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Tukar Ganti pronounces a shift in recent approaches to painting in Malaysia and provides an overview of this development in the works of eight local artists. The title of the show playfully suggests, in the Malay language, the notion of change and replacement. While it broadly hints at the political ‘wave’ that has beset the country in recent times, the exhibition focuses on the development and extension of painterly forms, hitherto sidelined in the local painting scene, by a new generation of artists that have expanded their vocabulary of painting.
If Malaysian paintings, since the late Eighties, are marked by a return to figuration, artists in more recent times have increasingly looked beyond the confines of the Malaysian subject. Instead they have turned to explore the medium on a more experimental level, finding new forms that can embody and respond to the significant turns in the country’s pattern of thinking, particularly in areas of culture, aesthetics, and social history.

Situating the shift

The context and history of this shift require further explanation. As a dominant approach to painting the last decade of the Twentieth century, as well as an important narrative in Malaysian art history) in, the reemergence of the figure came after its near obsolescence in the preceding three decades. ‘Modern art’ in Malaysia could be said to begin in the late Fifties with a loose group of abstract painters returning from art schools overseas. These artists have thus advocated various forms of abstraction as characteristic (both on stylistic and subjective grounds) of ‘Modernity’.1

The turn towards the figurative in the Nineties was not always an attempt at forging a coherent and idealised vision of a local identity, as propagated by the Angkatan Pelukis Semenanjung (APS) half a century ago.2 Rather, this contemporary endeavour was at times informed by a range of post-modernist impulses to engage with art as a form of social critique or commentary.

Art under the rubric of post-modernism was also post-medium. What this means is that formalist attentiveness towards medium-specificity was dismissed as ‘art for art’s sake’. In Malaysia, artists by then were looking beyond the restrictive formalism that has characterised abstraction since its institutionalisation in the late sixties. Subsequent development in local abstraction eventually led to the development of a dominant form of Malay-Islamic aesthetic in the Eighties, which viewed the figurative image as unorthodox. This has driven artists (both Malays and non-Malays) to rebel against the orthodoxy of an increasingly repressive, rigid and formulaic approach to painting.

On the contrary, artists working in the expanded field of contemporary art create practices that are often interdisciplinary in nature.3 They are often unafraid of working across a range of mediums, using them as tools and means towards a socially aware end. Painting, in this sense, even when it becomes the primary medium or the only medium in which the artist works with, is seen as expedient to a greater social project rather than a medium with its own set of knowledge models that can be hermetically explored.

Art, in this instance, is employed as a platform on which issues of identity as well as the confluence and conflicts that attend the demarcations of subjectivities along racial lines are expressed.4 In Malaysian painting, the presence of the figure becomes a cipher for a recognisable and categorisable body, upon which questions of culture and history can be fore-grounded through the artist’s ability to forge an aesthetic sensibility that could either convey its anxiety or celebrate its beauty. This ranges from the post-colonial deconstruction operating in the early Gauguin-esque paintings by Wong Hoy Cheong to Kok Yew Puah’s development of an aesthetic of multiculturalism. At times, figuration in painting also serves to evoke or reassert racial identities, often through mythical or communal narratives, such as those of Bayu Utomo or Anurendra Jegadeva.

Moreover, choosing to paint figures can be viewed as a politically motivated choice. For many Malay artists, it was a rebellion against the Islamic abstraction that came to represent a hegemonic form of modernism, propagated largely by the ITM art schools in the Eighties.5 On the other hand, non-Malay artists found in figuration, a visually powerful means to narrate their cultural alterity, drawing upon specific socio-cultural experiences to underline the complexity of living in a multicultural society.6

Nevertheless, often artists who paint social subjects fail to realise the level of aestheticisation that their politics and beliefs undergo, through which personal convictions are enhanced and ennobled through art. They use art as an expressive model for polemical ideas rather than exploring the possibility of mobilizing the political within the structural and formal properties of a given medium. This, in turn, limits painting or any other artistic medium, as relevant or useful only if it is contingent upon a social subject.

New Malaysian Paintings

It seems that after almost a decade and a half that figuration became the dominant form of painting - serving a particular critical discourse on Malaysian subjectivity - a particular shift in recent times have seen Malaysian artists approach painting from more complex trajectories.

Characterising this shift is a greater concern, amongst the eight artists featured here, with the formal properties of painting. The re-inscription and development of the vast repertoire of modernist and traditional painterly devices and genres (such as mural painting, vanitas painting, the grid, colour field, readymade, pop material, collage, etc.) furthermore evince conscious attempts at deploying the historical structures and languages of painting to open up new ways of describing local experiences and histories.

This return does not signify a regression towards institutionalised formalism. Instead, it can be read as a method of rethinking formalism as a complex body of theoretical models that allows us to expand upon what we understand of painting as well as employ these models to create more sophisticated modes of expressing or responding to our experiences.

