By Nabilah Said
(2,220 words, 11-minute read)
Had Malaysian artist-poet Latiff Mohidin been French, he might perhaps strongly identify with the idea of the flâneur. Coined by French poet Charles Baudelaire, the French word for someone who strolls in the city found cachet as a description of the artist-poet who drew inspiration from the city around him. In his 1964 essay, The Painter of Modern Life, the French poet Charles Baudelaire described him thus:
“To be away from home and yet to feel oneself everywhere at home; to see the world, to be at the centre of the world, and yet to remain hidden from the world…He is an ‘I’ with an insatiable appetite for the ‘non-I’, at every instant rendering and explaining it in pictures more living than life itself, which is always unstable and fugitive.”
Between the years of 1960 and 1969, the floppy haired Seremban-born Latiff left his hometown of Malaysia and school life in Singapore to study in West Berlin; later he returned to Malaysia before leaving again for other parts of the region such as Bangkok, Cambodia and Indonesia.
But while flâneur might be apt, Latiff might prefer another term relevant to his Minangkabau roots – merantau. It is common, even today, for the young Malay men of the Minangkabau community to leave home, or merantau, to gain knowledge or experience before coming back home. This practice developed out of the matrilineality of the Minangkabau community, where property passed down from mother to daughter. As such, men would often leave home to find economic opportunities or make a name for themselves elsewhere (Kato, 1982).
Latiff’s observations of the different environments around him, including the temples and natural world of Indochina and the Nusantara, the Thai and Khmer relics he observed in a Berlin museum, and the growing consciousness of his own identity vis-à-vis the world, inspired a series of artworks, and a larger spirit he termed Pago Pago. The word draws from the east Sumatran way of pronouncing pagar pagar, the supporting structures found in traditional Minangkabau homes, as well as pagoden, the German term for pagoda.
These works are currently on display in a solo exhibition at the Centre Pompidou in Paris until May 28, a joint effort between the Parisian modern art institution and the National Gallery Singapore. With over 70 paintings, sketches and other works housed in a dedicated gallery on the same floor as masterpieces by the likes of Picasso, Matisse and Dali, this show is historically significant as the first solo exhibition by a Southeast Asian artist the museum has ever seen.
The gallery’s introductory text notes that the Pago Pago series attempts to “challenge the dominance of Western modernism in the 1960s”. Curators Shabbir Hussain Mustafa and Catherine David do an admirable job in communicating the richness of the world of Pago Pago to an international audience. Energetic paintings such as PROVOKE (1965) and Tumbuhan Tropika (Tropical Growth) (1968) dominate the gallery’s walls, depicting pagoda-like structures, overgrown flora and abstractions of natural forms. These sit alongside poems and written meditations that often contain motifs of nature and sketches that combine both the man-made and the natural, such as the artist’s renderings of tree-topped relics inspired by the temples of Angkor.
But to truly begin to understand Pago Pago, one would need to peruse the contents of three glass displays in the gallery. These cases contain a minutiae of the artist’s life and work in the 1960s – poems, photos, press clippings and other materials from his personal archives. There is a particular sketch, done in 1966, of what looks to be a map of Berlin but with the Brandenburg Gate topped with a pagoda roof. In the exhibition’s catalogue, Latiff notes:
“I imagined Berlin between a garden and a zoo, forms that resemble a rainforest garden surrounding the Brandenburger Tor, which in turn morph into a temple in Cambodia. At the time, everything around me would transform into Pago Pago.”
This Pago Pago spirit is evident in the series of paintings, which seem to contain opposing energies. Despite depicting what some would consider meditative and harmonious subjects, the artist also favours sharp, almost invasive spikes and horned forms which hint at a kind of darkness and simmering anger. In his 1988 publication G.A.R.I.S. Latiff Mohidin Dari Titik Ke Titik (L.I.N.E. Latiff Mohidin From Point to Point), Latiff refers to two “basic forms” of energy – the man-made impulse to build upwards, and “God’s creation” which reaches down into the earth. This text is reproduced in one of the glass cases.
