An anthropological crime

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In the Malaysian newspaper, The Edge, Options, October 2, Conversations @ Hilton KL, The art of being Jolly, by Veronica Shunmugam , Koh had many personal criticisms of Malaysian art and artists. However, his remarks are his own ways of seeing things and there is no point disputing matters of individual taste. Who cares if Koh don’t like other artists’ paintings of kampong scenes, installations and other new forms of artistic expressions while he only admires his own landscape works with birds? This is just double standards, on his part!

But what I find both dangerous and incorrect is his use of words like “Third World”, “feudalistic” and “impoverished cultural environment” in talking about Malaysian cultural life in the article.

It is dangerous because terms like “Third World”, “feudalistic” and “impoverished” have been used to describe tribal people as “backwards” and “primitive” since the colonial era. The colonial Europeans believed in the inherent superiority of the “White Race” over the non-whites. This discrimination is based on class, colour and religion and without regard to individual and their community’s particular merits. This racist ideology helped legitimaze subjugation, slavery and the dismantling of the traditional societies of indigenous people all over the world. It is an anthropological crime. We must stop it.

It is incorrect because all societies adapt and change and we are not still living up on the trees. Malaysians, not only the artistic crowd, has had 100s of years of external and internal influences, in our cultural, social and political life. Human ingenuity is versatile. We have accommodated and adjusted over time. Why do we have to always play the “catch up” games with the “educated mind” in “developed countries” What we have is a rich heritage and a colourful eclectic mix of all the different ethnic communities and room for a great variety of artistic expression for everyone. We must correct Koh.

A closer reading of Koh’s numerous comments of Malaysian artistic life, not just in the Edge but also in the newspaper The Sunday Star, also written by Veronica Shunmugam ( Starmag 3, 10 & 17 September, 2006) reveal Koh as a person with a phobic attitude towards people different from himself “educated” and things unknown “a lot of bad paintings here” or foreign to him. He is only interested in promoting himself and his own brand of painting and dislikes and looks down on any other types of representations of his fellow artists. This condition is called xenophobia. Xenophobia, as had happen in Germany in WW2, under Hitler, elicited hostile reactions; mass expulsion of immigrants and in the worse case, genocide of millions of Jews and others. There is no place for Jolly’s xenophobia here.

Finally, a senior writer, Veronica, seemed totally at the back and call of Jolly by the frequency she had featured him in her last newspaper and now in the Edge. What is alarming and inconceivable is that she seems to take in every word of his without much question or contention!

No place for xenophobia

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In the recent three parts series on Malaysian public art in the Sunday Star newspaper by Veronica Shunmugam ( Starmag 3, 10 & 17 September, 2006) she quoted Jolly Koh’s contempt for Malaysian public art stating that the artworks here are ‘mostly kitsch and Third World’ (Starmag, 3 September, By the artists, for the people).

No one can really define what is or is not ‘kitsch’ in the art world because it is a question of personal taste and preference. What is so wrong if you happen to like things with popular sentimental appeal? Currently, Jolly Koh’s paintings are popular and his works has a sentimental and financial appeal to the buyers, can we not say that Jolly’s work is kitsch? Who cares?

But to label most of the Malaysian artists’ artworks (public art or otherwise) as Third World is cultural racism. I as a working artist and my many thousands of fellow artists here and in other parts of the ‘Third World’ will not tolerate this discriminatory remark. Colonialism has ended years ago, however, Koh still has a colonial hang up in believing that his artistic heritage is inherently superior over any others. It is this ideology that legitimizes subjugation, slavery and the dismantling of the traditional societies of individual communities for hundreds of years. We must all take a stand and stop this sort of racist remarks and demand a public apology from Jolly Koh.

Finally, putting ‘Third World’ and ‘kitsch’ together, Jolly Koh has adopted a xenophobic attitude because he fears that others may be better than him and he also dislikes differences in artist’s expressions which are unknown to him. As a painter-educator, Jolly, is not aware that Malaysian culture has a rich mix of external and internal influences over the years and there will be in our artistic expressions a wide variety of eclectic styles, textures, colours, sounds, smells, forms etc. This is neither kitsch nor Third World but certainly is not a place for xenophobia.