On 4 February, four artworks by contemporary artist Ahmad Fuad Osman (also known as “Fuad”) were removed from his exhibition, At The End Of The Day Even Art Is Not Important, at the National Art Gallery of Malaysia (colloquially known as “Balai” from its Malay name, Balai Seni Negara). The removal was allegedly ordered by a single unnamed member of Balai’s 13 Board of Directors. On 16 February, all four works were reinstated, but not before a public outcry prompting three open letters, two petitions, and one leaked official letter—all within the space of a week.
The exhibition surveys the 51-year-old Fuad’s artistic development over a period spanning more than half his life, from 1990 to 2019. It was opened to the public on 28 October 2019, and was slated to end on 31 January this year. However, the exhibition was extended to the end of February after overwhelming positive feedback from the public.
According to Fuad’s first open letter, disaster struck on 21 January when Balai wrote to Fuad officially declaring their decision to remove four works from the show. The decision was allegedly made “because a Board Member complained about them”, which left Fuad questioning Balai’s decision to withhold the board member’s identity, their failure to explain why his will overrode everyone else’s (since the exhibition had been up in its full form for three months already by then), or why those four works in particular. The contentious works were:
- Untitled; an artwork-within-an-artwork of fake missing posters in a painting of ex-Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim with his notorious black eye of 1998;
- Dreaming of Being A Somebody Afraid of Being A Nobody; three UV-printed mirrors depicting two-time Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, Anwar Ibrahim, and Azmin Ali;
- Mak Bapak Borek, Anak Cucu Cicit Pun Rintik; an installation of sinisterly laughing fibreglass pigs;
- Imitating the Mountain; a semi-nude self-portrait painting.
The first two could be contrived as being politically sensitive, due to the stormy history between Anwar Ibrahim and Mahathir Mohamad. The latter two could be contrived as being religiously insensitive due to their depictions of pigs and nudity, both considered obscene in Muslim-majority Malaysia.
However, the press statement released by Balai (after Fuad’s open letter went viral) didn’t explicitly state these things—it just mentioned that the four artworks “required a high level of guidance, explanation, and understanding in art in order to be appreciated without misinterpretation.” The gallery did not explain how the board member had come to be so offended by those pieces. This, combined with their decision to remove the artworks despite them having already been on display for three months, stoked suspicions that the act was purely arbitrary.
A sketchy history of censorship
Save for the reinstatement, none of this is new for Balai. In 2017, police seized parts of an installation by collectives Pusat Sekitar Seni and Population Project to investigate them as “communist propaganda” a few days before the opening of the Kuala Lumpur Biennale at Balai. Balai not only failed to defend the artists, but also failed to inform the collectives about the seizure until the last minute, despite their inquiries about the missing parts.The police charges were dropped, but the collectives protested Balai’s inaction by throwing a black net over the entire installation, effectively “withdrawing” it from the Biennale.
The spectre of censorship (or worse, being charged with sedition) has always haunted the Malaysian arts scene.
Three years before that, in 2014, then-emerging artists Cheng Yen Pheng and Izat Arif’s artworks were removed from Balai’s bi-annual Young Contemporaries exhibition without any notice to the artists. Yen Pheng’s work had depicted the slogan “ABU” (a Malay word literally meaning “ashes” but also a popular acronym for “Anything But UMNO”; up till 2018, UMNO, or the United Malays National Organisation, had been the ruling party in Malaysia since its independence), while Izat’s work had black t-shirts printed with the Arabic letters “Fa” and “Qof” which, phonetically combined, suggests something more explicit in English. Again, political and religious sensitivities were the main triggers.
Outside of Balai, the spectre of censorship (or worse, being charged with sedition) has always haunted the Malaysian arts scene. The now-repealed Internal Security Act 1960, which allowed for detention without trial and claimed a few artists and intellectuals during its time, casts a dark shadow on Malaysia’s history, while the still-existing Sedition Act 1948 continues to be a barrier to full freedom of expression. The cartoonist Zunar and graphic designer Fahmi Reza have both fallen foul of the law with their art, and their experiences have contributed toward a climate of judgment and paranoia in which the threat of being persecuted for broaching sensitive issues hangs in the air. Self-censorship is a common practice.
While Fuad might have succeeded in fighting back against censorship—although the degree to which he “succeeded” is debatable, as the art community got a result but no answers—most others never see any justice after being on the receiving end of such arbitrary exercises of power.
