Review of Diversity: Malaysia Arts, London

Review of Diversity: Malaysia Arts, London

The end of November saw canvas and canapés meet at the opening night of Diversity: Malaysia Arts. Organised by the Malaysia External Trade Development Corporation (MATRADE), the evening was a cavalcade of speeches, ceremony and gift-giving intended to showcase the country’s up-and-coming artists. Opening proceedings was Tony Devenish, Councillor to Knightsbridge and Belgravia and who, to the great surprise of many attendees, recounted with fondness his years spent in Kuala Lumpur (or ‘KL’, as he familiarly called it); laughter exploded from the audience as Devenish name-dropped the Proton car he once drove about the city.

Devenish was followed by Datuk Dr. Wong Lai Sum, CEO of MATRADE and an intensely engaging speaker. In a sharp grey suit and string of pearls, she spoke frankly about the challenges of the “soft export”, of making “the compelling beauty of our nation” internationally appreciated through the distribution of its artwork. She took issue with Leonardo da Vinci’s assertion that “Painting is poetry that is seen rather than felt,” arguing passionately for the affective value of the visual arts.

With the ringing of a ceremonial gong, the exhibition was opened. Despite the highly curated, almost capsule nature of the exhibition, its titular diversity is strongly apparent. This variety was not only material (from the ceramics of Yee I-Lann to the photography of Heng Mok Zung) but also stylistic, the delicacy of Ahmad Shukri set against Abdul Ghani Ahmad’s graphic, primary-coloured work.

Amongst the wide array of work on display at the exhibition, that of Ahmad Zakii Anwar was particularly striking: his Reconstructed Head sequence combines the precision of geometric mapping with the smoky intensity of charcoal. The cranial landscapes that result demand prolonged study. Meanwhile, Ahmad Shukri attracted a great deal of attention for his poised representation of the Malaysian jungle, carefully incorporating bursts of colour into an otherwise muted palette.

What tied the collection together, however, was its westerly orientation. An example of this was a small ceramic sculpture of a seated figure which, at first glance, might have appeared to be folk art. In fact, the piece savvily played up to a western audience’s expectations of what Malay folk art ought to be: traditional Malay culture frowns on sculpture as the bedfellow of idolatry, making this piece strangely less at home in Kuala Lumpur than in London.

Diversity, then, was decidedly outward-facing. Dr. Wong Lai Sum made no bones about her encouragement of financial backing of Malaysian artists, pointing to a correlation (however complex) between monetary and aesthetic value. There is, of course, a practical truth to this: “An artist has to eat,” she said. Somehow, her matter-of-factness is refreshing, a bold restatement of the importance of investment in art. This brazen championing of the financial value of art, a message too often soft-soaped, is something austerity Britain would do well to emulate.

Diversity: Malaysia Arts, 23 November – 5 December, La Galleria, Pall Mall, London.

Rivkah Brown

1. Juhari, Two Dalmatians Red Line.