By Kathy Rowland
(1400 words, 8 minute read)
Balai Seni Visual Negara Malaysia (Balai) is once again accused of censoring artists’ work. The victim this time is noted visual artist Ahmad Fuad Osman, who was honoured with a mid-career solo show at Balai, At the End of the Day Even Art is Not Important (1990 – 2019), which opened three months ago. Rumours have been circulating for well over a week that elements of the work were removed, but as is often the case in acts of censorship, the incident was shrouded in secrecy and silence. In a highly unusual move, Ahmad Fuad released a detailed statement on his Facebook page on Monday 10 February 2020, listing the chain of events that led to the removal of four pieces from the show. He posted before and after photos for good measure, the blank walls in themselves making a powerful statement.
Among the pieces censored are sculptures of pigs from the installation Mak Bapak Borek, Anak Cucu Cicit Pun Rintik (2015-2018), portraits of PM Tun Dr Mahathir Muhammad, Minister Dato Seri Azmin Ali and politician Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim, from a work entitled Dreaming Of Being A Somebody Afraid Of Being A Nobody (UV print on mirror, 2019) and a wall of Missing posters of Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim with the infamous black eye. The works had been on public display, without incident, since the exhibition opened on 29 October 2019. Fuad’s statement alleges that Balai was acting at the behest of an unnamed member of the Gallery’s Board of Directors, making the decision to remove the work all the more worrisome.
This is not the first time that Balai has been accused of removing works or standing in the way of artistic expression. In 1999, Azizan Paiman’s mixed-media installation, Perkara Halal exhibited as part of the 1997 Young Contemporary Show winners was also censored, when a plastic feces, placed beneath a gilded chair was removed, allegedly on the instructions of Balai’s leadership.
In 2013, two works, Cheng Yen Pheng’s painting, Alksnaabknuaunmo and Izat Arif Saiful Bahrin’s Fa Qaf were on public display at Balai’s Bakat Muda Sezaman 2013, for several months. However, the works were removed before the official prize-giving ceremony in February 2014, which was officiated by the then Minister of Culture, and Tourism, Datuk Seri Mohd Nazri Aziz. It was reported that neither the artists, curators nor judges were consulted or notified before the works were removed.
The inaugural KL Biennale 2017, spearheaded by Balai was also rocked by controversy. Reports that parts of a found-object installation by a Malaysian collective Pusat Sekitar Seni (PSS) and two Indonesians from Population Project were removed before the opening of the Biennale by Balai, was further compounded by allegations that the artists were barred from accessing their own works. The artists withdrew their work from the Biennale in protest.
Balai is the oldest arts institution in Malaysia and has played an essential role in the development of Malaysia’s visual arts scene. Its prestige may have diminished over the past few years due to the lack of leadership, and resources, but it is nonetheless an essential part of the local visual arts ecosystem, one that artists and curators would be wary of crossing publicly.
Ahmad Fuad’s decision to go public, and in such detail, signals an important shift in the way that artists engage with the institution. It is perhaps fitting that this artist, and this body of work, has ventured to call out the lack of transparency and to demand accountability. Fuad graduated from UITM in the early 1990s, part of a generation of Malaysians who were beneficiaries of Malaysia’ economic boom, yet grappled with the darker side of the authoritarian Mahathir years. Together with contemporaries, Bayu Utomo Radjikin, Ahmad Shukri, Masnoor Ramli and Hamir Soib @ Mohamed, he formed the influential Matahati Collective in 1991, which is today one of the country’s oldest active collectives. Fuad’s work Syhhh…! Dok diam-diam, jangan bantah. Mulut hang hanya boleh guna untuk cakap yaaa saja. Baghu hang boleh join depa… senang la jadi kaya! (1999), made against the backdrop of the Reformasi years, combined self-implication and social indictment to become one of the most iconic works of the period.
In the two decades since, Fuad has stretched himself artistically, working in a variety of genres such as sculptures, installation and video art. While his medium varies, all his works feed off the ebbs and flows of history, politics and power in Malaysia. Fuad has gained an international reputation as a Malaysian artist whose works force a powerful reckoning with the nation and he is widely exhibited outside of Malaysia. Yet, the honour of being invited to hold a solo, mid-career review of one’s work is not something a Malaysian artist will take lightly. Fuad, in person, is not given to grandstanding. Therefore, his principled stand that Balai must close his show unless the four works are restored to the show is certainly not one the artist will have come to without due consideration.
The facts, as we understand them, points to a tragedy all of Balai’s own making. In choosing to heed the unauthorised voice of a board member, as it is alleged, Balai has sacrificed the rights of its principle stakeholder, the artist. It has opened itself up to public ire and widespread condemnation.
An open letter to Balai’s Board, spearheaded by a group of Malaysian visual artists, is now gathering signatures from the wider arts community. At the time of writing, 381 people have signed so far. Among other things the letter demands that the individual board member responsible be publicly identified and that Fuad’s works be reinstated.
A press release issued by Balai late on Monday night is defiant in tone, citing its “SOP” (without any irony, it should be noted), which allows it to remove any works that touches on the “dignity of any individual, religion, politics, race, culture and nation”.
Yet, as Ahmad Fuad notes in his original statement, all the works in his retrospective were approved by Balai well before the show opened and the now censored works were on public display for months before their removal. Further, Fuad is a 30-year veteran of the local arts scene and his body of work was well known to Balai, rendering the SOP argument specious.
In apparent response to this, Balai’s Director, Encik Amerruddin Bin Ahmad states that “Exhibitions are a process, and not a final product; even as the exhibition is running, this process is constantly ongoing to achieve a maturity that is suitable with our visitors and our society.”*
Artists may well view this as a chilling statement. It implies that any artwork that enters Balai’s door ceases to be a “final product” as deemed so by its creator. To exhibit at Balai then is to potentially relinquish power over one’s work to the “editing” impulses of curators, bureaucrats, and any number of board members at any given moment. It’s like signing a contact with someone who tells you right from the start that they will not abide by any of the terms of agreement.
If indeed this is what the Director means, it is an astonishingly bald statement to come from the leader of national arts, one that seems to operate within the realm of absolute power rather than as a publicly accountable institution meant to support the arts.
On social media and in the mainstream press, there are have been calls for answers and accountability. This is unlikely to go away soon. With plans afoot for the next edition of the KL Biennale, Balai cannot afford the loss of credibility amongst local artists nor the international arts community. Its latest statement will discredit Balai Seni Visual Negara further in the eyes of the local and international arts community, who are certainly following the unfolding drama with interest.
The title of Ahmad Fuad’s retrospective, At the End of the Day Even Art in Not Important (1990 – 2019) is laden with a sly playfulness that cushions the hard reality of being an artist. With his decisive response to Balai’s latest misstep, and the gathering support from artists and the public, one hopes that it will yet prove its satirical credentials by showing how important, and powerful, art and artists can be.
*Translated into English by ArtsEquator from the original in Malay: “Pameran adalah merupakan suatu proses dan ianya bukan produk akhir, walaupun dalam tempoh berpameran, proses ini sentiasa berjalan untuk mendapatkan kematangan yang sesuai dengan penjunjung dan masyarakat kita.”
To sign the Open Letter to Balai in support of Ahmad Fuad Osman, go here.
For more information on arts censorship and controversies in Malaysia, go to the My Art Memory Project Censorship timeline at https://myartmemoryproject.com/censorship
Kathy Rowland is the co-founder of ArtsEquator.