The former American president Lyndon B. Johnson once said: “Art is a nation’s most precious heritage. For it is in our works of art that we reveal to ourselves and to others the inner vision which guides us as a nation. And where there is no vision, the people perish.”
The truth of Johnson’s words can be witnessed first-hand at Negaraku, an exhibition of some of Malaysia’s most significant artists and artworks. The show is currently on at the National Visual Arts Gallery (NVAG) in Kuala Lumpur till September.
“Negaraku is quite a wide term. In the context of this exhibition, we have displayed artworks that we, as Malaysians, can be proud of. We want to showcase the best of Malaysia through art. The objective is to bring people together,” says Ameruddin Ahmad, who is one of the NVAG curators of the exhibition.
“It’s not so much just about Merdeka. If it was, we couldn’t show works from before 1957. We have a wide variety of art, from established names to young artists,” he adds.
Negaraku features 88 works – drawings, sculptures, photographs and installations – from over 70 artists, including Abdul Latiff Mohidin, Syed Ahmad Jamal, Long Thien Shih, Ibrahim Hussein, Joseph Tan, Fatimah Chik, Anthony Lau, Georgette Chen, Redza Piyadasa, Yeoh Jin Leng, Abdullah Ariff, Chuah Thean Teng, Yong Mun Seng, Dzulkifli Buyong and Ismail Zain.
The Negaraku artworks are mostly from the gallery’s collection, while a few works are on loan from private collections.
“We have a very diverse collection. Some of these great and historical Malaysian works need to be introduced to the younger public, while the ones from private collections will definitely be worth an investigation,” says Ameruddin.
This exhibition is also part of Inisiatif Negaraku, a national programme launched in March to promote the 60th anniversary of Merdeka next month.
Every artwork displayed at Negaraku has national significance, reveals Ameruddin, with some commemorating important moments in the timeline of our country’s social history, and others being important milestones in contemporary Malaysian art history.
Early Malaysian works, including Yong Mun Sen’s Conversation (1941) and Abdullah Arif’s Bumi Bahagia Lombong Bijeh Malaya (1960) right to Mohd Hoessein Enas’s Memetik Daun Tembakau Di Kelantan (1962) and Latiff Mohidin’s Pago-Pago (1964) will need no introduction.
If you take a stroll in the gallery, you’d be impressed by the abstracts, textiles and architects, which are a big part of Negaraku.
Beyond the world of canvas, Anthony Lau’s steel sculptures – Rimba, Hasil Laut and Ayam Jantan – and stone/cement work Wild Bull are also pioneering works to savour once again.
A restored wall mural (1971) by Ibrahim Hussein, which was originally displayed at the sports centre of Universiti Malaya, as well as Chuah Thean Teng’s batik classic Malaysian Life (1968), are works which have been discussed by art historians. They await newcomer art enthusiasts.
Contemporary works, including Yee I-Lann’s Through Rose-Coloured Glasses (2002), featuring rescued old studio portraits from a Malacca photo studio, right to Dahlan Sulaiman’s scenes of Kuala Terengganu life (painted on the back of trishaw seat boards) present snapshots of everyday Malaysians.
Gan Chin Lee’s Kedai Kopi Sungai Jarom (2011) is also the sort of small town scene that most urban Malaysians crave for.
One of the exhibition’s main highlights is Yang Teragung (1989), a piece created by acclaimed American artist Robert Rauschenberg. The work, which blends Malaysian state flags and images with Pop Art, was produced during the Rauschenberg Overseas Cultural Interchange (ROCI) in 1985. This was a six-year programme where the artist visited foreign countries, including Malaysia, to promote harmony and be inspired by other cultures.
The most striking piece in the show, however, is the mysterious oil painting of a river scene, originally found on a wall of KL’s Heritage Station Hotel (part of the old Kuala Lumpur railway station). Unsigned and undated, the origins of the painting – donated to NVAG by KTM Berhad – remains a mystery for now. Many, however, believe it to be from the 1920s, and it could possibly be the one of the oldest and largest landscape paintings in the country.
NVAG is currently undertaking the process of research and conservation of the old painting, which can be seen alongside a famous photograph of it, taken by photographer Ismail Hashim, as well as The Great Malaysian Landscape (1972), a painting by Redza Piyadasa done as a response to the enigmatic artwork.
“We hope to get more conclusive findings on this painting before the end of the year,” says Ameruddin.
“The mystery behind that old oil painting is a bonus for viewers at Negaraku. This exhibition, taken as a whole, is an effective visual narrative, which will help Malaysians to appreciate the rich cross-cultural artistic legacy that they have inherited,” he concludes.
Negaraku is on at the National Visual Arts Gallery in Kuala Lumpur till Sept 30. The gallery is open daily, from 10am-6pm. Free admission. Visit www.artgallery.gov.my.