Catch Leonardo Da Vinci’s Work in Malaysia at The Opera Omnia Exhibition, Balai Seni Visual Negara

If you’ve always wanted to see the Mona Lisa up close – but because you’re a poor millennial like me and can’t just pop on to the Lourve whenever – here’s some good news.

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The Italian Ministry of Foreign Embassy has brought Leonardo da Vinci to Malaysians at the National Art Gallery, where you can see true-to-size, digital reproductions on display until 15 August 2019. The “Leonardo Opera Omnia” exhibition features 17 of Leonardo’s art works painted in the 1ate 15th to early 16th centuries, as well as a special exhibition based on one of notebooks, Codex on the Flight of Birds. For those who have never been exposed to European art, this is an excellent chance to get acquainted and also be wowed at the sheer technique and beauty of the renowned genius’ masterpieces.

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The digital reproductions are displayed in high definition in low light, which ‘evokes the feeling of viewing the actual artwork’, according to the pamphlet. You can definitely see the tiny cracks and creases from the original, which was painted with oil on poplar panel. While I’m sure it can’t compare to seeing it at the Lourve, I felt like viewing the Mona Lisa here was a great experience. The crowds are less, for one, and you can get really close to the ‘painting’. I can see why it is one of art’s most popular pieces. There’s just something about her slight smile and Leonardo’s excellent use of form and atmosphere that creates an ethereal, mysterious quality to it.

Fun fact: The subject of the Mona Lisa is Lisa del Giocondo, an Italian noblewoman, and despite being one of the most well known faces in art, little is known about her personal life.  

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Some of Leonardo’s other popular artworks on display include (from top left) Lady with an Ermine (1490), Portrait of a Musician (1490), La Belle Ferronniere (1490) and Head of A Woman (1508).

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The Annunciation was one of Leonardo’s earliest completed works, and you can see how the technique was rather ‘raw’ in comparison to his later artworks – proving that while one may be born a genius, it still took years of honing his craft to reach his full potential.

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I was excited to view the Madonna of the Rocks, because I was fascinated by the way Dan Brown used the symbolism in the painting as an important element in the Da Vinci Code novel. The painting depicts Mary and a child Jesus, with an infant John the Baptist and the angel Uriel.  There are actually two versions of the painting; they’re identical in terms of composition but differ with a few significant details, namely the hand of the angel (which is pointing towards Jesus in one) as well as the gaze (one is looking down and the other at the ‘viewer’). You can find both on display at the Opera Omnia!

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Leonardo was fascinated by the idea of flight, and the exhibition includes a section called Codex on the Flight of Birds, based on a notebook he owned which detailed his observations on the flight of birds, and how it could relate to creating a machine where man could fly. Written in his famous reverse script, the pages are filled with wondrous diagrams, sketches and notes. I can see why the man was both admired and feared in his time – he was truly a visionary, of the kind that the world might not ever see again.

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Aside from his usual notes, Leonardo often peppered the pages with quotes on the side.

The Opera Omnia exhibition is running at the National Art Gallery from now until August 15. 

While you’re here, there are plenty of other exhibitions to check out! The Open + Lab BMS (Bakat Muda Sezaman) / Young Contemporaries 2019 is an annual event by the National Art Gallery, dedicated to showcasing the work of young Malaysian artists. Many of these touch on current issues with powerful messages behind them – which is what I think art should be all about. Here are some of my favourites:

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Awal – Akhir, 2019. by Muhammad Effi Syafiq Jusoh. Wood, paper, acrylic, bitumen and smoke machine. The piece is supposed to symbolise ‘life’ as the – between beginning (Awal) and end (Akhir), as illustrated through a crowded building with various houses and quarters within.

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Details.

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Colour Rhythm, 2019. by Choo Yan Xin. Cloth, wire and plastic airliner, various size. 

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The Witnesses, 2019 by Shahar a/l Koyok @ Shaq Koyok. Acrylic & charcoal oil on pandanous mat, nipah leaves woven, tree stumps, wood, soil, clay, rattan, dried leaves and nylon string. 

An indigenous artist, the piece was inspired by the plight of Shaq’s people, the Temuan, who are facing extinction of their natural habitat due to deforestation and illegal logging. This is, sadly, nothing new in Malaysia – and many other countries for that matter – where indigenous rights are often eroded and destroyed over time. The ancestral lands in which they have lived off for centuries are in ever imminent danger of being taken away in the name of progress and greed – and the piece is meant to spark debate and awareness among the public of their plight.

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Table Talk, 2018. Tan Yi Ching. Kopitiam cup, speaker and mp3. 

