Flush with symbolism both aesthetic and conceptual, national flags act as a unifying symbol for a nation. In Malaysia, the national flag is known as the Jalur Gemilang, and is composed of 14 alternating red and white stripes, a blue canton bearing a crescent and a 14-point star, the Bintang Persekutuan. Like all national flags, the Jalur Gemilang’s design is imbibed with specific meaning and intentions: representing the equal stature of Malaysia’s member states, and the unity that exists between them. ‘Teh Tarik with the Flag’, curated by Wei-Ling Gallery and on display at National Visual Arts Gallery of Malaysia, now invites 13 Malaysian artists to explore these symbolisms inherent within the Jalur Gemilang, as a means to reflect on and extend its identity as a marker of unity, belonging and belief within Malaysia’s contemporary condition.
The 13 artists on display are Anurendra Jegadevan, Cheng Yen Pheng, Chong Kim Chiew, Choy Chun Wei, Fauzan Omar, Hamidi Hadi, Hayati Mokhtar, HH Lim, Ivan Lam, Rajinder Singh, Sean Lean, Sulaiman Esa and Yau Bee Ling. Each of these artists has reflected on the Jalur Gemilang’s poetics through their individual artistic practices, creating works that not only reference Malaysia’s national flag, but provoke critical discourse into the formal qualities and symbolic meanings that constitute it. While all the works shown may be seen as asserting an artistic significance for the respective artist’s creative practices, a selection stood out in particular to this writer, as discussed below.
‘The Battlefield’ (2018) by senior artist Fauzan Omar is strongly rooted in the layering processes that have consistently marked his mixed media practice. Fauzan collaged strips of posters, banners and flags that were used in campaigning for the Malaysian General Election in May 2018 to create a diptych, with either canvas clearly representing the two main political parties. Using strips of canvas to build up colour fields and texture Fauzan creates a highly contemporary aesthetic that continues to challenge known conventions of painting while demonstrating his formalistic and conceptual abilities- all the while resonating with deeply personal Malaysian references.
"The Battlefield", (2018), Fauzan Omar, Courtesy of Wei-Ling Gallery and Fauzan Omar
Hayati Mokhtar presents an artwork which does not directly reference the Jalur Gemilang, but instead looks at wider notions of identity, home and the shifting landscape of Malaysia today. ‘No.55, Main Road’ (2010) is a three-channel video which emerges from Hayati’s preoccupation with the ways in which physical places- in the form of a house, city or country- exemplify the human need for belonging. The intimate contemplation of a personal history, in this case the soon-to-be demolished shophouse/home of 87-year-old ‘Uncle’ Chang Ching in the South of Ipoh, in fact acts as a lens through which audiences are able to contemplate the larger social, economic and political changes that mark a rapidly transforming post-colonial society. Arguably Malaysia’s foremost video artist, Hayati’s critically acclaimed artworks are rarely exhibited locally, rendering this staging of ‘No. 55, Main Road’ exciting for contemporary art audiences.
"No.55, Main Road", (2010), Hayati Mokhtar, courtesy of Wei-Ling Gallery and Hayati Mokhtar
While some of the artists have worked within their respective practices, others have used the flag as national icon and resulting discourse as a way to experiment with their existing practices, taking their creative output into new directions. ‘Birth of a Nation/Death of a Nation’ extends Ivan Lam’s shift from a painting-dominant practice towards a mixed-media one using found objects. Conceptually this artwork has links to ‘We Destroy the Ones We Love the Most’, as both speak to the demographics of Malaysia. Each of the four panels of ‘Birth of a Nation/Death of a Nation’ represents one of the four major local demographic groups, indicating how they come together to create one ‘people’. Themes of unity are furthered through the use of flags from each of the individual member states, which are carefully laid out in long stripes. Layers of clear resin are factored in between to create depth. Rajinder Singh, too, has been moving away from a dominantly painting-based practice, but through investigations into performance art. Vocabularies of movement are investigated through ‘Rubia 5m Wide’, which features a single channel video displayed by a grid of pigment prints on photo paper.
"Birth of a nation/Death of a nation" (2018) Ivan Lam, courtesy of Wei-Ling Gallery and Ivan Lam
Installation View of "Rubia 5m Wide", (2018), Rajinder Singh, courtesy of Wei-Ling Gallery and Rajinder Singh
"Rubia 5m Wide", (2018), Rajinder Singh, courtesy of Wei-Ling Gallery and Rajinder Singh
The ways in which artists might handle a similarly aesthetic idea in completely different mediums and manners is interesting, and may be seen in three artworks installed at the front of the exhibition: ‘Transparent Flag (History of the Malay Peninsula)’ by Chong Kim Chew, ‘A few Malaysia(s)’ by Sean Lean and ‘Save the Flag’ by Hamidi Hadi. Kim Chiew’s set of five transparent flags are suspended from the ceiling and provide a hyper- minimal interpretation of the Jalur Gemilang. Providing separate visual perspectives when viewed either independently or as a complete, overlaid set, ‘Transparent Flag (History of the Malay Peninsula)’ continues the artist’s known fascination with the construct of identity through migration, diasporas and shifting borders.
"Transparent Flag (History of the Malay Peninsula)", (2018), Chong Kim Chiew, courtesy of Wei-Ling Gallery and Chon Kim Chiew
Sean Lean uses different components to build up the flag; two canvases with a series of long horizontal metal bars installed at the bottom. Audience participation is key for the artwork’s completion, as the title ‘A few Malaysia(s)’ might hint, as Sean invites viewers to bring in and hang red or white pieces of clothing over these steel bars, mirroring the manner in which the participation of citizens is necessary for a country’s success. Hamidi Hadi surrounds an actual flag with paper and wire mesh. The resulting textural mixed-media aesthetic is filled with a visual depth that provides insight into the artist’s emotional response. Such a response includes the profound effects of politics on the perceptions and emotions of Malaysians in their daily life.
"A few Malaysia(s)" (2018), Sean Lean, courtesy of Wei-Ling Gallery and Sean Lean
"Save the Flag", (2018), Hamidi Hadi, courtesy of Wei-Ling Gallery and Hamidi Hadi
In showcasing works by 13 Malaysian artists across several genres stemming from a single point of instigation in ‘Teh Tarik with the Flag’ a cross-section of local artistic practice becomes known. It is interesting that the works on display are all simultaneously conceptual and technically adventurous, showcasing the way in which Malaysian artists are known to match depth of concept with formal skill and artistic talent.
‘Teh Tarik with the Flag’ runs from 23 July to 17 September at National Visual Arts gallery of Malaysia and is curated by Wei-Ling Gallery and presented by UOB Malaysia. National Visual Arts Gallery of Malaysia is located at 2 Jalan Temerloh, Titiwangsa, 53200, Kuala Lumpur. Admission hours are Monday-Sunday, 10 am-6pm.
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