Last month, the Malaysian art community made headlines again when 7 artists withdrew themselves from the inaugural KL Biennale after pieces from their installation titled, “Under Construction” were purportedly confiscated by the police the day before the official launch of the exhibition. The KL Biennale is a biennial contemporary art exhibition jointly organised by the National Art Gallery and the Ministry of Tourism and Culture (MOTAC). Modelled after the famous Venice Biennale, the KL version was heavily promoted as it featured 103 local artists and 11 international artists.
While Malaysians may understand a degree of censorship with regards to certain taboo issues such as art works insulting religion, the basis of censorship for the so-called prestigious event above has made Malaysia an international laughing stock.
The artists, comprising of 5 Malaysians and 2 Indonesians, said that police were called in to inspect their work and had said that the works presented “elements of communism”. The parts removed by the authorities, included the word “Rasuahahahahaha” and some books.
According to the group’s spokesperson, Aisyah Baharuddin, the art installation was meant to depict the human mind, culture and community, which were always changing and developing.
To add salt to wound, the artists were even forbidden to touch their own art work pending police investigations.
“We felt that they have violated our artwork by removing things that were part of the whole project. We were not allowed to go near it or even touch it. That was why we finally decided to cover it up with the black net as a sign of protest,” Aisyah said.
What was most disgraceful is the utter lack of professionalism and competence among the organisers and the authorities.
The show’s curator told the artists that the police confiscated pieces from their installation. However, the police said they only advised the gallery to remove the artwork and return it to the artists. More than a week after the controversy, no one is none the wiser.
As Aisyah rightly asked, “the National Art Gallery and the police have given conflicting accounts. Who is telling the truth? What actually happened?”
The irony of the entire fiasco is the fact that the Malaysian authorities are acting precisely like the purported “communisim” elements which the artist were accused of portraying. Are we now like a Stalinist totalitarian regime where the police and other relevant authorities will act like the Big Brother controlling how and what its citizens think?
The blatant attempts at censorship here clearly epitomises the ‘advise’ provided by the recently retired Inspector-General of Police (IGP) Tan Sri Khalid Abu Bakar to cartoonist Zunar to stick to “drawing Donald Duck”.
This totalitarian mindset of the National Art Gallery and the Police will destroy any hopes of achieving the Biennale’s main objectives, which was to position KL as a must visit city on the global art map and to position Malaysia as a country that is persistent in developing a competitive creative economic sector.
The government had proudly launched the Cultural Economy Development Agency (CENDANA) with a RM20 million allocation in this year’s budget to boost the country’s cultural economy. Previously, the government launched MyCreative Ventures in 2012 as an investment arm with a RM200 million allocation to invest in viable creative businesses in the country. Both CENDANA and MyCreative Ventures are listed as co-supporters of the KL Biennale.
However, all the above well-intended funding allocations however will be completely wasted if the trend of arbitrary and increasingly intolerant censorship continues.
Earlier this year, Sabahan art collective Pangrok Sulap also made headlines when the withdrew themselves from the ongoing ESCAPE from SEA, exhibition after their piece titled “Sabah Tanah Air-Ku” was removed from the exhibition in Bangsar. Their piece was reported removed after a complaint was made that was later escalated to the Prime Minister’s Office. The piece explicitly highlights major Sabahan issues including Project IC, illegal logging, flooding and corruption.
If the government is sincere about making Malaysia a global cultural hub and to develop her local creative industries, it must stop with these frivolous acts of censorship and allow creative expression to thrive.