Fifty years since Malaysia was formed, where is the country now? The M50 exhibition seeks to answer that.

THE nation just last week celebrated its 56th Independence Day from the grips of colonialism. Fireworks emblazoned the night sky, loud cries of “Merdeka!” filled the air and thousands marched down Dataran Merdeka (Merdeka Square) in a most uplifting parade. All in all, the day and its affairs went by smoothly.

Malaysians now have another historic day to look forward to, the day when Malaya became Malaysia, when our country was truly born. On that fateful September the 16th in 1963, our eastern brothers and sisters became part of this beautiful country and to say the least, much has changed since then.

To mark this passage of change, from the colonialist rule to sovereign Malaysia, the National Visual Arts Gallery (NVAG) has called on Malaysia’s contemporary artists for a most enlightening exhibition.

Called Selamat Hari Malaysia – M50, the exhibition, which will run until Oct 8, boasts the participation of 40 art galleries nationwide, each with their own curatorial direction but with the overarching theme of what is Malaysia now and what does it mean to be a Malaysian in the midst of globalisation, all under the umbrella of Hari Malaysia (Malaysia Day).


“M50 is about the awareness of Hari Malaysia because a lot of emphasis is made on Hari Merdeka. It also addresses the issue of how we came together as a nation, not Malaya but Malaysia as a nation state. Therefore, the idea behind M50 was to map where we are now 50 years since. It’s about artists talking about Malaysia and where it stands now. It’s like the state of the nation,” reasoned Nani Kahar, co-curator of the M50 exhibition at Publika, which will run until Sept 17. She will be sharing the curatorial duties with Intan Rafiza from NVAG.

At Publika alone, several prominent galleries have participated in the M50 exhibition such as Galeri Chandan, Intrepr8, Artemist Art, White Box @ MAPKL and the Art Row Gallery.

The curatorial direction that Nani embarked on is “to make sure a lot of the voices are represented. So we are very mindful of the different age groups, different gender, and where they come from. We made sure we included artists from Sabah and Sarawak as well.”

She added, “We also made it a point from day one to provide space for works which are slightly political.”

50 Tahun Malaysia; Demi Masa by Azli Wahid.

If you are talking about Malaysia, you cannot run away from the man who was instrumental in freeing the nation from the British. And as you walk into the White Box @ MAPKL, 50 images of his face, all identical and framed, will greet you. One cannot escape from examining one’s self as a Malaysian and the state of the country when you have 50 faces of Tunku Abdul Rahman staring down at you.

Aptly named The Journey: From Malaya to 1Malaysia, this artwork by Stephen Menon features 50 framed pictures of the late Tunku, arranged five by 10 on the wall and each picture, though identical, has different colours to it and a different road symbol.

“The differing colours reflect the diversity we have in terms of race, culture, religion. All blend together in one. I used our road signs to signify how the nation had gone through the last 50 years; through thick and thin, good and bad times but law and order kept the nation peaceful,” Menon said in his artist statement.

Another artwork that immediately arrested this writer’s attention is one by Samsudin Wahab called Kudis. At first glance, especially to those of us whose strength is not geography, it will look like the skin of a wounded animal, probably a cow with two oddly shaped wounds, revealing sickly red flesh, almost leprous.

Kuala Lumpur yesterday: Gan Sze Hooi’s piece The Map of Jalan Petaling & Jalan Sultan.

But what it actually is is a map of Malaysia, with the land mass represented by the wounded flesh and the seas surrounding the country represented by the leather. One will definitely be left wondering … is Malaysia really wounded?

Many if not most Malaysians in the Klang Valley, especially those who live in KL, will be familiar with the historic and renowned Petaling Street. Its colonial-era buildings and one-way streets and not to mention the counterfeit products are all there for our viewing and admiration.

But is that all there is to it? Artist Gan Sze Hooi in his The Map of Jalan Petaling & Jalan Sultan artwork clearly wants us to see there is more to it than meets the eye.

He reasoned in his artist statement, “The Petaling Street may still be seen, but not in its integrity. Many old businesses have been dismissed and many old buildings were demolished, due to the rapid development and the globalisation.

“The Petaling Street reflects my Malaysian identity, where my parents met and started their business in 1970. So I have many childhood memories located in this community. I hope to restore and re-examine the social development and perpetuation of old buildings in peaceful relationship.”

Ah Poon The Contractor by Jalaini Abu Hassan.

What’s interesting about his piece, which is as the title suggests a map of Petaling Street and Jalan Sultan, is that there are many movable drawings on magnets which the viewer can move around the artwork and place wherever they want to.

The M50 exhibition is actually part of NVAG’s larger celebration of its 55th anniversary, featuring many other activities and exhibitions such as the “Potret Rakyat Malaysia Untuk Malaysia” exhibition, which pays tribute to the many leaders who brought modernisation to Malaysia and “P.G. Lim Remembered”, another tributary exhibition, in tribute to Tan Sri Lim Phaik Gan.

Heading this is the NVAG’s Publication Division director Zanita Anuar, who said: “The National Art Gallery has always enjoyed the month of August as being the month where artists become vocal about being Malaysian, in any type of works. This time, it’s really about sharing those works in the public.”

Ironically, being vocal in this country can sometimes touch a sensitive nerve. On allegations of insulting Islam, the police confiscated an artwork of Anurendra Jegadeva, fondly known as J Anu. Named “I Is For Idiot”, created during the conflict in Iraq and in reference to former American President George W. Bush according to the artist, the artwork was displayed at Publika as part of the M50’s outdoor exhibition.

Concerning bringing art to the public, Nani lauds NVAG for their initiative in making art part of the popular culture and Zanita said this was in light of the NVAG’s new act “being agreed upon where the Balai (NVAG) has the opportunity to engage with audiences beyond Kuala Lumpur. And for that we know decentralisation is the way … to decentralise, to have more community outreach and when we are backed with good legal backing, we can move better.

Mariana Saleh’s Sembang Jolok-jolok.

“I think decentralisation is important because it creates clusters. For instance, artists in Penang are grouping together because they have never really worked together but through Balai, they are linked and this creates creative and artistic clusters, which is good,” opined Nani.

Meanwhile, outside the M50 programme, you will also come across some independent artists also displaying their artwork in fringe exhibitions.

One such work is by landscape artist Ng Sek San, whose work is displayed in one of the galleries at Publika’s Art Row. Sek San is the founder of the so-called “Malaysian Spring” during the 13th General Elections. Hundreds of the yellow and orange flags float gracefully inches from the ground, all suspended by wires from the ceiling. On the walls are large print outs of the Politiko card game which also cropped up during the elections.

You may not be the most patriotic or a connoisseur of art, but the M50 exhibition (and the independent fringe exhibitions) promises to take you on a nationalistic journey, of how our country has changed and at the same time retained some bits from the past since we came together as a nation 50 years ago, on a very personal level, all seen through the eyes of our country’s artists. They are after all the chroniclers of time and who better to show us the state of our nation … to show us Malaysia, today.

A part of the M50 exhibition is being held at the White Box and selected galleries in Publika in Kuala Lumpur till Sept 17. Browse: goo.gl/qBCPbg.