The Politics of Play in Malaysian Art

The art of play and the play of art are now commonplace strategies in today’s nebulous post-modern era. In major international art centres such as the US, Europe, China and India, straight-forward socially engaged practice has been largely relegated to historical moments and replaced with pop cultural appropriation that falters in between farce and tragedy. The burden of representation, of a necessary, concise politicised agenda, is now a thing of the past. As a result, an increasing number of artists are resorting to humour, play and highly nuanced personal poetics to question and challenge socio-political positions. The status of contemporary practice in Malaysia, like other developing countries enjoying economic stability and prosperity, does not differ in this approach to the visual arts. As such, those younger artists, still conflicted and compelled to engage with contemporary issues, (mainly the contestation of politics and personal/public identity), are choosing more and more open-ended playful strategies to comment on and question the state of the nation they find themselves in. This in part, is due to Generation Y’s ambivalence towards contemporary politics. Perceived struggles are still apparent and continue to be challenged but artists are able to oscillate between these moments of social urgency and carefree consumption of global capitalism. This has resulted in the production of work that is provocative but refuses to provide heavy layers of solemnity. Instead, artists set the pace through play and humour but allow audiences to write their own conclusions. However, despite the impact of globalization, Western pop culture and post-modern angst, an awareness of Malaysia’s recent historical evolution is nevertheless a worthy point for consideration in the questioning of why artists choose such approaches in this Southeast Asian state. 

Before artists went out to play, they engaged in straightforward critique. As a result, the contradictions and challenges of identity politics were navigated by Malaysia’s modern and contemporary artists through many grand narratives throughout the four decades after independence from the British in 1957 [1] . Iconic images exploring race, gender, class and politics, by senior artists such as Ibrahim Hussein, Redsa Piyadasa and Syed Ahmad Jamal emerged in full force after race riots rocked the foundations of the country on 13th May 1969.  Polarizing multicultural Malaysia [2] into further tense racial dynamics were the results of the National Cultural Congress in 1971 which convened to address the effects of the riot and led to the official sanctioning of Malay as the national language and Islam the national religion, as well as the implementation of the highly controversial National Economic Policy (NEP) [3]. This socio-economic affirmative action scheme gave preferential economic rights to the Malay majority in order to address the perceived disparities with financially prosperous Chinese businessmen. In exchange this policy granted citizenship rights to the Chinese and Indian communities in the country. However, in doing so many voiced concern over the move which led to non Malays feeling like second class citizens in the areas of business, housing, education and social hierarchies in the country. This, in turn, has also led to a problematic understanding of Malay culture; many Malay artists addressed their own identity through non-figurative Islamic focus work in the 1970s and 80s that moved away from more Western international artistic dialogue.

The racial demarcations in government continued to propagate these tensions and provided more subject matter for artists to respond to. Malaysia is a federal constitutional monarchy and is led by the multi-party Barisan National coalition made up of the UMNO (United Malay National Organsation), MIC (Malaysian Indian Congress) and MCA (Malaysian Chinese Association). The Prime Minister is also the leader of UMNO. However, as would be imagined all was/is not one harmonious ‘Malaysia Truly Asia’ marketing pitch that outside audiences are led to believe. Protests over corruption in the BN government (itself divided by factions and in-fighting) and against longstanding leader Mahathir bin Mohamed erupted with the Reformasi movement in 1997. Led by the recently deposed Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim mass rallies and demonstrations took place calling for reform in the government. However, after Anwar’s subsequent imprisonment for corruption and sodomy charges in 1999, the movement quickly died down. Upon his release in 2004, the embattled politician soon re-grouped to become the leader of the Opposition coalition, Pakatan Rakyat, made up of the People’s Justice Party (Parti Keadilan Rakyat or PKR) of which Anwar became the head of in 2008, along with the Democratic Action Party (DAP) and the Pan Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS). The theatrics of Malaysian politics came to a dramatic head during the General Elections in March 2008 when, for the first time since 1969, the BN lost its two-thirds majority in Parliament. PKR made impressive gains winning thirty-one Parliamentary seats becoming the largest opposition party in Parliament. Five of the eleven state governments also fell to PKR, PAS and DAP. However, supporters hoping for an Opposition takeover of the government were left sorely disappointed as the coalition failed to challenge Najib Razak’s ascent as Prime Minister and the two continue a very public mud slinging match against one another to undermine each other’s credibility and power.

