BY OOI KOK CHUEN
COMPLEX, difficult, arrogant ... these were some of the colourful epithets bandied around about Redza Piyadasa at a tribute organised by Raja Ahmad Aminullah on June 2.
Artist, writer, art-historian, academician and curator Piya (as he was popularly known) died of complications from dengue fever on May 7. He was 67.
The panel of speakers at the Majlis Belasungkawa tribute comprised well known names from the arts, including national Arts Laureate Datuk Syed Ahmad Jamal, art historian T.K. Sabapathy, writer Datuk Baha Zain (Baharuddin Zainal), artist-writer Sulaiman Esa, dancer Marion de Cruz, artist-writer Zabas (Zainol Abidin Ahmad Sharif), National Art Gallery board of trustees chairman Wairah Marzuki, collector Phakaruddin Sulaiman and academician Tan Sei Hon.
Eulogies there were, apt to mark out terrains in art and theory that Piya had brilliantly blazed, but it was the more free-wheeling nature of the talk cum discussions that made for a more human picture of Piya, “fulminating ego” (Sabapathy’s description) et al.
The personal anecdotes truly captured the spirit, stature and syncretic nature of Piya, the artist-thinker, provocateur, commentator and chronologist of the creative impulses of the times.
Guest of honour Tan Sri Datuk Seri Ramli Ngah Talib was the one who launched his retrospective in 2001, then as Deputy Transport Minister.
Syed Ahmad and Wairah talked about how Piya had helped with the programmes when they were directors of the National Art Gallery (NAG).
(Piya’s major curatorships were the Nanyang Artists Retrospective in 1978, The Treatment of Local Landscapes in Modern Malaysian Art 1931-81 in 1982, the Ismail Zain Retrospective 1964-91, and Rupa Malaysia at the School of Oriental Art Studies in London in 1998 and then again at the NAG in 2000.)
Piya first gatecrashed into the Malaysian art scene with the New Scene exhibition at Chen Voon Fee’s Galeri 11 in 1969. The others included Choong Kam Kow, Tang Tuck Kan, Tan Teong Kooi and Jolly Koh.
But it was his 1974 conceptual art exhibition, Towards a Mystical Reality, with Sulaiman Esa, that woke up the sedate art scene and got many worked up, leading even to the irreverent poet and essayist Salleh Ben Joned coming up with his own manifesto, Kencing dan Kesenian (The Art of Pissing) complete with the gross reciprocatory gesture of peeing on the original manifesto text.
Piya won the Malaysian Landscape Major Award in 1972 jointly with Lee Kian Seng; the Australian Cultural Award in 1987; Japan Foundation Award in 1992; the Prince Claus Award in 1998; he was artist-in-residence at the Canberra School of Art in 1991; and he was the only non-Japanese on the four-member acquisition board of the Fukuoka Art Museum in 1996 and 1998-99 to name just a few of the awards and instances of recognition he received.
Besides his conceptual art series, Piya is also known for his Malaysian Series, begun in 1982, in which he appropriated heritage photographs of ethnic icons that he painted and collaged over.
One of Piya’s most pivotal works was May 13, an upright coffin made of (acrylic on) plywood and mirror, which was shown at the Manifestasi Dua Seni Satu at the Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka in 1970. It was damaged and the work was reconstructed for his Retrospective in 2001.
The best summation of Piya’s life and times was the crisp “citation” by Sabapathy, widely regarded as Piya’s mentor although he is only two years older.
Sabapathy curated the Piyadasa retrospective (Overview: 1962-2000) in 2001 besides co-authoring, with Piya, Modern Artists of Malaysia (DBP, 1983) and Vision and Ideas: Relooking Modern Malaysian Art.
Piya and Sabapathy, who met when they were both teaching at Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM), formed a formidable academic partnership that became the last word on evaluations of Malaysian art.
But Piya’s earlier collaborator was Sulaiman Esa, whom he met (and whom he shared a flat with) when they both studied at the Hornsey College of Art in London in 1963. The Brinsford-trained Piya was studying sculpture then. (Brinsford, back then, was a Teacher Training College.)
He later studied for his Master of Fine Art at the University of Hawaii in Honolulu in 1975-77, specialising in Asian art history and sculpture.
“We were together for four years. We partied together and went to exhibitions together,” recalled Sulaiman. When they returned, both began teaching at the Mara Institute of Technology (now Universiti Teknologi Mara) – and then came their benchmark, Towards a Mystical Reality.
Sulaiman recalled how the well-read Piya would engage him in “intellectually invigorating but mentally exhausting” discussions. “He saw structure in networks of relationships.”
In many ways, directly or indirectly, Sulaiman claimed he was Piya’s “punching bag, sounding board, second brain, devil’s advocate and even technical assistant” (he confided to having a shadow hand in two of Piya’s works, Tribute to Usman Awang, 1980, and The Great Malaysian Landscape, 1972).
The other intellectual cog in the equation was Ismail Zain.
Sulaiman’s revelation of Piya the flamboyant provocateur who used shock tactics to see what would come of it shed new light into some of the kerfuffles Piya had stirred up.
Zabas dubbed Piya a “cultural suicide bomber” in reference to the latter’s scathing writings in his columns in Business Times from 1992 to 1996 as well as earlier writings in The New Straits Times.
“He liked to stir things up and upset things and assault cultural values.
“But he also didn’t want to change things that much as he wanted to fit in visibly and prominently,” said Zabas.
Piya’s credo was also not to be afraid to question the sacredness of myths and icons.
Baha Zain recalled Piya’s prolific contributions to Dewan Sastera when he was editor in the 1970s and the “sharp, critical arguments, which were often challenging and special” they had. Baha and Piya were actively involved in the Pekan Seni (Arts Village) arts festival in Ipoh staged by Raja Ahmad’s Yayasan Seni Perak.
Marion related humorous incidents involving Piya when she was studying at USM and later, after she had married the late Datuk Krishen Jit.
Filmmaker U-Wei Shaari, from the floor, revealed the romantic-sensitive side of Piya not known to many.
A video interview by Hasnul J. Saidon rounded up the tribute, which was also recorded on video.