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.