Hashim 'Tensegrity Wall/Flower' (wood struts and fabric, 2018) at the 'Nafas' virtual show. Photo: Handout

There is a Mercedes parked inside Balai Seni Maybank in Kuala Lumpur and it is looking a little worse for wear. Well, it isn’t really a Mercedes, but a Perodua Kancil proudly bearing its emblem.

It also isn’t really a car, but a sculpture cast from joss paper and held together by resin and glue.

Leong How Yi’s My Mercedes, modelled after the trusty locally-manufactured Perodua Kancil, is one of the exhibits at RRRAWRRR! 2021: Nafas – Maybank’s Emerging Women Artists Exhibition.

A nod to the joss paper tradition of connecting with ancestors in the afterlife, Leong ponders on status symbols and how its association with class extends beyond the mortal world.

This blend of familiar traditions with the unknown dimensions of life, death and spirituality is echoed to some extent in another exhibit in this show, Sonio Luhong’s Dream II, where she pays homage to Remaung, a humanoid version of a clouded leopard, that Iban warriors revered as their guardian spirit.

This pyrography and acrylic work on plywood is also a stark reminder of the effect of deforestation on wildlife and, one imagines, how modernisation influences rituals and beliefs.

  Nawwar Shukriah Ali’s The Idea Of A Home (3D architectural model, 2021). Photo: HandoutNawwar Shukriah Ali’s The Idea Of A Home (3D architectural model, 2021). Photo: Handout

These are just two of the artworks currently on display at Nafas, the fourth edition of the gallery’s annual women artists art exhibition. It is the first of this series to be presented in a virtual gallery space following the launch of Maybank’s virtual art gallery last year.

With the return of the movement control order (MCO) in the Klang Valley and the temporary closure of many arts and culture spaces, the importance of virtual art shows cannot be underestimated.

The Nafas exhibition features the works of 20 women artists who work in a variety of styles and techniques.

Independent curator Suzy Sulaiman, who is an artist and designer, is keen to showcase artworks that are not usually exhibited in local Malaysian art galleries, in this show.The result is a celebration of different perspectives and an eclectic presentation of contemporary art pieces, as much as it is of emerging women artists and their practices.

“As an artist, I work a lot with installations so I came to know of a lot of women who build stuff. Working on the fringe myself, I have seen a lot of diversity in terms of medium and techniques by women.

“I hope that this show is an eye-opening experience to know that women artists are experimenting with a wide range of materials and their art process is at times like an engineer, researcher, botanist, and so on – and that they mix social agendas in their works. It is stated that it is a women’s show, but I believe it looks like any other contemporary art exhibition because you see artists working with MDF board, laser cutters, metal structures, paper cast, cyanotypes and pyrography," says Suzy.

A filepic of curator Suzy Sulaiman, who revealed that a virtual exhibition was a challenging yet highly rewarding experience to put together in these pandemic days. Photo: The StarA filepic of curator Suzy Sulaiman, who revealed that a virtual exhibition was a challenging yet highly rewarding experience to put together in these pandemic days. Photo: The Star

This is Suzy’s first time curating a virtual exhibition and she shares that it felt like working on a video shoot because of all the pre-production work required.

In the two months or so that she had to pull this show together, she quickly learned the ropes and familiarised herself with the production process of a VR exhibition.

“As a curator, it was critical that I know the production process so that I can select artworks that would maximise the advantages of VR. That is why there is video art, performance art and installations in this show.

“Installations are temporary and they are often located in some public space where not a lot of people will get to go, so I figured that VR would be a great environment to ‘park’ these works here. Video and performance art, because they are time-based, also work well in a VR environment where there’s ‘limitless’ time for the visitor to watch and not be distracted, ” she explains.

For instance, Nawwar Shukriah Ali, also known as Bono Stellar, created a 3D model artwork specifically for this exhibition.

Titled The Idea Of A Home, this imagined “home” is a manifestation of her attempt to build a safe space within her memories. For what is a virtual artwork’s existence if not bound to computer systems and servers?

Nadirah Zakariya’s All Purpose Flower (giclee print using archival grade pigment inks on photo paper, 2020). Photo: HandoutNadirah Zakariya’s All Purpose Flower (giclee print using archival grade pigment inks on photo paper, 2020). Photo: Handout

You can virtually step into her installation to examine it up close.

Two performance pieces by Intan Rafiza make an appearance here too, with At That Time examining self identities and Root Become Ritual tapping into ancestral wisdom. The latter was performed in Vienna, Austria in 2019, where she offered turmeric root – a plant known for its healing properties – to passers-by.

