KUALA LUMPUR: It is often a challenge to put a value to art, but artists such as Abdul Latiff Mohidin have proven that Malaysian artworks are able to fetch high prices.
With more and more artists coming on the scene, coupled with better arts education, artworks have seen their value catapulting to the point of it becoming debatable whether they are overvalued.
The demand and supply situation has driven prices upward, as a growing number of young collectors with a higher disposable income enter the market.
But art is art, and it is not possible to appraise the value of an artwork objectively.
It has been the norm for Malaysians and other collectors in the region to attend art auctions in order to seek out artworks, on top of art exhibitions and events.
Indeed, artworks derived from a specific period or at the peak of an artist’s career can also influence the price tag.
But price is not an issue for seasoned and avid collectors, who like owning an artwork that no one else has.
Latiff Mohidin is one of the Malaysian artists who have made the country proud, crossing borders, canvassing art quality and withstanding the test of time (he has been on the art scene since before Merdeka).
The veteran artist-poet’s series such as Pago-Pago (1960-1969), Gelombang (1994) and Langkawi (1976-1980), particularly works on canvas, are highly sought-after. These works are considered “blue chips” by many collectors, including institutions, due to their rarity and high historical significance.
For instance, his Pago-Pago Forms, an oil-on-canvas piece produced in 1968, was sold for RM572,000 in a local secondary market in 2011.
Two years later, in May 2013, another painting under the Pago-Pago series went under the hammer at British auction house Christie’s Asian 20th Century Art auction, selling at HK$1.16 million.
Tracing back Latiff’s involvement in arts, the modernist painter’s passion for painting and drawing was evident from an early age.
After his maiden exhibition at the Kota Raja Malay School in Singapore at the age of 10, he came to be identified as “the magical boy with the gift in his hands.”
Exceedingly gentle and soft spoken, Pak Latiff, as he likes to be called, said there was a stark contrast between art appreciation now and during his prime in the 1960s, when only a handful of painters were active in the country such as Datuk Syed Ahmad Jamal.
“When I returned to Malaysia in 1964 (after studying art in Berlin), there were few artists. No one did it full time – three or four were teachers in Cheras such as Syed Ahmad. There were no private galleries, and exhibitions only took place once in a while at the National Art Gallery. Nothing much happened.
“Now the scene is exuberant – many opportunities available, the number of artists growing. I am happy with the development now. We must go all out to support the young artists, give them opportunity and space,” Latiff, who turned 77 on Aug 20, told Bernama ahead of the ongoing Pago-Pago exhibition.
The exhibition, which runs from Aug 12 to Dec 30 at Ilham Gallery here, is a collaboration between the National Gallery Singapore and the Centre Pompidou, two years after the artworks were first shown across the Causeway.
“Everybody is an artist now,” he quipped and broke into a chuckle, noting there were a lot of materials that could be used to produce artworks.
Latiff, who is also an accomplished sculptor, described himself as a traditional artist using brush and paint.
“I am an oil painter, using turpentine, spirit, thinner. I was brought up traditional. I am different from the rest because I remain the same,” he said.
Pago-Pago traces a formative period of Latiff’s practice as he journeyed across Europe and Southeast Asia.
The historical backdrop of the series started in the early 1960s, when Latiff began his formal art education at the Hochschule für bildende Künste in West Berlin.
As a young boy in Germany, Latiff drew his inspiration from his Southeast Asian roots when he encountered a series of Thai and Khmer relics resembling pagoda forms at the Ethnological Museum of Berlin, located in Dahlem, in 1961.
“Pago-Pago” emerged from the word “pagoden“, which was the source of his inspiration.
Latiff also incorporated a lot of nature in his paintings.
He returned to Southeast Asia in 1964 with the hope of re-engaging with the region. By then, various nationalist movements had begun to prevail in the region.
Throughout the 1960s, he engaged individuals of his generation – the avant-garde of Southeast Asia from Indonesia’s Goenawan Mohamad, Thawan Duchanee from Thailand, and Malaysia’s Salleh Ben Joned – to invert the previous generation’s initial response to European modernism.
Pago-Pago was first exhibited in Singapore before making its way to European soil earlier this year, specifically at the Centre Pompidou, making him the first Southeast Asian artist to have a solo exhibition at the French temple of art.
“I had many different feelings there. Sometimes I felt a bit puzzled, sometimes I felt odd that things were happening like that. Things happened in Paris which I had never dreamed of – being invited to have my works exhibited on the same floor as modern masters such as Picasso, Matisse and Rembrandt.
“But being on the same floor does not mean, of course, being equal to them. It is impossible. It means that my works were well regarded by the curators to be displayed on the same floor at the Pompidou. This was one way of recognising Southeast Asian artists,” said Latiff, adding that the exhibition drew huge interest from Southeast Asian artists and visitors.
He recalled meeting Malaysian art collectors there, too.
The Pago-Pago series – comprising sketches, paintings, sculptors, prints and poetry – made its way back to Malaysia this month.
“The chief curator of the Pompidou, Catherine David, said she has been following artists all over the world and she discovered Pago-Pago here.
“When they (the Centre Pompidou) talked to the National Gallery Singapore, they were glad to collaborate,” Latiff said.
The exhibition in Paris was almost two years in the making – first recognising the works, retrieving them from collectors and putting everything together.
“For me, naturally I helped them with the backstory (of the artworks) and the thinking behind Pago-Pago,” said Latiff, who was quite surprised himself to learn that he had produced 90 paintings and 500 sketches under the Pago-Pago series.
“I travelled a lot across Southeast Asia when I produced Pago-Pago. Some artworks were lost along the way but I have managed to save and keep some since 1960.
“Not many locals sought my works then, unlike the foreigners who then brought the works to New York, London. Only after the works were auctioned, the locals began to recognise my works,” he noted.
Asked how he felt seeing Pago-Pago making its way to the Malaysian capital, Latiff said: “I am happy. It is a joy. Pago-Pago is home. I don’t know whether this is my last exhibition here. I am not able to paint anymore. Give me some time (to restart).”
He said the Pago-Pago exhibition marked the Europeans’ acceptance of Southeast Asian artworks.
Latiff stressed the need of partnerships from various establishments to increase the number of Southeast Asian artists penetrating museums in Europe, though not necessarily the Pompidou.
“There must be a continuation. There must be a bridge like bringing European artworks to Asia.
“Asia also has to bring its artworks to Europe. There must be initiatives to do so,” he added.
Indeed, Latiff’s artworks, which transcends time and borders, have proven that there is a value to art which can be harnessed to spark off a lucrative business. – Bernama