Painting history

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A group formed more than five decades ago has unknowingly played an important role in the development of the nation’s art history. Rachel Jenagaratnam looks at the Wednesday Art Group

IN the mid-century, Wednesdays used to be a very special day of the week and it all started when a young Englishman named Peter Harris arrived on our shores. Harris was to become our country’s first superintendent of art, and fuelled by a passion for the subject, he founded the Wednesday Art Group, an informal evening where art lovers, students, artists and teachers gathered to hone their craft, and participate in life drawing sessions.

The year was 1952. Suburbs like Petaling Jaya barely existed, Malaya and Singapore were still British colonies and little did those who gathered on those Wednesday evenings realise that their names would be inscribed in the annals of Malaysian art history.

Last weekend — six decades after the group first began meeting — some of WAG’s original members including Ho Kai Peng, Ismail Mustam, Renee Kraal, Mohd Said Abu and Datuk Mustapha Mahmud reunited to speak about their experiences in a talk organised by Universiti Malaya Art Gallery. Housed in a shiny new building on campus, the talk at the gallery coincided with their fellow WAG member Sivam Selvaratnam’s Rapt In Maya exhibition.
“There was an absence of a serious art scene in Kuala Lumpur in the late 1940s and ‘50s,” says Sivam, one of WAG’s founding members who is now in her 70s. Her words ultimately point to one of the main reasons the WAG gained notoriety.

The country’s art scene was still in its nascent period when the group was formed and artists were spread out from Penang to Singapore. Many of the country’s pioneer artists had been integral members of the group, such as Cheong Laitong and artists like Jolly Koh and the late Datuk Syed Ahmad Jamal and Datuk Hoessein Enas were known to have occasionally joined the WAG sessions. Most interestingly, the WAG was gathering before our National Art Gallery even existed.

Can we call the WAG an incubator of sorts? Certainly. And aside from offering budding artists a chance to develop their skills further, the group also saw friendships bloom. Sivam, for instance, spoke of her closest friend in the group, Patrick Ng Kah Onn, very highly and many others did so too during the informal talk.

The WAG’s activities dwindled a decade-and-a-half later. Artist Cheong took the reins along with a number of other faithful members, leading the WAG in its final days before its natural demise. “He guided the society until the end,” notes Sivam, adding that the group’s final exhibition was at the British Council in 1967. The last organised exhibition of the group would also be curated by the British Council, but not until the ‘90s.

Though the group ran its course, it wasn’t without leaving a mark in the Malaysian art scene. WAG is widely recognised as one of the first formal art groups in the country, along with its contemporaries Nanyang Painters and Angkatan Pelukis Semenanjung. Decades later, the bohemian Anak Alam group would join the list.

Today, groupings of artists still exist. Datuk Parameswaran, a prominent art collector, who also spoke at the talk, pointed to the Findars art group in Wangsa Maju as a good example. “They sit together, they paint together and they produce fantastic works,” he gushes.

Still, this type of group is fairly rare today. The growth of formal art institutions has arguably diminished the need for gatherings like these. Young, like-minded folks are polishing their skills in an official setting and ambling down a path that’ll lead them to the all-imperative degree that’ll formalise their talent. Art has also gone beyond just honing painting or drawing skills. There are more materials and mediums to contend with, and social gatherings don’t just take place face-to-face anymore, but also over the Internet via social networks.

Is the WAG only relevant as a nugget of history? It’s certainly hard to fathom a casual group like this functioning anymore with today’s focus having shifted towards lucrative art sales or revered spots in international biennales and art fairs. However, there will be the chance to tap into nostalgia and to relive the whole experience very soon.

Universiti Malaya Art Gallery is reviving the WAG in the coming weeks and offering its gallery space as a base. Could this be the beginning of a renaissance?

A lot of seeds were sown with the WAG, a group where individuality and talent were encouraged, and celebrated. The latter is one lesson that we should take away this Malaysia Day, but here’s one more: “There was no bar of creed, language or race,” explains Sivam of the WAG and it goes without saying that a very unique part of the country all began one Wednesday evening back in 1952.

Another of Sivam’s colourful artwork


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