Can art and art education flourish without race?
SEPT 16 — Segaris Art Center is a new art gallery in Kuala Lumpur. This establishment, a subsidiary of UiTM Holdings, is the first showcase for all the fine art graduates from the university. It will operate like any other commercial gallery but the commission they charge artists will be below market rate.
The title of their first exhibition in May this year was “Suarasa” and they showed 14 of their best artists from their alumni. This collection of over 30 artworks covers four generations of artists from the 1970s, 80s, 90s to the present. Since then it has had other art-related events and is beginning to attract an audience.
In the 60s, there was no art school in Malaysia; the nearest was the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts in Singapore and it was mainly for Mandarin-speaking students. Many who could afford the cost of an overseas education went to the United Kingdoom, USA, France or Australia.
For the Malays, the government started the Maktab MARA in 1965. Later in 1967 it became Institute Teknology MARA. Then in 1999 it took the name Universiti Teknologi MARA.
At present, with a student population of 200,000 spread over 12 branch campuses, three satellite campuses, nine city campuses and 12 affiliated collages nationwide, it is Malaysia’s largest institute of learning in terms of size and population.
It also logically takes up a large percentage of the over RM50 billion the government allocated to national education in its last Budget. This sum goes to feed UiTM’s workforce of over 20,000 that run over 300 academic programs -- including the arts.
Sharifah Fatimah is from one of their first batches of art graduates from the 70s. After that she went to England and America to do her postgraduate training. She is of course the top of her class as an artist from her alumni. However, she is the only female from her batch of fine arts graduates still actively painting and exhibiting today.
Her artworks have their roots in American Abstract Expressionism and are mainly abstract constructions of bright primary colours, designs and shapes. This painting “Floating 2” has a predominantly orange network of angular shapes of various sizes and designs contrasting with the blue and the yellow ones. This is a medium-size work and conveys a floating feel about it as the title suggests.
Awang Damit graduated in the 1980s and like many others from UiTM went on to do his post graduate study in America. This has influenced his style of painting in the same way it did Sharifah’s work. Awang, like many of his fellow graduate students, went on to teach at UiTM for many years.
In “Jejak Waktu”, we see large and heavy horizontal and vertical bands of greyish-coloured shapes interlocking at the centre of the canvas. It is almost like a detail of a geological formation 50 million years old from some part of the Malaysian landscape like that found in Langkawi. The red bits at the corner as well as that at the top could represent the volcanic forces at the bottom of the geological movement.
There are a few younger UiTm artists from the 1990s who do realistic paintings and among them, Ahmad Shukri is the most prominent of all. He has consistently featured subjects like plants, flowers, insects, animals etc within a landscape. These are often done with great precision in both shapes and colours. This wall-size painting when viewed up close can perhaps make you feel like you are in the middle of a deep valley with lush vegetation.
Besides his artistic concerns, he is also trying to perhaps suggest that he is worried about the looming deterioration of the environment through deforestation and other man made threats.
Featuring pitcher plants which are endemic to certain parts of the jungle, as in this painting, “Waiting for Mr Right”, we get the sense that these unique plants need the right sort of protection from extinction. But the question is, how well and far can this “embedded” message get?
Art and the environment is a major issue with Fauzin Mustafa and he shares this same theme with Ahmad Shukri. The many issues from climate change to food security in the world are not just a national concern but a global one. The answers to some of these urgent questions are not found in a painting like “Hutan Simpan IV”, we have to look for them at the world’s geo-political stage.
But an artist like Fauzin has persisted in using images of the plants, trees, insects and animals in juxtaposition in a well-balanced composition like “Hutan Simpan IV.” This fine balance of all the shapes, images and colours gives off a sense of beauty amidst imminent environmental disaster.
In a deeper sense, this artistic striving for beauty by all artists may hopefully lead them to the truth. If that’s the case, what has this truth to offer us? To a certain extent, this truth perhaps can save us and get us to commit to becoming better people; we are then obliged to be more just and fair.
But after more than 45 years, have any of these illustrious UiTM artists paused to ponder if the system they enjoyed is a just and fair one to fellow artists who are not Malays? Failure to address the injustice is also a refusal to achieve a vision of equality.
Honestly, will not a more inclusive and open environment nurture and perhaps produce better artists that transcend institutional racism? In that way we can truly champion Malaysian artists and Malaysian art as opposed to Malay artists and Malay art.
* The views expressed here are the personal opinion of the columnist.