Malaysia’s abstract expressionism — the journey so far…

The stature of abstract expressionism is undeniable, hence, Galeri Petronas’ ‘Mastery’ exhibition is meant to pay homage to many big names in Malaysian art history

by AZALEA AZUAR/ pic credit: Galeri Petronas Facebook

According to Sarena, every artist needs to be an avant garde and do something different

WHEN you think about “abstract expressionism”, you might just immediately imagine yourself standing in front of Jackson Pollock’s “Autumn Rhythm” in the heart of New York City’s (NYC) Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Abstract expressionism is a term that refers to newer forms of abstract art.

This form of abstract art usually gives off the impression of spontaneity, as well as characterised by its mark-making or gestural brush strokes.

The abstract expressionism movement can be traced back during the 1940s and 1950s in NYC by a small group of loosely affiliated artists.

Abstract expressionism is also known as “The New York School” where artists would break away from conventional techniques and subject matters at the same rejecting representational forms.

They’d make monumentally scaled works that stand as reflections of their individualities as they try to tap into universal inner sources.

Pollock and his innovative technique of dripping paint might have made it in the list of the world’s renowned abstract expressionists.

Other famous artists include Willem de Kooning, Mark Rothko, Richard Pousette and Barnett Newman.

There are two types of abstract expressionists which are action painting and colour field painting.

Action painters such as Franz Kline, Robert Motherwell and Lee Krasner focused on a gestural application of paint where they would use large areas of colours as the basis of their compositions.

This type came from understanding painting objects as the result of the artistic process.

On the other hand, colour field painting utilises large areas of colour with simple compositions in order.

Such painters include Rothko, Newman and Clyfford Still who use this technique to produce a meditational response among their viewers.

Abstract expressionism usually gives off the impression of spontaneity, as well as characterised by its mark-making or gestural brush strokes

Malaysian Abstract Expressionism

The roots of abstract expressionism in Malaysia can be traced back to the 1960s where there was a demand for teachers of modern subjects after the independence in 1957.

The Specialist Teacher’s Training Institute in Cheras, Kuala Lumpur (KL), was established by the government in 1960 to retrain teachers into specialist teachers and among the graduates were artists Yeoh Jin Leng and Datuk Syed Ahmad Jamal.

Both of them were sent to the UK to further their training and were dispatched to the Chelsea School of Art in England.

Although both these men are known for their abstract expressionist works, they were neither taught about it during their studies in the UK.

In fact, Yeoh and Syed Ahmad Jamal’s interest in abstract expressionism sparked from its relevance in regards to their local experience.

According to senior lecturer at the Universiti Sains Malaysia’s (USM) School of the Arts Dr Sarena Abdullah, the majority of Malaysia’s artists studied in the UK, while there were some who pursued their studies in the US or Taiwan.

“The bulk came from the UK and they had a different kind of art education, which is more applied. You have one year of fundamental, then in the second year, you major in something,” she said in a forum that was held at Galeri Petronas in KL recently.

Sarena said the art education system in the UK is similar to an apprenticeship model.

“If you want to do painting, you go into a painting studio and you paint with many, many artists who were teaching in the studio,” she said.

The National Cultural Policy

In 1971, the National Cultural Policy (NCP) was introduced as a path that would lead to the designing, formulating and sustaining Malaysia’s national identity internationally.

The NCP consists of three principles which stipulate, among others, that the national culture must be based on the indigenous culture of this region.

Suitable elements from other cultures may be accepted as part of the national culture, while Islam is an important component in the formulation of a national culture.

In the beginning, there were a few artists who rejected the NCP. They were not only visual artists, but also artisans and those from theatre backgrounds.

“During the NCP, when visual artists fight for arts, it’s for art’s sake, with artists having the independence to produce what they want to through their observation and inspiration. It is for art for society and art for art’s sake,” Sarena said.

She said there were more Islamic art exhibitions back then, but by only a few artists.

However, the artists that were included were Malay-Muslims who created self-proclaimed “Islamic art”.

“Of course, the non-figurative artworks of abstract expressionists were included as well. So, actually, if you see the direct influence on this policy on the visual arts scene, it’s quite subtle in that sense,” Sarena said.

Since there weren’t many private galleries in the 80s, an artist’s work needed to be selected in the National Art Gallery or other institutions as there were no alternative platforms.

However, a new NCP is set to be launched in March this year with a guideline to address the influx of foreign cultures into Malaysia and will be uplifting the arts, culture and heritage in a holistic and comprehensive manner, as part of a vision for Malaysia to achieve the developed nation status.

On the other hand, Bukit Tengah assemblyman Gooi Hsiao Leung said the new version of the policy is hoped to promote pluralism and cultural diversity instead of focusing on a race-based identity.

He said by genuinely embracing and promoting cultural diversity in Malaysia’s multi-ethnic and multi-religious society, the country could move forward in creating a united, moderate and inclusive nation.

‘The Wedding’ by Datuk Tay Hooi Keat

Art as a Propaganda

Malaya had just gained its independence on Aug 31, 1957, a year before the National Art Gallery, KL, was established, officiated by the first Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman Putra Al-Haj.

According to Sarena, there were other “more important” issues that the nation should address then, but instead, among the first move was opening an art gallery. Now, why was it a significant move?

“For me, we just gained our premise and yet the government was already installing such ‘modern activities’. I see it more of an assertion of our art as our own propaganda as a nation.

“If you go back to the 60s, you have the issue of the Malaysia-Indonesia Confrontation, so the assertion of Malaysian being part of the Commonwealth is very important,” Sarena said.

She added that it was a soft-power assertion to show the world that Malaysia was an independent nation.

“So I’ve seen it as more of a soft power coercion to have the Commonwealth nation picking us up. Of course, there are many political narratives,” Sarena said.

Artist Ali Mabuha with his painting ‘Nightfall’

Different Artist, Different Artwork

According to Sarena, every artist needs to be an avant garde and do something different.

“More adult works seem to be within the abstract expressionism bracket. I think there is a need to sort of re-appraise the works of younger artists today. When I say younger artists, I mean in the last 20 years,” she said.

She said the younger artists seem to be more process-oriented rather than working on direct outcome.

“They are more interested in the process of mark-making where they do this mark-making in a therapeutic sense…Not exactly to explore lines, forms and all that. At the end, it still looks like it has lines and forms, but the motivation is different,” Sarena said.

The Masters of Malaysian Abstract Expressionism

Many big names in Malaysian art history including Syed Ahmad Jamal, Latiff Mohidin and Hossein Enas are abstract expressionists.

Therefore, the stature of abstract expressionism is undeniable although its popularity is decreasing among the younger generations, hence, Galeri Petronas’ “Mastery” exhibition is meant to pay homage to these legendary abstract expressionists.

Not only does the exhibition revisit the context of each artwork with respect to the changes through time that shaped abstract expressionism, but it also attempts to draw parallels to the nation’s progress throughout the years from the 1950s to the 2010s.

Such iconic paintings include Syed Ahmad Jamal’s “Under the Plantain”, Latiff Mohidin’s “Daun Agave dan Pago-Pago” from his famous Pago-Pago series, Awang Damit’s “Essence of Culture: Nyanyian Petani Gunung” and Daud Rahim’s “Tenaga Dalam Ruang”.

The Mastery exhibition is the current attraction at Galeri Petronas until April 12. Admission is free.