Biennales are always exciting. And with hundreds of Biennales and Triennales held the world over every year, they’ve become pivotal cradles of national pride, global acknowledgement and of course, tourism.
Nearly a quarter of the world’s autonomous states proffer one. The best biennales leave indelible marks in the heart, mind and soul; they’re meant to move us and take us deep into the world of pulsating artistic scenes.
And on Nov 1, we welcome yet another Biennale: our very own. Our debut. There’s much excitement as it has been much talked about and anticipated. The theme chosen is Alami Belas: Be Loved which is divided into five segments and led by curatorial chief, Professor Zulkifli Yussof together with The National Art Gallery’s curatorial team, Faizal Sidik, Tan Hui Koon and Baktiar Naim. The segments are:
Belas Insan (Love for Humanity)
Belas Alam (Love for Nature)
Belas Haiwan (Love for Animals)
Belas Warisan (Love for heritage)
Belassungkawa (Spirituality/ Love for Past Icons)
The KL Biennale, (KLB) which runs until March 31, 2018 will see participation from over a hundred artists spanning 12 countries — Malaysia, The Philippines, China, Cambodia, Sweden, Palestine, Singapore, Indonesia, India, Thailand, Bangladesh and Japan. These nations were selected in conjunction with our 60 years of Independence and also the 50 year anniversary of these Asean countries.
The target here is to reach a quarter of a million visitors from around the globe; parallel to Strategy 9 Initiative 7, which is the Strategic Plan of our Ministry of Tourism and Culture 2016-2020, placing KLB 2017 as a primary event to help hit the target of 36 million visitors to Malaysia by the year 2020.
With the National Art Gallery (NAG) being the main venue for KLB 2017, supporting sites include Galeri Prima, Piyadasa Gallery, The National Library, Ruman Uwan Bainah, SGM Grand Culture Centre, Galeri UPM at Universiti Putra Malaysia, Galeri Ilham, Galeri Seni Tuanku Zahirah UiTM, Galeri Petronas, My Town Shopping Centre and The National Blood Bank.
The artist listing is an impressive one; some of the names which must be mentioned are Awang Damit Ahmad, Sharmiza Abu Hassan, Bibi Chew, Ahmad Zakii Anwar, Jeganathan Ramachandram, Bayu Utomo Radjikin, Jalaini Abu Hassan, Anniketyni Madian, Yeoh Jin Leng, Ibrahim Hussein, Joseph Tan, Syed Ahmad Jamal, Sulaiman Esa, Niranjan Rajah, Fatimah Chik, Sharifah Fatimah Syed Zubir, Anthony Lau, Jaafar Taib, Dzukifli Buyong, Ismail Zain, Khoo Sui Hoe, Johan Marjonid and many more.
Setting the benchmark
The idea for KLB 2017 was first conceived by NAG’s Biennale Committee almost two years ago. When it came to implementation, board member Johan Ishak, who’s also Media Prima’s Television Networks (MPTN) chief executive officer, was the natural choice for the job. The torch was readily passed, and now the KLB chairman is tasked with ensuring that our first Biennale is not only triumphant, but sets THE benchmark for our future Biennales.
“Initially I was a little stunned because I do not possess a formal art background. I’m a part-time artist myself, and have mounted several art shows, so I do grasp what art is. I’ve also attended numerous Biennales and major art events around the globe. The Venice Biennale and Documenta were definite highlights,” begins Johan.
He goes on to add that implementing a Biennale involves so many aspects — project management, human resources skills, understanding budgets and numbers that one has to be flexible with. “When NAG’s director general Datuk Dr Najib Dawa explained fully what my job scope was, I was deeply honoured and determined to see it through. There’s that sense of ‘trepidation’, but one which is exciting.”
In other words, Johan is the wheel who must place all the cogs in their perfect positions. Not an easy task. Biennales are backbreaking work. They’re stages for cultural and artistic constructions; a proclamation of grave seriousness from artists and art organisations. They’re gargantuan shows of contemporary art, managed by an amalgamation of government agencies, private and public museums/galleries, and of course, philanthropic cliques, which explains the two to three year rotation they’re held: it’s a consideration of the amount of time needed to put together these mega-uber-shows.
KLB 2017 is a ‘call to feat’. Alami Belas: Be Loved makes a splendid statement about the human condition — to think with the heart and feel with the soul.These sentiments are further affirmed by Johan when he says: “The usual Biennales themes are more often than not provocative; that whole melange of war and aftermath, death, oppression, and ‘disturbing’ socio-political/ post-apocalyptic standpoints. They’re meant to make us shudder. Themes represent the pulse of the contemporary art realms; their overwhelming subject matters are what draw visitors. People love to be shocked, disgusted and go home and sleep with two weeks’ worth of nightmares.”
Here is where KLB 2017 is different. Johan observes: “I noticed immediately that Art Dubai, Art Basel Switzerland and The Venice Biennale were absolutely contemporary. Almost 100 per cent. Then enters Documenta. It had a breathtaking mix of classical, modern and contemporary. And witnessing this gave me the drive and motivation needed for KLB 2017.”
Adding, he shares: “Our debut IS a combination, much like Documenta. Most Biennales carry ‘punchy’ themes, very inflammatory, and carry within them messages which rock boats, yachts, and all sea and land vessels. Realising this, I felt very confident of our own theme, Alami Belas: Be Loved. Our message is what encompasses us as a nation: we steer away from all the ‘loudness’; our way is lemah-lembut, subtle, graceful, elegant. In other words, full of love and compassion. I believe strong messages can be conveyed in other ways than shouting ourselves into permanent deafness.”
True influence of art
Johan’s optimism and confidence is infectious. And albeit admitting that one concern is that expectations might blow up all the roofs from here to Mozambique, he remains buoyant. His team is working relentlessly around the clock, and this chairman is sunny and fully-psyched despite the obvious lack of sleep.
“The stresses will quadruple for KLB 2019, but this is my philosophy: if one waits to be comfortable and ready to partake in anything remotely challenging, you’ll never be ready. For the longest time, I’ve been pushed into situations which are completely worlds apart from my comfort zone. It’s like throwing an infant into a swimming pool. But I plough through, and so far, all has turned out very well. I’m up for challenges. And KLB 2017 will be fully supported by two media giants, Media Prima and Astro, and assisted by social media, and specific international art establishments.”
The artists selected to participate in KLB 2017 may be missing some important names, but as Johan explains, the committee based their selection in accordance to the five themes.
We applaud NAG’s effort in realising KLB 2017. Our Balai serves as a focal point for the arts industry, but it cannot survive on government funding alone. Private sectors must also come forward and become key players. For KLB 2017, several have come forward, and we’re thrilled, and pray to see more.
We anticipate that KLB 2017 will be able, to an extent, speak to power in an acute and emotionally-composed method to the most liberal and ‘alternative’ community without driving them away. If done just right, KLB 2017 will gift us with the chance to witness the true influence of art.
National Art Gallery
The National Art Gallery was established in 1958 by the first Prime Minister of Malaysia, Tunku Abdul Rahman Putra Al’Haj. The Gallery is the and oldest gallery in Southeast Asia, holding some of the earliest collections of modern art.
Go to www.artgallery.gov.my/KLBiennale for details
Gallery opening hours: 10 am to 6pm
NationalArt Gallery, No 2, Jalan Temerloh,
Off Jalan Tun Razak, KL