The weather was frigid in Paris, thanks to what many dubbed “the Beast from the East”: cold eastern winds blowing from Siberia into Europe, bringing snowstorms and an unexpected plummet in temperature. At the fifth level of the Centre Pompidou museum, however, the walls were almost glowing with warmth, thanks to the paintings of Latiff Mohidin – treasured veteran Malaysian artist and the first South-East Asian to be featured in the esteemed Parisian art venue.

The warmest presence, perhaps, was the 77-year-old Pak Latiff himself, as he is fondly known. He had flown in from Penang, where he is currently based, for the opening of the exhibition on Feb 28, and not even the frosty weather could dim his joy. Beaming at the honour of being featured, he said it was an “amazing experience”.

“I’m really overwhelmed to see my works being exhibited at this prestigious venue. It means a lot,” says Latiff.

“I haven’t seen some of these paintings in over 40 years.”

An accomplished artist with over 50 years’ experience, Latiff was one of Malaysia’s early modernists. He has had solo shows all around the world, including Germany, India, Japan, the United States, Australia and Britain; his works are prized by collectors in Malaysia and Singapore. He is also an accomplished poet, writer, and translator.

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Visitors to Parisian museum Centre Pompidou in the next three months will discover, amid the Picassos and Matisses, the abstract, burgeoning forms of Latiff’s art.

The exhibition, Latiff Mohidin: Pago Pago (1960-1969), which runs till May 28 at Pompidou’s In-Focus Gallery, is an encapsulation of a formative period in Latiff’s career, focusing particularly on his Pago Pago series.

The exhibition, a collaboration between the National Gallery Singapore (NGS) and Centre Pompidou, intends to present the modern art of 1960s South-East Asia within a global context.

The idea was mooted during a previous joint show between NGS and Pompidou in Singapore. The 2016 show titled Reframing Modernism exhibited Latiff and other South-East Asian artists alongside European painters such as Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse.

At that time, Catherine David, deputy director of Musee National d’Art Moderne of Centre Pompidou and co-curator of the current exhibition, was extremely taken by Latiff’s works. She saw a showing of his works in Paris as an opportunity to present a different perspective on modern art to a largely European audience.

“We thought it was very important to show a monographic exhibition, to look at the work of one artist in a very specific and condensed way,” she said, adding that Latiff’s Pago Pago series also had the body of work necessary to present such an exhibition.

A young Latiff Mohidin image on the poster of his Pago Pago exhibition in Paris.

For NGS, it was an opportunity to fulfill a key mission: presenting South-East Asia to a wider global audience.

“We have a focus on South-East Asian art, the region, and the concept of region-making. These efforts have created conversations within the region, and Latiff’s work certainly crosses those boundaries to reflect a certain regionality,” said NGS senior curator Shabbir Hussain Mustafa, who also co-curated Latiff Mohidin: Pago Pago.

The show features over 70 paintings, sculptures, drawings, and prints, accompanied by archival documents of Latiff’s travels and writings. The art is difficult to immediately categorise – to an unfamiliar eye, the paintings seem enigmatic and almost decontextualised. The style itself seems at odds with the time they were painted: expressionism, popular in the early 1900s particularly in Germany, here recreated by the artist in the 1960s.

But there is a strange defiance for such rules or expectations in the Pago Pago series, which seem to be more interested in introspection. Closer examination reveals lines and shapes that hark back to South-East Asia, from outlines of temples and pagodas to suggestions of specific plants – all suffused with an almost shamanistic energy from the strokes and colours.

That time represented both growth and exploration for Latiff, beginning in 1960 when he received a scholarship to study art in the Academy of Fine Arts in West Berlin. Originally from a village in Lenggeng, Negri Sembilan, Latiff was a world apart when he arrived. Berlin itself, was at a crossroads – post-WWII recovery efforts were still ongoing, and the Berlin Wall had yet to be erected.

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Malam Merah (Red Night) (oil on canvas, 1968).

With all this, came the opportunity to absorb not just European art, but also almost every other cultural opportunity.

“I was hungry for everything: culture, philosophy, literature, music. I thought to myself, what makes good art? I was determined to find out,” said Latiff.

It was here that he picked up a penchant for German expressionism, even meeting one of the last living painters of the movement, Karl Schmidt-Rottluff (he died in 1976). It was also in Berlin that Latiff first encountered the seeds of his Pago Pago series: at the Dahlem Ethnological Museum of Berlin, he saw relics from Thailand and Cambodia that resembled pagodas, shapes he realised were from his part of the world but had never previously encountered. Here he picked up on the word “pagoden”, which later gave birth to the term “pago pago”.

Berlin, therefore, become the place where Latiff incubated these various notions of home and belonging, as well as ideas of South-East Asia. It was also after his time in Berlin that he gained a desire to “merantau”, the Malay/Indonesian word connected to his Minangkabau roots that refers to leaving one’s home to travel – both literally, as he took off on a journey around South-East Asia in 1964, and figuratively, as his journey through art began taking form.

‘Now looking back, it is quite different to think of the idea of being Asian. It was very difficult for me to be Asian then, because there didn’t seem to be such a thing,’ says Latiff.

It was in Bangkok in the mid-1960s that the Pago Pago series materialised. Latiff had been travelling extensively in South-East Asia and had finally seen the pagodas of Indochina in real life, including the temple complex of Angkor Wat.

He also used his travels to connect with fellow intellectuals in the region, including writer Goenawan Mohamad in Jakarta, artist Thawan Duchanee in Bangkok, and actor/writer Salleh Ben Joned from Kuala Lumpur. With them, he formed a network of regional avant garde names, who renegotiated what it meant to be South-East Asian in the face of the post-colonial.

In contrast, the region itself was seeing a period of unrest: Malaysia and Singapore separated in 1965, the Vietnam War was ongoing, and the Khmer Rouge would begin rising to power in Cambodia by the end of the decade.

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Pago Pago (oil on canvas, 1966).

“Now looking back, it is quite different to think of the idea of being Asian,” said Latiff. “It was very difficult for me to be Asian then, because there didn’t seem to be such a thing.”

Latiff is quite circumspect when discussing his Pago Pago paintings, he simply calls them a coming together of nature and culture. Yet, they seem to bear both a sense of anxiety and a rootedness, perhaps a distillation of both their painter and the region he was traversing.

“Many of the landscapes of South-East Asia are visible in the works, but even then, these are not direct reflections. He is not interested in presenting cliches of the region. His work is porous,” said David.

Mustafa emphasises the connection of the term “merantau” to the Pago Pago series. “This idea of travelling and then returning home, it became a way for Pak Latiff to gather images and thoughts.”

Indeed, it does seem like the paintings have had a homecoming journey of sorts, being shown for the first time in the continent that sparked their creation more than five decades ago.

“This is the first time there’s been a Pago Pago exhibition, and what’s more, it is happening in Paris,” said Latiff. “I am so glad that I am around to see it. It really is the invitation of a lifetime.”


Pago Pago: Latiff Mohidin (1960-1969) is showing at Centre Pompidou in Paris till May 28. More info: www.centrepompidou.fr/en.