At the recent launch of the inaugural KL Biennale, banners were unfurled and balloons released into the grey sky that rained down upon on all the visitors present. Inside the National Visual Arts Gallery (NVAG), however, were bright colours and eager faces, soaking up the images and stories told by the artwork displayed in this space.

With its theme of Belas (Be Loved), this KL Biennale radiates love, compassion and positivity in spades. Anchored in the five pillars of love for humanity, animals, nature, heritage and spirituality, the main exhibition at the NVAG weaves a feelgood narrative with 114 paintings and installations from local and international artists.

All seven galleries and three outdoor sites in NVAG have been utilised for the KL Biennale, which runs till March next year.

At the launch, Johan Ishak, chairman of the KL Biennale, commented that while many other biennales around the world have themes that are “sensational or out-of-the box”, the decision to go with the concept of love was an unanimous one in this case.

“We wanted this first KL Biennale to carry a positive message and to reflect our culture and values. The artwork selection process was informed by this as well. It is also different from other biennales around the world in that we don’t just focus on contemporary art, but present works from different eras. We think this is more appropriate for a first biennale in the country,” says Johan.

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Ahmad Sanuri Zulkefli’s The Story Of Merah, a mural raising awareness on the subject of cruelty towards animals. Photo: Kuala Lumpur Biennale

There is a mural at NVAG, produced in collaboration with illustrator Ahmad Sanuri Zulkefli, which tells the story of a cat bludgeoned with a helmet by an enraged motorcyclist who lost his temper when he found it stretched out on his seat. It is fortunately a happy ending for the feline though, because a kind soul tended to its wounds and nursed it back to health.

Contemporary artist Saiful Razman comments on the preservation of heritage with his work A Gaze On The Impermanent Object, a series that serves as a tribute to Datuk Syed Ahmad Jamal’s Puncak Purnama public sculpture in KL which was demolished by DBKL last year.

“In July last year, I saw the pile of rubble that used to be Puncak Purnama, now broken, all smashed concrete and crooked metal wires heaped on the pavement resembling a small hill. The debris stayed there for a period of time before it was transferred to a new location. I see destruction every day, but to witness the demolition of Puncak Purnama live was a painful experience. This tragedy should be a reason for awareness and a reminder that it is our duty to protect and preserve our arts and heritage,” he says.

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Saiful Razman’s A Gaze On The Impermanent Object, a stirring work standing up for art and national heritage. The series was inspired by the demolition of Syed Ahmad Jamal’s iconic public sculpture Puncak Purnama in KL last year. Photo: Saiful Razman

A Gaze On The Impermanent Object, presented in sombre black and white, is fashioned out of medical gauze and toilet paper on canvas. These are everyday objects designed to be short-lived and disposable, that Saiful manipulated and reinforced to create a new surface with a modified physical construct.

“This altered construct has these objects defying their (original) function, but retaining their translucent quality. I find that the activity of using impermanent objects in these works is a form of meditation towards the idea of the impermanence of any modern object, including the piece of art itself,” explains Saiful.

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Bangladeshi photographer Shahidul Alam’s Kalpana Warriors (laser-etched straw mats, mixed media, 2015). It a tribute to Kalpana Chakma, an indigenous rights activist and feminist from Bangladesh, who has been missing for more than 20 years. Photo: The Star/M. Azhar Arif

Loving heritage seems to be a big concern at the KL Biennale. Leon Leong Wai Pung’s Cracks In The Wall, a mixed media intallation, also addresses the march of progress and losing a lifetime of memories with the demolition of one of the capital’s iconic modern housing projects – the Razak Mansion.

Elsewhere, Filipino artist Alma “Urduja” Quinto’s House Of Comfort For Tutubi is an offshoot from her 15 years of work with child survivors at Cribs Foundation in Manila.

“Tutubi (Dragonfly) was conceptualised in 2009 after my workshop with bakwits (internally displaced persons) or those caught in armed conflict, who became evacuees in Maguindanao in the Southern Philippines. The dragonfly, like these children, is a symbol of strength, agility, flexibility and vibrancy. It hovers like a helicopter to defend its territory and like the bakwits who were scarred and scared, it migrates to safer ground,” says Alma.