#WhylaBalai? / Balai’s undemocratic internal structure
When Fuad published his open letter, propelling the incident into the mainstream, many commentators fell to attacking Balai as an institution. To many, this latest controversy is just more dirt piled on a laundry list of Balai’s “crimes”, which have lowered its standing in public esteem over the years as an art institution. (It doesn’t help that numerous artworks were damaged under its care just a few months prior.)
It’s a situation that’s depressingly familiar: the decision to take down Fuad’s works was executed swiftly, but it’s nearly impossible to get the name of the guy who ordered its removal—officially, at least.
Institutional sclerosis forms the condition in which the game of Chinese whispers thrives. As cultural theorist Mark Fisher wrote in Capitalist Realism, a faltering institution’s unproductiveness and irresponsibility is an open secret within bureaucratic systems: everybody, from its ground staff to its management to the public and indeed even its board members, may be aware of it, but the deferral of responsibility is the very thread holding the social fabric together. Although it might be a topic of discussion within Balai itself, the people within the institution aren’t allowed to officially acknowledge any internal malpractice. In this climate, unless someone chooses to take responsibility, nothing will change. Even in reinstating Fuad’s work, no official apology was offered and the board member’s name was never revealed. On 16 February, Balai broke the news of the reinstatement with a Facebook post simply stating, “Ahmad Fuad Osman’s artworks have been put up again.”
Roused by Balai’s failure to provide any justification for its action, nearly 400 artists and art-world adjacents published a petition on 11 February calling for three things: a reinstatement of the works, a full disclosure of who gave the censorship order and why, and for Balai to host an open dialogue attended by board members and staff. At this point, the first demand has been fulfilled, but only the second and third demands have the power to meaningfully change anything.
When everyone else gets involved
Past cases of censorship have mostly left artists feeling too demoralised and paranoid to react, but this time, Fuad published an open letter on social media vocalising his indignation, furnished with details of all his interactions with Balai. As a mid-career artist who’s already highly respected among local and international art circles, social media came to Fuad’s advantage and the news spread like wildfire.
This encouraged the art world to rally behind him, which they did in the aforementioned petition signed mostly by hundreds of local artists and other friends of art, including a few international names, such as Thai artist Manit Sriwanichpoom and Vietnamese curator Quyen Nguyen of Sàn Art. But it’s worth being critical of the support given as well—although Balai makes itself an easy target due to its past mishaps, the cause needs to maintain focus on a clear goal to avoid turning into a cynical pile-on. A national art institution for the public is still worth fighting for.
The petition had been addressed to the Minister, Deputy Minister, and Secretary General of the Ministry of Tourism, Arts, and Culture (MoTAC)—accurately recognising that, as per the National Visual Arts Development Board Bill 2011, they’re the ones who appoint Balai’s board members. Consequently, the Deputy Minister of MoTAC, Muhammad Bakhtiar Wan Chik, recommended in a private letter leaked to Facebook that Balai reinstate the four works. Later, during a public appearance, the Deputy Minister was quoted saying, “This is Malaysia Baru [New Malaysia], we should encourage freedom of expression.”
Well, the people know that already—what they don’t know is how the board members are appointed. It’s easy to pay lip service to freedom of expression, but transparent due process is key to actually ensuring its realisation.
In a similar move, 55 private art collectors signed a petition on 15 February stating their refusal to loan works to Balai for any future exhibitions unless Fuad’s works are reinstated. While honourable in its intentions, it was also an implicit admission of private collectors’ higher power to influence our public institutions: this is not unique to Balai, but is applicable to the art industry as a whole.
Fuad’s case illuminated the invisible figures determining our national arts and culture.
Fuad’s case illuminated the invisible figures determining our national arts and culture. An artwork may or may not be political, and that is its right, but there is clearly a political bent in our “national visual arts development”, as evidenced by the works chosen for censorship. These shadowy forces are ultimately answerable to the public (more so than to private collectors, despite relying on their collections for exhibition), whose taxes go into funding our national institutions. They should not be allowed to elide this responsibility; even though Fuad’s works were reinstated, the spectre of censorship in Malaysia hasn’t been exorcised yet.
No one could put it better than Fuad himself, who concluded that the larger issue is “the integrity of the arts in Malaysia, and the process by which it is served by public institutions.” Until full transparency and accountability are achieved, cases like this will repeat themselves, throwing more grist to the rumour mill, stalling progress. Artists shouldn’t give up this fight — as the artists’ petition proved, when artists stand in solidarity with each other, they have the ultimate power to determine the direction of art in Malaysia.
The author would like to thank artists Sharon Chin and Izat Arif for their valuable insights during the process of writing this article.