Picture a Malaysian story

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A selection of rare Malaysian figurative art at Galeri Petronas gives Amanda Suriya Ariffin a glimpse into our cultural heritage and unity

PERMANENT collections are more than just preservation of artworks; they are also a tableau of  stories behind the many faces of Malaysia.

At the Galeri Petronas in Suria KLCC, are some of the most astounding works by renowned Malaysian artists  — a glorious array of 65 artworks lovingly curated by artist and academician Professor Dr Zakaria Ali.

From the starkly different styles of self-portraiture of Datuk Syed Ahmad Jamal and Ahmad Zakii Anwar to Loh Ek Sem’s vibrant realism, or iridescent etchings of Eng Tay that transcend presumptions of identity, the Figure Out exhibition is a rich experience of  sentiments, an education in subliminal  messages, both political and social. More importantly, a celebration of Malaysian talent that makes issues of ethnicity moot.

“Any collection of artworks collected over a period of time would reflect the diversity of our background,”  says Zakaria, adding that it’s not a case where just artists from various communities are represented but also something that’s a reflection of who we are.

“Though we choose works of art that are outstanding,  it wasn’t a conscious decision — that’s why when I was choosing the works, I refused to know who the artist  was.”

And some works persist because of “superior craftsmanship and superior execution,” says the professor, recognising  the fine balance between artists expressing their urges as well as being open to what the public conscience demands or appreciates. “Maybe there is a distinct pattern (in the subjects that Malaysian artists pursue) but I do not want to believe there is,” he adds.

But there are cultural statements being made here, I persist, to which Zakaria responds, smiling: “Very subtle ones.”

There are also artworks like Jalaini Abu Hassan’s striking piece titled Halal.  The professor shares his insights on the subliminal message represented by the figures of a man, a woman and a water buffalo, and (“libido and animal urges,” he shares delightedly) it all makes perfect sense.

Drawing and painting in figurative art demands technical ability, no doubt, but this collection (curated from 140 potential contenders for inclusion) also presents some rarely seen photographs such as those taken in 1958 by the late   Sultan Sir Ismail Nasiruddin Shah  of Terengganu.

A particular favourite is the black and white gelatin print by photographer Tara Sosrowardoyo of former prime minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad and his daughter Marina on a boat in southern Italy in 2002, where the latter slumbers child-like on a long seat while her father, seated opposite and barefoot, writes on paper. It is a picture, a rare private moment captured, that speaks volumes of the public figure  and when viewed with the retrospect afforded by current times, the viewer adopts a new perspective. This is the beauty of art: You can look at something again, in a different time, or in a different context, and either there is a different interpretation or there is a different sort of impact.

Zakaria chose certain pieces, such as a rather unsettling Warhol-esque pop art printage of former prime minister Tun Abdul Razak Hussein shaking hands with China’s Mao, “for the strong statement,” he states definitively. “There is no pretence here.” It also makes you think how far we’ve come since that milestone meeting.

These pieces of art are like a social scribe of events, people and places. These works help us figure out the need to preserve all the days  that build a common, unified history and to continue that tradition into a united future.

The Figure Out exhibition will be displayed Tuesdays to Sundays at Galeri Petronas at Level 3, Suria KLCC until Nov 25.  Admission is free.

Tun Dr Mahathir and Marina in southern Italy by Tara Sosrowardoyo. A rare private moment in the life of a leader

Empunya Nama by Ahmad Zakii Anwar, self potraiture captured in silent, powerful style Pictures by Nur Adibah Ahmad Izam

Halal by Jalaini Abu Hassan has strong symbolisms


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