If you are one of the hundreds of visitors to the recently opened KL Biennale, you may have come across a large black net on the 1st floor. This net covered loose furniture made to resemble an interior of house. There are floor-mats, paint cans and even a ladder hidden beneath this black net. Looking at this big black net, you might think that this an artwork and reacted with puzzlement wondering what is this art about. Or your reaction is that of curiosity; probing and poking the objects beneath the black net.
Unfortunately, KL Biennale visitors don’t have access to this artwork because it is now part of police investigation. Some parts of the artwork were removed by the organizers the day before its grand opening and subsequently, returned to the artist.
“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 Baharuddin (PSS Artist)
However, the way the entire situation was handled was utterly inacceptable by the artist collective that lead to the artists to withdrawing from the Biennale entirely.
“Maybe the authorities don’t understand the art. Artists are not criminals.”-Aisyah[i]
Aisyah’s statement prompted me to step in with an intention to offer another perspective based on personal experience working along side this this artist collective a few years ago. Hopefully, through my short essay; I am able to shed some light as to why “Under Construction” is important to be included in the inaugural KL Biennale. us. In addition to that, it will serve as an entry point to the world of community-engaged art and the independent art scene movement; a movement that’s rapidly growing in its influence.
#1: Who are these artists and how long have they been around?
The formation of this group of artists began with T.I.G.A (Tindakan Gerak Asuh), an artist collective founded by three artists; Aisyah Baharuddin, Intan Rafiza Abu Bakar and Azliza Ayob. The current members grew to Farhana Mohd. Tajali and Mohd. Idham Ismail. T.I.G.A initiated a physical art space in Padang Jawa in 2013 called Pusat Sekitar Seni (PSS) and Padang Jawa Street Art Festival from 2011-2013.[ii] However, due to financial constraints, they stopped having the space and moved all the activities to Aisyah’s residence located within the same neighborhood. Currently, PSS still operates from Aisyha’s home.
For the “Under Construction” art installation, PSS artists includes Ahmad Azrel Kilheeny, Mohamad Idham Ismail, Nurul Adeline Zainuddin and Iitizam Iman Abdul Jalil and two Indonesian artists; Isrol Triono from Yogyakarta and Selo Srie Mulyadi from Jakarta.
#2: An art movement that combines Art and Activism
T.I.G.A’s main objective was to create a platform where artists can actively engage in community building projects. Here, the artists place important value of an artwork on its impact to foster greater civic society. Artworks made by the artists here is not motivated by financial gains or is neither art market driven, but instead the artworks become artistic tools aimed at community enrichment. More emphasis is placed on the artist’s ability to take on leadership roles like teacher, advisor and facilitator to the community.
This philosophy that combines art and activism, is brought forward into Pusat Sekitar Seni or PSS. Their knowledge and artistic strategies are further enriched through the many artists exchange projects between Malaysia, Jogjakarta and Jakarta, initiated within the collective’s circle.
#3: Why they operate in Padang Jawa
Padang Jawa can be located at the fringe of Shah Alam. Padang Jawa folks consist of lower middle to low-income and high risk urban poor community. Kids and youths there come from broken or single parent families. A majority of them a high school drop outs and runaways. The place is extremely gentrified. Village folks sell off their farm lands to developers which in turn convert them into commercial shophouses or expensive condos. There is no public spaces like parks or playgrounds where the kids and youth can play or hang out, making them susceptible to participating in small thefts and vandalism.
PSS recognized the importance of providing a safe half-way space for the neighbourhood kids. A place where the kids can gather and read, do homework or just play together under the supervision of a responsible adult. At that time, PSS space was a few blocks away from Aisyah’s house. On the days that PSS was closed, Aisyah’s home served as the PSS space. She believed that it was important that she live inside the community. A typical afternoon at her house would have neighborhood kids storming into her kitchen and to drop off their school bags. They proceeded to change their school uniforms into play clothes and ran out.
“Who are those kids?” I asked. Aisyah one afternoon when I came to visit her.
She replied, ”Oh those kids. They always come to my house afterschool because they don’t want to go home immediately. They play games in the field and come back for a shower, then go home.”
Sure enough when the kids returned they were covered in mud and they quipped, ”Cikgu (teacher) can we take a shower in your bathroom?”
