What do you get when you cross George W. Bush with a monkey? A police investigation, if you are Malaysian artist J Anu.
Malaysia’s J Anu recently came under government scrutiny for a work critiquing American involvement in Iraq. Art Radar interviewed J Anu to find out more about the artist’s brush with the law, censorship in the Malaysian melting pot and the future of local artists abroad.
Anurendra Jegaeva (b. 1965), popularly known as J Anu, is one of a handful of Malaysian artists breaking through political, religious and economic barriers in Malaysia. The artist has a global educational background, including a MFA from Monash University, Australia, and a Foundation in Art and Design from Oxford Polytechnic in the UK. J Anu has participated in numerous solo and group shows throughout the world, including exhibitions in Australia, Beijing, London, Pakistan, Singapore and locally, in Malaysia.
The artist was recently involved in a police investigation regarding one of his paintings, I is for Idiot, a piece that was in a public group show co-organised by the National Art Gallery of Malaysia. The work, which depicted a verse from the Koran, commented on the United State’s involvement in the Iraq War.
Art Radar interviewed J Anu to learn more about his sometimes controversial artwork, the burgeoning contemporary art market in Malaysia and the future of the country’s artists in the region and abroad.
You first painted I is for Idiot in 2009. Can you tell me about the birth of the work and what led you to paint it?
It’s one of 26 other pieces making up one whole work. It was painted at the end of eight years of the Bush Administration, and it was really very much my view of the war and how I fitted into that. It’s quite a personal work. It’s an ABC, [where] each letter plays with an image. I was also quite interested in thinking about postcolonial contexts: my experience as an Asian, nominally Hindu man living in Malaysia, purely educated in the West, was what I was trying to grapple with in the work. So I used the storybook illustrations – very English illustrations – and I appropriated them to the meanings and messages I wanted to talk about. That’s how the work was made, so in many ways it’s very personal, and there’s just one box that’s been taken completely out of context.
None of the other boxes have caused any controversy in the four years since you made them?
Well, everyone’s got an opinion about all the boxes, which is very nice for the work… but it’s just this particular box that seems to have caused the offence. Its quite ludicrous if you think about it.
The Iraq war started in 2002 – why wait seven years if the painting was really a reaction to the conflict?
Bush was the outgoing president, the culmination of eight years, two terms – all over the world I think there was a breath of relief as well as great hope for a new president, which would affect all of us. So it was done in that spirit.
Can you tell readers more about the “M50” show, the recent exhibition which caused the controversy?
There was the group show, and I think there were about twenty artists in that, and then there were various satellite shows as well, either in small groups organised by private galleries or individual artists. I showed this work in Penang for the Georgetown festival two months ago, and the organisers had seen it there, and then they invited my to do the show. It’s interesting because the work was made four years ago, it’s been shown in various private spaces here and overseas, and there’s never been an issue. But in the public space… this was in a mall, where we built a room, and we installed the work in that. And part of the reason we did that was because we definitely wanted to gauge the public response because take [a work] out of the gallery context and the whole reception to it is quite different; we definitely wanted to experiment with that. And within six hours there’d been a police report made about this little box.
So is the matter still under investigation? Have you heard from the police?
Oh yes, I’ve heard from the police. Of course, this police report was made within six hours, and within two days the work was taken down and confiscated. The rest of the show was just taken down for safekeeping. I went to make a statement to the police, [which] was an interesting experience! I think its been good for me personally as an artist, because it didn’t go any further. Three days later what happens is: I’m in Japan, and I get a call from the police. And of course my first fear is that I’d have to cut short my holiday abroad! Well, they basically said there was no case and the religious department had said the work was not intended to insult any person, creed or religion, and all charges had been dropped.
The thing I find quite difficult is [that] it went viral of course, all the newspapers, online media. It’s been interesting; you could say I got my fifteen minutes of fame. But what’s difficult for me is that once the religious authority decided [the work] wasn’t offensive, it’s been returned but no statement has been made to say I’ve been cleared. We know how governments work, we know the police are doing their job, we know what the job specification of the religious department is; but I’m really interested in the role of the National Gallery, a national institution, in representing artists in this country. Because even though they were the [show’s] co-organisers I felt there was an immediate distancing; there was a blame game. Was I mischievous in not letting them know something about the work, was I to blame? It was all about that, it was never about what is in the actual work. And that upsets me. The National Gallery’s role is first as the gatekeeper of national heritage, I agree that’s one of their roles. But it’s really blurred what kind of a role the national gallery plays as far as artists and their work are concerned.
So you would have preferred some more vocal support from them or at least intervention?
