An exhibition of their own

SUCH is the life of women artists: When a National Art Gallery (NAG) representative phoned award-winning artist Bibi Chew in April to commission a work for Holding Up Half the Sky by Women Artists, Chew was about to be wheeled into the delivery ward!  

The exhibition is a chance for younger art lovers to see much admired older works such asWoman, Oh! Woman, The Letter(1994), a portrait of the late Maimoon Din, the first womanto become a ministerial secretary-general, by self-taught senior artist Sylvia Lee Goh.

The baby, coupled with the gallery’s short notice, meant Chew couldn’t submit an artwork for the exhibition. Neither will she be counted among the women honoured with the chance to display their works at this very rare – the first of its kind at the NAG – and therefore historically significant national-level exhibition.  

These and other life-enriching experiences male artists just don’t undergo is a one reason why communities simply cannot do without artworks by womenfolk. A lot of resonating artworks, after all, have come from people who are extra sensitive to the human condition because they themselves have trudged through a lot in life – and a woman’s lot in life has always seemed harder than a man’s. 

However, when it comes to modern Malaysian art, especially at the national and regional levels, women’s voices have been under represented. This imbalance becomes very obvious when you look at the increasing number of younger women artists, especially in the contemporary genre, that simply do not exhibit as much or as often as male artists.  

On that basis, Holding Up Half the Sky by Women Artists is a long-awaited platform for women’s voices in art. Curated by art writer and historian Laura Fan, the exhibition displays 81 works created in the period 1949 to 2005 by 43 artists, some of who are now living abroad. 

Quantity proved to be lacking, though that is understandable for a first-time show here. Having worked from limited records of women artists from before the 1970s, Fan notes in the exhibition essay (an informative read because it’s wrought from 12 books and a multitude of research papers and articles) that “there are women artists of whom very little is known” and admits right from the start that “the exhibition does not set out to document every woman artist”. 

“Indeed, there would be glaring omissions, especially in the contemporary art scene, if that were the case. Instead, the survey is limited to what has been collected by NAG.  

“Even within the collection, there may be several women artists who have been overlooked either because their names were not recognised or (there was ) a lack of documentation. These omissions are regretted and serve as reminders of how much more research needs to be done,” adds Fan, who previously curated a women’s group show for Galeri Petronas entitled Through Our Eyes in 1999-2000, during which she managed to assemble the work of 20 artists. 

Standards should change? 

Because it is the NAG after all – it’s great for an artist’s portfolio to be featured here – everyone wants to get in! So, weeks before the show, younger artists, both female and male, were already grousing over why Fan was limited to what was already in NAG’s permanent collection. They felt that, by default, this would mean a large number of contemporary (younger) artists would be left out.  

To be fair to NAG, it must be said that the gallery has always been ahead of many other arts institutions when it comes to showing (though not buying) cutting-edge work.  

Curator Laura Fan’s effort in putting together this all-women show has also highlighted how the age-old image of mother and child has evolved over the decades:From left: 1960 oil painting, Ibu dan Anak, by the famous Georgette Chen; a 1963, similarly named, Chinese brush painting by Lee Soo Li; and a 2001 mixed mediawire-mesh sculpture called Mother and Childby young artist Sharmiza Abu Hassan.

Furthermore, a senior artist cautions: “Young artists need to earn their place in NAG’s collection through a consistent body of original work. Otherwise, there is no prestige in having one’s work bought by a national gallery.” 

Can young women artists meet this standard?  

Notable artist Susyilawati Sulaiman, 33, doesn’t want to: “If I aim for this, my work, which is about experimentation, may end up stunted. Moreover, it’s hard to get funding for experimental and installation work, and artists today create works differently from before. 

“For example, it takes me at least two years to create a new piece. So, it would take a longer time for me to make it into NAG’s permanent collection. 

“Besides, many of my works are site specific and are not meant to be collected.” 

Many of Susyilawati’s peers are creating more unconventional or controversial art, owing to more opportunities for training and exposure. These works may not be easy to display or collect, thus affecting the artists’ pockets and output. Yet, to ensure the country has a representative sample of works, NAG has to find a way of including and thereby documenting these works that reflect changes in the lives of Malaysian women.  

More space, please! 

At least three senior exhibiting artists brought up another point; they wished NAG had asked them for more recent works because the limited pool doesn’t how they have matured as artists but simply produces a deja vu sight of previous historically-themed shows. I, for one, would like to see how Mastura Abdul Rahman and Shia Yii Ying have moved on since Interior No. 29 (1987) and Homage to the Vanishing World (1996), respectively. 

Space may have been another obstacle here. Visual art by women nowadays are rarely the pretty and contained portraits of yesteryear. So, any national art gallery is going to have a tough time finding space to exhibit a comprehensive number of (themed) works. Perhaps, for the next women’s group exhibition, NAG could think about using two galleries (each floor at NAG has two galleries), divided by eras or themes, such as still lifes or mother-and-child images. 

Room to explore, please! 

Fan doesn’t know of any NAG plans to make this exhibition a regular event. But she agrees that this type of exhibition would encourage women in a way that could be compared to having a “room of one’s own”, to borrow from British feminist-modernist writer Virginia Woolf (1883-1941) who wrote, in her 1929 essay A Room of One’s Own, that a woman could only pursue her artistic goals if she had money, personal liberty and space and time to develop her work. 

“The idea of having a room of one’s own is very problematic in the Asian culture where there are always lots of things happening and people going about in the space of one ‘room’. But, psychologically, it’s important for women artists, as well as their male peers, to have this mental space to pursue what they are feeling and thinking, and all-round support.  

“I know it’s not as easy as it sounds. Any woman who has been a sister, girlfriend, wife, mother or aunt will tell you that they’ve had to control how they express themselves on a daily basis, what more in art. But their freedom to do so is vital for the holistic development of society,” she says. 

  • ‘Holding Up Half the Sky by Women Artists’ is on until July 13 at the National Art Gallery (No. 2, Jalan Temerloh, Off Jalan Tun Razak, Kuala Lumpur). Opening hours are from 10am to 6pm from Tuesday to Sunday. Details: 03-4025 4900.  

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