Collectively they present a plural approach to painting, with each artist choosing painting as a way of retrieving a personal reflecting space. Viewed in this light, the paintings in this exhibition can be broadly interpreted by dividing them into three different categories.

Extending the Figurative

Closest in form to the figurative paintings of the previous decade are the works of Hamir Soib, Yau Bee Ling and Khairul Azmir Shoib (also known as Meme). Although the figure remains a prominent feature in their art, figuration extends beyond the confines of articulating the discourses of local identities.

In Hamir’s monumental painting entitled ‘Pura-Pura’ (‘Pretending’), which is a play on the Malay word kura-kura (tortoise), depicts a frontal portrait of a tortoise rearing its head out from its shell.

The work, redolent with Hamir’s subtle yet biting trademark satire, alludes to the political retardation and pretensions of the country’s leadership. More importantly, Hamir utilises his experiences and skills as a set designer for theatre productions in his painting by working with such scale, allowing viewers to examine the surface effect and the plastic, or form giving, potential of bitumen as a medium.

Similarly, the portraits of Yau Bee Ling are studies of generic forms made from swaths of paint orchestrated to tease out a bare minimum feature. At once authoritatively imposing yet threatening to dissolve into pure painterly strokes, her works exist in a paradox that articulates an unresolved formal anxiety as well as a subject that is either surfacing or submerging into the materiality of her paint.

In a different approach, Meme’s references to Tim Burton-esque characters draw on the comically macabre. He laces his pictorial field with lyrics from alternative rock artistes, turning familiar locale into an fantastical setting of a surreal narrative, such as in ‘Ramadhan – a.k.a. Green Miles’. This phantasmagorical universe, where local tradition seemingly colludes with a world of alternative culture, ruptures stability and performs an acerbic critique of the hard-lined beliefs in pure cultural forms and subjects.

Everyday Spaces and Objects

The absence of the figure in the paintings of Phuan Thai Meng and Gan Siong King invite us to reconsider the spatial matrix, which it inhabits. These are often quotidian spaces or everyday objects that we seldom acknowledge.

Gan often projects the everyday in his still life. In ‘Cold.Gold.Sold a.k.a. Plastic Representation of Something Achieved’, he reconsiders these plastic trophies as objects of sentimental worth, symbolising the aspirational values of the middle class Malaysian. ‘Vanitas’ plays with the genre of still life from objects that collectively suggest a children’s birthday party. However, this sense of youthful optimism is undercut by a moral predicate through the framing of the pictorial arrangement within the traditional genre of vanitas paintings, which serve to admonish its viewers of their mortality.

On the contrary, Thai Meng’s paintings take after the scale and composition of a mural. In this fashion, their narratives possess distinct qualities of mural paintings, which are ethical, instructive and exhortative.

In ‘Fragment of Development – Behind the Light of Glory’, a group of children, painted disproportionately larger, direct our attention to the occluded history of the site of a former school, excavated from beneath one of Malaysia’s glitziest mall, Pavilion, which forms the backdrop of the painting.

A pendant work, ‘Fragment of Development – Mr. E. Bulldozer and Ms. Bbgs’, charts the plan of the demolished school, which is threaded on the surface of a painted excavation tractor. Articulating the collision of interests as the cost of development, Thai Meng also underscores the fragility of its historical space (through the use of thread) and memory, as well as the values they represent, against the onslaught of a faceless mechanical force.

New Malaysian Non-Objectives

Perhaps, some of the most challenging works in this exhibition come from the new non-objective painters. Their paintings neither evince an allegiance to the Hard Edge styles of painting, which has a local antecedent in the 1969 New Scene exhibition, nor do they subscribe to the expressionistic ideals of the pioneering group of modern Malaysia painters in the Sixties.

Instead the works exist between these two competing approach towards non-representation. Unlike minimalism or the Hard Edge styles, artists in this show do not completely erase the authorial hand or demonstrate an analytical determinism completely devoid of lyricism. Furthermore, unlike abstract expressionism, they do not subscribe to the language of an autographic gesture as an unmediated register of the artist’s psychic/emotional state.

Saiful Razman’s paint-rolled stripes, alternating in bands of red and white, are developed from his previous series, Pelan-pelan. This body of work came from observing the stain and grime left on the gallery wall after exhibitions were closed, when the walls needed repainting to return the space to a former state of working order.

In Razman’s paintings, this effect of staining illustrates the operation of entropy at hand. This collapse of a system or order is not merely suggested in his works, but also imprinted and performed on the canvas. In ‘Lintang’, just as its bands of red and white signify Malaysia by way of its allusion to the national flag, Razman also declares that the nation is a stained and strained construct that is on the verge of disintegration.

