Institutions associated with the arts should not serve as a pushback factor in a nation now experiencing a growing degree of freedom, writes Mustafa K Anuar.
The National Art Gallery seems to have turned the notion of “artistic licence” on its head when it exercised censorship by removing four works of art by visual artist Ahmad Fuad Osman on 4 February with a vague reason supposedly given by a board member – that these pieces were “political” and “obscene”.
The four works – Untitled (2012), Dreaming of Being Somebody Afraid of Being Nobody (2019), Imitating the Mountain (2004) and Mak Bapak Borek, Anak Cucu Cicit Pun Rintik (2015-2018) – were part of the artist’s life-work exhibition ironically themed “At The End of The Day, Even Art is Not Important”.
In its defence, the National Art Gallery asserts that certain works of art “need a lot of guidance, explanation and understanding of art in order to be appreciated and not misinterpreted”. This smacks of an inclination to play moral guardian.
It is, thus, unsurprising that fellow artists were up in arms against this censorship, with a rebuke from Deputy Tourism, Arts and Culture Minister Muhammad Bakhtiar Wan Chik to boot.
What is distasteful is that the National Art Gallery’s antic suggests a patronising attitude that assumes that certain quarters in our society need to be “tutored” first before such works as Fuad’s can be put on public display for the “appropriate appreciation” of art.
This attitude is appalling, coming from an art institution that appears to have preferred a particular reading and appreciation of works of art.
Surely a product of artistic expression can be interpreted in more ways than one. There should be space for differences of opinion – which is an important aspect of democratic life – in the vibrant world of arts and culture.
If a work of art is aimed at shocking the viewing public so that they will know and understand better the harsh realities of life, then so be it.
The creative impulses of artistic people require a social environment that encourages them to push the envelope and to question conventions and the status quo. To curb these artistic energies is obviously to execute an assault on freedom of expression.
That is why it is indeed disturbing to learn that apart from what happened at the National Art Gallery, there were also other similar actions taken recently to muzzle other artistes.
Comedy group Rare was given scant attention by the Shah Alam Town Council at the recent Sepahtu Reunion Live 2020 programme after the former publicly apologised for satirising the Pakatan Harapan government during the Maharaja Lawak Mega 2019 event.
Comedians without measured exaggeration of social realities and ridicule of public figures, among others, in their comic acts would be ludicrous.
Rock group Drama Band was reprimanded by Media Prima Television Networks CEO Johan Ishak over its performance at the Anugerah Juara Lagu, which parodied a few public figures, including former Prime Minister Najib Razak and wife Rosmah Mansor.
Such anti-democratic measures are a throwback to the Barisan Nasional days, when certain art forms, such as clown caricatures and political cartoons, were regulated and even criminalised.
Institutions associated with the arts should not serve as a pushback factor in a socio-political environment that is now experiencing a growing degree of freedom of expression in the country.
It’s instructive to remember that, for instance, activist-artist Fahmi Reza was hounded for his famous Najib Razak clown caricature, while celebrated political cartoonist Zulkiflee SM Anwar Ulhaque, better known as Zunar, was subjected to endless arrests and raids as well as faced nine charges of sedition that carried a sentence of 43 years’ jail – simply because he drew cartoons of Najib and wife.
Such creative impulses and grit among our artistic people must not be stifled if we really want a vibrant artistic culture that we can be proud of and artistic forms that are critically acclaimed.
Self-censorship among artistes, as a result of certain restrictions imposed by state or non-state actors, could spur some of them to be “domesticated” and to stay away from trouble and for easier access to state resources allocated for the arts.
It is a test of democracy when the artistic do their darndest.