2023's best arts and culture stories in the Klang Valley


Contemporary artist Yee I-Lann seen at the launch of her new monograph 'Yee I-Lann: the sun will rise in the east together' at Ilham Gallery in July. It was part of the 'Borneo Heart' community arts event and programme in Kuala Lumpur. Photo: The Star/Low Lay Phon

From a host of community-based arts events and exhibitions travelling from Kota Kinabalu, Sabah to Kuala Lumpur at the start of 2023 to a major exhibition on Orientalist paintings at the Islamic Arts Museum Malaysia taking visitors back to ancient routes and times, the arts and culture scene in the Klang Valley definitely hit a solid groove.

Arts venues in KL and Petaling Jaya also proved they could accommodate a diverse array of events and festivals, with Malay opera, Tamil theatre and environmentally-conscious gamelan theatre among the year's highlights.

Here are some of the top arts and cultural stories – from stage to museum – that lit up the Klang Valley this year.

A view of the 'Bakul' exhibits (from left): Tudung Duang, often used to cover food; Reng, a Lundayeh basket for heavy farming items; Buyuung Maatik, a decorative Murut basket used for heavy farming items; and Saging Binatikan, a Murut basket used for carrying everyday items. Photo: The Star/Low Boon Tat A view of the 'Bakul' exhibits (from left): Tudung Duang, often used to cover food; Reng, a Lundayeh basket for heavy farming items; Buyuung Maatik, a decorative Murut basket used for heavy farming items; and Saging Binatikan, a Murut basket used for carrying everyday items. Photo: The Star/Low Boon Tat

'BAKUL' AT THE GODOWN

The Bakul exhibition, presented by The Godown, was an early indication that Sabahan arts and culture was going to make a big impression in Kuala Lumpur at the start of 2023.

The unique exhibition held in January, with a series of talks, workshops and pop-up tamu markets, gave visitors a chance to discover a collection of traditional Sabah baskets from author, collector and curator Jennifer P. Linggi.

Across Sabah, traditional baskets have a long and rich history, with each village having its own unique weaving styles and techniques. It was a chance for the masses to learn about Tadang, Reng, Takiding, Wakid, Barait, Saiyon and other everyday baskets used for domestic activity, farming, hunting, gathering and ritualistic practices.

Apart from the 'bakul' on show at the main exhibition area of The Godown, a selection of photos and items collected from an excursion to Kampung Bakuku in Sabah were also on display as part of the exhibition.

Sabahan Linggi's acclaimed book A Kampung Legacy, the basis for the research on the 'bakul' exhibition, was definitely brought to vibrant life, leaving the masses better-informed about her home state's traditional arts and craft.

A view of Yee I-Lann’s 'Tikar/Meja' exhibition at the Back Room Gallery in Kuala Lumpur. Photo: Back Room Gallery A view of Yee I-Lann’s 'Tikar/Meja' exhibition at the Back Room Gallery in Kuala Lumpur. Photo: Back Room Gallery

'BORNEO HEART' IN KUALA LUMPUR

You needed to block your weekends for this wonderful love letter of an event from Sabah that won over the hearts of art lovers, culture vultures and the general public in the capital.

Borneo Heart in Kuala Lumpur by Yee I-Lann and Collaborators, was a curious and ambitious project to begin with, especially with a host of art venues and galleries such as the Zhongshan building, The Back Room, The Godown, A+ Works of Art, Ilham Gallery and Rumah Lukis roped in – between January and June – to host its many programmes.

Borneo Heart, first held in Kota Kinabalu in May 2021, definitely morphed into a new shape in different sites in Kuala Lumpur, incorporating a series of exhibitions, a programme of workshops and talks, and a tamu for makers, growers, community-builders and storytellers, notably from Sabah and Sarawak.

Borneo Heart, co-organised by RogueArt, began as an exhibition, presenting works by Sabah-based artist Yee made in collaboration with weavers, filmmakers, dancers, other fellow creative producers and friends.

In Kuala Lumpur, it proved its two concepts could travel and bring on the smiles: the tikar (woven mat) as a collective platform for community, storytelling and ritual, and the tamu (weekly market) as a meeting place for the exchange of goods, stories and ideas.

At the Back Room Gallery, there might still be candid conversations about how the small space amazingly managed to fit in 40 tikar (woven mats) for an exhibition, making sure no weaver was left behind.

