What is Malaysian art today? That’s a big question that is still waiting to be answered. Is it in the hands of 30 elite collectors? Do we have to endure more identikit figurative art group shows? Or is the industry ready to be tipped over with more edgy street artists?

In the last 12 months, there have been countless solo shows and group exhibitions … but how many stayed in the memory once you walked out the gallery door?

Maybe Samsudin Wahab’s open-studio exhibition in Penang – which featured smells of a mangrove swamp and loads of mud – will be a new standard in creating Biennale-worthy shows in a gallery. We’ll wait and see what the commercial galleries have planned next in 2016.

Elsewhere, the arrival of Ilham gallery in Kuala Lumpur has definitely sparked renewed interest in a properly-run public gallery, while the National Visual Arts Gallery, despite its plodding image, might continue to surprise us with a handful of curators willing to push the envelope.

Here are five art highlights (in no particular order) from 2015:

Recent Acquisitions, National Visual Arts Gallery, Kuala Lumpur

Unlike most public institutions, the National Visual Arts Gallery’s (NVAG) annual report cards are vastly more entertaining. This year it was mainly thanks to the suprisingly bold and adventurous Recent Acquisitions exhibition. Not only did lead curator Baktiar Naim have 471 pieces (collected between 2012 and 2014) to play with, he had the moxie to shake up things, while also capturing the state of politics and society.

Only NVAG could have come up with such a broad-ranging package of surprises. No shortage of satire, symbolism and allegory on the cards.

Juhari Said’s jab at politicians right to Samsudin Wahab’s raw mixed media work did set the spiky tone. Yee I-Lann’s Kedai Commemorate installation, which touches on the country’s founding political ideology in 1963, and Bibi Chew’s Fragile – Handle With Care installation, which addresses race, nation and identity, were interactive and thought-provoking additions.

Kamal Sabran and Goh Lee Kwang’s audio visual theatre room, if anything, proved that experimental currents have not been ignored. Elsewhere, there was a chronological mini exhibit dedicated to globe-trotting artist Roslisham Ismail, better known as Ise, which collected archival material – including concept sketches, drawings, a video and a fridge – from his 18-year career. Adding to Recent Acquisitions’ appeal for multiple viewings was the NVAG’s decision to run this exhibition for the duration of the year. – Qishin Tariq

A reconstruction of a section of the late Ismail Hashim's darkroom at Unpack-Repack: Archiving & Staging Ismail Hashim (1940-2013) at the National Visual Arts Gallery.

A reconstruction of a section of the late Ismail Hashim’s darkroom at Unpack-Repack: Archiving & Staging Ismail Hashim (1940-2013) at the National Visual Arts Gallery.

Unpack Repack 2015: Archiving And Restaging Ismail Hashim (1940-2013), National Visual Arts Gallery

If ever there was a game-changing exhibition between a commercial gallery (Fergana Art) and an institution, it had to be this Ismail Hashim retrospective that opened in February at NVAG. This was a show that just kept on giving, with many repeat visitors and newcomers heading through the door to rediscover this late photographer’s work.

Over 7,000 visitors (from February to June) walked through this well presented and curated gallery experience, featuring a voluminous haul of Ismail’s beloved works, rare discoveries, a reconstructed studio, his personal archives, cameras, documents and more. On the subject of recontexualising his legacy, two books were produced to celebrate Ismail’s photography as a valid art form in and of itself.

The takeaway, you ask? Loads of smiles. Here was an enjoyable – sometimes quirky – show that would have made Ismail grin from ear to ear. – Daryl Goh

Justin Lim's Modern Absurdity and the Superficial Abyss might be a departure from his earlier works in terms of colour, but he retains his vocabulary of images and symbolism. In background: S.O.S, oil, acrylic, enamel paint and steel razorblades on canvas, each panel is 90x70cm. Photo: The Star/Low Boon Tat

Justin Lim’s Modern Absurdity and the Superficial Abyss might be a departure from his earlier works in terms of colour, but he retains his vocabulary of images and symbolism. Photo: The Star/Low Boon Tat

Justin Lim’s Modern Absurdity And The Superficial Abyss

You can’t really talk about colour when you talk about Justin Lim’s works this year, at least not in the conventional sense. At Richard Koh Fine Art and the most recent Art Expo in Kuala Lumpur, Lim’s works turned heads and stopped people in their tracks. Generous in dimensions and predominantly crafted in oil and acrylic, these Modern Absurdity And The Superficial Abyss works were (almost) all black.

