'being human'

"Are we human or are we dancer?"
by Indra Kayangan 

Typing in the title of this essay, I am again reminded of the ungrammatical sentence found in the song ‘Human’. Released as the first single of the third album by The Killers, the sentence sparked debates and arguments amongst fans and music critics, about what was possibly going through lead singer Brandon Flowers’ mind and his band members who co-wrote the song. I am sure readers will be wondering why this writer is relating a song by an American indie rock band hailing from Las Vegas, to an exhibition by a group of artists from Malaysia. Part of the reason is of course the title of the song. Known for their catchy guitar riffs that catered to a generation of indie rock lovers, Brandon’s confessional lyrics – sometimes bordering on the indulgent – pandered to my appetite for lyrics beyond the usual narratives of romantic love, spiteful love and broken love.

However, before I bore readers with my musical indulgence let us steer back to the significance of the song in this exhibition titled ‘Being Human’. Due to the ambiguity of the above-mentioned sentence, naturally there was much speculation on the real meaning behind the ungrammatical structure. It garnered so much ‘heat’ within the music world that Brandon was forced to an explanation in an interview with the Rolling Stone magazine,
"I really care what people think but people don't seem to understand 'Human.' They think it's nonsense. But I was aching over those lyrics for a very long time to get them right." Part of that time aching was evidently spent reading books by Hunter S. Thompson, as Flowers himself has admitted the "dancer" line was inspired by the former Rolling Stone contributor. "It's taken from a quote by [author Hunter S.] Thompson," Flowers admitted last month when the confusion began. "We're raising a generation of dancers,' and I took it and ran. I guess it bothers people that it's not grammatically correct, but I think I'm allowed to do whatever I want.”

As duly noted by readers of the controversial American counter-culture writer and journalist, ‘dancers’ in The Killers’ song “…presumably meant a generation of mindless followers of choreographed routines and fashions created by the social and economic boom in America in the mid-twentieth century.” Thus read in this context, Brandon was imploring to his listeners in ‘Human’ – are we choosing to be ourselves or are we choosing to be one of them? Are we thinking out of the box or have we been dancing along like the rest before us?

Writing about figuration within the Malaysian modern art context used to be a straightforward affair. The narrative goes that the landscape genre tended to dominate the art scene in Malaya during the pre-World War II period, partly due to the British tradition which regarded artists like William Turner and John Constable highly. Works by artists from the earlier art societies like the Penang Impressionists, Society of Chinese Artists and others from the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts mostly depicted local landscapes, capturing the breadth and hues of Malaya.

Peter Harris, founder of WAG
While art activities, for the most part, stopped during the war years, it went through a rejuvenation during the post-World War II period. Societies like the Wednesday Art Group (WAG) and Angkatan Pelukis Semenanjung (APS), established in 1952 and 1956 respectively, galvanised many artists, both who went through local art training and those who returned from their studies in Europe and America. By this period, art in Malaya had progress beyond the initial inclinations for the landscape genre. Artists from APS, led by the charismatic Indonesia-born Hoessein Enas, produced many works introducing the ‘figure’ in the hitherto, landscapes-dominated art scene. As observed in his essay commemorating the 40th anniversary of APS, art historian Zainol Abidin Ahmad Shariff otherwise known as Zabas, commented that it was ‘the figure in their landscapes’ that suggested a different trajectory from previous tendencies of other artists from that period. Mentioning works by artists like Hoessein Enas, Mazeli Mat Som and Mohd Salehuddin amongst others, Zabas concluded that their ‘insertion’ of the Malayan figure into their landscapes almost defined a school of sorts – the APS School of figuration if I may re-phrase Zabas’ acute observations.

While APS, WAG and other artists continued their artistic explorations and negotiations during the 1950s-60s, we must not under-estimate the political tensions that were also brewing at the same time. The nationalist movements were gaining momentum in their agitation for Independence from British colonial rule. On the other hand, the Communists were perceived as a constant thorn by the British and local right-wing parties while in 1965, the separation of Singapore from Malaysia became finalized. To add to these political tensions, ethnic tensions were also simmering in the newly-independent nations of Malaysia and Singapore. Hence the tragic May 13th 1969 racial riots in Malaysia confirmed what noted art historian, the late Redza Piyadasa called, the realization that the “…the young Malaysian nation had indeed been built on very fragile foundations!

