Step into the Ilham Art Show 2002 and you will be greeted by the sight of a white Roman pillar on its side, a flock of flying black roosters and a stylised rubber plantation in the background.
Many of the artworks seen at Ilham Gallery in Kuala Lumpur are huge pieces – in fact, Samsudin Wahab's mixed media work Ibu-Pegun (Mother-Still) , which is a giant coconut coir head, even spills beyond the doorway of the gallery.
If you needed confirmation, Malaysian contemporary art is in rude health here.
The inaugural Ilham Art Show features the works of 31 artists selected from 360 applications in response to an open call last year.
"During the pandemic, when we were all working from home and all of our museums and galleries were shut, it was a time of reflection when we asked ourselves how at a time like this, could we as an institutional gallery support artists in Malaysia in a meaningful way. it felt more important than ever to introduce a programme that would support contemporary artists and stimulate public discussion in Malaysia," says Rahel Joseph, director of Ilham Gallery.
The Ilham Art Show is an initiative that encourages the making of new work, particularly work that is experimental, or the kind of work that artists may not have had the opportunity to do before. Each artist received a production grant.
"In order to have a dynamic art scene, we need to support artists who may be working outside the conventions of the private gallery system, and support deeper critical engagement. With the Ilham Art Show, we wanted to also expand our reach and make it more exciting by making it an open call.
Young artist Mimi Aslinda's ‘Aiyier Di Aiyier Tarjun Lambah Anai Taruih Mangalier (Air Di Air Terjun Lembah Anai Terus Mengalir)’ installation (fabric, 2022). Photo: The Star/Low Lay Phon
"And we are so glad we did because we would not have had young artists like Mimi Aslinda, who just graduated from art school, or Tan Kian Ming, who has never exhibited in Malaysia before, if we had not," says Joseph.
On the gallery floor, visitors can look forward to a diverse exhibit, including paintings, installations, textile-based works, video and sound art.
There are established artists like Chang Yoong Chia, Azizan Paiman, Ivan Lam, Sharon Chin, Samsudin Wahab and Haffendi Anuar, exhibiting alongside emerging artists and collectives who incorporate traditional craft and rituals in their artwork.
"By embracing such a diverse group of practitioners, we can create a more equitable public understanding of art and artists.
"Among those selected include the Kumpulan Ukir Kite' Kelab Kebudayaan Mah Meri, whose work Hatat Yut comprising a sampan carved out of nyireh batu wood, centres around a traditional healing ritual to 'send off' the Covid-19 virus – a very contemporary issue that has plagued our world for the last two years," points out Joseph.
The Ilham Art Show is also the gallery's first open call exhibition.
The selection panel included Rahel; Zoe Butt, the former artistic director of The Factory Contemporary Arts Centre in Vietnam; and Shabbir Hussain Mustafa, senior curator at the National Gallery Singapore – so as to include a regional perspective.
Visitors gather to view Azzaha Ibrahim's ‘After Monsoon’ (single channel video, 2022) artwork 'wall'. Photo: The Star/Low Lay Phon
The team visited the artists at their studios over the last year to see how the works were developing and what sort of technical support was required.
"The studio visits gave us more insight into the works and how they could all be in conversation with each other when planning the exhibition layout. It was wonderful to travel all over the country to see the artists in their studios and discuss their works, although the flood situation as well as the resurgence of Covid-19 in February forced us to have some of the visits online. We left every studio visit feeling excited and energised, completely blown away by the quality of the work," says Joseph.
The public has also responded positively to the Ilham Art Show, especially with 1,550 visitors recorded during the show's opening weekend in May. It was Ilham Gallery's highest opening attendance, which clearly shows the masses are ready to experience and engage with Malaysian art in a meaningful way.
Discovering untold stories
Joseph is just as pleased with the outcome of the show, describing the works as bold and thought-provoking.
"The works did not just meet our expectations, they exceeded it. Every single work in this exhibition is rich and complex. For instance, (Tan) Kian Ming created a life-sized sculpture of his great-grandfather's tombstone made only of aluminium foil. It is quite spectacular and despite its material, actually feels 'heavy'.
"Leon Leong has installed a wooden house in the gallery with seven paintings done in the form of the Indo-Persian miniature style, which depict the history of Kampung Baru (in KL). We have a wonderful video by Eddie Wong which tells the story of his grandfather who disappeared during the Communist insurgency in Malaya. It is a fascinating narrative and Eddie's video combines his family history with the larger history of the nation.
Chang Yoong Chia’s batik painting installation ‘A Leaf Through History: Family Tree.’ Photo: The Star/Azman Ghani
"Chang Yoong Chia has made 28 batik paintings which depict the history of rubber plantations in Malaysia. The paintings are incredibly powerful, basically the story of Malaysia's economic and agricultural development as well as the story of migration and labour," she notes.
In the gallery, Chang's A Leaf Through History: Family Tree series is arranged to evoke the feeling of standing in a rubber plantation and looking towards the rows and columns of uniform rubber trees.
