Friday, September 2, 2011

National Art Gallery

This article appeared in theSun newspaper on Aug 24 where it focus Malaysian visual art scene.

Suggested Headline; Guardian of the Arts

On Aug 27, Balai Seni Lukis Negara, the National Art Gallery, will turn 53. Bissme S talks to its director-general, Ambassador Datuk Mohd Yusof Ahmad, about the future of this venerable national institution.

Is it true that Balai Seni Lukis Negara will have a different name soon?

Yes. The National Art Gallery (NAG)’s new act, the National Visual Arts Development Board Bill 2010 will replace the previous National Art Gallery Act (1957) under which we have been operating for more than 50 years. This new act will be effective on Aug 27, marking the 53rd anniversary of the gallery. From that date we will be known as Balai Seni Visual Negara or the National Visual Arts Gallery.
This is in keeping with the enormous changes the country and the art scene had undergone over the years. The word “visual” has a broader definition encompassing all the modern and contemporary artistic practices. The new act gives us more control over our finances as we can now set up businesses and offer commercial services.
 At my suggestion, we are still maintaining the iconic logo of the gallery which was designed by Datuk Syed Ahmad Jamal, Malaysia’s only Art laureate, who died recently. Besides his many contributions in various capacities as educator, writer, designer, sculptor and painter, he was also an astute administrator who served as the director-general of this institution from 1983 to 1990. This is our gesture of appreciation and in honour of his memory.

Tell us more about yourself? Why do you think you were hired as the director?
I served the government for 35 years at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs till my retirement. Out of the 35 years, 22 were spent overseas as a diplomat in seven countries. My first posting was in Vietnam followed by Italy, Poland, Australia, Peru, Switzerland and a stint at the UN office in New York.
 I became the director-general of the gallery in June last year. The ministry was looking for someone different who would give a different twist to the gallery and my name somehow came up. I believe my reputation as an art collector and someone who is passionate about the arts preceded me. I am honoured and pleased to be given another opportunity to contribute to the country and to society.

Tell us some of the challenges you faced in the 14 months you headed the gallery?
When I worked in an embassy, I had fewer staff, specific responsibilities and we were able to work independently. But it is different at the gallery. My knowledge and my exposure to the Malaysian art scene in the beginning, were limited because I was overseas most of the time. I was literally groping in the dark. Furthermore, the scope of my responsibilities is vast. I do not only oversee the gallery. I also have to attend to many ministry activities.
 I had to adopt a different working style and learn to compromise with my staff. Sometimes I will have to go down to their level and vice versa. With time I have learned to adjust and things are now on track as much as I can hope for.

Tell us some of the changes you had brought to the gallery?
One of the things that surprised me was that the gallery had fewer than 5,000 artworks in its 53 years of existence. It is a small number considering the time span. I felt that we should have had more in our collection. Due to budget constraint, we were not able to have as much as we like.
 We rely on donations. Small as our collection may seem though, I later realised that we have some of the most important works in our hands. The collection encompasses our histories and the socio-cultural and politics.
 They are an excellent source of visual references to emerging as well as established artists and academicians. But these artworks are kept in the storage most of the time. Unlike other national art galleries and museums which proudly display their permanent collection on their walls, we have not worked that way. Here, our collections are being shown on rotation in just one gallery ( NAG has six galleries).
 I felt we should make our art collection more accessible and known to the public. So I told my curators that we should be giving more priority in showcasing our collection and to a certain degree we have been doing that throughout this year.

Some people have said not many people visit Balai and the Balai is a white elephant. What is your comment?
I disagree. If you were here two hours earlier, you would have seen more than 50 students from a multimedia university visiting this gallery and having intense discussions about art with their lecturer. There are days when the gallery is packed for hours, and empty the next. Speaking from my 22 years experience abroad, it is a similar situation in any art gallery and museum around the world.
 Of course, you cannot compare the NAG to museums and galleries in New York, London, Paris and others where visitors are willing to queue up for hours and wait days just to get tickets and to get in. Not many galleries and museums in the world can reach such standards. But I believe that the number of visitors to NAG has risen in recent months. We are open to the public free as this institution is supported by taxpayers.
 On the charge that NAG is “a white elephant”, I have this to say: we are an established brand. We are an important institution. We are an icon. We are a national treasure. From emerging to established artists, from private corporations to public figures, all look forward to work with us and to exhibit at our galleries. It is every artist’s dream to have his or her work exhibited at the National Art Gallery. It is the ultimate testament of their artistic credential in their resume.

Some people say the location of Balai is not public transport friendly, therefore people stay away from visiting it.
I will admit that transport is a problem and we are finding ways to overcome it. The Hop-On buses (that usually carry tourists) now make their rounds here and as a result you will find a trickle of tourists visiting us. Still, if there’s a will there is always a way. People who want to visit us will find their way.

