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Thinking and Talking about Arts and Culture in Southeast Asia

Leading art collectors put pressure on Balai Seni Visual Negara

by Kathy Rowland

In a first for Malaysian art history,  a Collectors’ Petition signed by 55  private art collectors have warned Balai Seni Visual Negara that they will no longer be lending works from their collection to Balai in future unless Balai reinstates pieces removed from Ahmad Fuad Osman’s exhibition immediately.

Fuad Osman’s critically praised retrospective, At the End of the Day Even Art is Not Important (1990 – 2019), had been open to the public at Balai since October 2019. On Monday, 10 Feb, Fuad issued a statement accusing Balai of removing 4 pieces from the show without his consent. He called on Balai to restore the exhibition as it was originally conceived by him and the curator, Shabbir Hussain Mustafa. If Balai refused to stop censoring his work, Ahmad Fuad requested that Balai close the exhibition down immediately.

Following a meeting between Balai officials and Ahmad Fuad on Tuesday, Balai is reported to have said it would only reinstate three works of the four removed. We understand that Balai insists that ‘Imitating The Mountain’ must remained censored, on ground that it is obscene. The work was initially approved by Balai for inclusion in the show, and had been on public display for three months before this. At press time, Balai has yet to either return the four missing works, or close the show.

The Collectors Petition has been signed by some of the country’s most illustrious collectors, including Zain Azahari Zainal Abidin, Pakhruddin Sulaiman and Bingley Sim, all of whom have loaned works for At the End of the Day Even Art is Not Important (1990 – 2019). We understand that these three collectors have also asked for the return of the works they have lent to Balai for Ahmad Fuad’s exhibition.

Several collectors featured in the influential 30 Arts Friends publication, including Yee Tak Hong, Nariza Hashim, Anwar Jumabhoy, Datuk Lim Edin Nom and Dato Rosaline Ganendra are among the singatories of the petition.

Other collectors include Malaysian artists Azizan Paiman and Long Thien Shih, gallerist Datin Shalini Ganendra and Joshua Lim and architect Ng Sek San. Writers Datuk Paduka Marina Mahathir and Karim Raslan, directors Bronte Parlare and Jo Kukathas have also signed the Collectors Petition.

 

Power Is So Sweet That Whoever Tastes It Wants More by Ahmad Fuad Osman. Medium : acrylic on canvas; dimension : 123 x 92cm
year : 2008 (From the Private Collection of Dr Ruslan bin Sulaiman)

In a sign that this controversy has drawn international attention, signatories also include international collectors of Malaysian art, such as the internationally acclaimed Thai artists Manit Sriwanichpoom, and Tom Tandio, the organiser of Art Jakarta. Balai Seni Visual Negara is currently calling for international applications for KUL Biennale 2020. It is not known what the impact of Balai’s retroactive censorship of its own exhibition will have on its ability to attract the big names necessary to distinguish the KUL Biennale from other more established Biennale  in the region.

The petition was emailed to the Director General of Balai Seni Visual Negara,  Encik Amerrudin bin Ahmad at 6 pm, Saturday 15 Feb 2020. It is understood that Encik Amerrudin is scheduled to meet with the Minister of Tourism, Arts and Culture, YB Datuk Mohammadin Ketapi  this evening to explain Balai’s actions.

The Collectors Petition says that Balai’s removal of the works, which had been on display for 3 months prior, without any reported incident, “relates to accountability and transparency in the management of exhibitions in publicly funded art museums.”

This latest move will increase the public scrutiny of Balai’s decision. There has already been a public outcry, in the local and international media. The Deputy Minister of Tourism, Arts and Culture has written to Balai requesting the institution return the works and apologize to Ahmad Fuad. An earlier petition, issued by visual artists, gathered close to 400 signatures in less than two days, all standing in solidarity with Ahmad Fuad.

Should Balai continue with the censorship of Ahmad Fuad’s exhibition, it runs the risk of losing an important source of art works to buttress its own collection. Due to limited resources and the lack of a farsighted collection policy, many signification Malaysian artworks are held by private collectors or by institutions outside the country. Balai has had a generally positive relationship with collectors who often lend important works for national gallery’s exhibitions. With the threat of losing this access to an invaluable body of works held by these collectors, Balai’s ability to present major exhibitions in the future may be negatively impacted.


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.

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