Oct 2015 - Picturing the Nation

ILHAM is KL’s newest public art gallery.  It is located in the Ilham Tower where an installation by Chinese artist and activist Ai Weiwei called Divina Proportione (2015) greets visitors as they arrive outside the entrance. This is his first public sculpture on show in South East-Asia.  There is another sculpture by Thai artist Pinaree Sanpitak on the front lawn.

The gallery is committed to supporting the development, understanding and enjoyment of Malaysian modern and contemporary art. Through their exhibitions and public programmes, they seek to bring people into closer contact with the art, the artists and their ideas. 

MCG members who attended the curator guided tour of were given a real insight into the inaugural exhibition of this new gallery on the theme of “Picturing the Nation”.  We have to thank our guides, Rahel Joseph and Simon Soon, for injecting some fascinating background information about both the artists and their works.  This deepened our understanding of the content and its relationship to the broader art and social scene in Malaysia.

The gallery is divided into two floors.  We started on Level 5 to view the display entitled “Dato Hoessein Enas: From His Personal Collection.” As the exhibition guide notes “this section brings together works from artist Dato Hoessein Enas’ personal collection to tell the larger-than-life story of a man, whose artistic life is twinned to the birth of a new country, Malaysia and whose practice is situated within the hopes and dreams of this new multicultural nation.”

In this section Simon and Rahel began by showing us a selection of self-portraits of the artist.  They portrayed a complex man in a journey from a fresh-faced aspiring artist, through that of a successful debonair society portrait painter and finally to that of a pious elder reflecting on his life and his faith. Next to these were portraits and photos of his family including fine oil paintings of his beautiful Javanese wife, his mother and his three daughters.  Family was very important to Hoessein Enas but precarious and dangerous events in his life meant at times he was separated from them.

Born an Indonesian, in Bogor Java in 1924, at the age of 11 Hoessein Enas went with his father who was transferred to a position as a medical superintendent in Medan, Sumatra.  His father was interested in handicrafts and encouraged his son’s artistic bent. But as the family was not well-to-do and as Hoessein was not the eldest son little money was available to provide material assistance to development of his artistic talent through formal art training.  That said he did finish his Dutch school education with a distinction in Arts and Sports and got work as an artist with a Dutch firm as the Second World War broke out.  He married his beautiful Javanese wife on Dec 8 1940 when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbour. And it was as an employee of the Japanese Information Bureau during the Occupation that the young Hoessein was finally given formal fine art training and began painting in oils.

After the war he was involved with the Indonesian Nationalist Movement and became a Chief Artist with the Indonesian Army Information Centre.  When the Dutch invaded Sumatra, to regain control of territories occupied by the Japanese, Hoessein escaped to another part of Indonesia.  Ironically at this time, during the Indonesian revolution, he was accused of spying for the Dutch and fled to Singapore leaving his family behind.

Following an unsuccessful attempt to kick start his career in Singapore, he moved to Penang.  Here he was spotted whilst painting near a temple by a British Council Director and Mr Frank Sullivan.  He was invited to take part in a joint exhibition with Rosemary Sheppard in KL. Out of 24 paintings exhibited, 23 were sold.  Thereafter he settled down in KL and from 1950-52 he worked as an artist with a propaganda arm of the British Government, namely the Malayan Film Unit. Having learned fine art painting from the Japanese he now learned film animation technique from the British! At this point he became a Malayan citizen and began working as an artist with the Department of Museums and Aboriginal Research.

His artistic stature as a portrait painter grew in prominence following Malaya’s independence in 1957 and the formation of Malaysia in 1963. Hoessein Enas played a significant role in the broader cultural development of this new nation. He was a founding member of the Malaysia Painters Front (Angkatan Pelukis Semenanjung). His fine art portraiture appealed to the political elite and he was commissioned to paint various dignitaries, ministers and famous people.  For the most part we were only able to view his sketches in this section of the exhibition as the portraits themselves were kept by the clients.  

There was one notable exception, namely a portrait of the boxer Mohammad Ali.  Ali came to Malaysia to take part in a number of prize fights at the invitation of an executive of the RHB Bank.  Large sums were spent on hosting this event, feting Ali and having his portrait painted.  In fact a certain member of the MCG met Ali on the plane when he was coming to KL for the event. Want to know who this is - she stands next to the portrait of him in one of the photos with this report!  This portrait was never delivered to the client as a corruption scandal about the costs erupted and the Bank executive concerned was ousted. 


Painting portraits did not provide Hoessein with sufficient income to make it his only job.  He was also at different periods of his life appointed as an officer in charge of Aboriginal Affairs with the Museum Department and later as Chief of Graphic and Design with the newly established television service of the national public broadcaster Radio Television Malaysia (RTM). These facets of his working life are reflected artistically in the exhibition with a beautiful collection of portraits of native people for the former and an interesting selection of sketches of set designs for the latter.

Study and employment in art, photography and anthropology made Enas the perfect candidate for the Shell project.  He was commissioned to produce 56 paintings portraying Malaysians at work and leisure to commemorate the birth of Malaysia in 1963.  They were reproduced as illustrations in a book entitled “Malaysians”.  This section of the exhibition has an impressive collection of photos, sketches and paintings on display as well as hard copies of the final volume. The experience is enhanced by a digital display allowing every single page to be viewed.

Finally we arrived at the “piece de resistance’ of the exhibition, namely the recreation of Hoessein’s Kuala Lumpur studio.  It has been reassembled brick by brick at Ilham as it was at the time of his death complete with all the fixtures, fittings, books, paints, brushes and works in progress.  The ambience is enhanced with a soundtrack sourced from his private vinyl collection.  When his daughters visited the recreated studio, they were deeply moved by its authenticity.  It evoked strong memories of their involvement in their father’s life as an artist.

The other part of the gallery is located on Level 3 of the Tower.  In this section, we viewed artworks by four contemporary Malaysian artists Ahmad Zakii Anwar, Dain Iskandar Said, Vincent Leong & Yee I-Lann.  Our guides explained that these works were selected to enter into a dialogue with the principles of figuration that Hossein Enas had promulgated during independence and federation.  These have shaped a significant course for Malaysian contemporary art.  A key question that continues to be asked is “How is the nation to be pictured?”  “Through what means are artists able to capture its constitutive parts”?  The works on display in this section reflect the broad range of media and interest in technology that Hossein Enas had shown himself.  Life-size charcoal portraits of ordinary Malaysians, an archive of retro-photographs from a studio portrait business, a video loop in which characters dressed as cultural stereotypes run round in circles apparently aimlessly in a white room, a LED scrolling animation on a digital display board showing a host of robotic characters attacking fundamental liberties and an installation of large soft chairs with the ills of society written large on them were among the works we viewed.  They were thought-provoking, humorous and in some cases useful for resting tired legs!