Resonance and Relevance

The Great Malaysia Contemporary Art exhibition will be a vivid presentation of the growing local contemporary art scene

photos by : Anwar Faiz Ahmad Tajudin

by : Fong Min Yuan

Artwork photos courtesy of : CORE DESIGN GALLERY

SCARLETTE LEE, whose Core Design Gallery has made great strides in promoting the local contemporary art scene, will be organising a headline attraction at the Malaysian Art Expo this month. The genre, which relates strongly to present-day social issues and concerns and is indicative of the vitality in our art scene, promises to be a crowd-pleaser as it exhibits the artistic refinement of some of Malaysia’s top contemporary artists.

This will not be Lee’s first foray into the Malaysian Art Expo. She had organised an exhibition booth at last year’s event, albeit on a smaller scale. Her return this year with the Great Malaysia Contemporary Art (GMCA) exhibition will be an escalation of her efforts to bring more blue-chip artists to the expo. The GMCA will be a curated exhibition featuring the likes of Anuar Rashid, Tan Chin Kuan, Eng Hwee Chu, Husin Hourmain,Zukifli Yusoff, Shooshie Sulaiman, Ahmad Fuad Osman, Mohd Noor Mahmud, Hamir Soib, Multhalib Musa, and Md Fadli Yusoff.

It wasn’t an easy process for Lee to come up with such a prestigious line-up of artists, many of whom have been recognised with international awards. “It took me one year to come up with this show. There are only 14 works from the top established contemporary artists. It’s not easy to get them to come together GMCA is the first project to bring it to the next level. I;m looking at the international art fairs in the future”, she says.

Lee draws my attention to a large painting of a Koi fish covering the greater part of one wall of her studio. The white koi with red “hi” or markings sits at the foreground of the painting, against a soft image of terrain with padi fields and rough, uncultivated tracts. A faint shadow of a waterfall vista can be seen subtly overlapping the scales across the length of the fish. Entitled The Auctionland, this Hamir Soib creation is an aesthetically beautiful work with layered images to juxtapose the traditional image of the koi with the commercialism and value of land. It is a self-referential painting, and critiques the growing saleability of art, as well as land, as commodities. “It’s like a safari in the painting, but it’s beautiful”, says Lee.

Apart from the message, the koi, seemingly suspended and trapped within different layers of an otherwordly plane, lends a dramatic air to the painting. The Auctionland will be going for a six-figure sum at the Malaysian Art Expo.

So what is the definition of contemporary art? or more importantly, how would it be defined with relation to the Malaysian art scene?

“Some define it as work done after the 1970’s. Sotheby’s and Christie’s define it as post-war art. In Malaysia, what do you mean by contemporaneity? It’s no longer defined by a period itself or being aesthetically beautiful. Malaysia cannot follow the Western idea of the contemporary period. Our art history is only 50 years old. We had our modernists only in our 1960s and 1970s.

“Contemporary art addresses a lot of matters happening at this moment”, says Lee.

Lee adds a crucial point that not all art produced in the present can be considered contemporary art. She says the quality of contemporary art is defined by considerations of past,present and person. ‘If an artist dwells too much in the ‘past’, it will turn out to be just a pretty picture, without bringing any historical issue into the present era. For the ‘present’, an artist also has to look at the timelessness of the art. Will you look at it in 20 or 30 years’ time? It should still have relevance.

“And if an artwork becomes too ‘personal’, it becomes too autobiographical and cannot be considered quality contemporary art. It becomes a ‘dear diary’ type of an artwork”.

Supporting Lee’s point that contemporary art should have resonance is a painting by Eng Hwee Chu, the only woman artist exhibited in the GMCA, entitled Searching-facing to the new age. Eng’s work, which has been called “magical realism” owing in art to its use of surrealist images, depicts awareness, vulnerability and strength in her role as a Malaysian-Chinese woman is several representations of the “self”. Her critique on tradition and liberation is a timely narrative that reveals exigencies in Malaysian gender roles.

This relevance to the Malaysian condition is also what will draw interest from international art collectors and advocates, says Lee. According to her, the International museums and curators are not particularly interested in a “global trend” in art, but rather, the cultural relevance that is specific to a locality.”They are looking very closely into Southeast Asia, the emerging market, because China and India has already been played in the upmarket. The Southeast Asia market is split into two- Indochina and the Nusantara, which is the Malay Archipelago, including Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, The Philippines and so on.

“They are looking very closely into the natives. In fact, Australian art was struggling for some time because they were thinking it was the Western world and they wanted the ‘Western’ Australian to penetrate the international market. They failed big time. The people who were interested in collecting were looking at the aboriginal art”.

For Malaysia, Lee believes the international market is interested in Malay artists. While they do absorb information from the global scene, they are still painting “What is relevance within, their own culture and what is happening in Malaysia”, she says.

Using Hamir Soib’s The Auctionland as an example, Lee says Malay artists have absorbed the various local cultures and infused them into their art. “This is why the Western art world believes our upmarket needs their attention”, she says.

Lee decided to name her exhibition GMCA not because of any claim of scale or eminence, but because she wanted to publically declare the “greatness” of Malaysian contemporary art.This time around, her exhibition will be curated by professionals.

“I started to see a response to Malaysian Art Expo. I think the organisers [the Sim family] are doing a fantastic job. It’s a way to encourage Malaysians to do art fairs. I think they are bringing it to an international level as it progresses.

“Last year, I actually got a tremendous response. I realise it was dependent not so much on the size of the booth but the artworks one was representing”.



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