'Orientalist Paintings: Mirror Or Mirage?' featured over 110 paintings spread across two galleries at the Islamic Arts Museum Malaysia. Photo: The Star/Azlina Abdullah 'Orientalist Paintings: Mirror Or Mirage?' featured over 110 paintings spread across two galleries at the Islamic Arts Museum Malaysia. Photo: The Star/Azlina Abdullah

A JOURNEY TO THE PAST

With over 50,000 visitors walking through the Islamic Arts Museum Malaysia's (IAMM) doors for the blockbuster exhibition Orientalist Paintings: Mirror Or Mirage? (from June to October), you could say that Malaysian art lovers – and tourists – definitely know the real deal when an international standard show opens in the capital.

In Kuala Lumpur, a major art exhibition – with world class exhibits and curation – is a rare occurrence and this recent IAMM exhibition was also its biggest show since the pandemic.

Some exhibits from the Orientalist Paintings: Mirror Or Mirage? show were also shown at the British Museum's Inspired By The East exhibition in London in 2019.

Compared to previous IAMM exhibitions surrounding Orientalism, Orientalist Paintings: Mirror Or Mirage? was larger in scale, both in terms of exhibition space and the number of artworks on display.

It featured over 110 paintings spread across two galleries, and this exhibition offered a more extensive exploration of Orientalist paintings (from the IAMM collection).

The high standards have been set once again by IAMM this year, and the museum's recently launched 25th anniversary exhibitions will be more than ready to welcome the masses.

A scene from the Taiwanese dance performance 'Luna' at KLPac in July. Photo: Derrick Ong & leggoshootA scene from the Taiwanese dance performance 'Luna' at KLPac in July. Photo: Derrick Ong & leggoshoot

THE MAGIC OF 'LUNA'

In July, Taiwan’s acclaimed all-male Bulareyaung Dance Company performed Luna at KLPac for its South-East Asian premiere. Inspired by the haunting melodies sung by the indigenous Bunun tribe of Luluna village, the mesmerising dance begins in almost complete darkness, broken only by the torchlights worn on the dancers’ heads.

Throughout the performance, the Bunun people’s folklore and traditions are seamlessly interwoven with the troupe’s contemporary dance moves, taking the audience on a journey into Taiwan’s mountainous forests and offering a peek into the daily lives of the tribespeople.

Members of the Bulareyaung Dance Company worked with the Luluna Bunun Choir to learn ancient Bunun chants, which are officially recognised as Taiwanese cultural heritage. A particular highlight from the performance was the “exploit-boasting” act, a traditional practice done by the tribe’s hunters to show off their skills.

A view of the 'Seruan Setu – The Secret Gardens Of The Sea' show at KLPac in August. Photo: Rhythm In BronzeA view of the 'Seruan Setu – The Secret Gardens Of The Sea' show at KLPac in August. Photo: Rhythm In Bronze

SEAGRASS AND GAMELAN RHYTHMS

There is an urgent need to see climate change issues addressed more in the performing arts scene here. Contemporary gamelan group Rhythm in Bronze (RiB) pulled off a performance unlike any other in Seruan Setu – The Secret Gardens Of The Sea at KLPac in August, sharing the plight of the endangered seagrass meadows found off the coast of the southern tip of Peninsular Malaysia.

Through a unique combination of music, dance, recorded interviews and presentations by scientific experts, the group, led by RiB artistic/music director Jillian Ooi, highlighted the importance of seagrass meadows, one of the most threatened ecosystems on earth.

It’s not often that you get to learn something about the environment through a gamelan show, but the fact that it was done while remaining entertaining and engaging was a treat in itself, proving the power of art as a means to educate and raise awareness. For example, did you know that seagrass meadows can capture carbon from the atmosphere up to 35 times faster than tropical rainforests?

That was one fact among many that audiences were able to learn during the show.

A scene from the Bahasa Malaysia opera show 'Malam Takdir' at PJPAC. Photo: HandoutA scene from the Bahasa Malaysia opera show 'Malam Takdir' at PJPAC. Photo: Handout

A PASSIONATE NIGHT OF OPERA

How does one evade an inevitable fate? That’s the premise of Johan Othman’s Malam Takdir, a Bahasa Malaysia opera (with English surtitles) based on the classic Indian epic Mahabharata.

