For fans of Malaysia’s greatest living artist Latiff Mohidin, appreciators of modernist art and poetry or even those seeking to deepen their understanding of the development of art in the turbulent 1960s, a visit to Latiff Mohidin: Pago Pago (1960-1969) is a must. Fresh from his triumph in Paris, where he made history as the first Southeast Asian artist to be accorded a dedicated exhibition at the Centre Pompidou’s In-Focus Gallery, Malaysia’s boy wonder-turned-living legend returns to Kuala Lumpur with the exhibition at Ilham Gallery, which is showing until Dec 30.
Options: How does it feel to have Pago Pago being shown as a retrospective after so long?
Latiff Mohidin: The 70 Pago Pago artworks — paintings and sketches — that we managed to put together for the show in Paris were actually the first Pago Pago retrospective ever. It is really worthwhile to know and see that the results of the very hard, professional efforts of almost two years by the organisers — the National Gallery Singapore and the Centre Pompidou — were realised beautifully. On my part, I just gave what was needed: all the materials connected to the making and the development of the Pago Pago series. And, most importantly, to the thought process behind it, as it were.
What did you feel when the exhibition opened at the Centre Pompidou?
I had all sorts of strange feelings throughout the opening of the show … surprise, strangeness, oddness, a feeling of it being remarkable, puzzlement and sheer joy. I never dreamt that my works of 50 years ago would be rediscovered and be on the same floor as works by Picasso and Matisse. I am not saying that I am their equal … oh no, that is impossible. But what I mean is, according to the curators, that the ‘Modernists of Southeast Asian Art’ are now being recognised as important contributors to western and global modernism too.
What were your thoughts and feelings, seeing all the pieces come together?
For me, it was a sort of self-discovery. You know, I’ve not seen the works in decades. Looking at each piece, thinking back to the place, the time and the surroundings when it was painted. Also, for example, one might assume that in exhibition, some of the works would appear ‘weak’. I found that each Pago Pago could stand alone as well as stand side by side with other works of the same series. And that’s good.
Where will the exhibition travel to after Kuala Lumpur?
To be honest, I have no idea. But I guess we need to have a break as the year is already looking very much like a Pago Pago year. It’s been non-stop in Paris from March to May and now in KL until December!
What did it feel like being back in Paris after so long?
As you know, I have not been to Paris since the late 1980s. And, as they say, Paris is Paris — full of surprises, at any time of the year, in any season. In fact, I was delighted that Paris experienced its first snow of the year on the very day of Pago Pago’s opening, on Feb 28 this year. I wished, of course, that I could have stayed on longer but the schedules were tight. I didn’t have much time to visit the art museums or art galleries but I did manage to have a quick look at Montmartre and Montparnasse and the row of small art shops along the Left Bank, my favourite areas during my ‘vagabond days’ of the late 1960s. But on the last night of our stay, do you know what happened? Monsieur Bernard [Blistène, director of the Centre Pompidou’s musée national d’art moderne] himself drove us around Paris to see the grand historical buildings, all lit up at night. That was indeed a wonderful experience.
You travelled around Europe after your Pompidou opening, making it your first grand tour after a long time as well. What were the highlights of the trip for you as well as the biggest changes you noticed?
The grand European tour that I had earlier planned, alas, did not happen. It would have been fantastic if we could have gone on to Berlin from Paris, and then from Berlin to Amsterdam and onwards to London, revisiting all the great art museums. Instead, we travelled to Madrid by train, stopping for a day in Barcelona. It was in Madrid, on March 5, that a Spanish writer friend arranged a special surprise for me. The Spanish version of my Mekong River anthology was launched there, with many well-known artists, writers and architects in attendance. We had many amusing poetry readings too, alternating between Spanish, Malay and English. And of the poems’ translation, an extravagant portfolio was also presented to the King of Spain. After that memorable event, we went to visit the branch of the Pompidou Museum in Málaga, which was very impressive with its underground galleries. After that, it was a glorious week playing tourist, covering cities such as Granada, Seville and Toledo.