When it comes to political art in Malaysia, the rich are its biggest fans

Artist Masnoor Ramli Mahmud stands in front of one of his paintings titled 'Once Upon A Time' at the Core Design Gallery in Subang Jaya. ― Picture by Yusof Mat Isa
Artist Masnoor Ramli Mahmud stands in front of one of his paintings titled 'Once Upon A Time' at the Core Design Gallery in Subang Jaya. ― Picture by Yusof Mat Isa

KUALA LUMPUR, Sept 13 ― In 2013, artist Sabihis Md Pandi produced a large mixed medium piece depicting a ringgit note with a deformed picture of Malaysia’s first Yang Di Pertuan Agong. It had a giant heart superimposed on the King’s body with silhouettes of skeletons in the background.

The painting titled Sering Gigit was, according to his catalogue essay, a critique of the financial system: how the ringgit was worth almost nothing due to the economic slump, which he felt was the work of market forces.

Ironically, the painting was bought by a family member of financial tycoon Tan Sri Quek Leng Chan, the co-founder of Hong Leong Bank. In other words, somebody who is part of the “market forces” Sabihis was criticising.

The thing is, political art ― paintings, sculptures or installations that address certain issues ie. human rights, corruption, gender inequality,  etc ― has a market here.

According to the curator of a well-known gallery in Ampang, they sold close to half a million ringgit worth of political art last year alone.

“The demand was bigger circa 2008-2009 but there is always demand even today,” she told Malay Mail Online in an interview earlier last week.

Political art has its appeal because they start conversations, a sort of “intellectual stimulus” that gets the crowd talking which buyers love. Artists like Samsudin Wahab, known for his almost propaganda-like paintings, and J. Anurendra who tackles socio-political subjects like racism are household names among collectors.

But despite the sensitivity of some of the subject matter, politicians have no qualms buying these works either. Samsudin’s work, for example, was bought by Youth and Sports Minister Khairy Jamaluddin. Former finance minister Tun Daim Zainuddin, a known art collector who also owns his own gallery, Ilham, located in Ilham Tower on Persiaran KLCC in upscale KL, is a huge fan of political art.

Ilham is currently holding the Era Mahathir show, an exhibition of works by various artists tackling critical social issues during the 22 years Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad, known for his strong stand against free speech, helmed the country. Interestingly, Tun Mahathir is close to Daim.

It is, of course, not news that the rich and powerful are art patrons. As a matter of fact, they are the only people who can afford to pay up to RM50,000 for a piece of work by established artists like Masnoor Ramli Mahmood or Yusof Ghani.

This means collectors wield significant influence over artists and the kind of art they produce, including those with political leanings. Some galleries are known to pander to collectors in order to sell, and in many cases, “force” artists with strong political views to tone down their works so as not to offend potential buyers.

“It’s hard but most of the times we bend a little because the gallery wants us to. But it is in our interest as well because if we do not sell, then how are we to survive?” said an artist who requested anonymity.

In this painting, artist Masnoor Ramli Mahmud used the characters from the P. Ramlee movie 'Labu dan Labi' to represent the two men found guilty of killing Altuntuya Shaariibuu... he wants his work to elicit questions.
In this painting, artist Masnoor Ramli Mahmud used the characters from the P. Ramlee movie 'Labu dan Labi' to represent the two men found guilty of killing Altuntuya Shaariibuu... he wants his work to elicit questions.

No radical criticism

But making compromises may not be too difficult since not all of the politics expressed in their art comes from a predetermined set of beliefs.

Some are not even that political to begin with, and may have more of a personal relation to a particular issue that happens to be political ― like some of Sabihi’s work.

Then there are the young emerging artists who often use politics as their subject matter because it’s fashionable, not because they feel particularly strongly about an issue .

“This is especially true with UiTM graduates. A lot of these young artists are good and their subject tends to be critical. But this is more due to their environment than their actually being really political,” said Rini Hashim, an executive with Taksu Gallery, a key commercial player specialising in contemporary art.

