Monday, October 13, 2008

Lucien de Guise: Naive art fits nicely with Malaysia's grace

ANYONE who has read this column more than once will be familiar with the Central Market Annexe. It's Malaysia in microcosm, at a pace that is more amphetamine than nasi lemak and with the emphasis usually on the avant garde.
For the next 10 days, there will be a more playful ambience, as "naive art" is in residence.

This is not a genre that has taken Malaysia by storm so far. The local art market wants to look grown-up, and naive doesn't seem to fit that bill. Some of naive art's siblings do, however. These include "marginal art", "outsider art" and "art brut".

The last can be the coolest thing on the Manhattan auctioneer's block when it was created by a dead ex-graffiti artist like Jean-Michel Basquiat. Madonna's ex-boyfriend may have wandered the streets of New York in bare feet before he died at 27, but his paintings fetch tens of millions of ringgit.

"Naive" artists tend to have decent shoes but less street credibility. The kampung is their home. When they are accepted by the public, the art community usually dismisses them as kitsch. It's a good thing they have their freshness and goodwill to fall back on. They can expect fair treatment in some countries more than others.
In France, there are many museums dedicated to their work. In most parts of Asia, their time has yet to come.

China is one of the exceptions. Not only is naive art a widely admired medium in itself, it also extends into the mainstream. This isn't just tourists returning with armfuls of Jinshan folk art. Many of China's greatest 20th century artists could be slipped straight into the "naive" pigeonhole. Pioneers like Ding Yangyong and Cui Zifan revel in the childlike, producing works of charm and occasional profundity.

Naive art does well in places where collectors have confidence in their own taste. That means France, Japan, traditional China and, to some extent, the United States. Elsewhere, there is usually anxiety.

Which brings us to Malaysia. There is art aplenty, but is there confidence? Is it uncool to be naive when the good fight is being waged for sophistication? Wawasan 2020 never mentioned seeing the world through the forgiving eyes of innocence. The vision was meant to turn Malaysians into street fighters in the global hood. I don't think art was mentioned, and naive art would surely be for softies.

It's a shame naive art doesn't receive more admiration in Malaysia. This is in many ways its natural habitat. It is colourful and gentle and non-confrontational. Malaysia is not about angst, and why should it be? This is a country blessed by God. It's not Aceh, Myanmar or Sichuan. Malaysian communities may bicker over dividing the economic and political cake, but at least there is a cake to be divided.

No matter how hard local artists try to get some righteous anger in their hearts, they could still be depended on to do the respectful hand-kissing routine for a Hari Raya muhibah advertisement. Politics in Malaysia is also surprisingly gentlemanly. When one party dislikes another, it hurls nothing more incendiary than an insult. Even the parliamentary insults are harmless; nothing about mothers or sisters.

If France had been playing Malaysia instead of Italy in the World Cup final, Zinedine Zidane would have played the full game. And France would have won.

"Malaysian Naive Art Showcase 08" shows just how appropriate the genre is to here. Malaysia may not be ready for it yet, but those naive painters keep painting away. The prime mover is the man who acquired a name to match his large but friendly works.

Yusof "Gajah" is not alone in his herd. In addition to more like-minded artists than most collectors would imagine, there are two young gajah involved. Yusof's son and daughter are keeping up the tradition although they have diversified from elephants into cats and dinosaurs.

Yusof Gajah is keen to get a museum going. "If there is no museum, then there is nowhere to see the works," he says in distress.

He would probably like people to buy the works as well, but the first priority is visitors. He ought to have a head start with naive art. It's a genre that can cut across all boundaries. It's not just for the 30- to 50-year-old professionals who are propping up the rest of the art scene.

I spotted some old folk at the show, and my comparatively young children put in a full uncomplaining 30 minutes. This is a personal best for them.

The time for naive art should be arriving soon, now that conceptual has reached the limits of desperate inventiveness. If art has to have a message (and Samuel Goldwyn of MGM believed "messages should only be sent by Western Union"), then it doesn't have to be a big angry message in the bad-boy tradition.

Yusof Gajah and his circle make oblique references to mankind's place in the natural world, for example. Like so much naive art, it is handled with charm and humour - that rarest of all intrusions in art.

Good-natured attitude does not always come cheap, though. Few of the paintings at this exhibition are below RM1,000 and some are very much higher.

This is not unreasonable for works with a certain professionalism and a lot of imagination. Despite appearances, they are not easy to paint. Like Malaysian politics, there is a fragile balance to be maintained.

Younger readers who want to give it a try should join Yusof Gajah at a workshop he is holding on Saturday at the Islamic Arts Museum Malaysia.

The writer is curator of the Islamic Arts Museum in Kuala Lumpur.

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