Bibi Chew’s What’s Up? Map Down! The Map Is Upside Down is an overhead, mobile and grounded installation that invites audience participation. Here the silhouettes of the states of Malaysia are elevated and fixed to movable poles, so visitors are not just challenged to view the “land” overhead and identify the states from a new angle, but also rethink their relationship with the land.

“I was rather excited when I heard that Malaysia will stage our own biennale this year and was happy that I was invited to showcase my work. Sadly, unlike other biennales around the world, there was no funding provided to the participating artists. We have many great talents in the country and we must have a proper channel to enable them to showcase their works on an international level,” she says.

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Bibi Chew’s What’s Up? Map Down! The Map Is Upside Down installation, which invites visitors to rethink the nation’s geographical make-up. Photo: The Star/M. Azhar Arif

Besides her Map series, Chew also has her River series on display at the gallery.

“We tend to forget, ignore, or take for granted the riches of the land. Where Have All The Rivers Gone? is the title of this body of work, a tribute to rivers, often a place where civilisation begins,” she says.

Chew explains that collectively, her work aims to invite and draw the viewer into a meditation on what they might have come to expect from nature while now considering alternatives: What if the land or body of water is above us? What if we are able to view the “interior” of the land or water? What if the land or water is lighter than we think? How would these changes in perspective, interaction and experience impact they way we live?

“The rivers serve as the connector for all the states; the map is the separator. It is easy to break things apart, yet it is difficult to mend the rift between,” ponders Chew.

“I am happy to be able to showcase my most current body of work to the public via the biennale as works strongly connected to the ‘love for nature’ theme of the exhibition. It is a dream of mine, as an artist, to be able to promote Malaysian art to the world,” she adds.

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Gallery visitors viewing Denmark-based Amir Zainorin’s multimedia work called Tong Tana, a series about indigenous communities in Malaysia. Photo: Bernama

The KL Biennale is organised by the National Visual Arts Development Board, an agency under the Ministry of Tourism and Culture Malaysia, with its main exhibition at NVAG flanked by numerous supporting events around the city, including exhibitions and international dialogue on contemporary art; outreach and community-based projects; and workshops with artists, academicians and curators.

Activities such as a batik fun walk, busking, a rebab performance by Aswara, and woodcut and masks workshop will be held at the NVAG during the biennale’s run.

Artist and academician Prof Zulkifli Yussof leads the NVAG curatorial team comprising Baktiar Naim, Faizal Sidik and Tan Hui Koon.

Besides Malaysia, the other participating countries include Bangladesh, Cambodia, China, India, Indonesia, Japan, Palestine, The Philippines, Singapore, Sweden and Thailand.

No doubt, the KL Biennale’s main exhibition at the NVAG is a colourful affair indeed. But is its all-encompassing theme of love in all forms and guises a step in the right direction for art to be more inclusive, or will it be dismissed as simply an earnest attempt to not ruffle any feathers?

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The installation entitled Under Construction is covered by black netting at NVAG. This KL Biennale work, which is now in censorship limbo and subject to a police investigation, is a collaboration between Malaysian community art collective Pusat Sekitar Seni and Indonesian art group Population Project.  Photo: The Star/M. Azhar Arif

Is there a need for a large-scale international art event like the KL Biennale to go beyond expounding on love, compassion and positivity?

Some of the participating artists certainly seem to have a lot more to say, especially the Under Construction installation, a collaboration between Malaysian collective Pusat Sekitar Seni and Indonesian group Population Project, which is still shrouded in black netting at NVAG, pending a police investigation. Yet another censorship issue at the NVAG surely isn’t part of the plan to give Malaysia a progressive image.

Perhaps, future editions of the KL Biennale will be bold enough to explicitly tackle a theme less predictable, with more space for surprises and with rose-tinted glasses used only sparingly.


The KL Biennale is on at the National Visual Arts Gallery, Jalan Tun Razak in KL till March. Open daily, 10am to 6pm. Free admission. More info: www.artgallery.gov.my/KLBiennale.