It was revolutionary in its own way, this new wave of modern art in Malaysia that was a stark departure from realism as we knew it. No snapshots of people going about their day, flowers in a vase, or a basket of fruits on a checkered table cloth.
It was in the 1950s and 1960s that modern art started to take hold here, with names like Anthony Lau, Cheong Laitong, Ibrahim Hussein, Jolly Koh, Latiff Mohidin, Syed Ahmad Jamal and Yeoh Jin Leng bringing with them fresh ideas and perspectives after returning from abroad.
Recognised today as pioneers of modern art in Malaysia, they created ripples in the local art scene then.
In 1967, they participated in Gerak Rupa Ubur Penyataan (Grup), a seminal exhibition that was held at KL’s AIA Building on Jalan Ampang, a 30-storey corporate high-rise that was completed two years prior.
“The building marked the beginning of new architectural developments that would forever change KL’s skyline. In a sense, the formal innovations in modern painting were commensurate with the urban developments that were occurring in KL in the 1960s. The Grup exhibition was an effort to announce to the KL art scene that modern art was here to stay. No other exhibition, to our knowledge, made such a strident claim,” says Simon Soon, an art researcher and historian.
This year marks the 50th anniversary of the original Grup show. For a blast to the past, swing by Ilham Gallery in KL for Gerak Rupa Ubur Penyataan (Grup) 1957-1973, an exhibition curated by Soon and Ilham Gallery director Rahel Joseph.
“These seven artists were the first generation of modernists, and the exhibition was an iconic one in Malaysian art history. But Simon and I wanted to look beyond that and use the Grup show as a way of telling a larger story of the 1960s, a particularly important period in Malaysian art history, and to examine the conditions that allowed for modern art to emerge in Malaysia,” says Joseph.
She explains that an important factor in the story is the development of KL, which was undergoing significant changes by the time the 1960s rolled around. Modern buildings were being erected and institutions were being built that enabled the growth and expansion of art and culture.
The National Visual Arts Gallery (NVAG), established in 1958, organised travelling exhibitions of Malaysian art to other parts of the world.
“Private galleries and art schools were established, including the Teachers Training College in Cheras, which trained a generation of art teachers and shaped the art curriculum in schools in Malaysia. Grup artists such as Syed Ahmad Jamal, Jolly Koh, Yeoh Jin Leong and Anthony Lau played a very important role in the teaching of art,” says Joseph.
Grup at Ilham, therefore, aims to give audiences a sense of the larger cultural system and art institutions in the 1960s.
“We wanted to highlight the arts infrastructure – art spaces, art groups, art schools, art institutions, patronage – that developed in the 1960s and facilitated the growth of modern art in Malaysia,” she adds.
The show presents 75 representative works from these artists, with a special section in the exhibition featuring models of modernist buildings such as the National Mosque and the Parliament building. The building models are on loan from Pertubuhan Arkitek Malaysia (PAM), while the artworks are on loan from institutional collections like the NVAG and universities, as well as private collections.
Many of these works have not been viewed publicly for many years.
“Very often we don’t talk very much about art infrastructure, but these are the nuts and bolts that give shape and meaning to a scene. The exhibition does try to give context to why modern art is given so much attention, mainly because there was also a growth in arts infrastructure in KL that helped cement modern art’s importance and place within Malaysia’s national art history,” says Soon.
Despite the Grup artists being grouped now as they were then, he points out that they were not speaking as a collective, or a movement. Each of them were in fact pushing for their own individual approach to artmaking and aesthetic philosophy.
“They do all converge on some level to reject the academic conventions of realism and the tendencies towards naturalistic depiction of the physical world, of Angkatan Pelukis Se-Malaysia, or the expressive ethos common to amateur painting societies such as the Wednesday Art Group. They spoke of a generation of artists who had absorbed the tenets of modern art and its sensibility. There was a serious search for an intensely individual voice and desire to capture the emotional experience of what it means to be modern,” he says.
The 1967 Grup exhibition marked a turning point of sorts in Malaysian art history, with modern artists clinching most of the top prizes in almost every category in The Salon Malaysia held the following year. In 1997, Valentine Willie Fine Art Gallery in KL organised Re-Grup – 30 Years On, a collective show, also featuring these seven major figures in the history of Malaysian art.
“Among them, Cheong Laitong and Jolly Koh won first and second prizes respectively in the oil and acrylic painting category, with Yeoh Jin Leng receiving a special award. Organised by the National Art Gallery (now NVAG), this was one of the major art events of the 1960s,” shares Soon.
The results, he says, were resented by the realist painters, many of whom belonged to Angkatan Pelukis Se-Malaysia.
“They protested against the decision as well as the system of categorisation in the competition, which did not recognise the need for a separate section of naturalistic painting. However, it seemed that by the late 1960s, modern art was riding on a wave of popularity and success,” he says.
The exhibition at Ilham is accompanied by a series of public programmes which includes a public lecture by Tapati Guha-Thakurta, a specialist on the art and cultural history of modern India on Nov 25; a two-day symposium which brings together curators, artists, critics and researchers from Malaysia, Singapore and Taiwan on Dec 9 and 10; and two music events celebrating music from the 1950s and 1960s in Malaysia on Jan 27 and Feb 10. There will also be a curatorial tour of Grup on Dec 2.
The Grup exhibition is on at Ilham Gallery, Level 5, Ilham Tower in Kuala Lumpur till Feb 25. Opening hours: 11am-7pm daily. Sunday: 11am-5pm. Closed on Mondays and public holidays. Call 03-2181 3003 or visit www.ilhamgallery.com.