IT was a tragic day for all art lovers and practitioners when Kuala Lumpur City Hall (DBKL) demolished the sculpture Puncak Purnama by Seniman Negara (national art laureate) Datuk Syed Ahmad Jamal.
This senseless and inane action by DBKL is tantamount to desecrating the memory of a Malaysian art icon.
Syed Ahmad Jamal is not just an artist but also a philosopher, art administrator and activist, and profound writer thinker and critic. His artistic prowess extends into the realm of theatrical presentations by way of set designs for Tok Perak, Alang Rentak Seribu and other plays by Syed Alwi, another national laureate and artiste.
Syed Ahmad Jamal’ writings, paintings and sculpture feature prominently in the art history and appreciation curriculum of our universities. This is the artist who inspired a generation of scholars, teachers and art practitioners.
With his contemporaries, Ismail Zain, Redza Piyadasa, Mazli Matsom, Idris Salam, Ismail Hashim, Eric Perez, Leong Thien Shih, Chung Kan Kow, Latif Mohideen, Krishen Jit and Sulaiman Isa, he created such a vibrant art scene that challenged
both the lay and informed public through their art works to experience a different dimension of existence beyond the mundane of reality. Therefore, demolishing his seminal sculpture is an atrocity at best, a criminal act at worst. It is a mutilation of not only the physical work but also the soul of the artist, and it is an affront and insult to Malaysia’s art community.
It is an act of blasphemy that could be likened to the destruction by the Taliban of the statues of Buddha in Bamiya, Afghanistan in March 2001.
What manner of bureaucrat sanctioned this atrocious act? It is obvious that the perpetrators do not have the slightest inkling of the importance of art works as non-verbal expressions that not only record the phenomena of existence for posterity but challenges the perception of existence itself as well.
For all intents and purposes, these bureaucrats seem to be merely focused on material gains and have scant knowledge of the visual and performing arts as the pride and heritage of the nation.
There is, therefore, a need to educate these bureaucrats on the importance of the arts in town and country planning, not only as architectural monuments but also as an economic product with turnover and multiplier effects.
At the same time, this situation begs a question of the role of the National Arts Gallery and the Department of Heritage and the Cultural Department (JKKN) of the Culture, Arts and Tourism Ministry.
Have they been derelict in discharging their duties as the custodian of arts/heritage by way of preservation, conservation and transformation?
One gets the impression that their responsibility is to house art works (National Art Gallery), undertake event management (Cultural Department JKKN), and to identify works with heritage value.
They have missed the most important aspect of their tasks which is to educate and reeducate the public, especially students and administrative officers, to appreciate the importance of the arts in our lives in both the physical and intellectual environments.
At the same time, our education system is also liable to this lack of knowledge of the arts. Art subjects in schools and universities are relegated to the lowest possible priority as emphasis is on science and technology. As a result, our graduates who later become administrators, bureaucrats and politicians do not have the slightest inkling of the role and function of both visual and performing arts in the architectonic structure of our lives. The demolition of Syed Ahmad Jamal’s Puncak Purnama is the consequence of abject ignorance in art appreciation and creation.
The arts community mourns the demise of both the physical structure and the desecration of the memory of Syed Ahmad Jamal as well as the official attitude of affront and indifference to the intrinsic moral, religious and ethical values of art.
MOHAMED GHOUSE NASURUDDIN
Universiti Sains Malaysia
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