“Two forms of energy that meet-embrace, clash-merge…seem to go on fighting their tremendous battle… all the sketches I have worked at all these years… what can I say? Are a mere scratch or two of the force of movement and violent-vibration of such event [sic]…”
It might be helpful to consider something Singapore playwright Alfian Sa’at recently published on Facebook following a visit to London, that a “decolonising practice” should “acknowledge that maybe the ‘centre’ becomes the centre when we think of it as a point of achievement and arrival. We must make our own centres ourselves”. I applaud National Gallery Singapore for helping to create our own “centre” of modern art in the French capital, and to me Pago Pago holds its own amongst the masterpieces in Centre Pompidou.
However, I question whether visitors come away with a rich understanding of the artist’s practice, which as it is, extends beyond the 1960s and has been long celebrated in the region and abroad. It is celebrated as his “first major exhibition in Europe” in the gallery’s wall text, but there is no mention in the gallery of the artist’s later series of works, such as the symmetrical forms of the Mindscape series and the passionate Rimba series, nor a general sense of the 77-year-old Penang-based artist’s continued prominence in the region.
Looking only at the artworks hanging on the gallery walls, one might miss the darker underbelly to the exhibition: this tension within the artist, reacting to what was happening without. Latiff arrived in Europe in 1961 just as the Berlin Wall went up, and later saw how the Cold War spread from its epicentre in the West to Southeast Asia, which was itself going through a period of rupture and suture. The region in the 1960s saw, for example, the separation and independence of Malaysia and Singapore, communist insurgencies, and the formation of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).
To understand Pago Pago is also to understand Latiff Mohidin. Though this is beyond the control of the show’s curators, I wonder how the artist was perceived through the Pompidou presentation. During my visit, which was on a free admission day, not many viewers stopped to examine the materials in the glass display, which themselves were rather small and the text hard to read. This included a 1953 article in The Free Press which celebrates the sale of a painting to Singapore’s then-Commissioner General, Malcolm Macdonald, at the age of 11; glowing mentions of Latiff’s exhibitions in international press such as Die Welt and The Bangkok Post; snaps of the hippie-looking artist in Laos and candid moments with fellow artists from the region.
But taken together, one does come away with a renewed sense of awe for this “understudied” artist, to borrow a word used by the directors of National Gallery Singapore and Bernard Blistène in their joint foreword in the exhibition catalogue. This is an artist strongly attuned to the socio-political developments of the region, who represented a new modernist and postcolonial sensibility developed out of his Western education and exposure to modern art movements. He possesses, as fellow Malaysian artist Ismail Zain neatly termed, a “vernacular cosmopolitanism”. This is a man who speaks German on top of English and Bahasa Melayu and understands French and Italian, but says the memory of his “little village” of Lenggeng in Negeri Sembilan stays with him wherever he travels.
One of the texts on display is a poem titled Berlayarlah Kolek Malam (Sail On My Nightboat), scribbled on notebook paper, with a drawing of a woman hidden behind it, which I had to read on tiptoe. Unfortunately its lyricism and deep sense of longing seems lost in the English translation. (I can’t speak for the French translation, however.)
belayarlah kolek malam
dan datang padaku
hati ini berlagu jua
mata ini berkisah jua
darah ini mengalir jua
dan beri kabar
These textual components in particular are as important as the paintings in representing Latiff’s artistic output at the time and I wish these could have been highlighted in a more prominent fashion. The danger is that a visitor might mistakenly view the paintings in a more primitivist light. It is easy to take Latiff’s Southeast Asian sensibility – seen in works such as Karam (Shipwreck) (1964) with its pagoda-like depiction of boats and his affinity for local plants like the rumbia and pandanus leaf in Spiky Plants (1964) – at face value and think that he is rendering what is essentially totemic, using a bold and more emotional style of German expressionism.
