Visiting The National Visual Arts Gallery (Balai Seni Visual Negara), Kuala Lumpur


Note: Photo heavy post! 🙂 

I needed some me-time last weekend, and malls are so boring… so I hopped off to the National Visual Arts Gallery in the heart of KL. Once known as the National Art Gallery, it was opened in 1958 and has played host to many international and local art exhibitions.

Image: Wikipedia




Spread across two floors and four galleries, the spacious building belied its age: clean and well kept, with a spiraling ‘stairway’ in the center. Despite being a weekend, there were only a few visitors. A far cry from how crowded malls in KL would be on Saturdays. The thought saddened me a little.


The gallery is currently running the Mapping – Malay Land: Formation from the Colonisation. It chronicles the evolution of Malaysian art from its colonial days in the 1880s.

All Malaysian students learn of our colonial history, when the British occupied Malaya, so names like Frank Swettenham (the first Resident General of the Federated Malay States) are familiar. What I didn’t know was that Swettenham was also an avid explorer – trudging through jungles, rivers, befriending local Malays, learning of their culture and writing books. Since cameras would have been difficult to carry around on jungle treks, Swettenham and his team of British officers – George Giles, William Samwell and William Daniel – created sketches of what they saw/experienced: like a picture journal. And they were good at drawing, capturing culture and daily life in minute details.



“Cutter Kestrel in a Storm” by William Samwell (1893) depicted the arduous journey the crew had to face – as they navigated the ship through thunderstorms, trying to stay afloat against the wrath of the sea. In the background, the hilly limestone islands of the Thai-Malaysian border are visible as a dark, foreboding mass.


“Shooting the Bamboo Rapids, Landak River” (1890) is another one of Samwell’s works. In the painting, people are attempting to cross the Landak River (in West Kalimantan) on little boats, where the rapids are treacherous and boaters are seen falling off into the white waves.


(Top) Rajah of Telubing At his Shooting Range (1893), and (bottom) Market Place Telubing & Fish Market (1893) both showed scenes from rural Telubing, where the locals go about everyday life. In the former, the king looks over a vast paddy field with his subjects behind him and what appears to be two British officers. Rifles are set into the ground. In the latter, a British officer stands out on the pier in blue and white in stark contrast with the village and its villagers which are coloured in shades of brown and dark green. The landscape is wild, lush and tropical, bursting at the seams with wild undergrowth which are a drastic flight from the soft, English countryside.

It must have been very strange and exciting for these white men to be in a foreign land so different from their own, and to learn of its ways and cultures. Part of it comes down to romanticism. The pompous ‘white man’s burden’ – in that they tried to bring ‘civilisation’ to what they saw as ‘savages’, is quite apparent, even in Swettenham’s writings.


A more colourful piece, Dyak Campong Kapan Landak River (1890) shows what I assume to be a traditional Dayak longhouse. The Dayak are tribes of people in parts of East Malaysia and Indonesia (Borneo). They lived by the rivers and lived off the land, hunting and gathering. The scene Samwell painted was a pretty one, showing the locals going through their daily activities. Chickens and livestock run around the bottom of the elevated longhouses, while villagers carried on – playing with their children, cooking, carrying items.


George Giles’ April 13 – Breakfast (1885) was done with pencil on paper, and is remarkably well preserved. In it, several British officers are seen lounging around a table in the middle of a tropical forest, enjoying a smoke and a meal. Giles travelled with Swettenham, and both of them were often subjects in the sketches. While Swettenham (on the right) looks at home in a wide hat, traditional sarong and a cigar, the bureaucratic British officer on the left is seen in full regalia looking rather uncomfortable in the unfamiliar surroundings.


Original Historical 1821 Aquatints of Penang by William Daniell (1821) was probably one of the oldest paintings in the room. In it, there is a building that looks like a farm in a nicely landscaped countryside – similar to what you’d find in English paintings – except the plants in the background are tropical, with lush, dark green hills.

I was amazed at the amount of detail captured in all these colonial-era paintings. Since these explorer-painters did not have cameras to work with, they had to catch everything in memory and on canvas – which makes it all the more fascinating.


Moving on to Gallery 2, which was dedicated to the 1900s and beyond. There was a boom of artistic expression, especially from the immigrant Chinese community, who formed art associations and societies of their own.


Chinese Junk – Straits of Johor, O.Don Peris (1930) 


Newspaper clippings, reporting on art development and exhibitions in the region.


Self Portrait, Yong Mun Sen (1941) 

An immigrant from China, Yong was part of the Penang Chinese Art Club. During the Japanese occupation of Malaya, the Japanese heavily discouraged (by heavily discouraged I mean they would basically beat the sht out of you or kill you) associations and cultural activities of any kind, so many of its members resorted to burning their paintings to get rid of evidence. Some of these, like the above portrait, remains.


Kilang by Kuc Ju Ping (1958) showing a bunch of factories or an industrial area. Notice the paintings have adopted different colours and styles in this era.


Malaysian scenes are not the only subjects, but also Southeast Asian culture, like Balinese Dancer by Khaw Sia (1954). 


Paintings became more playful, colourful and even cartoonish as artists explored new styles – like Rangkaian Bumbung Attap by Lee Joo For (1959). 



It’s true that art imitates real life – and what I really liked about the paintings on display at NVAG is the colourful cultures and history that makes Malaysia such a diverse country. Chinggay II by Tan Chiang Kiong shows the Chinggay festival in Penang which happens every year and is a big celebration by the Chinese-Hokkien community.


