Refreshing is perhaps not the reaction Ilham Gallery intended to evoke with the exhibition Era Mahathir. The triteness of the sentiment aside, however, it feels pertinent in a digital age where comment is cheap.

The “22 years, 3 months, 2 weeks and one day” rule of former Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad (from 1981 to 2003) saw the flourishing of art as a form of social commentary like no other time in this country. This exhibition is a snapshot of those years.

Featuring 44 works by 28 contemporary Malaysian artists like Liew Kung Yu, Anurendra Jegadeva, Yee I-lan, Chang Yoong Chia, Zulkifli Yusoff, Ise and Ahmad Fuad Osman, the exhibition that will run until Nov 20 not only explores the complex sociopolitical realities of the Mahathir administration, but also catalogues the ­sociopolitical impulses of the artists of the era.

“I remember when I was in Australia in 1991 for an Asia-Pacific arts exchange, some Australian artists ‘complained’ about how the South-East Asian artists had an amazing sociopolitical environment to respond to in their work,” shares Liew, whose works Pasti Boleh/Sure Can One and Cadangan Cadangan Untuk Negaraku (Proposals For My Country) are on show at the Era Mahathir exhibition.

True, Dr M’s influence transcended the political and economic realms into the various aspects of Malaysian life, including the local art scene.

Ahmad Fuad Osman’s Syhhh... Dok Diam-diam, Jangan Bantah. Mulut Hang Hanya Boleh Guna Untuk Cakap Yaaa Saja. Baghu Hang Boleh Join Depa... Senang La Jadi Kaya (oil on canvas, 1999).

Ahmad Fuad Osman’s Syhhh… Dok Diam-diam, Jangan Bantah. Mulut Hang Hanya Boleh Guna Untuk Cakap Yaaa Saja. Baghu Hang Boleh Join Depa… Senang La Jadi Kaya (oil on canvas, 1999).

We are all familiar with the industrial and economic boom the former premier had driven the nation through, which impacted the landscape of our country, with iconic structures like the Petronas Twin Towers, the Kuala Lumpur International Airport and the city of Putrajaya.

And we know only too well – regardless of whether we had actually lived in the era – the ramifications of the momentous “events” of his time like Operasi Lalang, the 1997 financial crisis, the Anwar Ibrahim saga as well as the visionary aspirations of Vision 2020 and the “Malaysia Boleh” spirit that shaped the country’s legislation and policies.

It was also a transformative period for visual artists who began to respond to the sociopolitical issues of the time with works that addressed far-ranging subjects from the effects of globalisation to the Reformasi Movement, as noted by Valentine Willie, the curator of the exhibition, which took a year of work and research.

The diverse complexity of the era is clear in the spectrum of the works – despite the absence of Wong Hoy Cheong’s critical works like Tapestry Of Justice and Vitrines Of Contemporary Events – that are all linked by a gentle, nostalgic pathos, evoking a sense of loss and yearning for both the nation and the local arts.

Liew’s Pasti Boleh/Sure Can One and Cadangan Cadangan Untuk Negaraku (Proposals For My Country), laced with his trademark cynical irony, ostentatiously rework the common symbols of Malaysia’s then economic growth and global status in its race to be “the biggest, longest and highest”.

“I used shots of images, mainly of the buildings, fast food brands and icons of the time to respond to the aspirations of Vision 2020, and the changes it impacted, which were quite drastic then.

“The impact was most clear in our architecture, which some might see as development, but the underlying question is, ‘Is that the progress we want?’ ” he poses.

A close-up of Anurendra Jegadeva's Running Indians and the History of Malaysian Indians in 25 Clichs. Photo: The Star/Shahril Rosli

A close-up of Anurendra Jegadeva’s Running Indians and the History of Malaysian Indians in 25 Cliches. Photo: The Star/Shahril Rosli

Anurendra Jegadeva’s Running Indians And The History Of Malaysian Indians In 25 Cliches, meanwhile, hits a sore point with its sense of immobility while Ahmad Fuad Osman’s Syhhh..! Dok Diam-diam, Jangan Bantah jolts bad memories of the rigidity of the epoch, which is being revived by the enactment of new laws today.

Art writer/researcher Kathy Rowland could not have framed the intricacy more poignantly in her essay on the exhibition, “Art’s coming of age”, particularly as the person in question goes on a wild endeavour to preserve his legacy.

Rowland hits the spot in one of the lines of her essay: “For Malaysia’s longest-serving Prime Minister, as well as for us, the Mahathir years are not the past but an ever-evolving present.”

Perhaps, a way to deal with it, as Liew depicts in his garishly kitschy epic “tributes” to the epic figure, is to celebrate the fantasticality of it all.

“If you notice, there are a lot of phallic symbols in my work, because that was what that era felt like – an excess of one man’s ego. There was so much ego, that one tower was not enough – we had the twin towers, KL Tower and lots of Roman columns everywhere.

“It was so bizarre that you can’t do anything about it but laugh at the situation. Like now,” he muses.

Era Mahathir is on at Ilham Gallery, Levels 3 and 5, Ilham Tower, No 8, Jalan Binjai in Kuala Lumpur till Nov 20. Exhibition programmes include a special film screening of Kaki Bakar by U-Wei Saari on Oct 8. For more information, go to