Contemporary Art in Malaysia - a Twenty Year Review

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TWENTY YEARS IN REVIEW: Art in Malaysia, 1989 – 2009
by Shalini Ganendra
A few months back, when searching for ‘ Malaysian Art’ on the internet, a 1989 review by Daniel Collins in the Artweek Newspaper came up. The article discusses an exhibition of Malaysian art, at the Pacific Asia Museum, California, representing 41 artists through a variety of two –dimensional media including painting, drawing, batik and weaving, in 1989.

Collins writes: “ An exhibition of contemporary Malaysian art currently at the Pacific Asia Museum provides a unique opportunity for examining some of the assumptions that inform our understanding of international practice… It is clear from the exhibition that, for Malaysian artists, it is only in the resistance to dominant Western conventions that there is hope for an art that speaks without apology of a general ‘Asian’ or specifically “Malaysian ” cultural identity.”

This content reflects the limited understanding of the past. We are now well aware that Asian artists and art movements do not need to react to ‘Western conventions’ (whatever that means) to assume legitimacy. Asia and its emerging economies have within the last 20 years, ARRIVED.

The thrust of exceptional and notable contemporary art – the world over, is creation of works that through their formation, presentation and/or purpose – captivate, educate and are memorable. Certainly one art market development in the last 20 years is that there is less distinctions between local and international are less, as artists, like all other professionals, participate in globalization and have to distinguish themselves in that mire of competition. Art has become hugely commercial, academic and demanding. Demarcation of high art and merchandising is also blurred.

Our local art world has been busy too – developing ideas, artists, public institutions, collectors and patronage. During the last 20 years, the new location for the National Art Gallery opened, very visibly on Jalan Tun Razak. The Gallery has hosted a number of exhibitions and continues to focus on presenting Malaysian art history through programs and curated shows. “NAG”, as it is familiarly called , has launched a newsletter this year, Senikini, which comments and informs on art happenings. The NAG website is a resource for exhibitions, awards and events.

Galeri Petronas opened in 1993 at the Dayabumi Complex and in 1998 moved to the elegant and hi-tech space in the KLCC. The gallery boasts 2000 sq. meters of sleek, circular space.

The Islamic Arts Museum opened in 1999. Its establishment also marked a significant development for the Malaysian art scene because of its international stature and collection. Though not a venue for Malaysian fine arts per se, the museum has contributed to the perception of Kuala Lumpur as a growing cultural centre.

Both the Islamic Art Museum and the National Art Gallery have strong conservation departments, with the much needed expertise to repair damage from the humidity, poor storage and other tropical delights.

With all these attractions, are these institutions drawing in more visitors? A senior artist comments that despite the existence of stronger art venues, visitor numbers have not increased significantly. This is not entirely true. Local visitors now have more to see in KL, and there appears to be increasing traffic at these institutions for specific purposes.

Note also that, Museum visits are not the only way to learn about local art movements (though this writer maintains such visits are crucial for gaining aesthetic insight into local art in local contexts). By setting up physical presences along with active electronic and hardcopy supports – these institutions are participating in the development of the local art scene in a positive and necessary way.

One way to gauge the impact of exhibitions is to read some entries on the numerous blogs and...
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