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Reminisces and Thoughts on art history education in Malaysia

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In 2004, I enrolled in the Master of Visual Art (MVA) program at University Malaya. My offer letter stated that my academic supervisor is Redza Piyadasa. Having come back to Malaysia recently, I was extremely naïve and ignorant of local art history, wondering who this person is. Our meeting resulted in my switch from a full time research program to a coursework and dissertation program of study. Piya (as he is known in the visual art fraternity) reasoned that I was a studio artist without sufficient grounding on regional art history. He also gave assurances that it would be an intellectually stimulating and invigorating program. Though skeptical, I decided to follow his advice. From November of that year, I embarked on a journey of intensive study with this man. The requirements of the program state that we are to complete eight coursework modules prior to the start of our thesis writing. Piya single-handedly created my love for Southeast Asian Art History.

My initial indifference for regional art history stemmed from my undergraduate days. Certain art schools (studio based) then and now only instructed their students in the tenets of Western Art History. I am not implying that Western Art History is not important; I am suggesting that as tertiary art students in the region, Southeast Asian Art History is imperative to the understanding of who we are and the position we stand as practitioners based in the region. Piya always said that we should not look at ourselves as Malaysians but Southeast Asians.

Coming back to the MVA, Piya taught me Southeast Asian Art 1 and 2, Graduate Seminar on Art Critical Writing and Modern Southeast Asian Art. I attended the course with a handful of others with a one-to-one for a particular module. Little did I realize that we would be among the last of his students. His lecturers were highly intense, dramatic and absorbing. There was never a dull moment. He epitomized what people today refer to as ‘old school’. Piya did not use slides on projector nor power point presentations. In this age of advance technology, he plucked images from books or drew on the white board. Hand-outs were in the form of articles and features to be read in advance for the following week. In every lecture, we scribbled hard copying his oratory instruction. His encyclopedic knowledge, understanding and passion never ceased to amaze me. At times, he would ask where we stopped previously and continued from there. Classes of 2 hours stretched to 3 then 4 hours. I vividly remember a particular situation when the electricity was cut off halfway through the lecture. He continued talking; saying nonchalantly that the current would come back in a bit. It was a good 45 minutes before we could see each other clearly again!

Assignments were 20 or 30 page reports of a specific topic. Each of us researched into different areas so that we would have a wider frame of understanding when we read each other’s work. Our discourse did not end in the lectures or in his office. On the numerous occasions he welcomed me to his home, I spent much of my time reading and listening to him. This father-like-figure loaned me his books and piled on more every time we met at his residence. Eventually, a significant amount of his didactic efforts were drilled into this thick skull of mine. By this time, I realized that the more I read, the less I know.

The whole idea of sharing my thoughts here was in part due to Sharon and Simon. Two weeks ago, they sent me mails, though each was not aware of the other doing so. The former wanted to know about my experiences at the postgraduate level, while the latter was interested in the program at the university. Here it is guys. However, I have not iterated on all the issues.

At this point, I would like to extend my take on fine art education in Malaysia. Most of us are aware of the number of artists being churned out by institutions like UiTM, MIA and other private colleges. Let us not forget the graduates returning from foreign art schools. No doubt, we have artists aplenty. My question is the number of formally trained art historians and curators-writers (as June says) we have in Malaysia. To look at things in perspective, how many museums and galleries do we have in the country or in Klang Valley alone? I am discounting the so-called frame shops doubling up as art galleries. In fact, there are more private and commercial galleries mushrooming as I write. For a long time now, people have been saying that we do not have sufficient writing and publications on Malaysian art. I am aware that this is an old debate. Well, do we have programs on Art History and Curatorial Studies to meet the demand? Let us look a little further, as Piya said, to Southeast Asia. How many institutions offer such a program to cater to the need of curatorial and scholarship purposes? Not to be sour grapes here, not everyone can afford nor are they presented with the opportunity to pursue further studies in the United States, Europe or Australia for that matter.

In recent years, public universities have been put to task for what else, ranking. This has resulted in certain institutions being projected as research universities. My hypothesis of a university receiving research status means less coursework and more research. The objective is of course to elevate our public university rankings in the world. I have been teaching at the tertiary level for a number of years. Being a product of the local national education system myself, I am suggesting that many of our students are not taught to think and write critically. To make matters worse, many do not even enjoy history as a subject. Would it be mean to say that students are in fact more adept in the art of “memorizing” to achieve their string of A’s in public examinations?

Perhaps what I am suggesting here is the dire need for a tertiary program that provides a better leverage of coursework and research in the promotion of Southeast Asian Art History and Curatorial Studies. What about a program and syllabus that reflects our current education system to cater to the industrial needs? In April this year, I was in Singapore to attend a talk by art historian T.K. Sabapathy. Entitled ‘Road to Nowhere’, it was attended by members of the artistic community on the other side of the causeway. Interestingly, it gave me an opportunity to understand the advancement or non-advancement of art history studies in Singapore. But then that is another story.


Kelvin Chuah wears many hats as artist, writer, curator and lecturer. He is interested in Southeast Asian art history, specifically contemporary art produced in Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia and the Philippines.

This article was first posted on the original Arteri site on 25 June, 2009 .

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