At first glance, a simple installation featuring cups fitted with speakers playing random snippets of conversation within each unit. The concept behind it is interesting though, and is meant to represent the importance of communication. The use of kopitiam cups – something integral to many Malaysians’ lives – makes it all the more relatable.

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Merbahaya, 2019. by Muhammad Shamin Sahrum & Khairul Izzuddin Mohd Hiffni touches on another hot topic in Malaysian society: PPR flats, and urban poverty. PPR flats are essentially low cost housing projects, where thousands of people are often forced to live together in squalid conditions. They’re essentially giant, multi-storey slums in the city – the difference is unlike sprawling squatter homes, they are now confined to a flat. Drugs are a common problem, as are social issues. Children are not monitored as parents try to eke a living, and deaths have occurred due to railing rotting away and breaking off, or even several cases where garbage was thrown from the upper floors, striking someone below. While there are no easy solutions to such problems, pieces like this create awareness and get the conversation going, and hopefully, results in action. It is often too easy to forget or ignore things we aren’t willing to face.

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The Bomoh in 4th Industrial Revolution, 2019 by Aiman Husin & Hawari Berahim is a thought-provoking, tongue-in-cheek series, portrayed as a parody of today’s society and how we interact in cyberspace. A ‘bomoh’ in traditional Malay society is essentially a witch doctor and a problem solver of sorts, who communities approached for help. The idea behind it is that many today are acting as ‘bomoh’s on social media, “casting spells and curses with little regard for truth and fairness”. This is especially true of Malaysian society. I think many Malaysian social media users are gullible yet trigger happy, eager to dispense mob justice on cyberspace, yet unable to distinguish between what is right and wrong. It is dangerous, and we need to reflect on how we can process information and be proactive rather than reactive.

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Appropriate. Doesn’t it seem like everyone seems to be an ‘expert’ on social media these days, offering their unwarranted opinions and judging others for it? Lol.

There are plenty of other thought-provoking pieces in the exhibition, and I was very impressed with the quality and effort put into each. These are definitely works that get you talking and thinking, as opposed to being so abstract or “syok sendiri” that viewers can’t relate. There is great potential in the Malaysian art industry.

So there you have it! Instead of heading to the mall this weekend, go check out BSVN! Entrance is free.

BALAI SENI VISUAL NEGARA  (NATIONAL ART GALLERY) 

No. 2, Jalan Temerloh, Off Jalan Tun Razak,
53200 Kuala Lumpur

Opening hours: 10AM – 6PM (daily)

GETTING THERE 

Rapid KL Bus 402 from KLCC heads towards the National Art Gallery. It does not stop directly in front of the building, so you will have to stop near Hospital KL and walk across the road. Coming back is a bit more complicated. You can either take 402 again to loop back to KLCC, or board 302. Alternatively, Grab services are available within the city.

 

 

A Visitor’s Guide To Malaysia’s National Arts Gallery: Balai Seni Visual Negara, Kuala Lumpur

The Malaysian art scene may not be as sophisticated as places like Europe or the US, but for art enthusiasts looking for a dose of the creative, the National Arts Gallery in Kuala Lumpur is a good place to start. Opened in 1958, the government-run public art gallery is housed in a modernist building with a pyramid-shaped blue-glassed roof, and regularly hosts exhibitions by various local and international artists – often enough that different visits will give you entirely different experiences!

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I last came here in 2016, and while the exterior has not changed, the exhibitions are completely different, so much so that I felt like I was visiting it for the first time.

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Running until March 17 is The Wall: Dinding Bandar, featuring a collection of graffiti works by 26 local artists captured on social media from years 2015 – 2018, and reproduced for the exhibition. It looks at the evolving styles, methods and development of the genre, as well as its potential in the creative arts industry and society at large. Malaysian graffiti artists are pretty well known in their field – we have artists like Kenji Chai and Cloakwork, both of whom have international fanbases and have collaborated with well known brands the likes of Hypebeast and Skechers. In KL itself, it is not uncommon to see graffiti on the side of buildings, providing a platform and space for its artists to channel visual expressions.

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“EscapeVA, 2018. Paint & Spray paint on plywood. 12′ x 12′” 

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(Above) By Akid1 

Also on the same floor is the Attention Please: Installation exhibition, organised in conjunction with the gallery’s 60th anniversary, which presents a selection of installation works from NAG’s collection. The exhibition explores the emergence of installation art in Malaysia, drawing on traditional art and cultural influences reinterpreted in modern times.

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“Yap Sau Bin, 2002. Who Gave Birth To The Great White One. Mixed media, installation. 300 x 300 x 150-250 cm.” 

Note: This was basically a white rectangle on a red backdrop, with a white frame placed in front at a distance. When seen from a precise angle, the white was framed nicely within.

