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'Holding Up a Mirror' to Malaysia and the World

This article was previously published in the special edition, VENICE (July 2019).

This year has seen Malaysia grace the Venice Biennale for the first time. As a Malaysian who has spent a long time away from home, the news came as a pleasant surprise.

The story of the Malaysian Pavilion in Venice began with the 2018 elections. It marked a watershed in Malaysian politics. Prior to the elections, the presiding establishment had been wracked by a corruption scandal. In 2015, the acting prime minister, Najib Razak, and his cohorts were implicated in embezzling the nation’s sovereign wealth fund, to finance everything from buying Monets, to funding The Wolf of Wall Street (you’re welcome). The scandal motivated Dr. Mahathir Mohamad, a venerated ex-prime minister, to form a new coalition to take down Najib. The 2018 elections saw Mahathir’s party win by a landslide. It was a moment filled with a pervading sense of promise and excitement. At the time, I was finishing my first year abroad and recall my phone buzzing with texts proclaiming a new Malaysia.

Anurendra Jegadeva, 'Yesterday, in a Padded Room', Venice Biennale, 2019 (Image: Wei-Ling Gallery)

Amidst the euphoria, gallerist Lim Wei-Ling contacted Mahathir with a proposition: to establish a Malaysian pavilion at the Venice Biennale. He gave his blessing, and through the combined efforts of the Wei-Ling Gallery, the artists and their sponsors, the dream of the Malaysian pavilion was realized. Adopting the theme ‘Holding Up a Mirror’, the pavilion set about interrogating the multi-faceted nature of Malaysian identity.

Although the elections provided a great source of inspiration for the pavilion and its work, the exhibits also expressed sociopolitical issues in Malaysian history and contemporary times – narratives that are in a constant flux of reconciliation. I’d like to focus on one particular piece that explores cultural struggle.

Anurendra Jegadeva’s Yesterday, in a Padded Room  (2015) is saturated with faces of a globe-spanning range, gaudy colours, and frivolous pseudo-vandalism. However, the main focus is on the form of the two chairs, both of which bear masks. The Padded Room is an imagining of a scene from the Kedah Annals, where the mythical Garuda bird and King Solomon divide the peninsula in two, the North as Hindu and the South as Muslim.

Much like the mythic characters of this tale, the division between the two zones of influence also remains a myth. Malaysia has an identity problem when it comes to reconciling its Hindu past with its rabid Islamism. Evidence of non-Islamic heritage has often been actively stamped out. In 1998, the state of Kelantan banned a traditional dance of Mak Yong on the grounds of it being contrary to Islam. In 2005, Mak Yong was granted UNESCO World Heritage Status, and Kelantan refused to lift the ban. Another instance occurred in 2013 when developers were granted permission to demolish parts of the Bujang Valley, a Hindu civilisation in the state of Kedah, which dates back as early as 110.

Jegadeva’s work can also be interpreted from a global geopolitical viewpoint. The absurdity of Padded Room is enlivened when we bring to mind the meeting rooms of our world leaders. We live in an era where we are disillusioned with our politicians. Despite the dire everyday circumstances caused by the limbo stasis of Brexit, the violence in Sudan, Yemen, Palestine, Hong Kong, the persecution of the Uighurs, the brutality of ICE, the world seems to hold itself at a precarious balance. We know all of this is happening but we stand in a padded room. We have allowed caricatures to hold our fates in their hands. Much like the walls of the Padded Room, our screens are saturated with images that we passively consume for the most part. Perhaps through viewing images that encourage us to be critical rather than complacent, we may be called to action.

With this feeling of hope for the future in mind, I had a final question to pose to the Wei-Ling Gallery: what does representation in the Biennale mean for the future of Malaysian art?

“By having a Malaysian  Pavilion at the Venice Art Biennale this year, we are taking an important step to establish Malaysia firmly on the international art map and place our artists amongst the leading contemporary art voices in the world.  More than anything, this first Malaysian national pavilion is for the next generation of Malaysian artists to aspire, persevere, work hard, and stay committed, knowing that they too can have their voices heard and their ideas shared on this important platform in the future.”

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