Alegori: Contemporary Art Expression From Malay Manuscripts

Galerie Petronas exhibits art installations inspired by allegorical thinking in Malay manuscripts.

Htien Lin’s beautiful Monument for My Mother

The Galeri Petronas exhibition Alegori: Contemporary Art Expression From Malay Manuscripts is running until Feb 4 with 10 art installations interpreting the metaphorical thinking in ancient Malay manuscripts by artists from all over Southeast Asia. Complementing the exhibition are displayed manuscripts (Sulalatus Salatin and Hikayat Hang Tuah), 17 other significant works and 20 rare Malay artefacts.

Malaysian artist Samsudin Wahab’s installation, called Orang Asam Keping and Orang Ikan Masin, comprises two figures made of dried Garcinia atroviridis slices and dried fish. These pieces are said to bring to mind the phrase kaki botol (drunkard). Wahab’s work is not only visually appealing but engages the viewer’s olfactory system — the figures smell bad. Thankfully, you have to get close to the figures to get a waft of their “fragrance” but it plays well with the almost cartoonish facial structure of the figures.

Syafiq Ali’am’s The Great Story of The Floating Empire was heavily influenced by his career in constructing movie props. His piece focuses on tales of Melaka’s golden age and The Southeast Crusade War with a science-fiction twist. The work evokes a dystopian feel with its winged ships and floating islands. What really catches your eye are the details — the corrugated roofs, tall grey towers, rickety stairs, rusty cannons, old sheds, muddy walls and tattered bat-like wings — that make the story feel real.

Htien Lin’s beautiful Monument for My Mother is inviting with its bright colours and mishmash patterns. At the centre of the tent-like structure is a cloth bag of the same patchwork technique. Htien Lin’s mother used to make him school bags with the local dressmaker’s scraps. His mother’s ingenuity to make something useful and beautiful with what others call rubbish resonates throughout this piece.

Monument for My Mother is much like the saying, “one man’s trash is another man’s treasure”. It’s almost as though the love from this bag has grown into a jigsaw puzzle of a home, as a way to give back to the artist’s mother. The artwork mimics a family unit, with each piece of cloth representing a single individual. There is even a ripped hole on the right wall, purposely done to show how some relationships are torn apart.

From afar, Tita Rubi’s evocative Tears from the Sky has a daunting and secretive aura that is shrouded in darkness. The hooded figure is so tall and domineering that you almost don’t want to approach it. Upon closer inspection, the piece is brighter. It is created with 12,000 fiberglass beads strung together. Each clear bead has a blood-like foetus shape in the middle. The audience is invited to reflect on human life as something that may fill you with trepidation but is also quite beautiful and miraculous.

The thought-provoking Between Worlds by Indonesian artist Nasirun has wayang kulit (shadow puppets) inside glass beakers and bottles arranged in the shape of Borobudur and lit with colourful lights. The characters feel like specimens for study in their scientific bottles but at the same time, they are on display, much like television where the viewer is separated by a glass screen. Perhaps Nasirun is suggesting that we need to preserve art forms such as wayang kulit in the same way we archive and conserve scientific discoveries or television shows. The piece seems to juxtapose the past (traditional wayang kulit) with the present (scientific beakers) to get us thinking about how we value things at different times.

Other works are Empayar by Fadzil Idris; The Mapping of Wayang Kertas by M Alzan M Latib; Memory of the Blind Elephant by Nguyen Phuong Linh; Jose Rixal, Eroe Nazionale by Alwin Reamilo; and Emansipasi Wanita Melayu by Andrialis Abd Rahman, Nur Anzina M Lazim and Intan Natasha Abd Azim.

There are also video projections alongside some of the artwork. For example, Nguyen Phuong Linh’s Memory of the Blind Elephant includes a cut rubber sheet and a video exploring the impact of foreign ventures on Vietnam’s ecology.


Alegori: Contemporary Art Expression From Malay Manuscripts is being held at Galeri Petronas, Level 3, Suria KLCC, KL, until Feb 4. For more details, visit This article first appeared in The Edge Malaysia on Jan 15, 2018.

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