Path of connection

The word “nafas” (breath) is a biological common denominator of all living organisms. As the exhibition title, it carries multiple meanings within the context of this show and the ideas revolving around the connections forged in this virtual space.

It serves as a metaphor to connect the artworks in Nafas.

“Instead of being concerned with an overarching narrative to bind the artworks within this exhibition, I wanted to focus on connecting one artwork to another on a local scale. As I assembled artworks in the virtual gallery, a pattern emerged.

“I was able to discern the fluid territories of the fringe into particular emotive zones. For the purpose of coherence, I have clustered them into three groups: life cycle (or time impermanence), the body (including bodies in transit), and the longing to belong, ” says Suzy.

Eleanor Goroh's 'Fabrication' (print on cotton cloth scrolls and cloth beads, 2018). Photo: HandoutEleanor Goroh's 'Fabrication' (print on cotton cloth scrolls and cloth beads, 2018). Photo: Handout

Among the works in the life cycle category is Lisa Foo’s Metamorphosis, where 36 clay heads, placed on upcycled timber furniture legs, gaze up to the sky.

“The number 36 in numerology symbolises philanthropy, humanitarianism, family, home, idealism, optimism, creativity and self-expression. The multi-coloured heads looking upwards depicts how humankind is always striving for higher ideals and yet in the same manner, are arrogant towards nature, ” says Foo.

If only these heads would look down at the ground and see how there are leaves peeking out from between the bricks.

“This is a durational artwork as the plants will grow, propagate and change the space from a barren brick landscape to a natural green environment. The physical change in this installation will hopefully remind us to mindfully live in harmony with nature, ” she adds.

Another artwork in this category is All Purpose Flower by Nadirah Zakariya, which was conceived and created during the first MCO in May last year as a coping mechanism while she was in isolation during the lockdown.

Her flower arrangements incorporate our “new norms” living items like gloves and masks, as well as items from her pantry. These became a form of self-portrait during quarantine.

A close-up of Lisa Foo's 'Metamorphosis' (modelling clay, timber, soil, bricks and life plant, 2018). Photo: HandoutA close-up of Lisa Foo's 'Metamorphosis' (modelling clay, timber, soil, bricks and life plant, 2018). Photo: Handout

“As the peonies’ colour transformed from vibrant pink to this dusty pastel shade, they also grew bolder and more beautiful each day. Though time seems to be standing still these days, I can feel something is changing within. Just like the peonies, I hope that I too am blooming, ” she wrote on the 59th day of the MCO.

A progressive vision

Despite being a virtual experience, Nafas is a well put together exhibition, driven by two main curatorial questions.

The first question ponders on which curatorial approach would be sympathetic to artists whose practices have been excluded from the mainstream art discourse and rendered invisible by the different power systems within the art galleries.

“Despite vigorous efforts to elevate women artists, their representation in local art institutions and galleries is still lacking. Access to these sites are limited to women perhaps attributed to art history that leans towards the cultural contribution of male artists.

"In their infamous words, the New York-based art collective Guerrilla Girls stated, ‘Less than 5% of the artists in the Modern Art section are women, but 85% of the nudes are female’, ” says Suzy.

Secondly, it raises this point: how can we see something that we have been made blind towards?

Suzy reflects on how this invisibility could be eluded if we reexamine curatorial practices that are accepted as the norm.

Sonia Luhong’s 'Dream II' (pyrography and acrylic on plywood, 2016). Photo: HandoutSonia Luhong’s 'Dream II' (pyrography and acrylic on plywood, 2016). Photo: Handout

“Firstly, there was a conscious blurring of the definition of ‘artist’. A number of artists in this show do not possess formal training in art and come from various educational backgrounds. In place of a formal art training, their tenacity, coherence and consistency of their creative practice became a deciding factor.

"Secondly, it was intended to include fringe art practitioners, identified by their unconventional mediums or non-gallery based artworks. Loosening these definitions allows it to be more inclusive, ” she shares.

In a challenging landscape compounded by the pandemic, she notes that Maybank Foundation is doing its part in ensuring visibility to women artists by organising this show every year.

“However, it’s also important that we don’t lull ourselves into depending on given visibility so that we strengthen ourselves, and one day perhaps, we don’t need to call it a ‘women’s show’ anymore, ” she says.

Lastly, she points out that “nafas baru” is a common phrase in Malay that implies the new and the emerging, surely an apt description of the artists in this exhibition as a breath of fresh air.

View the Nafas exhibition here.

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