Latiff himself recognised this danger, expressed in his essay found in the exhibition’s catalogue:
“I have never fully understood what is primitive about Pago Pago. Some say this label is my own doing. Some of the Pago Pago works look like totems… This then got interpreted as primitive…”
In his book The Elementary Forms of Religious Life (1912), French sociologist Emile Durkheim suggests that a totem is a symbol that man decides, collectively, has a sacred quality. He points to moments of “collective effervescence”, where members in society gather and celebrate, conjuring a shared sense of sacredness. He thus equates totems to being a symbol of society. Latiff’s paintings may bear suggestions of totemic structures, but to insist on their primitiveness is to ignore the capacity of modern societies to build new forms of religion, and the dangers these can bring – rampant capitalism and the subprime mortgage crisis, for instance. Viewed in this light, those sharp horns come to represent something more familiar, and often just as sinister.
But moving past this idea of totems being symbols of society, art historian T.K. Sabapathy notes in a 1994 essay (reproduced in the exhibition’s catalogue) that Latiff is one of the few artists in the region to syncretise such forms of regional architecture and nature to create an “iconography which is new, and not merely a feeble revival or renovation of existing, decaying or dead traditions.”
“…it is tempting to draw analogies with totemic effigies, such analogies can be sustained at the formal and emotional levels. The Pago Pago pictures can be read as conveying iconic resonances…in the sense that the symbolic implications point to presence and power…arising from the creative capacities of man and nature.”
Even the term Pago Pago could have been further unpacked in the show. The word itself does not exist, though it has Malay and German roots. It is unfamiliar yet familiar, recalling what Baudelaire called “‘I’ with an insatiable appetite for the ‘non-I’”. It makes me think of the use of kata ganda, or duplicated words, in the Malay language. Pago-pago can be considered a kata ganda semu, a special duplication used for nouns, where the singular word has no meaning on its own. These include words such as rama-rama (butterfly) and kanak-kanak (children). Seen in this light, Pago Pago could be Latiff’s attempt to create his own “centre”, a style that is singularly his – by naming it he gives it form and identity tied to his own. (He did, however, later come to know that Pago Pago is also the name of the capital of American Samoa.)
This framing of the work of a Southeast Asian Malay artist in an international context reminds me of a 17-metre rattan ship that until last weekend was docked in the bowels of TheatreWorks’ 72-13, the homecoming of Zai Kuning’s artwork, Dapunta Hyang: Transmission of Knowledge. This massive installation represented Singapore contemporary art at last year’s Venice Biennale. Previously shown in different iterations in Singapore, Paris and Hong Kong, this work helped showcase the scale of the Malay world and empire to an international audience, whilst introducing them to the personal meditations and fascinations of the artist himself.
Such efforts take the idea of merantau further. While ambitious and not a guarantee of success, perhaps travelling is the best way practising artists and modern-day institutions can start to destabilise traditional centres of art in the world while continuing to shake up the scene at home. That, and finding the right partners overseas. This is especially appropriate as Latiff Mohidin’s solo is National Gallery Singapore’s first travelling show and is meant to be a jumping off point from its own exhibition, Reframing Modernism, which was also co-curated and co-presented with Centre Pompidou.
Through this impressive show, held in an esteemed institution, sharing the same floor as the luminaries of modern art, and with a view of the Tour Eiffel and the Sacré-Cœur rising amidst the Parisian cityscape, National Gallery Singapore and Centre Pompidou have in their own ways helped create a new centre of modern art in the world, built around the juggernaut many know as Pak Latiff. We should celebrate this even as we draw up blueprints for the next one.
Baudelaire, C., & Mayne, J. (1995). The painter of modern life and other essays (2nd ed., Arts & letters). London: Phaidon.
David, C., Shabbir Hussain Mustafa, & Centre Georges Pompidou. (2018). Latiff Mohidin : Pago Pago (1960-1969).
Durkheim, E. (1976). The elementary forms of the religious life / introduction by Robert Nisbet. (2nd ed.). London: Allen and Unwin.
Kato, T. (1982). Matriliny and migration : Evolving Minangkabau traditions in Indonesia. Ithaca, N.Y: Cornell University Press.
Latiff Mohidin: Pago Pago (1960-1969) runs at Centre Pompidou until May 28.
Guest Contributor Nabilah Said is a playwright, arts writer and poet. Her plays have been presented in Singapore and London by Teater Ekamatra, The Necessary Stage and Bhumi Collective. Nabilah hopes she can use her experience in theatre, arts journalism and the visual arts to create a more empathetic society.