Ex­hibit in Malaysia spot­lights artists crit­i­cal of gov­ern­ment

Honolulu Star-Advertiser - - WORLD - By Chen May Yee

KUALA LUMPUR, MALAYSIA >> Ma­hathir Mo­hamad, who trans­formed this coun­try of paddy fields and rub­ber plan­ta­tions into a modern econ­omy of fac­to­ries, high­ways and sky­scrapers, is known as much for his bold eco­nomic vi­sion as for his in­tol­er­ance of any­body who got in his way.

While he was prime min­is­ter of Malaysia from 1981 to 2003, Ma­hathir de­tained op­po­nents, fired top judges, con­trolled the me­dia, clipped the power of Malay roy­alty, fired one deputy and pushed an­other to re­sign.

Yet the vis­ual arts mostly es­caped his at­ten­tion.

“Era Ma­hathir,” a show of 48 works by 28 artists that is on view at Il­ham Gallery here un­til Nov. 20, is ev­i­dence of that inat­ten­tion. De­spite their crit­i­cal na­ture, many of the pieces in the show ap­peared in state­funded in­sti­tu­tions like the Na­tional Art Gallery; some won na­tional awards.

Art was seen as a con­cern of the ur­ban elite, with no in­flu­ence on the masses. “It was not re­ally on his radar,” said Valen­tine Wil­lie, cu­ra­tor of “Era Ma­hathir” and cre­ative di­rec­tor of Il­ham Gallery. “In a way, it was a sav­ing grace for us. He didn’t take us se­ri­ously.”

Ma­hathir’s poli­cies cre­ated a grow­ing wealthy class whose mem­bers were look­ing for ways to spend their money. “If you have a mil­lion-dol­lar apart­ment, what are you go­ing to put on the wall? Not your grand­mother’s por­trait,” Wil­lie said.

Around Asia, artists who have crit­i­cized the gov­ern­ment through their works have strug­gled for fund­ing and, in some cases, for their free­dom. In the 1960s in In­done­sia, Hen­dra Gu­nawan, one of the ar­chi­pel­ago’s most cel­e­brated painters, was im­pris­oned for years un­der Pres­i­dents Sukarno and Suharto for his sus­pected as­so­ci­a­tion with com­mu­nists. More re­cently, the Chi­nese gov­ern­ment de­tained Ai Wei­wei, an artist and a gov­ern­ment critic, and pre­vented him from trav­el­ing abroad.

In Malaysia this year, an­other artist, Fahmi Reza, was charged twice un­der cy­ber­crime laws for post­ing a car­i­ca­ture of Prime Min­is­ter Na­jib Razak with a clown face on In­sta­gram and Face­book.

Arts flour­ished

But in Ma­hathir’s Malaysia in the late 1980s and into the 1990s, even as art took a de­cid­edly so­ciopo­lit­i­cal turn, gal­leries flour­ished, as did the­ater.

“Era Ma­hathir,” which fea­tures works on loan from the Na­tional Art Gallery, pri­vate col­lec­tions and the artists, opens with a panel by Mohd Nor Khalid, bet­ter known as Lat, whose car­toons ran in the pro-gov­ern­ment New Straits Times.

In the panel, Lee Kuan Yew, a for­mer Sin­ga­porean prime min­is­ter who died last year, is drawn clutch­ing a news­pa­per and ask­ing Ma­hathir why he al­lows car­toon­ists to get away with such un­flat­ter­ing de­pic­tions of him. “Look what they do to your nose!” Lee says. “Hmmm,” Ma­hathir, de­picted with a gi­ant nose, agrees, “too much free­dom.” It’s funny, and makes a point: Even among au­to­crats, there are de­grees of au­toc­racy.

The show also in­cludes a po­lit­i­cally charged work by Ah­mad Fuad Os­man. In 1998, the artist joined thou­sands in the streets protest­ing Ma­hathir’s fir­ing of his deputy, An­war Ibrahim, who was later charged with cor­rup­tion and sodomy — a crime in this coun­try. Then Ah­mad Fuad went home and picked up his brush.

Un­til then, he had been known for his stud­ied, sym­bolic pieces. He ended up pro­duc­ing four vig­or­ous self-por­traits, in oil, each over 6 feet tall. Three were based on the old proverb “See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil,” to which he added a fourth por­trait, of him hold­ing his nose.

“There are times we have to scream,” Ah­mad Fuad said in a phone in­ter­view from his cur­rent base in Bali. “We can’t whis­per any­more. We have to let our voices out.”

The show is run­ning as Ma­hathir, 91, is start­ing a new po­lit­i­cal party and forg­ing a once-un­think­able al­liance with the op­po­si­tion to try to oust Na­jib, the cur­rent prime min­is­ter, who is mired in a bil­lion-dol­lar scan­dal in­volv­ing a state fund named 1MDB. That the gallery is owned by Daim Zain­ud­din, a for­mer fi­nance min­is­ter and one of Ma­hathir’s clos­est al­lies, adds to the in­trigue.

Wil­lie, the cu­ra­tor, said that he had the idea for the show for a while and that the tim­ing was co­in­ci­den­tal. Daim, a long­time art col­lec­tor, pro­vides the space for Il­ham — 12,000 square feet over two floors in a sky­scraper he owns on the edge of the cen­tral busi­ness dis­trict.

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