The usual high level of catalogue writing in Malaysia was boosted recently by two major books containing some of the best writing in recent years.
The National Gallery of Malaysia published Vision and Idea – "Relooking Modern Malaysian Art", a 218 page coverage of an exhibition of the same name.
Edited by the noted Singapore arts writer and critic, Kanaga Sabapathy, the book contains a number of high quality essays by leading Malaysian arts figures, Krishen Jit, Redza Piyadasa, Zainol Shariff and by Sabapathy himself.
As a panel, these writers were originally charged with producing an exhibition celebrating 35 years of the National Art Gallery. In doing so they wanted to reflect on the actual history of modem art (or was it to be Modernism?) in the country - a practice which was much older than the Gallery itself.
There was a shortage of critical writing in the real sense since the publication of "Modern Artists of Malaysia" by Piyadasa & Sabapathy, and the panel resolved to do a complete re-evaluation of the "meanings of art, its operations and social presence".

This has produced some remarkable attacks on the hitherto accepted dogma of the inspirational and creative role of the British and Chinese art teachers (and the subjugation of the Malay creative spirit) and the historical place of such luminaries as Yong Mun Sen the "cidevant" "father of modern Malaysian art".

New lines of examining the role and strength of innate "Malay" culture are drawn in convincing fashion and there is another look at the effect of the May 1969 riots on Chinese, Indian and Malay artists and the whole culture of this multicultural nation.

Throw in a dash of Modernism, Post-Modernism, Expressionism, World War II, the Communist uprising, Merdeka (Independence) and the emergence of an Islamic nation and there are many questions to be asked about "modern Malaysian art".

Highly recommended for all students of modern art in this part of the world for the writing and the high quality reproductions of the art works in the exhibition. Cost, incl. postage $M110 (about $A58).

The new Nanyang Gallery of Art ("Artlink" vol 15 no 1 page 6) in Kuala Lumpur, headed by Joseph Tan Chan Jin, himself an Australian art school graduate, has been established to be "a centre for the visual arts, representing and dealing with artworks by creative artists of Malaysia, the region of Southeast Asia, and other regions." It will also establish an art collection for its backers, the Hong Leong group.

The first publication in its "Sariseni" (Essence of Art) series is devoted to a retrospective of the leading artist, Syed Ahmad Jamal, recently retired Director of the National Art Gallery of Malaysia. The related exhibition was the first held in the new - but temporary - gallery space. A new purpose-built gallery is projected down the line.

This "historical overview 1954-94" is a just tribute to one of the best artists produced in Malaysia, one whose work has only got better since he retired.

Edited by the indefatigable T. K. Sabapathy, the book follows Jamal's development as an art student under the British administration in Malaysia, his time in British art schools and the return to an independent Malaysia seeking to establish its own art history, in which he was to play a leading role as administrator, teacher and artist. The usual high standard text is accompanied by excellent reproductions of the work of this very fine artist. An interesting inclusion is a chart mapping the artist's career alongside a chart of contemporary political and social developments and one of artistic history.

One for the library shelves. Cost $M98 plus $M60 courier (about $A98).
The National Art Gallery has also published a very fine catalogue on the "Ismail Zain, Retrospective Exhibition 1964-91".

The late Ismail Zain was one of the most cerebral cultural thinkers and writers in Southeast Asia and sadly much of the time he devoted to these activities and the administrative roles he was called upon to play reduced his magnificent artistic output.

Krishen Jit and Redza Piyadasa again contribute fine essays on the man and his art. From a painter in traditional Western terms, he went on to become the foremost artist working on computers in Malaysia, and perhaps the Asian region. The works completed in the last years of his life are outstanding examples of his imagination and skill and are beautifully presented in this quality catalogue. Cost not available.

More recently the National Art Gallery hosted its first major multi-media event - "Skin Trilogy - A visual performance event on a futuristic Malaysia".

A series of visual installations by leading artists (including Simryn Gill, well known to Australian artists) was accompanied by dance, theatre and music in a six week series of events which drew excellent audiences and responses. A descriptive catalogue is available.

Contact addresses are:
National Art Gallery
1 Jalan Sultan Hishamuddin
50050 Kuala Lumpur

Nanyang Gallery of Art
1 Lorong 4/137C
Bedford Business Park
Jalan Klang Lama
58000 Kuala Lumpur

Cultural Organisation in Southeast Asia
by Jenny Lindsay,
pub. Australia Council,
Dept Foreign Affairs & Trade & the Myer Foundation,

We should all get down on our knees and give thanks to the publishers for being smart enough to fund Jenny Lindsay's proposal for this book.

Covering Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam, the book sets out to give us not only an insight into the administrative organisation of cultures and cultural activities but into the basic philosophies and attitudes towards 'culture' in the region.

Most Australians now appreciate that the cultures of countries in the region are not only different from ours but differ from their neighbours' culture. What we have failed to do, Ms Lindsay says, is to understand how these differences affect the actual operation of cultural exchange - "Unless foreign artists, cultural planners and politicians understand the cultural infrastructure of the countries with which they are working, how can 'exchange' take place?"
Though much of the intimate detail provided in each of the country profiles gives a picture of difficult operational procedures which might put one off trying to promote cultural exchange in the region, Ms Lindsay wants us simply to put a bit more of an effort into getting an understanding of the region and what makes things happen there. We can look at new ways of joining in the banquet that is served up every day in the existing cultural institutes and organisations and by individual creative souls out there.

As one who has spent a number of years working in this area, 1 have to say that I learnt much from the detail provided - and I found it difficult to criticise the accuracy of the information she has set down. I simply commend this book to anyone remotely interested in ploughing the fertile cultural fields in Southeast Asia. It should be on the library shelves in every school in our increasingly multi-cultural society so that our children will have a better understanding of the kids they are growing up with.

As the author says in her Introduction, this volume does not propose all the answers, but suggests that we have to look at new questions. Sound advice, but it also raises the question as to what happens to this book now and the information it contains.

Like many similar surveys, some of the information will date or new developments will occur in these fast developing societies. Two new art academies have opened in Malaysia since the research was done and both have expressed interest in drawing on Australian art education expertise. How do we gain ongoing access to these changes? Where is there a data-base we can readily access?

But this should not distract from the fact that in this book we do have an excellent starting point from which to proceed to enrich the cultural fabric of Australia and its near neighbours.

Copies are available from: Asialink, 107 Barry Street, Carlton, VIC. 3053 at a cost of $20 plus $3 local postage for each copy ordered.

Reviewed by Neil Manton