“It is the colour where everything culminates and transcends,” he says, when asked about his colour choice.

Just as well that it sounds suitably all-encompassing – for viewers very enthusiastically started seeing objects and subjects that were not necessarily what Lim had in mind when painting them.

Art, right? There is no wrong or right. – Rouwen Lin

Duadoa by Dr Sharmiza Abu Hassan and Bibi Chew

To be a mother and to be a mentor: these are two of the greatest roles a woman can hold. These roles were both explored in Duadoa: Eternal Duties, which showed at KL’s HOM Art Trans gallery in September. The exhibition, which exuded positive energy, marked a return to the art world for Bibi Chew and Dr Sharmiza Abu Hassan, two prominent artists who briefly stopped exhibiting to focus on motherhood and their careers.

Complex, perplexing and insightful, Duodoa, featured many eye-catching exhibits. For instance, old coffee strainers turned into wigs in Chew’s Itu Malaysia, which examined the root idea of shared culture and belonging. Dr Sharmiza’s Bridging spun an ancient myth into an allegory for her time spent abroad. Despite exploring disparate themes, however, both artists’ works blended into a cohesive and engaging collection. – Terence Toh

Dr Sharmiza Abu Hassan (left) and Bibi Chew with some of their new artworks on display at Eternal Duties: Duoa, a joint exhibition at Hom Art Trans in Kuala Lumpur. On the left is Country Of Mind, which is Sharmiza’s biggest work to date, while Chew is standing beside one of her Itu Malaysia: O, Kosong, Cam, Kaw Kaw, Biasa, Kurang wigs. Photo: The Star: M. Azhar Arif

Dr Sharmiza Abu Hassan (left) and Bibi Chew with some of their new artworks on display at Eternal Duties: Duoa, a joint exhibition at Hom Art Trans in Kuala Lumpur. On the left is Country Of Mind, which is Sharmiza’s biggest work to date, while Chew is standing beside one of her Itu Malaysia: O, Kosong, Cam, Kaw Kaw, Biasa, Kurang wigs. Photo: The Star: M. Azhar Arif

Picturing The Nation, Ilham gallery, Kuala Lumpur

Was NVAG’s Jelitawan portrait show earlier this year actually a teaser or trailer for the opening of Ilham gallery? Inside jokes aside, Ilham gallery, which opened in August, proved its worth as a serious-minded yet accessible public gallery in the capital with its Picturing The Nation exhibition. This new player in the homegrown art scene started with an inaugural show that focused on nationhood.

Picturing The Nation centred on works from the estate of legendary portrait painter Datuk Hoessein Enas (1924-1995), while a group exhibition featuring artists Yee I-Lann, Ahmad Zakii Anwar, Dain Iskandar Said and Vincent Leong ignited discussions on modern Malaysia. Public programmes have been a major part of Ilham’s mission, with 15 talks and performances (from people like Datuk Lat, Jo Kukathas, Saidah Rastam, etc) ticked off in four months.

Not to forget Ilham’s busy educational outreach programme for schools, which has nurtured new interest in art for a new generation of enthusiasts. An epic batik show is being planned in February. File Ilham under “watch this space”. – Daryl Goh

Ilham gallery, which opened its doors in August, is Kuala Lumpur’s newest public gallery space. Photo: The Star

Ilham gallery, which opened its doors in August, is Kuala Lumpur’s newest public gallery space. Photo: The Star