Exhibit in Malaysia spotlights artists critical of government
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.
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.