In addition, the dominant cultural impact of the national religion of Islam and Sharia law has led to strict policies regarding censorship that create rigid structures for cultural production for Muslims and non Muslims alike. Numerous pop concerts by Western artists have faced the wrath of the censors who threatened to ban such shows that were deemed morally questionable. Newspapers are State controlled with television and radio also being tightly guarded. It is only online activity that has the space to present any form of critical response and challenge to government sanctioned versions of events and news. The contentious debates surrounding the draconian Internal Security Act, where anyone can be detained without charge, are also still ongoing with mass protests by both anti and pro supporters taking place in the streets of Kuala Lumpur in August 2009. Understandably these and many more events continue to cause a sense of anxiety for creativity amidst the veneer of a growing middle class and a thriving capitalist culture. 

In the 1980s and ’90s many artists such as Nirmala Dutt Shanmughalingam, Ismail Zain, Tan Chin Kuan, Norma Abbas, Eng Hwee Chu, the artist’s collective Matahati, Zulkifli Yusof, Wong Hoy Cheong, J. Anu Jegadeva and Simryn Gill continued on the same paths as their predecessors and dealt with issues of race, the migrant experience, gender struggles, politics and protest openly with pathos and gravitas in their work. Post-colonial responses to what being Malaysian meant in a country that was rapidly modernising and economically expanding were contested through works on canvas, installation, sculpture and new media. However, many of the new generation of young Malaysian artists, now in their twenties and thirties, along with some of their older peers, have left weighty post-colonial debates behind in favour of more subtle inconclusive provocation laced with self effacing wit and humour. This 21st century post-modern approach, where everything is a possible subject and mechanism for art, has provided artists with a limitless tool box for experimentation, play and confrontation as well as useful strategies to side step the glare of censorship. 

Vincent Leong (b.1979) is one such agent provocateur. Leong has been producing work that critiques and satires the notion of culture and identity within a global world. Through conceptual strategies and a diverse use of medium including sound, video, photography and installation, the artist questions what is real and what is fake in today’s pop culture world. His now iconic work, Run Malaysia Run, 2007, lampoons various government campaigns that have tried to promote racial harmony in Malaysia with slogans such as “Malaysia Boleh” (literally translated as Malaysia ‘Can’) and the current administration’s 1Malaysia scheme, designed to encourage racial harmony. Stereotypes of each race in Malaysia, young and old, dressed in school uniforms and ethnic dress, are seen running in an endless looped video projection and series of portrait photographs around a white room revealing the farce of fixed notions around identity in hybrid and fluctuating societies like Malaysia. His most recent work, Doolby Surround Sound, 2009, explores the notion of spectacle and piracy by recreating the Dolby sound commercial played in theatres before the start of a feature film, through megaphone playback with blue screen animation. The use of the megaphone, itself now a mass manufactured product from China, rather than being a form of political protest is a tool to illustrate the artifice of culture marketing through a descent of maddening cacophonous sound. 

Samsudin Wahab (b.1984) is another up-and-coming young artist whose paintings are in high demand due to his confident mastery of style and skilful patchwork of comic book, tattoo and digital iconography that jeers at politics and social commentary. This approach, coined ‘neo social realism’ by curator Gina Fairly, contributes the illusion of didacticism but unapologetically refuses to position itself as protest. Di Luar Tempurung, 2008, is part of a series of work produced between Malaysia’s 50th Anniversary of Independence in 2007 and the General Elections in 2008. In this image Samsudin presents the spirit of Malaysia’s possibility in the digital age, whilst the use of the word Malaya and Merdeka hark back to the past. The melange of graphic characters in an impacted mass of energy and friction hint at the multiple sources of inspiration from youth culture that also inform his practice. Democracy Fantasy, 2008, sees two political sparring opponents; once again the image combines the use of politically charged words such as ‘democracy’ and ‘patriot’ to parody struggle and instability. Whilst audiences can easily link these images to current and past Malaysian histories Samsudin’s denial of specificity means that his work easily transcends context thus appealing to both international and local audiences. 

More senior artists are also waging their own playful rebellions such as Wong Hoy Cheong, whose recent series Maid in Malaysia, 2008 is a kitsch spotlight on the roles of migrant domestic staff through tableau photography, and Liew Kung Yu whose tour de force solo exhibition at Galeri Petronas in June 2009 entitled ‘Cadangan-cadangan Untuk Negaraku’ (Proposals for my Country) presented an hallucinatory photo collage of the public face of Malaysia. However, there is a myriad range of approaches in Malaysian contemporary art with other artists taking a more introspective, more poetic version of personal and public identity. Roslisham Ismail aka Ise’s (b.1972) drawings and collage works in particular are very stylised accounts of the artist’s success and alienation throughout his career. Such adventures are seen through the eyes of a robot avatar whose adventures are visually constructed through graphic imagery and text. The artists collage work is a retinal assault, with distorted figures and appropriated media imagery bombarding the senses with emotional questioning that is at once spectacular and intimate. Ise’s continuing use of his own travel and networking as the conduit for his work create narratives based around conversation and friendship and act as a type of visual therapy and brash commentary on the state of the arts in Malaysia.  

