The faces of helpless squatter family members in the slums of the Kuala Lumpur, the displaced Penan people in Sarawak and the dire consequences of urban poverty and pollution.
They are just some of the uncomfortable truths laid bare in the works featured in the late Nirmala Dutt’s Great Leap Forward exhibition, which opened yesterday at the new Our ArtProjects’ gallery at the Zhongshan Building, off Jalan Kampung Attap in Kuala Lumpur.
The show, bringing together 14 rarely seen works from Nirmala’s estate, focuses mainly on the Penang-born artist’s various Malaysian-centric series.
Nirmala died peacefully in her KL home on Dec 5. She was 75.
“I think, throughout Nirmala’s creative life, she saw the role of the artist as someone who chases whatever inspires them, and makes whatever it inspires them to make. No compromises. Her path – a relentlessly committed one – was to explore the role of the artist as a social commentator, and to direct our attention towards the plight of the downtrodden,” says Snow Ng, one of Our ArtProjects gallery’s directors.
“Her art wasn’t necessarily popular during its time. She was a truth seeker, she was in your face and her work was very direct.”
This exhibition, which Our ArtProjects planned with Nirmala early last year, presents her Malaysian-themed works, mostly from the 1990s.
“There is no grand curatorial brief here. It’s a small sampling from her vast personal archive. We spoke to Nirmala about exhibiting her works, which only had themes closer to home – something which had never been done before,” adds Liza Ho, fellow gallery director.
In Oct 2015, Our ArtProjects, with Fergana Art, curated a show in Penang on Nirmala’s London years.
Our ArtProjects, which now handles Nirmala’s estate, has documented over 200 works from the artist since 2013.
“Initially, she was reluctant to let go (of her art) when we started the documenting. ‘They must go to a good home,’ was something she would often say. In conversation, she recollected everything … the title, the dimensions of the works. She could vividly remember the photos of her friends she put in her works, especially (writer/poet) Adibah Amin, who appears in the Kampung Polo series,” says Ng.
This Great Leap Forward exhibition, spans works from the early 1980s Kampung Polo series right through to 1999’s Bakun series. The pieces from this period have also attained an impact that is hard to ignore. Her strength lies in drawing the viewer into the works through aesthetics rather than sensationalistic values. It was the mood that she created on the canvas that affected rather than their literal meaning.
The Kampung Polo series combines photograpic images of mothers and children with gestural abstration. The plight of the urban poor comes through clearly in these monochromatic works, generating, if we can say, a certain spontanenous power of empathy.
In the early 1990s, Nirmala turned her focus to environmental issues, notably, illegal logging and deforestation in Sarawak. She called this series Membalak Jangan Seberangan, Nanti Ditimpa Balak (Do Not Log Carelessly, Lest Misfortune Befall You), a title inspired by a Malay proverb.
It is interesting to observe how Nirmala arrived at using the red dye in some of these paintings, drawing upon her research into the ikat and pua textiles.
As a second generation Malaysian artist, Nirmala’s artistic career began in the late 1960s in KL. Her formal art education in the 1970s included stints in the United States and Britain, notably art history at Fogg Museum of Art at Harvard University and drawing at Boston College of Art and Cambridge Education Centre in the US.
Later on, she embraced postmodernism through the 1970s as she created pioneering work that tackled difficult and urgent topics, such as global conflict, political injustices, refugee crisis, environmental pollution and women’s issues.
Through painterly collages and silk screens, Nirmala evolved her art, while exploring her social and political themes. Her abstract expressionist landscapes like Landscape (1972) and View From Federal Hill (1972) captured a young artist on the rise, but it was hard-hitting works about environmental issues like Statement I (1973) and Pollution Piece (1974), which marked a watershed in her career.
Nirmala’s legacy, despite being described as “the conscience of her times”, will always be remembered.
“I am an artist first and foremost – not necessarily just a woman artist or feminist artist or political artist,” said Nirmala in an interview in The Making Of An Artist As A Social Commentator exhibition catalogue in 1998.
As for her art itself, it remains to be seen if there will be a revival of interest – considering how significantly vital they still are today.
“The National Visual Arts Gallery (in KL) and the National Gallery Singapore already have a good collection of her works. This Great Leap Forward exhibition is the start for Our ArtProjects to reintroduce Nirmala Dutt, the artist, to a new generation. Some of the works in this show might be over 30 years old, but they still have a contemporary edge,” says Ng.
Indeed, Nirmala was also one of the first Malaysian artists to make use of documentary photography in her work.
“I wanted to retain the objectivity of the subject, something only a camera can achieve. If I had painted it, a part of me would have come into it,” Nirmala once explained in an interview with The Star in 1998.
Her research and storytelling, it can be said, also reflected the diligence and social-consciousness of activist reporting.
“I agonise for a long time over what I want to paint; and I found an old Chinese quotation that best described this phenomena – ‘before you paint it, let the bamboo grow in your heart,” she said in the same interview.
With the support of artist friends like Redza Piyadasa, Ismail Zain and Syed Ahmad Jamal, Nirmala, fondly known as “Nim”, was an artist who never stopped exploring new means of expression. In 1973, she might have shook the art establishment here when she became the first artist to exhibit an installation Statement I at the National Art Gallery in KL. In that exhibition/competition titled Man And His World, Nirmala was a Major Award joint-winner, along with fellow conceptual artist Sulaiman Esa. But she never remained stagnant when it came to creativity and asking questions.
“In art, with experience, hindsight and more exposure, one surely gets much better. In Nim’s case, she was greatly fortified by her studies then in the US and London – like on art history and printmaking,” explains Ooi Kok Chuen, art critic and writer.
“She had been meticulous in doing research, but she had a flair in manipulating media or incorporating intrinsic elements to drive home the message and impact – silkscreens, mengkudu, the mannequin, print media excerpts/cutouts ala pop with flashes of the gestural, actual debris. She could also internalise the pain of oppression, injustice into her art-body-soul in order to externalise and express in ways she thought best.”
Ooi said: “In all she did, there was this operative element of her sharp intelligence.”
Nirmala Dutt: Great Leap Forward is on at Our ArtProjects gallery at the Zhongshan Building, 80, Jalan Rotan, off Jalan Kampung Attap in Kuala Lumpur. Open daily: 11am to 7pm, Sunday by appointment. Closed public holidays. Admission is free. For more info, visit www.ourartprojects.com, or e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.