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  • Nov 24, 2017

Seven Artists Pull Out of Censored Kuala Lumpur Biennale

Under Construction

A shadow has been cast over what was supposed to be Kuala Lumpur’s triumphant entry into the global biennial circuit. On November 22, one day before the inaugural Kuala Lumpur Biennale was set to open at the National Visual Arts Gallery (NVAG) of Malaysia, seven artists withdrew themselves from the exhibition’s roster. Spurring their exodus was the removal of their contribution to the show by the Malaysian police force.  

The artwork in question is an installation, titled Under Construction, created by five Malaysian artists from the group Pusat Sekitar Seni—Aisyah Baharuddin, Ahmad Azrel Kilheeny, Mohamad Idham Ismail, Nurul Adeline Zainuddin, Iltizam Iman Abd Jalil—and two Indonesian artists from Population Project—Isrol Triono and Selo Srie Mulyadi. The group placed various reading materials, drawings and posters within a fenced area at the NVAG, using these materials to raise awareness for the environmental issues faced by Southeast Asia, while also hoping to offer solutions to contain such problems.

Speaking on behalf of her collaborators, Aisyah Baharuddin said the artists were informed by one of the biennial’s curators that the installation was confiscated for allegedly containing “elements of communism.” So far, the police have shared no information regarding the location and condition of Under Construction.

The Malaysian Insight reported that representatives from the Ministry of Home Affairs as well as the Ministry of Tourism and Culture had accompanied police officers on their visit to the NVAG, after receiving complaints from visitors to the exhibition.

Malaysian authorities have a history of removing contemporary art from public display. On February 26, another artist collective known as the Pangrok Sulap saw their prints removed from the exhibition “Escape From the Sea,” presented by the Japan Foundation, reportedly also following an anonymous complaint. The censored works depict pertinent issues that plague the Sabah region, including floods, illegal logging and corruption. In January, police also entered the NVAG to take down a painting, The Subtitle, by Suddin Lappo, which depicts a frame from the film The Godfather (1972), including a translated subtitle of one line of dialog—“I’ll make him an offer he can’t refuse.” The translation was construed as political commentary on former prime minister Mahathir bin Mohamad’s attacks on opponents. In its place, the NVAG put up a sign that said, “Artwork temporarily removed for Gallery Maintenance,” though the painting was returned to the institution’s walls the following day. In July 2016, national laureate Syed Ahmad Jamal’s public sculpture Lunar Peaks (1986), originally located by the capital’s City Hall, was demolished, with the Kuala Lumpur mayor indicating the work’s “bad shape” as the reason behind its destruction.

Brady Ng is the reviews editor of ArtAsiaPacific.

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