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Malaysia's 10 Best Contemporary Artists and Where to Find Them

Picture of C. A. Xuan Mai Ardia
C. A. Xuan Mai Ardia
Updated: 8 February 2017
Malaysia is a country where a multi-ethnic population coexists, but more often than not, its various ethnicities keep to their own communities. Malaysian artists both explore their own particular origins and examine the socio-political situation of Malaysia as a unified nation. Through a diverse range of practices, the Malaysian contemporary art landscape is one not to be overlooked. Here are ten of its most exciting exponents.

 

Ahmad Zakii Anwar, Zebra, 2014, acrylic on jute, 147 x 274 cm | Courtesy of the artist and Gajah Gallery
Ahmad Zakii Anwar, Zebra, 2014, acrylic on jute, 147 x 274 cm | Courtesy of the artist and Gajah Gallery

Ahmad Zakii Anwar

Ahmad Zakii Anwar (b. 1955, Johor Bahru, Malaysia) began as a graphic artist for advertisements before turning to fine art. From charcoal to oil, his photorealist practice has evolved to incorporate aspects and elements of urban life and culture, with a distinctive psychological dimension and cinematic quality. Anwar explores his preoccupations with the psychological and spiritual aspects of urban life, expressed through a rich vocabulary of icons, symbols and allegories that extend to include metaphors of theatre, performance and masks. Anwar is deeply interested in theology and the divine, and his portraits often draw inspiration from all sorts of iconic religious imagery, including Buddha’s face, Hindu deities and a single rose flower, symbol of Sufism. The artist attempts to ‘distill the truth’ of human existence and as he said in a 2007 interview, ‘One of the most important things in my work is the sense of something absolute. I want to reflect the order of life, as well as internal beauty. I want to paint something more spiritual. I want people who look at the work to feel inner peace.’ In Being, a 2009 solo exhibition at the National University of Singapore Museum, Anwar presented the body as ‘an intertwined metaphor of the contemporary Self based on the Sufi premise of knowing oneself and then knowing God.’

Gajah Gallery, MICA Building, 140 Hill Street #01-08, Singapore, +65 6737 4202

 

 

Zulkifli Yusoff

Zulkifli Yusoff (b. 1962, Yan Kedah, Malaysia) works with drawing, sculpture, painting, print, installation and mixed media. He represented Malaysia in the inaugural Asia-Pacific Triennial in 1993 and he was the second Malaysian to show at the Venice Biennale (1997), with his work Don’t Play During Maghrib. His work sharply comments on Malaysian psyche and historical situation. Rukunegara 1: Belief in God (2013) was an installation presented at the Singapore Biennale (2013), referencing one of Malaysia’s national principles, the belief in God, and the need for faith or spiritual purification, as laid out in the Rukunegara, the Malaysian national ideology initiated by the Yang di-Pertuan Agong (Supreme Head of State) and Sultan of Kedah, Tuanku Abdul Halim Muadzam Shah, in 1970. The five-pointed philosophy, mirroring the five tenets of Islam – the majority religion in Malaysia – was a response to the May 1969 racial riots that caused a state of emergency. Yusoff’s previous series Negara Ku (2010), was directly inspired by those riots and featured peace signs, portraits of significant figures and serene natural shapes as a memorial to the traumatic events of 1969.

Wei-Ling Gallery, 8 Jalan Scott, Brickfields, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, +603-22601106

See a map of the above galleries and museums

 

 

Anurendra Jegadeva

Anurendra Jegadeva (b. 1965) creates work that comments on current socio-political issues, through fresh narrative approaches to contemporary and historical themes. In 2013, controversy over the showing of his work An Alphabet for the Middle Aged, Middle Classes arose, due to its use of symbolism that seemed to suggest disrespect or denigration of a particular racial or religious group. In a public statement, the artist explained the meaning of his work, as criticism of American interventionist policies in Iraq and his complete support of and solidarity for the Iraqi people through the disastrous ordeal. His latest solo exhibition MA-NA-VA-REH — Love, Loss and Pre-Nuptials in the Age of the Great Debate (2014) at Wei-Ling Gallery is both a tribute to Jegadeva’s cosmopolitan family background as a Hindu Indian man, as well as a critical reframing of recent inter-racial and religious tensions in this country. Inspired by the memory of his grandmother, an Hindu wedding planner, the room-sized installation comprises assorted paintings, collages, and kolams depicting a motley cast of multi-racial characters that surround a large painted altar in the center of the gallery, fashioned to resemble a ma-na-va-reh (traditional Hindu wedding dais). With multiple symbols from a variety of ethnic sources, ‘The wedding dais is […] a kind of stage for an imaginary interracial wedding that represents our utopian hopes for One Malaysia — a wishing well that recalls the lofty aspirations of our country right after independence in the late 1950s and early 60s.’

