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2009-03-20
XXX: Nudity in Malaysian Art is a closed door affair

Eva McGovern

Installation Shot of Exhibit X, Taksu Gallery 2008

Taksu Gallery’s Exhibit X, held in November, 2008 in Kuala Lumpur, invited 12 artists to take part in a clandestine group life drawing session over a two-day period. Invited guests were allowed to witness the sittings first hand with the resulting works on paper roughly displayed throughout the gallery for just under a week. More of a live art happening than an exhibition, the brevity of its appearance and disappearance resembled historical avant-garde practices that secretly explored nudity and sexuality during more socially conservative times. However, in contemporary Malaysia sexuality is something that is subtly implied rather than actively expressed and nudity is a subject that remains taboo. Therefore, through its temporality and strict entrance policy during the opening days, this brief burst of artistic activity managed to raise interesting questions on the wider context of contemporary art production in the country.

Exhibit X emerged in 2000 when artists represented by the gallery were given a carte blanche opportunity to produce their own show in the space. In response to a return to more conservative Islamic values now prevalent throughout Malaysia, the topic of sexuality and the nude was chosen and life drawing sessions organized by the artists. Maintaining an erratic consistency over the years, the show became a loose fixture on the gallery’s exhibition programme, a sort of rare occurrence that required vigilance by interested viewers in order not to miss. A small group of male and female models are chosen each time to pose both individually and together for a series of 20-minute periods----either with or without props---in order to promote spontaneous and immediate images. Artists choose their preferred medium to create sketches in pencil, charcoal, pastel and paint and work in the gallery space itself in a professional meeting of minds, and sharing of practices through sessions of rotating groups over two days. The environment is relaxed; closed doors provide a certain safety from disapproving authorities, and artists can work unhindered. The only prying eyes here are from the visitors whose presence transforms the event into a voyeuristic spectacle that is at once titillating and high brow.

The “hush hush for your eyes only” quality of the show arouses the debate between nudity and being naked. Historically, nudity in art is about form (normally the female form); represented as a series of shapes, lines and textures confident in its purity regardless of imperfection. In this light the Nude was posited as a non-sexual, non-political subject removed from common behaviour and moral judgement in traditional academic readings. However, in contemporary reality it is problematic to separate the reading of the body---- and particularly the female body--- from the simple fact of its biology as a site for pleasure or abjection. In addition, the rise of feminist and queer studies has meant that the primacy and power of the traditional male nude is now also a contested site filled with internal struggles. Sexual and body politics from the 60s and 70s in a strange twist of fate, has allowed for the liberation of the naked body from the nude. The monumental “Nude” is now no longer immune to daily events and feelings of human violence, arousal and disgust which is now very much a part of the way global audiences read this subject in contemporary art and capitalist culture.

However, in Malaysia there has been a return to a more traditionalist approach to social values brought about by an increased adoption of Islamic conservatism among the predominant Malay population. Gender studies itself is still very much a marginalised field that is haphazardly engaged with by the public. Muslim women have to guard their modesty by covering their heads and men have to be respectfully distant when interacting with females other than their wives or family. Although there is much room for interpretation when it comes to Islam in Malaysia and Southeast Asia, with many taking a more personalised approach, strong Muslim values do impact its multiracial society.

The journey from being naked (something to be ashamed of), to the nude (something to be praised), to today’s views on nakedness as something to be critically examined, is still slowly underway and in constant battle with the censors. If the banning of an “indecent” Avril Lavigne pop concert is any marker to go by, then the inclusion of “live” nudity in an art exhibition would have created an outcry if publicized too widely. One can imagine the furious headlines indignant about brothels, sex shows and scandalous art galleries corrupting traditional Malaysia. However, despite this, Exhibit X is a statement by artists whose study of the body is a standard aspect of their practice with an implied awareness that sexual politics needs to be explored and all the contradictions in between examined. That they have to do it in relative secrecy and for such a short period of time is simply the reality of this particular social landscape.

The brief appearance and disappearance of Exhibit X was for the invited few during the live session and the project to date has not been publicized on the gallery’s website nor are the participating artists even listed on the invitation card. Models sourced from an agency were not Malaysian and originated from Singapore and Russia. Existing in-between programmed exhibitions, Exhibit X functions as an experimental strategy rather than a didactic statement. The unpredictable nature of the live sessions in relation to both the models and artists create a fresh perspective and vibrancy to the work and Taksu Gallery should be encouraged to organise more projects such as this. Artists taking part included the established Jalaini Abu Hassan, Noor Mahnun Mohamed, Justin Lim, Ismail Mustam, Fauzulyusri, the hot young artist Samsudin Wahab, Samsudin Lappo, Sarip Abdul Rahman, Yusri Sulaiman, Dutch Jan Wisse, Australian Lauren Black and Oceu Apristawijaya from Indonesia. The mixture of new and established artists produced many contrasting styles from naïve, comical and the symbolist which tended towards psychoanalytical readings to more formalist meditations on the figure. Figures in bondage with ropes and cloths and especially an image by Justin Lim looked at the notion of the body as a conflicted site bound by both inner and outer taboo, stereotype and pressures.

It is a shame that audiences for exhibitions in Malaysia are confined to the loyal few that attend private views. The spirit of Exhibit X and artists’ thoughts around the body and sexuality is well worth wider public consideration in this instance. Although one can’t help but feel a little selfish, the feeling of camaraderie and intimacy that accompanies this brief happening is a more authentic experience in small gatherings of artists, dealers and art lovers. The avant garde by its very nature has to be underground and there is something decadent about a brief artistic speak easy of sorts that only the few are privy too. Therefore, despite the fact that the drawings themselves do not break new boundaries the show itself is a bold and engaging experiment in an otherwise docile landscape of art and sexual politics.



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