Signs of disintegration as well as dissolution are also apparent in Choy Chun Wei’s ‘Collapsing I’ and ‘Collapsing II’. His paintings could be read as a collage or construction in which disparate elements of paint, shreds of advertisements are cohered into a singular visual whole. But the pictorial logic is a paradox – inchoate, yet maintaining a semblance to order, fragile yet solidly frontal, achieving an all over effect although it is also raw and fluid. As such, the works project optical noise as an invasive field that erases all distinctions into a leveling field that is both borderless and infective.

Liew Kwai Fei’s three paneled vertical painting, ‘A Day (With White)’ towers above the viewer with its soft rainbow hues. While its lyricism often brings to mind the colour field paintings of Mark Rothko as well as Agnes Martin’s colour bands from mid-seventies, its flatness insist that its surface luminosity is the qualitative result of mixing the original paint colour with white, resisting convenient references to the sublime.

More interestingly, in both of his ‘Pandora Box’-es, seven colours of paint - again representing the hues of the rainbow - are literally deposited into different hand-painted colour-coded compartments in readymade pharmaceutical cases. Kwai Fei then defies the logic of the colour system, which he has devised on the readymade by placing the paints into colour compartments that are different in value. He notes, ‘Only the green paint matches the green compartment, signifying hope.’ This deliberate disorganisation is however an economical illustration of the subversion of colour theories as well as the readymade, through which materiality of paint reclaims its own space and value by defying the colour-coded logic already inscribed on a product.

Painting as Painting

This survey of new Malaysian paintings evinces a broader trend in current artistic approach towards the exploration of painting’s formal and visual structures. Moreover, the artists in this show display an appreciation of the visual and textual complexity of image making.

In many sense, the show hopes to suggest, in its small way, that artists in Malaysia have returned to painting as painting. Such explorations are less yoked to social discourses that bind and restrict the formal range and potentials in painting, permitting artists to revisit or invent new painterly strategies that could complicate, develop and enhance our visual languages and codes as well as to create reflexive and reflective spaces that consider polysemy, fissure and ambiguity.

This reconsideration of the medium can then strengthen the way the visual language is used and explored; to propose new ways of coming to terms with (and thinking about) aesthetic and culture.


1 See Jolly Koh, ‘Some Misconceptions in Art Writing in Malaysia’ in Jolly Koh Solo Exhibition, XOAS gallery, Kuala Lumpur, 2006; and also in SentAp! Magazine, issue no. 5, November 2006. Also see Redza Piyadasa, ‘On Origins and Beginnings’ in Vision and Idea: Relooking Modern Malaysian Art, National Art Gallery, Kuala Lumpur, 1994, pp. 15 – 48. The beginning of modern art in Malaysia is a disputed subject. The question revolves around whether painters who painted Western-style naturalistic paintings were considered modern. Redza Piyadasa and T. K. Sabapathy favoured their inclusion into the canon. However, I am inclined to agree with Dr. Koh that they cannot be considered as modern artists but artists who produced ‘Western style’ paintings.

2 T. K. Sabapathy, ‘Introduction’ in Modern Artists in Malaysia, Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka, Kuala Lumpur, 1983, p. 12. The APS was an artist group led by Hossein Enas in the fifties, which championed naturalistic representation as a means to seek an idealised beauty in local subjects. Some contemporary artists still work in this vein, such as Kow Leong Kiang’s depictions of East Coast beauties.

3 See Michelle Antoinette, ‘Different Visions: Contemporary Malaysian Art & Exhibition in the 1990s and Beyond’ in Art & Social Change: Contemporary Art in Asia and the Pacific, Caroline Turner (ed.), Pandanus Book, Canberra, 2003.

4 June Yap, ‘Matahati – For Your Pleasure’ in Matahati, Galeri Petronas, Kuala Lumpur, 2008, p. 18. “ Works produced in this vein were more concerned with the context that produced or contributed to the subject on hand, raising a ‘specific, historical, cultural or personal agenda’, which exemplified the ‘Malaysian situation’ in that it arose ‘organically’ from local conditions.”

5 See ‘New Art New Voices: Krishen Jit talks to Wong Hoy Cheong on Contemporary Malaysian Art’ in What About Converging Extremes, Galeriwan, Kuala Lumpur, 1993. Wong Hoy Cheong notes that Malay artists who turned to figurative painting “are not against Islam as much as they are against the non-orthodoxy of the figure”; ITM, now known as UiTM, is an educational institution that is open to Bumiputras (Malays and other indigenous races of Malaysia) only. It was thus an environment conducive for the Islamisation of Malay culture in the eighties.

6 See Redza Piyadasa, ‘Discovering Identities’ in Rupa Malaysia: A Decade of Art 1987-1997, National Art Gallery, Kuala Lumpur, 1998, p. 36. Also see Michelle Antoinette, ‘Different Visions: Contemporary Malaysian Art & Exhibition in the 1990s and Beyond’ in Art & Social Change: Contemporary Art in Asia and the Pacific, Caroline Turner (ed.), Pandanus Book, Canberra, 2003.