Wei-Ling Gallery, 8 Jalan Scott, Brickfields, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, +603-22601106

 

 

Anurendra Jegadeva, Ma-na-va-reh, 2014, room installation | Courtesy Wei-Ling Gallery
Anurendra Jegadeva, Ma-na-va-reh, 2014, room installation | Courtesy Wei-Ling Gallery

Ivan Lam

Ivan Lam (b. 1975) in artist unafraid to push the boundaries of his practice, challenging himself by experimenting with new techniques and media. His pop-inspired practice ranges from silkscreen, printmaking to painting and engages in the exploration of the reality of life in multicultural Malaysia, as well as of more universal issues that uncover the fragility of human life. In his solo exhibition Machines at Wei-Ling Gallery in 2012, the artist presented three monumental works that represented the biblical Trinity – the Father, The Son and the Holy Spirit – while at the same time referencing the three main ethnicities coexisting in Malaysia. The glossy paintings depict construction machines against a backdrop of architecture and blue sky. Devoid of human operators, these ‘tools’ reveal the fragility of the human form: our need for machines to realise our ambitions (PDF download). Lam observes: ‘Machines are the shortcomings of men. If we were perfect, they would never have been invented. Machines stand as a symbol of our failures, but [are] presented as our pride and joy.’

Wei-Ling Gallery, 8 Jalan Scott, Brickfields, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, +603-22601106

 

 

Ivan Lam, Zero hero, 2013, (diptych), synthetic polymer paint, scale model battleship encased in resin, canvas on board, 235 x 183 x 10.5 cm | Courtesy Wei-Ling Gallery
Ivan Lam, Zero hero, 2013, (diptych), synthetic polymer paint, scale model battleship encased in resin, canvas on board, 235 x 183 x 10.5 cm | Courtesy Wei-Ling Gallery

Noor Azizan Paiman

Noor Azizan Paiman (b. 1970, Malacca, Malaysia) plays with social mores, politics, gender issues and current events with a focus on Malaysian contemporary life. Paiman came to prominence with a 2005 exhibition, entitled Lightweight Heavyweight, featuring his work alongside fellow artist Ise (Roslisham Ismail) at Galeri Seni Maya in Kuala Lumpur. In 2007 he participated in the 7th Asia-Pacific Triennial (APT7), with his series The code, portraying politicians and others speaking in typed exchanges quoted from newspapers, magazines and other media sources in Bahasa Malaysia and English. The works revealed both the humor of everyday life and the fragility of its participants. These commentaries also referenced mythical beings in Southeast Asian life, showing that Malaysia’s socio-political history could be seen as a repetition of earlier stories. Paiman’s Malaysia – 365 Days in 2008 compiled documentation of 2008 with his caricature drawings, extracting statements and quotations from newspapers that reflected the sentiments of every day in 2008, a year that saw the dissolution of Parliament, general elections and subsequent dire consequences on the population. Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves (2012) commented on the burgeoning Malaysian economy of the 1990s and the ‘Ali Baba’ (lobbyist engaging in lucrative projects).