Well, some kind of intervention. I realise that there are sensitivities when it comes to religion, and I realise that’s an over-riding consideration, and the National Gallery is a government body. But I would have liked for them to have released a statement at least about the fact the work had been taken down. And since the matters been closed I think it’s atrocious that no one from the National Gallery has come out to say the work was inoffensive, and there was no charge against it. I think that’s worrying.
Have you ever experienced or heard of other artists experiencing a similar situation before?
We’ve heard Chinese whispers about work or artists which go too far. Some artists are anti-government. There are those rumblings all the time. But the only other time a piece of art has gathered so much attention was Ram Singh, a famous, famous artist: in 1969 after the racial riots he made a work where the Malaysian flag was dipped in black ink and turned upside down. That work was very controversial, and there was a debate about whether it could be shown or not. But I think the leadership stepped in, and if I’m not mistaken one of the ministers opened the show; so things have actually gone backwards.
So do you think this is a definite change of situation, or has freedom of expression always been tenuous for Malaysian artists?
I think it’s ad hoc. Writers and performers were always seen as more in the public arena; fine art and visual art was always seen as more elitist. Literature and theatre and music are so tied to the vernacular. There’s always been more of a divide, but in the visual arts there was a very little racial divide. In the last five years maybe it’s become more apparent, but there is a bigger divide according to race. In this whole issue, even among the arts community, there is quite a debate. There is a divide that seems to be along racial or religious lines. It’s not really about the freedom to express, I think.
The controversy over I is for Idiot started with complaints from bloggers, didn’t it?
Yes, it started out with bloggers who are basically very politically linked I think. I don’t think they represent the public, but the worrying thing is [that] the police need to be seen to be doing something about it, even though [the complaints] came from a minority. It was quite sad to see my little work taken away in a shopping bag. That was a scary moment. When I walked into the space, and there were policemen photographing the space, that was quite scary. A bit of a reality check.
Will the experience change the work you produce?
It didn’t go any further, I was very lucky that way. I think it would change me individually. In the art world, there were all these people who think there was no intention of the work to offend, but even with those people there is a feeling that I was stupid, naive, that I didn’t do enough research, which is not true, and that I just shouldn’t go there. So even an attempt just to understand each other, I don’t know if that’s acceptable right now and that’s really sad. I don’t know, I’m hardly the most important person in Malaysia, but whoever you are Big Brother is watching you. Definitely four years ago it was a different time, things are more sensitive politically. But who knows, it’s so random.
Do you think as internet access becomes more prevalent and more people are blogging, that might actually reduce freedom of expression in the arts?
Yes, it’s a constant negotiation. I think the freedom is good overall, and the public is smart, and a lot of the debate over this work was quite interesting. They discussed the work better than I ever could! But then on other blog sites they were going to burn my house down, which was… interesting. We’re hardly oppressed here, so its just one of those random things, but its worrying for all artists.
Are there any sorts of organisations or groups where artists can come together and discuss this sort of thing?
I would have loved the National Gallery to take that role, a platform for us to discuss and think. Not for them to defend us blindly, but to be a platform where we could be balanced about things. A lot of the existing art groups are split along racial lines, and that’s problematic.
Do you see the National Gallery stepping into that role?
It looks like they’re stepping away from it. You know how it is, your national institution is like your parents: you complain about them all the time. Ever since I became an artist I’ve found fault with the National Gallery, but in the end we love it dearly, its our National Gallery and its just gone further and further away from artists; it was more passionate, more inclusive ten years ago.
What’s the future for visual arts in Malaysia in the light of this? What do you see happening?
I don’t think it was important enough, it was a storm in a teacup, so I don’t know how it’s going to affect the art movement as such, or how artists work, but I think its opened a door for the public and whatever powers that be to become a part of the art-making process in a negative way. I think there’s also hubris: as Malaysians we’re constantly aware of the sensitivities, and I think we’re responsible about it, but its been taken to an extreme now and that’s dangerous.
How do you see the future of artists in Malaysia in regards to sharing their ideas about national, regional and global issues?
I think it’s going to continue to be quite a central issue. It’s just the way artists work, isn’t it? You depict the world that you live in, so you respond to the world that you live in. I think we’re all quite politically conscious here in Malaysia. We’ve reached a point in our country’s history and in the region’s history as well, where there is a lot of response to the social, political climate. On the one hand, I think artists will be slightly more cautious. There is a tendency to self-censor. There is also a tension, a defense mechanism that kicks in when the three races confront each other. I think it will make us more careful, hopefully cleverer in how we want to say things. Maybe it will mean cleverer, more interesting, cheeky work. I don’t know. I hope that is the case.