It wasn't your regular theatre or opera fare, considering its epic themes and volcanic performances.

Directed by Chee Sek Thim (his final project as a member of Five Arts Centre) and featuring a talented Penang-based cast, the performance – which played in George Town and Petaling Jaya – revolves around a fraught conversation between a blind king and his advisor on the eve of a predestined war that predicts all of his 100 sons will be killed in battle.

In this war of words, the advisor tries to convince the king to stop the war. Despite his knowledge of the tragedy that is said to come, the king allows the battle to proceed, choosing to gamble with destiny in the hope that his sons will triumph nonetheless.

What unfolds is a story of fate and hubris, brought forth through powerful dance movements and stirring a capellas, especially the emotional performance by Hilyati Ramli as the blind king and soul-piercing arias by soprano Tan Jin Yin.

Nirmala Dutt's 'Self Portrait' (1999), an artwork featured at the 'Nirmala Dutt: Statements' exhibition at Ilham Gallery in 2023. Photo: Ilham GalleryNirmala Dutt's 'Self Portrait' (1999), an artwork featured at the 'Nirmala Dutt: Statements' exhibition at Ilham Gallery in 2023. Photo: Ilham Gallery

A VISIONARY MALAYSIAN ARTIST REMEMBERED

Ilham Gallery in Kuala Lumpur paid a heartfelt tribute to late contemporary artist Nirmala Dutt’s (1941-2016) body of work in Nirmala Dutt: Statements, an impactful exhibition that illustrated the artist's compassion for humanity and uncompromising critiques of society.

The fact that the messages found in Nirmala’s artwork can still resonate so strongly today is a mark of her vision and range. From her Kenyataan series, which called out against environmental destruction as a result of indiscriminate development and bore witness to the living conditions of the urban poor, to her works documenting the wars in Vietnam and Bosnia and pointing out the complicity of Western superpowers, Nirmala did not hesitate in cutting to the heart of the matter.

The curatorial team – comprising Rahel Joseph (who is also Ilham Gallery’s director), Beverly Yong, Snow Ng and Ellen Lee – did an excellent job in curating the exhibition to showcase Nirmala’s oeuvre and evolution as an artist through the years. Hopefully many more Malaysians now know of Nirmala and what she stood for.

Teenager Ajay and Amma share an unbreakable bond in 'Amma Chellam' which played at DPAC in August. Photo: Richie Kai XianTeenager Ajay and Amma share an unbreakable bond in 'Amma Chellam' which played at DPAC in August. Photo: Richie Kai Xian

LOVE, FAMILY AND REDEMPTION

Theatre is essentially about telling stories; it's a window into other people's lives, and the multilingual production Amma Chellam which played at DPAC in August was a timely reminder of how the shared human experience can connect deeply with the masses.

The Tamil-English theatre show – by Anomalist Production – had the very personal story of a Malaysian Indian family, written by Arjun Thanaraju and directed by Visshnu Varman. Both are relative newcomers in theatre (from the short play scene) to staging a full-length drama production, but how they delivered a gem in 2023.

Teenager Ajay's story, and his relationship with his mum was central to the story, relating to personal identity, conflict and family situations.

On stage, Amma Chellam touched on profound themes of love, family, and redemption. The show featured an all-Indian cast and portrayed the lives of Malaysian Indians, a rarity in the Malaysian performing arts scene.

A scene from the theatre show 'Fault Lines', which played at PJPac in November. Photo: Handout A scene from the theatre show 'Fault Lines', which played at PJPac in November. Photo: Handout

CONVERSATIONS WE NEED TO HEAR

While the play Fault Lines – 10 years in the making – was entirely set in an apartment in New York, it had everything to do with a Malay family. It explored the complex relationship between mother and daughter the most, even though there was a love story and other things best swept under the rug.

Like most good stories, there were no easy solutions or answers or closure even.

Theatre newcomer Adriana Nordin Manan, who made her debut as playwright, had the alarming effect of turning the play at PJPAC's black box venue against the audience by making them reflect about who we are when we are in another country and how we are expected to live and behave. Hers was a script with a healthy dose of humour and introspection.

Director Ghafir Akbar had a cinematic eye with the use of blocking, sound, music and light and turned this two-hour play into a seamless experience despite the weight of the story.

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