Wei-Ling Gallery, 8 Jalan Scott, Brickfields, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, +603-22601106

 

Noor Azizan Rahman Paiman, J. Dawn raid operation, London 1981, 2012, oil on canvas, 122 x 122 cm | Courtesy Wei-Ling Gallery
Noor Azizan Rahman Paiman, J. Dawn raid operation, London 1981, 2012, oil on canvas, 122 x 122 cm | Courtesy Wei-Ling Gallery

Peter H. H. Lim

Peter H. H. Lim (b. 1954, Kedah, Malaysia – based in Rome) works in a variety of media, including painting, sculpture, installation, video and performance. He is a Neo-conceptualist who favors large-scale works that incorporate elements of everyday life, at times recycled, repackaged or framed to take a new meaning and life. In 2010, the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art (UCCA) in Beijing held the artist’s first solo exhibition in China, entitled Gone with the Wind. For the show, Lim designed a site-specific installation, comprising fans hanging from the ceiling that slice through objects placed on top of columns and enthroned with various mixed media paintings hanging from the walls. In his work Hard Rain (2014), featured in his solo exhibition at Wei-Ling Gallery The Beginning of Something (2014), the flying helicopters are ‘the mirror of our condition: one of external spectators and victims, of subject-object in the storm that shakes the world.’ Beaten by the rain, the helicopters fly towards hope for salvation, as humanity does. That place beyond time and space is symbolized by the rainbow.

Wei-Ling Gallery, 8 Jalan Scott, Brickfields, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, +603-22601106

 

 

Peter HH Lim, Hard Rain In Red,2014, acrylic on canvas, 179x 772 cm | Courtesy Wei-Ling Gallery
Peter HH Lim, Hard Rain In Red,2014, acrylic on canvas, 179x 772 cm | Courtesy Wei-Ling Gallery

Phuan Thai Meng

Phuan Thai Meng (b. 1974, Batu Pahat, Johor, Malaysia) is hyperrealist painter, whose works comment on and investigate the current social landscape of his country. Artist Wong Hoy Cheong nominated Meng’s Fact and Factor (2011) for the Signature Art Prize 2014, a work that continues on the artist’s preoccupation with Malaysia’s social situation. Rendered in his signature hyperrealist style, the painting depicts a wrapped water filter poster calling for clean water supplies. It stands as a subtle provocation on the monopoly on infrastructure by specific companies that make the life of communities more difficult. At the 7th Asia-Pacific Triennial (2012), Meng presented The Luring of [ ] . (2012), a 10-metre panoramic painting depicting a view through a number of freeway underpasses in Kuala Lumpur. The photorealist work offers a glimpse into the forgotten spaces of cities that lie between rapid construction and urban decay. The contrast between the seamlessly rendered image and the structural decay and grime of the subject is further emphasized by the cuts in the canvas and its dangling pieces, revealing the plywood beneath. These interventions evoke the contrasting realities of the urbanscape of Malaysia, where city slums coexist alongside heavy concrete mass developments, and point to the fallibility of civic ambitions.

Valentine Willie Fine Art, Kuala Lumpur (closing from Dec. 2014) and Singapore, +603 2284 2348 (KL) and +65 8133 1760 (Singapore); and Wei-Ling Gallery, 8 Jalan Scott, Brickfields, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, +603-22601106

 

Phuan Thai Meng, Seats, 2006, newspaper collage and charcoal on rice paper glued on canvas, 76.5 x 122.5 cm | Courtesy Wei-Ling Gallery
Phuan Thai Meng, Seats, 2006, newspaper collage and charcoal on rice paper glued on canvas, 76.5 x 122.5 cm | Courtesy Wei-Ling Gallery

Wong Hoy Cheong

Wong Hoy Cheong (b. 1960, Penang, Malaysia) works in a variety of media, including drawing, painting, photography, video, installation and performance. After exploring his interest in the migration of plants, Cheong developed his investigation into human migration and the related subjects of race, colonization and indigeneity. These social, political and historical issues are often central themes of his practice. Starting from local specificities, his works expand into commentaries beyond their immediate context. The politics of otherness, of being a foreigner living abroad, drive his creation and are a point of entry to a critique of the appropriation and commodification of cultural and social difference. In his film Doghole (2010), in the Guggenheim Collection, the artist explores the occupation of Malaysia by the Japanese during and after the Second World War. The film examines the same event treated in his 1990 installation of painting, performance and film Sook Ching (‘cleansing’ or ‘purge’), in which he analyses the titular 1942 massacre through stories of terror and trauma related by survivors, and by the families of young Chinese who were detained by the Kempeitai (Imperial Japanese Army). Doghole portrays the event through the eyes of only one survivor of the detention cells, Wong Kum Peng.