The whimsical iconography of Umibaizurah Mahir @Ismail (b.1975) creates actual objects of play. One of the few artists working in ceramics as a medium for contemporary art, Umibaizurah manipulates her clay sculptures to create distorted toys that are painted and overlaid with traditional patterns and natural inspirations. These are adult idols of escapism that transport viewers back to times of personal childhood fantasy, comfort and safety. Visually, Umibaizurah’s sculptures are animalistic Frankensteins, fused with mechanical elements such as wheels, bells and appendages to become manipulated sites of conceptual questioning around the validity of ceramics as a Fine Art as well as notions around femininity and family. Many female artists in Malaysia straddle the precarious challenge of addressing notions of gender but consciously liberate themselves from being singular in interpretation by providing multiple entry points into their work. Inviting viewers into this seemingly reassuring world of naivety, Umibaizurah is able to question private social structures within the family unit by embracing the potency of the toy as part of everyday culture.  

Contemporary art is often a mirror that distorts and reveals the spectacle of contemporary society. It amplifies and distils public and personal concerns and re-contextualizes them into unique viewing experiences. In a world where audiences are bombarded with media imagery and rapid information exchange, where You Tube, Facebook and online portals have as much power as the printed media, the question of cultural identity has become an elaborate gauntlet or hyper real video game. Rather than grand meta narratives artists in a post-modern world turn to irreverence, shock and entertainment to debate who we are, where we have come from and where we may go from here. In Malaysia, where race functions as both a separating and unifying construct, where censorship if rife and politics sensational, these artistic strategies are being redefined within the local context. It is not surprising that artists reject straightforward critique amidst such backdrops of government tension, censorship and confusion to ridicule, manipulate and emulate the theatricalities of 21st century life in the country. The use of play in this context functions as a false sense of security for audiences who are lured in by familiar media imagery, icons from childhood or the entertainment of kitsch. But slowly, realizations occur that there are more complex conceptual debates taking place and suddenly the act of play shifts to become a potent lens for critique. Rather than presenting an unyielding vocabulary of High Art, manipulated pop and iconic cultural imagery reassure audiences into engaging with the work first, and then pulls the rug from underneath them in one fell swoop. However, there are those, often in positions of power, who can’t take the joke. The removal of Fahmi Reza’s piece Najib’s Head Stolen from a Billboard, 2009, from a group show on rock music entitled ‘Rock Kaka’, at the commercial gallery Valentine Willie Fine Art in May, was one such example. A fabricated You Tube video of the head of the Prime Minister being cut out of billboard, was then displayed in the gallery space alongside the ‘removed’ billboard image with black tape over the eyes, a la The Sex Pistols God Save the Queen album cover. The work was hastily removed after sensitive political eyes became aware of it. Although in the spirit of punk, this type of rebellion was efficiently quashed with the entire exhibition coming down early. However, such a statement, although not seen by many in the actual gallery space has had a large following online and its process of removal serves to consolidate its notoriety and ultimate purpose of wry criticism. 

The crisis of self, race, gender and class in modern Malaysia is a continuing debate that affects every member of society. Fixed notions are crumbling more than ever through the assimilation of international pop culture, middle class stability, online information exchange and a heightened awareness of racial, gender and class constructs as questionable classifiers. As such, artists are embarking on the most challenging game of all – the navigation of the Malaysian landscape as both subjects and commentators of the country, taking on the role of comedians, jokers and satirists. Idealism and cynicism collide in a complicated performance of comedy and tragedy, frustration and celebration that however unresolved, always makes for interesting viewing. 

1. Singapore, Sarawak, Sabah and the Federation of Malaya (the name of the country after independence) merged to form Malaysian in 1963. However, due to political tensions, Singapore severed national ties to form its own city state in 1965.
2. The racial demographics of Malaysia are roughly 54% Malay, 25% Chinese, 7.5% Indian with the remaining 12% being a mixture of indigenous and other ethnicities.
3. The NEP was later replaced by the National Development Policy (NDP) in 1991. However, this did not help to diffuse the controversy and dissatisfaction with the NEP as many of its effects are still ongoing today.

Eva McGovern is an independent curator, art critic and lecturer based in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. She has worked on exhibitions, public programmes and publications at the Serpentine Gallery, London and is currently working on independent projects and exhibitions in Kuala Lumpur. She writes broadly on Southeast Asian contemporary art and is Managing Editor of the blogazine


Sun, 1 Nov 2009

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