Options: Congratulations on the recent opening of Nirmala Dutt: Statements. But why her and why now?
Rahel Joseph: Nirmala Dutt was a pioneering figure in Malaysian contemporary art and one of very few women artists of her generation to forge and sustain a practice and presence in the local scene. She was a fearless artist who spoke truth to power, without fear, whether it was about the displacement of indigenous communities or the plight of the urban poor because of indiscriminate development. Despite this, however, she is not as well known to the public as she should be, which is why we decided to hold this survey exhibition. I hope the show and [a subsequent accompanying] publication will redress the situation and fill the gaps that exist in our art history.
What makes Nirmala Dutt stand out in a sea of Malaysian talent?
The fact that she was continuously experimenting with technique and form throughout her career, from painting, collage, documentary photography and silkscreen to public and mail art. She was committed to using art to awaken social conscience and her work consistently addressed social injustice and human suffering.
Which pieces would you recommend people take a longer time to ponder?
The Kenyataan or Statements series at the end of the gallery, which incorporates documentary photography and installation, is really interesting. It is about the environment, specifically pollution, and the destruction of our natural world in the name of “progress”, and the impact this has on communities. The fact that she did the work in the early 1970s before we even had a Ministry of Environment is a reflection of how forward-thinking she was.
What do you want people to walk away feeling after viewing Statements?
Beverly Yong, Snow Ng and Ellen Lee curated Statements, so I think I can speak for all of us when I say we want people to appreciate what a significant artist Nirmala was and how her practice has impacted contemporary art in Malaysia.
And what else do you have planned for Ilham?
We have a lot of exciting programmes planned. In collaboration with the National Gallery Singapore, we are bringing Living Pictures: Photography in Southeast Asia, the first-ever major survey of photography from the region, to Kuala Lumpur. We are also bringing Jungle Jungle by Zhang Xu Zhan, a Taiwanese artist who was designated the Deutsche Bank Artist of the Year 2020. A video in this exhibition also won the best animated short film at the 59th Golden Horse Award in 2022. Other shows planned include Boom Boom Bang! which will celebrate the visual culture of 1990s Kuala Lumpur — think pink bus minis, the Boom Boom Room, KLCC and the twin towers — which I will be curating with art historian Simon Soon.
What are some of your favourite destinations for art?
London will always have a place in my heart. When I was schooling in the UK, our field trips to museums and galleries gave me a lifelong appreciation for art which is why I am so passionate about the educational kids’ programmes at Ilham. However, closer to home, there are some exciting destinations like Taiwan and South Korea which have incredible art museums and are leading the way, especially in new media art.
Who are your all-time favourite artists and artworks?
I absolutely love Self-Portrait by Malaysian modernist painter Patrick Ng Kah Onn where he paints himself dressed in a garment made of traditional batik. He painted it in 1958, just one year after Malaya gained independence. It was an exciting and heady time of nation-building, where artists were making work that captured some of the optimism and hope for their new homeland and its people. The fact that Patrick painted himself clothed in batik, in what would be a cultural signifier of Malaya and later Malaysia, was telling. It feels like he wrapped himself in almost a second skin, the fabric of his homeland.
How would you encourage the next generation of artists? And why, in your own words, is art such an integral part of nation-building and a nation?
We initiated the Ilham Art Show in 2022 precisely for this reason. The IAS is a triennial exhibition platform, open to all, where artists selected are awarded an art production grant to be put towards the making of a new work. In 2022, we had 360 applications and we selected 31 artists, one of whom was straight out of art school. The IAS is designed to encourage artists to experiment, to play, to think of new ideas and to try new ways of making art — which I think is crucial to developing an artistic practice. Art is such an important part of nation-building because our artists are our storytellers. In Malaysia, as in so many parts of the world, artists play an important role as the tellers of our national narratives. Rather than the single narrative being peddled out by our politicians, the diverse stories artists tell more clearly reflect this multiracial nation we call home.
What books would you recommend people read to expand their knowledge and interest in art?
If you’re interested in Malaysian art, I would suggest Narratives in Malaysian Art, volumes one to four, edited by Rogue Art, which is a pretty comprehensive introduction. If you’re interested in knowing more about art generally and are looking for something more accessible, then I would suggest A History of Pictures by the artist David Hockney. It’s one of my favourite books; so informative, fun and, as you can guess, beautifully illustrated.
What are you listening to right now and why?
Malaysian indie singer/songwriter Takahara Suiko — you can find her on Spotify under the moniker Viona. Her band, The Venopian Solitude, played at Ilham recently as part of our Ilham After Dark Series to a rapturous crowd. She’s a brilliant lyricist. I’m always so excited when I discover these young dynamic Malaysian women who, like Nirmala, are fearless in charting their own creative paths. I highly recommend her!
Describe your idea of a perfect weekend.
My perfect weekend is the one I’m having now. We opened the Nirmala Dutt: Statements exhibition on Saturday night which, after the last few strenuous weeks, was deeply satisfying. The next morning I caught the first flight out to Penang to spend the day with a group of my oldest friends, sampling every plate of duck egg char kway teow and bowl of cendol in town before ending up at one of the island’s speakeasies, Backdoor Bodega. It was a perfect combination of good art, good food and good friends.
This article first appeared on July 24, 2023 in The Edge Malaysia.