Do you have any suggestions to attract more people?
Many famous art galleries and museums are known for the masterpieces in their collection. For example, the Louvre in Paris is famous for the Mona Lisa, among others. Our national gallery is lacking this element. We need to change this. We need to popularise or iconise some of the works from our national collection so that the public will be attracted to see these works.

What is the greatest misconception that people have about Balai?
We have been accused of being elitist and we want to shed this image. We have been holding art exhibitions with popular themes and as a result more people have visited us. For example in conjunction with the Mother’s Day celebration, we put up the exhibition Kasihnya Ibu which depicts the bond of love between mothers and children. The exhibition lasted for two months and attracted more than 12,000 visitors. We are planning to take this exhibition to Sabah and Pahang.
 Another great misconception is that nothing is happening in Balai. I can assure you that my staff work endlessly to cater to the needs of the art community and ministry. We are constantly thinking of initiatives and ideas while fulfilling our obligations. Personally, I have never worked so hard as I have in the 14 months here!

Islam forbids Muslim artists to paint portraits and figures. What is your stand on this issue?
I would like to be open-minded about this matter. I support all kinds of arts as long as they do not offend anyone. Anything that is beautiful should be appreciated. I had my portrait done on my 34th birthday in Italy. I had another portrait done in Wimbledon in 1982. Islam forbids the painting of portraits and figures in art for the purpose of worship. As far as I am concerned, this is a non-issue. In Malaysia, portraits and figures are painted and solely appreciated for its historical content and artistic value. Otherwise, the government would have banned this art form.

The late Syed Ahmad Jamal had said in the past the government and Balai took Malaysian artwork overseas regularly but not anymore. Any comment?
To regularly take Malaysian artworks for exhibitions abroad is costly. Our funds are limited. We have to be selective. Each year, a few Malaysian artists are shortlisted and chosen to take part in international events organised by the Malaysian government or foreign governments to promote ties.
But many of our artists today are more independent and Net savvy. They create their own networking and manage to secure their own exhibitions abroad without the mediation of the government. They could still receive our assistance through the NAG’s Tabung Bantuan Seni. We will try to support them in terms of airfare, allowance, art materials, transport of artworks, etc.
 I know one Malaysian artist just had his exhibition in New York and another Malaysian artist will be having his exhibition in Italy, soon. In May, five artists showcased their work in Vienna. Early this year the tourism minister took a Malaysian contemporary artist to Berlin and showcased his works there.
We will be having The Malaysia Fest in London in October and one of the events will promote Malaysian arts. I am collaborating with the Malaysian embassy in Abu Dhabi to showcase Malaysian artworks there in December. So we are still playing an important role in taking Malaysian artworks to the world.

There is an impression that our government gives less emphasis to the arts compared to other sectors. Do you agree?
You can’t really ask me that question! I am still with the government, you know (laughs). I admit the funds given to us is very small. But my ministry is aware of this and they are making steps to correct it. They are beginning to realise art can be something very big … art can be lucrative … art can be a trade commodity. Now, there is a requirement to put artworks in every new government building. That gives room for artists to sell their artworks. The government has also created the Dana Kreatif Industri where artists can take loans to fund their projects. So the government does give emphasis to the arts. But one must understand that government is in charge of many things and you can’t force government to put all their focus into one area.

Some people felt a wellknown painter or artist would have been more suitable to head the gallery.
This job is not just about painting. It is about administrating, educating, promoting, being creative and developing networks to benefit this institution. I believe my administrative and diplomatic background which required a lot of networking skills and my international exposure and experience give me a certain edge over others.

What sparked your interest in art?
Art, specifically paintings, came late in my life. In the beginning I loved gardening, music, films, fashion and deco. I was fascinated with anything that was beautiful. My interest in art began when I was posted in Italy in 1981. I rented a huge apartment from a lawyer. He inherited it from his uncle who was an artist and the apartment was filled with paintings. The lawyer told me that I could use the paintings as I liked. The paintings literally opened my eyes and my heart to the world of art.
 I started collecting paintings only at the age of 30. I do not collect artworks for investment. Art is my passion. My art collections are like my babies. I know their history and where and how I got each of them. I have a few hundred paintings and I kept telling myself to stop buying more. But I never do.

Do you paint?

I do paint but hardly these days, being so busy in my work. I started painting while I was posted in Peru. I was 50 when I learned to paint (He is 61 now). I, mostly, give away my paintings to friends and colleagues all over the world as presents. I get the satisfaction of knowing that somewhere in the world, from Washington to Abu Dhabi, a humble painting of mine is hanging on a wall.