By ADRIANA NORDIN MANAN
Sacred Garden, a virtual exhibition showcasing works of figurative art, is an illuminating look at artistic interpretations of the human figure. The wealth of insight to be gleaned, however, is tempered by a muddling curatorial cohesiveness. I felt a sense of missed opportunity, of a valuable undertaking which forgot a basic rule as it charged ahead.
Curated by local arts collective ARTO Movement, the exhibition’s curatorial statement is divided into 11 guided points scattered across the gallery. As the narrative that delivers the common thread of the works, the statement could have benefited from a more intentional description that connected the key points better.
“Great Art offers us an opportunity to transcend our individual worldviews, expanding our capacity to experience the beauty and see humanity through someone else’s eyes. Especially during these times of grief, upheaval and uncertainty, the ability to see and imagine someone else’s perspective is vital,” read the opening lines. This is not a statement I disagree with, but the lines that followed did not build upon the opening, thus stumbling at framing an otherwise laudable exhibition.
Most curious was the line that read, “In this (sic) times of grief, ARTO Movement brings you SACRED GARDEN | A CELEBRATION OF HUMAN FIGURE, an exhibition that focuses on the figurative art.” As a viewer interested in knowing what is being offered (in the sense of being presented by the curators as a form of fellowship with the viewers as recipients), I would have wanted to know what drove the choice of “grief” here. As a word that connotes a range of complex and piercing emotions, its link to figurative art in this instance warranted elaboration. Such an explanation, however brief, never appears.
The disjuncture continued with the explanation on the choice of the title Sacred Garden. In short, it was explained as a reflection of the holiness and sacred value of the human body. Again, there was no attempt to lay out more clearly how the statement built upon the opening lines. The movement from one point to another demanded readers to leap over gulfs too wide to bridge. It felt unsatiating.
Unfortunately, this made the curatorial statement veer into platitudes without an anchoring centre. Taking the statement as the voice of the curators, i.e. the very people who shepherded the works into the shared space, one would expect more conviction both as a nod to the gathered artists and an opportunity for spirited articulation for visitors.
That said, Sacred Garden is not a throwaway exhibition by any means. Showcasing 83 works by 50 artists, it is a pleasant site of exploration, beginning the moment one arrives at the doorstep with the sensation of being in a video game, traversing the corners and walls of a brick-and-mortar gallery. The layout and navigation are intuitive, although the page is slightly slow at loading in the beginning.
The exhibition is a helpful explainer on figurative art, serving snippets on its evolution over the course of Malaysia’s history. We learn of Hoessein Enas and his contemporaries, the National Cultural Congress, art as social commentary and names of leading artists such as Bayu Utomo Radjikin and Anurendra Jegadeva.
A broad category, figurative art has space for many types of art to stand as examples. The curators describe the participating artists as “fresh graduates, hobbyists and artists”, so one could call Sacred Garden an exhibition of emerging, up-and-coming artists. This grouping of career youth lends interesting things to contemplate.
For example, in a similar exhibition by more established artists, we would be almost guaranteed a few depictions of paddy farmers, rubber tappers or fishermen and fisherwomen plying their trade. The art of Ismail Mat Hussin, Tew Nai Tong, Chang Fee Ming and Khalil Ibrahim come to mind.
In Sacred Garden, we barely see such bucolic scenes. So how does the human figure feature in an assemblage of younger Malaysian artists?
The answer is, in many ways. There are a few works featuring the disembodied, such as two hands with their index fingers reaching but not meeting each other, in Aufa Nabila’s aptly titled diptych, “Social Distancing” (see pic above).
A number of them feature contorted bodies, some resembling floor wrestlers in each other’s grip, others in foetal position, muscles and rib cages prominent. Although women artists do not receive much mention in the guiding points, it is good to see that about a third of the exhibiting artists are women, and may it foreshadow a healthier gender balance, among others, in times to come.
Particularly enjoyable is work that slides in social commentary. Ainun Ayub’s “I Want It Now For Me” stands out in this regard. The work of acrylic on canvas shows a close-up of a young girl, reaching for something high up. The only other detail we see is a sign like the kind that guides shoppers in a supermarket, only this one says: “Shopping Aisle 7: Free From…Gluten, Misogyny, Dairy, Cruelty & Plastic.” A disarmingly simple juxtaposition of the mundane with the radical.
The work that captured my attention the most, and is a window to a less familiar worldview, is Dayang Sorfina Awang Kelana’s “The Mighty Sengalang Burong” series comprising three intaglio prints depicting an anthropomorphic hawk-warrior, whose provenance we can guess from the terabai shield he wields. During some post-show research, I learnt that Sengalang Burong is a major omen animal in Iban culture, described as the God of War and God of the Heavens. In one fell swoop, Dayang Sorfina’s marrying of mythology, muscle and mystique triggers a fleeting yet fascinating spark of imagination and discovery.
If visiting an exhibition entails two parallel paths of engaging curatorial text analytically and absorbing visual stimuli emotionally, Sacred Garden allowed me the latter despite faltering in the former. That is well and good. However, I wonder how much more enriching my visit would have been had the curating been treated with more care. I think I know the answer.
Adriana Nordin Manan is a writer under the CENDANA-ASWARA Arts Writing Mentorship Programme 2020-2021