Ilham Gallery new show marks legacy of Nirmala Dutt, an overlooked M'sian artist

Nirmala discussing a work 'Great Leap Forward VI - Bakun' from her 'The Making Of An Artist As Social Commentator' exhibition at Valentine Willie Fine Art in Kuala Lumpur in 1998. Ilham Gallery’s new exhibition will shine a light on this artist’s legacy, which Malaysian art history forgot. Photo: Filepic/The Star

Ilham Gallery is celebrating the late Malaysian artist Nirmala Dutt (1941-2016) in an exhibition of her works with Nirmala Dutt: Statements.

The exhibition, which opens on July 18, recognises Nirmala for her influence on the local contemporary art scene and her prominence beyond our borders, as she was one of the few prominent women artists of her generation.

Nirmala Dutt: Statements is also the first major exhibition focusing on a Malaysian woman artist at Ilham Gallery.

While she was loath to have her work viewed through a gendered lens, Nirmala’s works were unapologetically political in nature and known to touch on issues of social injustice, often highlighting the suffering of the most vulnerable groups, such as women and children.

It was said her biggest goal in art was to direct the world’s attention towards the plight of the downtrodden and during her lifetime, she was indeed their champion. Unfortunately, much of her work remains unfamiliar to many today.

The exhibition hopes to explore the resonance and significance of Nirmala’s legacy in local art and it will be the first survey of the artist’s works from across her practice over four decades, spanning documentary photography, painting, silkscreen, collage and public art, according to the exhibition notes.

The title of the exhibition was derived from what Nirmala herself called her first major body of works from 1973 to 1979, comprising text and photo assemblages.

Visitors will go on a journey through the core themes of Nirmala’s pieces in three broad sections.

At the heart of the gallery are works that speak of the personal and the domestic, of her position as “artist” and the perception of “woman”.

A section of the gallery will focus on her works which reveal the human and environmental costs in making Malaysia the nation that it is today, where you will find her series on pollution, the plight of squatters and urban poor, the displacement of communities for development, the stripping of nature and commodification of culture, and the vanity of the nation’s “Great Leap Forward”, spanning the 1970s to 1990s.

Her paintings, made during the 1980s and 1990s, will also be a big part of the exhibition. They show us the sombre truth of global conflicts and racial violence through a number of series that critique geopolitical powers.

Finally, in her last major body of work before her passing in 2016, Nirmala was moved to find expression for the tragedy of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, which saw homes and lives destroyed, but also the immense heights of human compassion that can only be reached in the wake of a disaster.

“We experience not only the powerful charge of an artist’s emotional response but also what it was like to live through a time of overwhelming change and difficulty,” read the exhibition notes.

While the ideas and messages behind her pieces were often triggered by a current event or observation, Nirmala also drew inspiration from fellow Asian artists throughout history, such as Indian painter Jamini Roy and Japanese Zen monk, poet and painter, Sengai Gibon.

If anything, Nirmala would want those who visit the exhibition to come away seeing her as purely an artist, “not necessarily just a woman artist or feminist artist or political artist.”

Nirmala Dutt: Statements at Ilham Gallery will run from July 18-Dec 24.

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