This was interactive art, said the artist, so the visitor asked if she could touch it. His answer came quick: “If you want, you can wear it”.
As if like another reply to the question, a figure came gliding across the gallery with seemingly a hundred coffee strainers over his head, stained in all possible hues of brown. He was indeed wearing – no, rocking – that unusual outfit.
And it gets even stranger at the newest exhibition at Bank Negara Malaysia (BNM) Museum And Art Gallery in Kuala Lumpur.
Across the hall, two men are playing badminton. Three children are scribbling on wooden desks. On the floor are mounds of fresh ground coffee, the aroma wafting through the air.
All the coffee-related aspects of this installation show are from Bibi Chew’s Itu Homemade Malaysia. It might make you crave a cuppa, and she is not sorry about it.
“I have always been interested in identity and how our experiences shape us. Like these coffee strainers I use in this work, we filter things in our lives and over time form our own tastes and preferences,” says Chew.
“Each head-like wig here has a word stitched on each side, like pahit (bitter) and manis (sweet), betul (right) and salah (wrong), lebih (more) and kurang (less). We are all different on the outside and yet at the core of it we are the same.”
Itu Homemade Malaysia is an amalgamation of two works, Homemade (2007/8) and Itu Malaysia (2015). It is the first time they are being presented as a whole.
“Returning to these works made me see many new points and angles. I see the strength of the structure in a way I did not before,” she muses.
Each free-standing structure is created using only strainers stitched together with no frame or support beneath. They stand, even after all these years – resilient, strong, dyed coffee brown.
It would not be a stretch to say that this exhibition does not have the most captivating title. Pusaka, it says it huge letters on the wall. Beneath it, Embracing Our Heritage For The Future.
But where with words it sings a familiar tune of heritage and culture, this showcase soars with dreams and imagination when it comes to its creative offerings – in one case, even literally.
In one exhibit, Lisa Foo’s Wau hovers 5m from the ground, its delicate and pliant bamboo strips coaxed into a picture of grace and lightness.
“It is so beautiful and at the same time quite magical because it can fly,” shares Foo, on her watching kites take to the skies in Kelantan and Terengganu. “It is part of our heritage that we must not forget.”
There are 13 artists participating in Pusaka, with 12 works in total. This is BNM Museum And Art Gallery’s first foray into installation since its establishment in 2011.
The mainstay of the gallery’s previous exhibitions have always been paintings and sculptures. With Pusaka, it is going all in with only large-scale installations taking up the entire third floor of the gallery.
Besides Chew and Foo, other artists whose works are featured include Ahmad Fuad Osman, Azizan Paiman, Chong Kim Chiew, Haris Abadi, Haslin Ismail, Hayati Mokhtar with Dain Iskandar Said, Jamil Zakaria, Sharmiza Abu Hassan, Umabaizurah Mahir@Ismail and Zulkifli Yusoff.
Four of Pusaka‘s works are new: Foo’s Wau, Azizan’s MKKEN (Menjejaki Kembali Kesah-Kesah Ekonomi Negara), Haris Abadi’s Mountain Of Light and Haslin’s Gobok. The other works have been exhibited before, some for the first time in Malaysia.
Zulkifli’s Immunity work from 1993 is the oldest installation at this show.
Heritage of censorship in ‘Malaysia Baru’
Carl Sagan once said, “You have to know the past to understand the present”, and in this exhibition there is no shortage of artists presenting new works, to see how the nation can learn from past lessons and cope with future challenges.
Perak-based artist Azizan’s classroom setting in MKKEN (Menjejaki Kembali Kesah-Kesah Ekonomi Negara), a work comprising found objects, old school tables, chairs and digital collages, seems to allude to The Council Of Eminent Persons and the need for governance and institutional reforms.
“This work uses old desks and chairs of Standard 3 students from way back in 1969. Visitors can take home something from this work as they are invited to trace the grooves on the desks with paper,” says Azizan.
“I intent for them to reminisce, to think of old memories and to ponder on the economic history, which has been overshadowed by other aspects of our history. My works are fictional but there is truth behind them.”
“I was told that this work is too political to be presented as I planned, despite that being not my intention. I was informed by the curators that there was an issue with the etchings on 15 out of 30 of the tables used in my installation, that they would have to be censored.