Scarlette Lee, director of Core Designs Gallery in Subang Jaya, said the number of serious collectors in the country total less than 20. Within this number, five dominant players lead the pack simply because they have the kind of money to splash on an entire body of work that can cost up to a quarter million ringgit if the artist is a big name.

Lee said that keeping the loyalty of their artists is crucial in ensuring the same set of fan-buyers return, and ultimately, keep business going.

“If there are collectors who follow our artists then (they will continue to buy from them). That’s why we encourage the market to go for representation that means the artists don’t jump here, jump there and create unnecessary competition for no reason,” she told Malay Mail Online.

In a 2012 report entitled “Profit or Pleasure? Exploring the Motivations Behind Treasure Trends” cited by The Economist, only a tenth of those surveyed said they bought art purely as an investment whereas 75 per cent cited enjoyment as the key. The study, based on interviews with 2,000 rich people in 17 countries, further noted that buying art for collectors doesn't just offer a sense of community, “it engenders feelings of victory, cultural superiority and social distinction.”

In Malaysia, this need for social distinction has driven some rich collectors to go beyond just buying and into investing in emerging artists by making them produce an entire body of work for their private collection. Something like a private patron. And artists get paid big bucks for this.

“It’s about who’s got the eye to spot the upcoming talent before other collectors do. It’s about ego if I can be honest,” said one prominent gallerist.

The kind of artist-collector relationship under the private gallery system has raised concerns over the ability of artists to maintain their independence and “autonomy”, especially for those with strong political views.

Can artists honestly express what they really feel about a particular political issue through their art if their loyal buyers happen to be businessmen or corporate figures with close ties to the Establishment?

Veiled critique

Established painter Masnoor Ramli Mahmud, whose work can fetch up to RM50,000 each, said the artist may not necessarily have to compromise his or her political views he/she just has to “be smart” and not make the criticism so obvious.

“My paintings are critical of the system but I try not to be too direct. I like to make art that forces people to think deeply. An intellectual process ,” he told Malay Mail Online in an interview recently. He is represented by Core Design Gallery.

Masnoor’s subject can be outright controversial. In one particular work, the Kedah-born painter touched on the mysterious murder of Mongolian Altantuya Shaaribuu by painting the characters from P. Ramlee’s famous comedy Labu- Labi in black and white, with what appears to be trees and mountains at the back.

The two characters, who are maids for a clumsy scrooge boss “Haji Bakhil”, represent the two former Special Forces Commandos Sirul Azhar and Azilah Hadri who were convicted of Altantuya’s murder.

“The two were the henchmen why did they do it? I want my art to ask questions,” Masnoor said.

While Masnoor may not be aware of it, one of his loyal buyers is a businessman close to the Barisan Nasional government. When asked if he felt any moral or ethical conflict in selling some of his politically critical art, the painter said it was a tough question to answer.

“Sometimes they buy them because they act as a personal reminder,” he said, meaning that buyers may buy certain works critical of their own beliefs or class background as a form of self-criticism and personal reflection. A reminder to better themselves.

But unfortunately, this kind of veiled critique is what makes political art like these appear hollow which explains why politically-linked collectors have no problem buying them.

This could also explain why commercial galleries have no issues with political art. Showing a painting or an installation piece with “radical” views in art galleries, which until today are often associated with elitism, almost automatically negates the work’s subversiveness.

There are of course ongoing efforts to “democratise” art and make it more inclusive. More independent spaces and galleries that allow budding artists to showcase their work are popping up. The Annexe Gallery in Central Market is one such example.

But despite such efforts, the perception that art is elitist remains. And the fact that the independent art movement is often spearheaded by mostly English-speaking middle class artists has somewhat created a class division within an already tiny scene.

An ardent supporter of these independent art events described it most eloquently:

“It’s quite obvious that the key figures in this scene tend to be middle class. And since art has somewhat become a middle- and upper middle-class thing, they’ve replicated the gallery scene and made it clique-ish. You’re unlikely to see that many working class attendees at these places.”