Works by Lai Foong Moi. Although some of these artists are Chinese, I like how they have such a good understanding of the different cultures they are painting. Lai, for example, paints about Rumah Panjang and the Ibans of Sarawak using Chinese painting techniques.


Puppet Show by Lim Mu Hue (1955) show an aspect of Malaysian Chinese life that was very popular in that era – cheap entertainment in the form of puppet shows.


Self Portrait by Lim Yew Kuan (1951). Born in Xiamen, China, this dashing young painter is forever immortalised in this self portrait. It was the ‘selfie’ of that era, I guess.


Jalan Yap Ah Loy by Chia Yu Chian (1985) is relatively new compared to its neighbouring paintings and shows the bustling KL street – Chinese-shops in colonial buildings which KL is famous for, traffic, black and yellow taxis (which have become obsolete) and observation of city-life in the 1980s. The road is still there, but I guess much of it has changed.


Ibu Dayak dengan Anak by Tay Chee Toh (1968), a beautiful wood carving done in black and white.


Vivid colours in Carrying Fish by Peter Harris (1960) 


Semangat Tanah, Air dan Udara by Patrick Ng (1959) was one of my favourites in this gallery due to the sheer amount of detail. Literally translated to ‘Spirit of Earth, Water and Air’, there were three main scenes in the painting. In ‘water’, a woman walks on lily pads, on ‘earth’, a man seems to be gazing up to the sky while his companions prostate themselves on the ground in varying worshiping poses, and finally in ‘Air’, what seems to be an angel looks down with her arms spread, as if reaching for the man on earth. There are two god-like figures on the right and left, in what I think represents the sunand moon. There are also many other characters hidden in the scenes, like the half-submerged, naked couple at the bottom of the lilypads who appear to be in a passionate embrace.


Paintings are not the only thing you can find in NVAG as there are plenty of sculptures as well.


Kuning Semalam by Grace Selvanayagam (1965) was one of the few paintings done by Indian painters in NVAG. Despite being just watercolour on canvas, it appeared to have that wax-like effect similar to batik prints.


Wayang Kulit Kelantan by Nik Zainal Abidin Nik Salleh (1959) showed the rich and colourful culture of the Kelantanese shadow puppets.


Minah by Dato Mohd Hossein Enas (1958). Minah is a term to describe a typical Malay girl, and in these two paintings, Hossein has captured the beauty of the local Malay woman perfectly.


Another shadow puppet painting – Wayang Kulit by Yusoff Abdullah (1960). 



Untitled by Zakariah Noor (1960) – Malay culture condensed into a stretch of painting: with traditional wau (kites), bullock carts, joget dancing, top spinning, keris battles, kompang (drums) and other traditional instruments being played.


Chinese-style paintings, but using local subject matter ie (left) instead of bamboo forests, the artist has used rubber trees, which was one of the major imports of Malaya back then and (right) instead of a Chinese village high up in the mountains, we have a quaint Malay village surrounded by limestone hills and swaying coconut trees.


The last gallery, which was ‘modern’ art, was where I got completely lost – because I didn’t understand the pieces! ;-; Most of them were sculptures, and some were downright weird-looking. Since the place was empty, I got quite creeped out by the reachy-gropy black figure in the front.


A cement piece called Berdua (couple) by Lee Kian Seng… which looked like a giraffe and a cow nuzzling each other got shot through the stomach with gigantic elephant slugs. Yep.





There was one of those old black and white TVs in an old TV cabinet in a corner.. which made me jump coz it started to play music out of nowhere .


Manja by Dato Ibrahim Hussein (1960) was an abstract piece. It wasn’t unpleasant to look at, but I had to concentrate really hard and taking the title to mind, I have come to the conclusion that it’s a mother cradling her child (the two fat blue things on the left are thighs and the child is coiled around her in purple ???)

I’m sorry, but I can’t appreciate this kind of ‘modern’ art. It just feels like they’re doing whatever the hell they want, splashing paint left and right, and calling it art. The so-called ‘art critics’ have done nothing but exacerbate this trend by calling it ‘revolutionary, modern, breath of fresh air’ blablabla. They actually did this experiment where this art professor showed his students a piece of ‘canvas’ with splotches of paint on it and had them appraise it. Most couldn’t tell wtf it was so they complimented the piece, saying it was ‘full of expression’, ‘beautiful’ etc… until the professor told them it was his work apron.


After my expedition to the galleries, it was time to leave. But not before checking out this giant world ‘map’ done in extremely detailed stencil sketches and showing different scenes from around the world – from Aztecs to Mayas, nature, jungles, tribes to modern cities, metropolises and ancient ruins.





Just outside the main building is a small side gallery which has portraits of Parlimen Malaysia – the previous Agongs (kings) and our Prime Ministers. Photos were not allowed here though.


So lemme take a selfie instead.


I had a great afternoon exploring the National Visual Arts Gallery. Super insightful and inspiring to see the works of art, especially those done by people long gone. They are immortalised through their pencil and paint strokes on canvas for future generations to see and learn from.


23B, Jalan Bachang, 51200 Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

Tel: +60 3-4041 8720

Opening hours (Daily): 10am – 6pm

Admission: FREE


3 thoughts on “Visiting The National Visual Arts Gallery (Balai Seni Visual Negara), Kuala Lumpur

  1. I can tell my father to have our old 1970s television exhibited in the National Gallery hahaha…thanks for sharing this post. I have never been to our National Gallery, agree with you that Malaysians spend tooo much time in the shopping malls! You may also want to consider checking out the Islamic Arts Museum in KL – it’s really good – I went there in 2014.


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