Eslite Gallery, 5F, No. 11, Songgao Road, Taipei, Taiwan, +886 (0) 2 8789 3388 ext.1588; Tepper Takayama Fine Arts, The Statler Building, 20 Park Plaza, Suite 600, Boston, MA, USA, + 1 617 542-0557; and Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, 1071 Fifth Avenue, New York, NY, USA, +1 212 423 3575

Wong Hoy Cheong, Days of Our Lives: The Soldiers Farewell, 2009, digital photograph on coated canvas, edition of 15 + 2AP, 94 x 114 cm | Courtesy Tepper Takayam Fine Arts
Wong Hoy Cheong, Days of Our Lives: The Soldiers Farewell, 2009, digital photograph on coated canvas, edition of 15 + 2AP, 94 x 114 cm | Courtesy Tepper Takayam Fine Arts

Yee I-Lann

Yee I-Lann (b. 1971, Kota Kinabalu, Sabah, Malaysia) is an artist and film production designer. Her practice engages with issues surrounding the turbulent history of the Southeast Asian archipelago, addressing the socio-political impact of current politics, neo-colonialism and globalization, and speculating on issues of culture, power and the role of historical memory in our social experience. Her photomedia-based work features a multi-layered vocabulary inspired by historical references, popular culture, archives and everyday objects. In her first solo exhibition at Tyler Rollins Fine Art in New York, entitled Picturing Power (2014), she presented eight digital collages that referenced the history of photography in relation to the development of colonialism in Southeast Asia and its contemporary legacy. Mixing colonial era and contemporary images, Yee seems to ‘suggest a Malaysian present still dictated by a complicated and unresolved past.’ Her photographic installation The sun will rise in the East and deliver us from this long night (2012) features neon-colored Braille-like motifs of embracing couples collected from the Internet. The erased figures, with only their interlocked arms visible, can be read as an attempt to disarm the past.

Tyler Rollins Fine Art, 529 West 20 Street, 10W, New York, NY, USA, +1 212 229 9100

 

Yee I-Lann, Picturing Power: Wherein one surreptitiously performs reconnaissance to collect views and freeze points of view to be reflective of one's own kind, 2013, Giclée print on Hahnemüle Photo Rag Ultra Smooth Fine Art, 310 gsm 100% cotton rag paper, 63 x 180 cm, Ed. of 8 + 2AP | Courtesy Tyler Rollins Fine Art
Yee I-Lann, Picturing Power: Wherein one surreptitiously performs reconnaissance to collect views and freeze points of view to be reflective of one’s own kind, 2013, Giclée print on Hahnemüle Photo Rag Ultra Smooth Fine Art, 310 gsm 100% cotton rag paper, 63 x 180 cm, Ed. of 8 + 2AP | Courtesy Tyler Rollins Fine Art

Hasnul Jamal Saidon

Hasnul Jamal Saidon (b. 1965, Perak, Malaysia) is a self-proclaimed traveller and unveiler of light who is in a constant state of becoming. He searches to find the light within all beings and known universe, aiming at connecting himself and his works to the public, to return to a state of quantum Oneness that unites all beings, as tangible in The Veil of an Artist (2010). He often makes reference to Malay parables and stories and his inspiration comes from the love of life and all living beings. As one of the pioneering artists of video art in Malaysia, Hasnul often combines his videos with installation and painting. One of his early works, Kedek…kadek…ong… (1994) depicted a frog living under a coconut shell and completely unaware of the surroundings beyond the shell, adverse to change and new ideas. The video was inspired by a Malaysian proverb that said one should not alienate oneself against the outside world because this will hinder oneself from acquiring greater knowledge. Saidon participated in an online exhibition with another pioneer in video art in 2008, entitled Relocations. In his video installation Siri Hijab Nurbaya (2003), he addressed questions of gender and identity within the global mainstream media.

Galeri Chandan, Lot 24 & 25 (G4), Block C5, Publika Shopping Gallery, Jalan Dutamas 1, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, +603 – 6201 5360