"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 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|
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.
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.
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.