From 28 March till 21 April, VWFA celebrates the country's 50th anniversary with an exhibition featuring the key artists from Malaysia's modern art history. Drawn from key local private collections and curated by Valentine Willie, this biennale exhibition has proved a valuable benchmark and reference for collectors. The featured paintings span from 1920s till the 1960s, and reflect in them the formal and ideological challenges and the changes in our society over the decades.
Central to this year's collection are the artists who were responsible for turning Penang into our country's early artistic centre. The earliest amongst them is the now legendary Yong Mun Sen (1896 - 1962) who set up his first studio there in 1922. He is primarily known for his work in watercolour, recording the historic architecture, palm oil plantations and tin mines, and their workers, fishermen, and trades people. Mun Sen would also occasionally paint using oil on canvas.
Fujian-born Penang artist Kuo Ju Ping (1908- 1962) graduated as one of the first batch of students to study at the Nanyang Academy of Fine Art in Singapore, in 1940. In his work and teaching he emphasized the rewards of drawing from life, and the importance of sketching, and this tendency contributes to the clarity and lightness of his paintings.
Khaw Sia (1913-1984) graduated from Sung Hua Academy Shanghai and then studied watercolour painting under Sir Russell Flint in England. He emigrated to Penang 1937, later to exhibit extensively in London and Paris. Although he also worked in oil, and was a fine portrait artist, he is most noteworthy for having pushed the techiniques of an essentially 19th Century tradition of watercolour painting into the realm of photo-realism.
While these artists would experiment and popularize the western mediums of watercolour on paper and oil on canvas, these migrant artists were without doubt enamored by beauty of Malaya as one see in the humble and tender scenes such as Yong Mun Sen's View of Kedah from Penang Hill, Kuo Ju Ping's View from Armenian Street and Khaw Sia's Watch Tower by the Sea.
Chuah Thean Teng also worked in Penang but made his name by pioneering the use of batik as a medium for pictorial art in the mid-1950s. A graduate of Amoy Fine Arts Academy in China, he championed the batik tradition as an indigenous art form, and saw its expressive potential. He worked with the accidental effects of dyeing, the graphic, patterlinear quality of regional textile design and the often dusky, transluscent quality of dyes, towards a unique stylisation of local kampong life.
The most famous Penang artist of all is undoubtedly Latiff Mohidin (b.1941). Hailed as "Wonder Boy" of Malaysian art since his first solo exhibition at the age of 11, Latiff Mohidin has in many ways proved true to his mythification as the archetypal Malaysian, and arguably Southeast Asian modern artist. A painter, poet and sometime sculptor, he might be said to have consistently sought to give form to the soul of Southeast Asia as experienced from within. The unique architecture and vegetation of the region, the powerful elements of sea and storm, the dark intensity of our rainforests, the spiritual and even cosmic facets of our cultural traditions have fed his art, through the several series of work he has made in the past fifty years.
Back in Kuala Lumpur, the art scene gained momentum through activities of figures such as Peter Harris (b. 1923). In 1951, Peter Harris became Superindendent of Art Education in 1951, which saw him being instrumental in the creation of Malaya's first national type primary school art syllabus. In 1952 Peter Harris also started the Wednesday Art Group in Kuala Lumpur and the Penang Art Teachers' Group respectively - these groups were an important nexus of artistic practice and activity through the 50s. and 60s. Notable members of the WAG includes Syed Ahmad Jamal, Cheong Lai Tong, and Dzulkifi Buyong. In his teaching, Peter Harris often emphasised individual expression. On show at VWFA are several quick sketches of Malaysian women of the 50s. Despite their obvious simplicity and minimal size, these works gain preciousness now for its human qualities, colours and details that which would otherwise have been forever lost in time.
In the 1970s, Ibrahim Hussein (b.1936) successfully took Malaysian art to the world. His fusion of pop and hardedge elements, and later striated style of painting placed the artist on par with the international contemporary art movement of his time and thus saw him through many overseas exhibitions and showing alongside such greats as Andy Warhol. Ibrahim Hussein studied at the Nanyang Academy of Fine Art and graduated in 1956. He went on to Byam Shaw School and then Royal Academy Schools in London. The artist exhibits his work mainly at a Museum Foundation he created in Langkawi. An anniversary exhibition of the artist at XXX is anticipated this year.