At this critical juncture of Malaysia’s art history, I shall recall the question I asked earlier in the essay: Are we thinking out of the box or have we been dancing along like the rest before us? What followed the traumatic episode of the racial riots was the National Cultural Congress, convened at the University of Malaya in 1971. As explained by Piyadasa,
“The Congress had in fact, called for a Malay-dominated role in the cultural affairs of the country and there had emerged, in the 1970s amongst Malay intellectuals including artists, a mood of serious introspection and a need to re-discover their Malay roots. This was epitomised by self-conscious interests in Malay history, cultural mores, myths and legends, literary and folk art forms, aesthetic principles, artistic techniques and sensibilities. Particularly affected were the visual artists linked to the Mara Institute of Technology’s School of Art and Design (presently UITM).”

Just as Hunter’s ‘generation of dancers’, most writers on Malaysian art history - both within and outside Malaysia - have been dancing along to this narrative offered by Piyadasa. This narrative has been dubbed the ‘Malay revivalist proclivities’ episode by noted artist and curator Hasnul J. Saidon. In his passionate essay written in conjunction with the retrospective exhibition of Amron Omar, he questioned Piyadasa’s convenient selection of the respected figurative artist as part of the ‘Malay revivalist proclivities’ wave. He argued,
“I myself am uncertain whether or not ‘the hegemony of the Malay nationalistic forces’ really exists or is truly practised in Malaysian modern art. That hegemony is probably present in the political sphere. Even if it does exist in the arena of Malaysian modern art, I am doubtful it can survive the challenges of globalization. There are also other ethnic powers existing alongside these so-called ‘Malay Nationalistic Forces’, for instance in Penang. It is difficult to detect the presence of ‘the hegemony of the Malay nationalistic forces’ within the modern art scene in Penang since the 1950s until today. However the endeavour to rediscover local (not necessarily only Malay-Islamic) dimensions is essentially not a bad thing to do.”

Amron Omar, artist
Hasnul’s concerns about Piyadasa’s narrative on figurative art might be understandable if viewed in the context of proposing an alternative way of situating Amron’s practice who after all, was one of his lecturers during his student days at UiTM. However, Piyadasa’s subsequent commentary in the same essay sealed the lasting legacy of the ‘Malay revivalist proclivities’ narrative. He commented, “At the UiTM art school, figurative art was now discouraged and a new prescriptive, abstract approach to art making, founded on Islamic religious and design principles, began to be encouraged, in earnest.’ A well-respected art historian and critic who had been involved with countless Malaysian art exhibitions within and out of the country, Piyadasa’s writings inadvertently occupy a major role in the discourse surrounding Malaysian art history as can be seen in the various examples quoted in Hasnul’s essay for the Amron Omar exhibition.

Against the abovementioned backdrop, the development of figurative art in Malaysia’s modern art history has always been seen as having suffered a temporary lapse in the 1970s, almost a dramatic pause as attention shifted to abstract artists or those who produce non-figurative art. It follows that the ‘re-emergence’ of figurative art in the 1980s have often been attributed to artists like Jailani Abu Hassan, Kok Yew Puah and the Matahati collective amongst others, but the real question should be why the term ‘re-emergence’? Was it because the leading art education institution in the country, UiTM, discouraged or stopped teaching this fundamental aspect of modern art practice to their students? Hasnul who was not only a student there, but also thought for a brief period towards the end of the 1980s clarified, “At that time nobody really prohibited or discouraged figural art and figurative-based studio practices. Moreover, I in fact never came across any circular memorandum instructing UiTM staff to discourage or prohibit the figurative genre.

Returning back to the question posed by Brandon Flowers of The Killers which I have appropriated for the title of this essay, a relatively new art collective seems to have answered the question. Established in 2009, F Klub is a group of artists who have banded together to continue the tradition of their modernist predecessors. Sharing in common their affinity for figure drawing and employing the figure as their main subject matter, the collective consists of both senior and upcoming artists from Malaysia. Their current line-up includes Bayu Utomo Radjikin, Kow Leong Kiang, Shia Yi Ying, Chin Kong Yee, Marvin Chan, Gan Chin Lee and Chong Ai Lei. Though open to new membership, members need to show a long-term commitment towards figuration in their practice before being accepted, underlining their seriousness in the genre, beyond just an excuse for a gathering of artists interested in figuration.