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Yee I-Lann Maria, 2013. Commemorate 2013. Good morning towel, paper plates packet, badge and ruler, variable size. 

Note: Although I did not quite understand the message behind it, this was one of my favourite installations for its visual quality – the school pinafores casting shadows across the room, the uniform towels commemorating Malaysia’s 50th birthday, the neat rows of plates in plastic, printed over with the same messages.

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Zulkifli Yusof, 1996. Dialogue 2 (Don’t Play During Maghrib). Mixed media. 221 x 1120 x 790 cm. 

In Malay-Muslim culture, waktu maghrib (evening prayer time when the sky turns dark) is said to be when spirits and demons come out to play. The installation, made to resemble a playground but with various somewhat grotesque figures around it, must be a reflection of the title.

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Mohd Farizal Puadi, 2010. Don’t Touch. Glass, wood and chair. 152.5 x 152.5 x 12.7 cm 

Note: The odd thing about this piece? You know how cameras  can detect ‘faces’ in a picture, right? Well I aimed my camera at it and the circle for a ‘face’ popped up wtf no

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An installation ispired by the ancient art of shadow puppetry, prevalent in the northern states of Kelantan and Kedah.

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Chang Yoong Chia’s Second Life exhibition (running until 31 January – yes I am a bit late to post this 😦 is a culmination of over 20 years of work. Not being in the art world, this is the first time I’ve seen his works – and they’re pretty mindblowing. The pieces are mostly in black, white and grey – resembling pencil sketches – but extremely minute and almost painfully detailed. Subjects dressed in office attire seemingly enter a world of fantasy filled with animals, fairies and odd things. It’s quite uncanny, but at the same time draws you in to each portrait.

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You have to marvel at the work but I wouldn’t want this in my living room lol. Very H.P.Lovecraft-esque.

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Paintings are not the only thing in Chang’s collection. I liked this series of painted seashells in which he describes a holiday in Japan with his wife, the shells forming panels of a storyboard.

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Clever use of objects like crab shells to create a pagoda-like shrine.

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Animal figurines assembled to form an outline of the artist’s silhouette against the light.

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Leaves used as a visual storytelling medium. This series is called The Botany of Desire, made with leaves gathered while Chang was completing his artist residency in Bangalore. The story is about a girl forced into an arranged marriage by her family, and aims to depict Chang’s stereotypical ideas about India from bits and pieces of Tamil and Hindi movies he watched in his younger days, as well as his observations during his residency.

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Paper cutouts of famous figures made to look like skulls. I would like to interpret this as ‘everyone dies in the end’ no matter how powerful or popular you may be.

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Chang’s mastery of various media is apparent: from leaves to shells and postage stamps. (Above) Liliput, 2011. Postage stamps and polyvinyl acetate glue. 83.5 x 58 cm”

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Don’t Spread Rumours, 2012. Postage stamps and polyvinyl acetate glue. 37 x 57 cm. A nod to the 1969 racial riots, a dark chapter in Malaysia’s history.

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A more recent piece that pokes fun at corrupt political figures who are just now being brought to justice. Diamonds are Forever, 2013.

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Another one of Chang’s pieces is the Quilt of the Dead, sewn with faces of the deceased taken from obituaries.

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Brehi: Kelantan Under The Skin (running until 3 February) explores the art of shadow puppetry in the state of Kelantan. Shadow puppets or wayang kulit have long been used as a form of entertainment in many parts of Southeast Asia, and often feature mythical or moral characters and stories, a form of oral tradition handed down through the generations.

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In short, the National Art Gallery is a great place to discover Malaysian art, and it’s also a nice spot for relaxation and a few quiet hours away from the crowds at KLCC and other touristy areas. Best of all? Entrance is free.

NATIONAL ART GALLERY 

No. 2, Jalan Temerloh, Off Jalan Tun Razak,
53200 Kuala Lumpur

Opening hours: 10AM – 6PM (daily)

GETTING THERE 

Rapid KL Bus 402 from KLCC heads towards the National Art Gallery. It does not stop directly in front of the building, so you will have to stop near Hospital KL and walk across the road. Coming back is a bit more complicated. You can either take 402 again to loop back to KLCC, or board 302. Alternatively, Grab services are available within the city.

 

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.

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Image: Wikipedia

 

 

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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.

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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.

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“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.

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“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.

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(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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

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

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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.

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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.

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

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

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Vivid colours in Carrying Fish by Peter Harris (1960) 

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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.

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

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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.

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

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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.

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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 .

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

NATIONAL VISUAL ARTS GALLERY (BALAI SENI VISUAL NEGARA) 

23B, Jalan Bachang, 51200 Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

Tel: +60 3-4041 8720

Opening hours (Daily): 10am – 6pm

Admission: FREE