#4: Artists as community leaders. Artworks for social impact.
Padang Jawa Street Art festival would have to be PSS’s major event. Under the banner of festival programs, each artist would take charge of a community activity. There were programs like recycling, mural painting and wayang-type performances; that are all geared at promoting civic consciousness. Messages like “Reduce, reuse and recycle” and “Saya cintakan alam sekitar” were central to all the artworks produced for the event. At night, there would be puppet show performed by children and artists.
In 2015, I had the chance to offer video-making workshop at a PSS event. Usually during the school holidays, PSS would offer workshops and activities for the neighborhood kids. It is not surprising to hear that these programs sometimes run on the artists’ own pocket money. However, this time around, Aisyah received a small grant from BSVN to support PSS’s initiative. The youths that signed up for my workshop are the stereotypical ‘budak jahat’ (problematic youths); kids that parents would warn their children to stay away from. One boy, Azizi, was a 13-year-old drop-out and his friend was a runaway (Aisyah isn’t actually clear where he’s from as most of the times these kids just show up at her doorstep). I knew early on, that where my teaching abilities were concerned, this group definitely challenged me. For the next few days, I focused on them; listened to them, provided them with whatever resources I could and encouraged them to be themselves. Under those conditions, they bloomed and flourished. My biggest reward was to see this so-called ‘budak jahat’ come early to class-they arrived early and quietly waited for me–like good students!- and executed their music video project beyond my expectations. Upon reflection, that experience given to me by PSS marked a turning point in my artistic career.
#5: Independent movement serves as a check-and-balance to our capital-driven society.
PSS; along with other community-based artist collective like Lost Gen, Pungrok Sulap and Sasaran Arts Festival; are driven by need to elevate and enrich society. For this reason, they are often tagged as ‘independent’ or ‘alternative’. They are citizens of the world and take an active stand on public issues like environment, gentrification and corruption. Extending their artistic capabilities to that of community leaders, their focus is to change mindsets and attitudes at the grass root level.
I remember a recent comment by a fellow independent curator on the works of PSS; “But their form is weak…”, I think this person is missing the point; their work has never been about form. It’s never been their prerogative to produce an object of art meant to be admired for its aesthetic beauty. Therefore, the art produced here cannot be measured in the same way one measures art generated for the art market. The latter would require the artwork to can be categorized (either by mediums or dates), appraised, arranged in an order or even be framed. It’s like trying to get to a place either by car or public transport. Each means of transport provides a different journey because they were each built to fulfill a certain purpose; yet you still can arrive at your destination.
Lastly, Art that provokes also make us think outside the box.
Perhaps the censors are too quick to judge the messy “presentation”; that to me; serves only to mirror the kind of dysfunctional urban environment they operate in and where these youths call their home. But if you allow the time to read the texts, it all promotes a civic society.
Art has that ability to provoke and it is this “discomfort” that stings us to reality. Often, reality isn’t pretty and middle-upper classes (who make up for a large art going audience) would turn a blind eye. Moreover, it takes a lot of maturity to be able to look at one’s own ugliness in the eye.
At this moment, all you can do as a visitor is to react to the “censorship” that has befallen this RM6,000 commission art installation. It’s gross state of limbo means that visitors are prevented from enjoying the space intended for kids to read books and take part in other art-making activities; as initially intended by the artists. All you can do now is sit on one of the cushioned PVC benches in front of the black net and pretend not to notice it.
However, credit must also be given to the curatorial team for inviting PSS to the biennale in the first place because “Under Construction” art installation is an apt representation of one of many the independent art collectives in Malaysia, that holds true to the biennale’s theme of “belas” or be loved.
PSS activates the community by immersing themselves in the community and take part in social re-building and at the same time, operate with an enormous amount of compassion to the kids and families in Padang Jawa. They organize and implement projects within the community to raise awareness on local issues and empower them. This juxtaposition of chaos and empathy resonates in their “Under Construction” art installation and should be part of the KL Biennale.
*Below is a list of online articles of the censorship of “Under Construction” in chronological order:
[ii] (2016). Narratives in Malaysian Visual Art: Infrastructure.Yong, Beverly, Nur Hanim Khairuddin, Rahel Joseph, Tengku Sabri Ibrahim, Rogue Art (pg 239)