As shared by members of the club, Bayu and Kow, the level of commitment of their members include pooling money from their group exhibition sales to organise trips within the region, where they hold live drawing sessions and interact with their regional counterparts. Though it reminds us of the often-quoted Bali trip made by the group of Nanyang artists in 1952, the club’s annual trips suggest a more sustained effort rather than a one-off search for inspiration. And one will be able to see the results of these trips in the exhibitions that follow, for example the ‘Scent of Bali’ exhibition organised at the G13 Gallery in the first half of 2013.

With more than 50 drawings showcased, visitors were able to see the strengths and weaknesses of the various artists through their numerous renditions of the nude form. Moving beyond the exotic idealizations of the 1952 Bali trip, the spirit of experimentation and sharing of knowledge comes through as the artists, each with their differing styles not only produced numerous sketches but also critiqued each other’s techniques. The spirit of sharing knowledge can also be seen in this current exhibition aptly titled ‘Being Human’ where F Klub members will show together with a selection of senior and emerging artists outside the club, whose practices have placed them in the forefront of figuration in Malaysian art including Ahmad Zakii Anwar, Jailani Abu Hassan and Fadilah Karim amongst others.

Hence the existence of F Klub in Malaysia’s art scene can be read in two ways: one, as part of the ‘re-emergence’ of figuration in Malaysia’s modern art history and two, as the continuation of a long-standing history of figuration. The former suggesting a respite in its history and the latter, a development with its usual narrative of ups and downs. For too long, we have been ‘dancers’ in reading Malaysia’s art history especially with regards to the role of figuration. Let us be ‘human’ again and reflect on how history has been written. More importantly, only by being ‘human’, are we able to obtain a more nuanced understanding of the role of figuration in Malaysia’s modern art history.

About author
Indra Kayangan is currently an Assistant Curator with the National Gallery Singapore. His research interests lies in the arts and cultural practices within the Nusantara, a region which includes Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore. He has curated various exhibitions including The Next Chapter (2009), an exhibition historicizing LASALLE’s art collection and S.Sudjojono: Lives of Pictures (2013), an exhibition on Indonesia’s ‘Father of Modern Art’. He has also written for various local exhibitions and art publications. Hafiz obtained his BA (Hons) from LASALLE College of the Arts afterwhich he was awarded the Goh Chok Tong Youth Promise Award in 2010. Subsequently he obtained his MA in Art and Politics from Goldsmiths, University of London in 2011.


Ahmad Zakii Anuar

I am not I am
Acrylic on jute
147 x 294cm

Jailani Abu Hassan

The Industrial Players
 Bitumen and acrylic on canvas
183 x 213cm

Bayu Utomo Radjikin

Acrylic on canvas
200 x 350cm

Kow Leong Kiang

Lonely Assassin
Oil on linen
220 x 220cm

Chong Siew Ying

A Green Mountain Idyll
Oil on canvas
200 x 300cm

Phuan Thai Meng

Ex(change) Project
Mind Map by Participants – Blue (1993); De Ming Wei (1994);
Hoh Chial Miean (1994); Tiffany Huan Jia Jin (1994); Yau Sir Meng (1992)
Acrylic on linen
Dimension variable

Shia Yih Yiing

Oil on canvas
270 x 200cm (diptych)

Chin Kong Yee

Oil on linen
200 x 200cm

Chan Kok Hooi

from left to right :
(I) So Close Yet So Far : The Origin of the World  (II) So Close Yet So Far : The Wonder of the World (III) So Close Yet So Far : The Mystery of the World  (IV) So Close Yet So Far : The Top of the World
Acrylic and thread on denim
122 x 91.5cm each

Marvin Chan

Desecration of the Temple
Oil on canvas
304.8 x 213.36cm

Gan Chin Lee

Self and Other
Oil on linen
183 x 244cm (Diptych)

Cheong Tuck Wai

In Reality. In Memories III
Oil, acrylic and paste on canvas
200 x 220cm

Chong Ai Lei

Somewhere in Time
Oil on canvas
220 x 180cm

Arif Fauzan

Let Go Off Your Ego
Acrylic on linen
293 x 233cm

Fadhilah Karim

The Lonesome Painter
Oil on linen
221 x 290cm

Hisyamudin Abdullah

Drama King
Charcoal and acrylic on canvas
213 x 304cm

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