“So I decided that I would tape ‘sulit‘ (confidential) over them in red. This is my commentary on how red tape is often amalan burokrasi melampau (an extreme bureaucratic practice). I thought that was it, as my new proposal was approved.
“But shortly before the exhibition’s official launch, I was told that the portraits of the Council Of Eminent Persons cannot be exhibited, despite being informed earlier that it was fine,” he adds.
Portraits of former Bank Negara governor Tan Sri Dr Zeti Akhtar Aziz, billionaire tycoon Robert Kuok, former Petronas CEO Tan Sri Hassan Marican and prominent economist Prof Dr Jomo Kwame Sundram have been covered up at the MKKEN installation.
“I wanted my work to trace the country’s economic journey, based on facts that are not necessarily presented in textbooks, but I am disappointed that my narrative has now been edited,” says Azizan, who made the call to wrap the portraits up.
The Pusaka exhibition, much to its politics-free outlook, attempts to go beyond the conventional idea of heritage. No traditional costumes and tourist brochure culture in the spotlight.
“In Pusaka, we have each artist sharing their personal memories and experiences, their different takes on what it means to be here, what heritage means to them, what kind of images and thoughts it conjures up,” says Noreen Zulkepli, BNM Museum and Art Gallery deputy director.
“All the works here are not only engaging but they radiate subliminal and poetic qualities which can resonate with everyone’s aesthetic sensibilities.”
A place of memories and experiences
Haslin’s Gobok, a mixed media, is an intriguingly detailed work that underlines the artist’s masterful use of paper, books and wood.
“Gobok is slang for gerobok or cupboard, but my intention is not to make a cupboard. I am simply associating this form with personal memories, in particular, the cupboard that I had when I lived with my family in Muar,” says Haslin.
“I like boxes. They have space. When there is space, we can imagine many things. It is a different world. It has a lid and can be reopened. You can play with the dimensions, be it big, small, long or short.
“I portrayed the gobok as if it is looking for something. It contains information that is both subconscious and unconscious. Not only does it relate to the past regarding my family, but also my current situation, and I hope things from the future as well.”
Meanwhile, there may not be many things that rally Malaysians as well as badminton does. Chong’s Badminton Court is a participatory piece, so visitors can pick up a racquet and start playing!
But beware the green fence in place of a net – a metaphor for the challenges we face daily and the boundaries that exist.
Chong reminisces that when he was studying art in China, his peers were less interested in his ideas than they were in the historic badminton match between Malaysia’s Lee Chong Wei and China’s Lin Dan.
“Malaysia’s achievement in badminton is well-known internationally. This artwork alludes to the importance of patriotism, where we sat up and took notice of the Sidek brothers, then Hafiz Hashim and Lee Chong Wei, just to name a few,” says Chong.
“The question now is, who is the next player and how can be instil nationalism and pride through sports?”
Then there are works like that of Ahmad Fuad’s bird perched on a stack of books, dropping stones into a pitcher of water. The Crow And The Pitcher Aesop fable comes to mind, where a resourceful bird fills a pitcher with pebbles to get to the water within.
But then Ahmad Fuad has titled this work This Is Certainly Not What We Thought It Was. So if this is what we think it is, does that means it is not? He leaves it an open-ended conversation intentionally.
“There are multiple doors through which the viewer can enjoy this work. My perspective is only one of many possible ones,” he says.
“I hope that when they read the title and compare that with their earlier assumption about my work, that they will be encouraged to re-look at the whole setup, the medium, the different elements, and rethink its meaning,” he says.
Ahmad believes that good art should stand the test of time, it should be timeless. Many great masterpieces retain a sense of mystery and allows for space for personal exploration on the viewer’s end, he points out.
“Then only will the engagement between the work and the viewer really happen, as Tolstoy discusses in his book What Is Art,” he states.
Another entry point to Ahmad Fuad’s work: the books are not random. They represent fundamental questions in religion, politics, philosophy and the arts, and also the lifelong process of searching for and acquiring knowledge.
“I hope this work will impress upon people that art is more than just a feast for the eyes,” he says with some optimism. “It could also serve as a brain teaser, a starting point to contemplate and reflect on their own existence in the world.”