The installation comprises four rows of seven individual batik cloth hanging from the ceiling and almost touching the floor, with the highest row placed close to the wall and the lowest near the viewer.
"On each cloth is an image of a rubber tree which is also human. So when the viewer looks at the artwork, it is as if there are 28 rubber trees looking back at him, uniformed yet individualistic," says Chang, who has been developing the skills and ideas for a batik series with plant motifs for nearly two years.
"It is a difficult medium to work with because it involves a lot of processes and there is a lot of waiting time, for the chemical to fix the dye onto the cloth or to wait for a sunny day because wax doesn't stick properly onto the cloth on a humid, rainy day. Making batik helps me be more attuned to the weather. I am also interested that it has so much connotation with our national identity.
"Usually the patterns on our batik cloth consist of local floral motifs. I wanted to explore another category of floral motifs that are very important to Malaysia, which is the cash crops, as a way to understand the history of plantations in this country, and maybe ourselves even more. So I started with the rubber tree as a motif because Malaysia was once the largest natural rubber producer in the world," he adds.
A Leaf Through History: Family Tree is Chang’s first major batik series and the first to be shown in Malaysia.
"Here I try to express that people who worked as rubber tappers have their own stories to tell but are often neglected or forgotten. I reference turning points in history (such as the Japanese Occupation in Malaya) in the hope to shed light on how these events affected the lives of rubber tappers," he says.
Leon Leong's ‘Stilt Houses – The Floating World Of Kampung Baru’ comprises seven miniature paintings presented in a wooden structure titled ‘Stilt House No. 1’. Photo: The Star/Low Lay Phon
As for Leong's Stilt Houses – The Floating World Of Kampung Baru, this wooden structure is a nod to indigenous architecture and a tribute to the ingenuity of the tanggam interlocking timber jointing technique.
Kampung Baru, a small settlement in Kuala Lumpur, was founded at the turn of the 20th century. Today, many view it as a romantic symbol of a "simpler kampung life", a quaint village juxtaposed against the city's skyscrapers.
Now gazetted for re-development, a Malay Heritage Park has been proposed where 11 wooden stilt homes will be conserved.
Over the past year, Leong spent a few months living and doing research for his artwork in Kampung Baru.
"Kampung Baru is a fascinating place, steeped in history and full of heritage. As it might change significantly if the proposed mega redevelopment plan happens, I wanted to know more about it now, and perhaps to document and share to others. Beyond the locality, this project is also a meditation of change, and how we manage (or straddle the right balance) between old and new. In a way, the 'existential angst' of modern man?" says Leong.
Seven miniature paintings are presented on his wooden structure, coming together to chronicle the history and sociocultural significance of Kampung Baru, and the monumental changes it faces at this critical juncture.
Connected to reality
Azizan Paiman's sculptural artwork ALP, which showcases 222 bottles of saliva in a "mobile ventilator" cupboard, speaks to the social and political issues of our time.
"At a time of outbreak and isolation, it probably wasn't a good idea to undertake such a heavy going artwork. Jiwa saya terganggu (my soul was very disturbed) back then, but when I got the chance to participate in this Ilham show, I decided to face down the anxieties associated with the pandemic, as well as approach the angst of political turmoil that have been roiling in recent years, in a different way," says Azizan, who collaborated with a few assistants to realise the ALP installation.
Visitors taking a closer look at Azizan Paiman's ‘ALP’ (mixed media, 2022) installation. Photo: The Star/Low Lay Phon
"So many people have had to deal with huge changes, the world has become ever more volatile I just didn't want to add an 'aggressive' work to the exhibition.
"ALP has many elements in it, with references to history, fiction, social structures, humour, power play, disturbing headlines yet it also connects to the mood of the times, where compassion and empathy have been showing people a more hopeful path ahead.
"It's really up to the individual to read into things. To me, ALP is a rather calm and more conversational piece, and maybe, just maybe, I'm embracing the mellowness of age," he adds jokingly.
At 52, Azizan is the oldest artist participating in this exhibition at Ilham Gallery.
Rahel reckons that visitors can spend at least two hours in the gallery, as there is a lot to see and experience. There are wall texts with the artist statements available and for additional reading material on the artists, head to the gallery's website.
"With the majority of discussions about art revolving around sales and art fairs and auctions, it can sometimes feel like art is just reduced to a commodity, when in reality, the value of art is more than just a monetary one.
"I think it is vitally important that we provide space for artists to make work that pushes the envelope. There are works in the show that do not shy away from dealing with challenging subjects, from contestations of history to death in custody. I hope when audiences visit the Ilham Art Show, they will conceive of a group that extends far beyond artists whose works reach a certain figure. I hope this exhibition will also inspire younger artists," she concludes.
Ilham Art Show 2022 is on at Ilham Gallery, Jalan Binjai in Kuala Lumpur till Oct 23. Free admission. More info here .
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