early April 2012, the Malaysian government cancelled a ballet show due
to, by some accounts, the “revealing” outfits that were to be worn by
the performers. Just how pernicious is censorship in Malaysia, and what
does this mean for Malaysian contemporary art?
Vienna Parreno and Krzysztof Osinski, 'Self Mark 1', 2004, type
photograph mounted on aluminium. One of the censored works in the
Malaysian leg of the travelling show "Open Letter".
Though their account is still disputed by government officials, some local critics are claiming that the Singapore Dance Theatre performers’ visas were denied because
of concerns over the “indecency of their costumes”. This was not the
only incident of censorship in Malaysia this month. After a post on the
Department of Information’s Facebook page seemingly outlined a
“directive” for media outlets to stop depicting LGBT (lesbian, gay,
bisexual, and transgender) characters,Information, Communication and Culture Minister Rais Yaim confirmed that there was a guideline in development to avoid portraying LGBT figures on screen.
Igan D'Bayan, 'Gothika Filipina 2', oil on canvas.
With censorship in popular media and performing arts seemingly on the
rise in Malaysia, has the Muslim majority nation’s morality crusade
impacted the visual art world as well? There is certainly no shortage of
In a 2006 travelling show of Southeast Asian-born artists living in Australia entitled “Open Letter”, two works by artist Vienna Parreno were removed and
a third installation piece altered for the Malaysian leg of the
exhibition. The reason was ostensibly because they depicted nudity. The
pieces were removed from the exhibition without consulting the artist.
The National Art Gallery in Kuala Lampur, the exhibition venue, removed
the works without consulting or even notifying the artist.
And censorship’s impact on visual art is not limited to the works themselves. Foreign arts publications such as ArtForum often
find their content censored by the Internal Affairs Department before
hitting bookshelves. On the (now seemingly defunct) site Censored in Malaysia, the blogger posts pictures of delayed editions of the Financial Times with the arts images blurred to remove nudity or smoking.
Gan Tee Sheng, 'Exhibition I', 2009, oil on canvas. Part of the
exhibition "Blank Page", which looks at the relationship between
contemporary art and censorship in Malaysia.
The issue lies in a debate over how modern Malaysian culture is to be
defined. Though the Malaysian constitution guarantees free speech to all
citizens, it also allows for government intervention to protect the
safety of the nation, a loophole that has given the government license
to shut down artwork they deem harmful to the culture or morality of
Malaysia. The primary means of control is through the issuance of
licenses and permits, forcing galleries and other outlets to consider
their economic interests and long-term survival, with many ultimately
choosing to toe the line and self-censor.
Such was the case when Valentine Willie Fine Art removed a multimedia piece by artist Fahmi Reza that satirised the then new prime-minister Najib Razak.
The gallery removed the artwork quickly after the opening to pre-empt
any “complaints” that might threaten the enterprise. The relative dearth
of independent exhibition spaces in Malaysia also weakens the position
of those who hope to push the boundaries of what is deemed acceptable.
Screenshot of the website of censorship-free Malaysian gallery, Minut Init.
The censorship policy is nearly monolithic. However, Chinese and Indian
ethnic minorities as well as the moderate Muslim community often push
back against what they see as oppressive restrictions that stifle
creativity and growth. Censorship cases are often followed by vocal
outcries from the arts community. Other institutions with less public
exposure or reach have also hosted controversial exhibitions.
Wei-Ling Gallery has organised several exhibitions that should have run afoul of the country’s censors, such as “Blank Page“, which invited artists to directly address censorship in their practice, or the provocatively-titled “What’s Your Porn?” Established in 2010, Minut Init gallery was founded on the principle that “freedom of expression is paramount, sans censorship or discrimination”.
As Southeast Asia’s presence in the international contemporary art
community continues to grow, it remains to be seen whether censorship
will be a major hindrance on the path to global recognition.
To borrow a line I often hear from guys who have scored with someone nice on a night out, “It was unassuming – once inside, I felt safe, open to possibilities, and expression.”
At the risk of coming across (ha) vulgar (ha), that’s a pretty accurate description of my experience at Minut Init.
Nestled in the nasi lemak heaven of Damansara Uptown, Minut Init is an
arts space with a misleading name because the concept, possibilities,
and even the range of exhibitions at present is enormous. You really
have to see it to believe it.
If you’re after the predictably-paced clackety-clack of high heels and
intermittent audible hums by self-professed connoisseurs of art, spliced
with the incessant (often unwelcome) yammering of curators over
Vivaldi’s Four Seasons; all swishing wine and eating canapes in a giant
melting pot of douche, then this is not the place for you.
As I walked barefoot across Minut Init’s carpeted floors, I could see no
organisational system/theme whatsoever. Art hung everywhere, anywhere;
and perched on the floor against a wall if there was nowhere to hang it.
I don’t know if the curator had a vision, but whatever he/she/they did,
it was good because it left me feeling like it didn’t matter. The
motley assortment of art pieces and cosy surroundings intrigued me – I
wanted to look at everything.
All I could think of while I was walking through the rooms was how I
wished more spaces like that existed. I felt that an unpretentious space
like Minut Init probably gave more people access to art than typical
sterile galleries with their intimidating polished marble floors and
You can even play mini golf!
Earlier, I was doing research to see if there were ways we could
increase the number of small art spaces in KL when I stumbled upon this
great article by Maaike Lauwaert called “Size Matters – An exploration of the indispensability of small art spaces”
[At this point, I would like to point out that Maaike Lauwaert, a
respected Dutch art curator, also put a sexual spin on her description
of small art spaces.]
Among other things, she discusses “art ecology” and how small art spaces fit into the grand scheme of things:
you approach the art world as an ecology which has to consist of a
wholesome mixture of education, artists, galleries, collectors,
curators, art fairs, museums, critics and journals; art spaces are
indispensable in this structure because of their flexibility and
experimental nature. They are places in which artists hold their first
exhibition, where curators and directors learn the profession, where the
visitors encounter unknown artists for the first time and where new
methods and presentation models are tested and valorised. Much of the
knowledge, talent, and innovation produced in small art spaces
eventually finds its way to galleries, museums and the general public.
Thus they are an indispensable link in the visual arts ecology, both in
regard to the supply of new talent as to the innovation in the field.
Furthermore, small art spaces, artists’ initiatives and journals have an
important local function. They determine the local art climate and
liveability of a city for art lovers, artists, curators, and
If you want to learn more about the importance of small art spaces, I
would highly recommend that you read the full article. Click here for a PDF.
The current exhibition at Minut Init is called CREOLE. It’s on from 28th April 2012 till 2nd June 2012 so you should really go check it out. Check the Minut Init Website for more details.
If you’re an artist, talk to them about possibilities. If you have lots
of money to spare, either give it to me or invest in another small art
space. Both are ways of keeping the dream alive.