Before it was always the writers and musicians who came under scrutiny but I think with the good comes the bad. Because we’ve got an [art] market now here, we’ve become a commodity. We have become more noticed. Because of that I think that it’s going to become a bit more scrutiny on what we’re saying and how we’re saying it.
Can we talk about Malaysian contemporary artists and how the country’s mix of peoples, cultures and value systems impacts on their work? What are the challenges and opportunities artists face because of this diversity?
Those tensions are quite interesting for Malaysian artists because they manifest in the dialogue, which manifests in the work. Thematically, that’s definitely a strength that we’ve got. That diversity really lends a variety and a tension to work. The issue of how I fit and where I come from and whether I belong. The issue of being an outsider, it makes for an interesting negotiation. I think that comes out in a lot of the work.
As far as weaknesses, I feel like [the same problem] is happening all over the place. I believe in the making of an artwork; I am old fashioned this way. I believe in the craft. When I went to art school, painting was king. I was one of those people who went to study art at the cusp of the change. Suddenly, at the end of three years of doing my degree in painting and coming out and finding that everyone felt that painting was dead! It wasn’t relevant anymore. I disagree. There’s a real connection, that slowness. Art needs to be slow again. Robert Hughes said that. It’s got to be slow again. It’s all too fast.
In the age of the internet, there’s almost too much fleeting information out there. I went to an exhibition recently that was a group of young Malaysian artists and I saw this wonderful, wonderful work. It was a white canvas, with a butcher’s rail and it had four animals hanging from it. It had a hare, a pheasant, maybe a side of beef. I can’t remember exactly. It was the most arresting thing, and I thought, “wow, this is a really amazing, amazing piece of work. I really need to be on my toes, with these young artists!”
As I moved closer and closer to the work, it was actually an [Albrecht] Dürer hare. It had actually been cut from the internet and made into this image, in an attempt to make it look like a painting. I must say I felt really cheated. I believe in the craft, I believe in the exploration of the theme.
In an article in the Malaysian Insider, you stated, “my art is simply a way for me to try and understand the world in which we live in and to do it with truth, sincerity and grace.” Is it possible for an artist practicing in Malaysia to represent honesty and sincerity in their artwork?
I think [censorship] affects us, like in a lot of countries within the region. I mean, anywhere. I lived in Australia where there are also political sensitivities and you just get ignored for a while if you go down that path. [Censorship] exists everywhere. Here it’s much more blatant, of course. You get police reports made against you and brought in for questioning.
We’ve just got to be cleverer about it. The way that I do that and circumnavigate talking about someone else is to always be critical of myself first. A lot of my paintings explore the Indian condition. From alcoholism to wife-beating; all of the clichés that surround our community. Then, from there, extend it further. Not that I have anything against people who paint flowers or still-lives – that in itself is a statement about affairs. Perhaps this is what we should all do, just paint flowers because everything else seems to be sensitive and difficult to address. [But] just doing that itself as a reaction is political, as well.
How could the Malaysian government endorse and encourage contemporary art (and artists) in the country and the region?
In the first place, I feel like any government involvement, anywhere in the world, in the arts, is limiting. It would be great if there were different avenues if the government would just help with one part of art patronage. We don’t have many art institutions here. It’s a new art movement. It’s young, it’s not a priority.
I believe what is happening now, or has been happening for a while, is that we have to [establish] artist-run organisations, which is the norm in the West. When I was living in Australia, we got grants, residencies, and funding from the government. There is none of that here. So, the market is really important and the corporate sector now is beginning to play some kind of a role, but business is always linked to government and politics, as well. It’s always problematic.
In a perfect world, the government would come in and provide funding. They’ve got to provide infrastructure, its got to take a platform for art going out of Malaysia, for people to be able to see it in a foreign, international platform. They’ve got to invest in art education. It’s a huge list.
We’ve got a lot of good makers of art, but we don’t have people to manage it, people to see clearly why they are making this, to interpret it, which is important. Writers, curators, things like that.
Can you tell us about the collector base for Malaysian art?
The local collector base is interesting as there was a time when it was tiny. You relied on institutions and corporations. Now, with the economy and growth, there is a legion of collectors. There’s a legion of young collectors who are beginning to collect now. It’s pretty much across the board.
[Collecting] is a very new game. The whole idea of the marketplace is ten years old, really. Before that there were only about two or three major collectors. We’d invite the same people to open your show, knowing that they would buy the smallest work that you had. You’d at least sell one work. That was what it was like when I first started thirty years ago. It’s much better now.
What, in your opinion, does it take to be a successful artist in Malaysia?
Craft is very important. Otherwise, it’s pretty much out in the open. We’re finding ourselves constantly. The newness of an image, the whole shock of the new.
For me, I would think that my market is limited by the fact that I am an Indian, simply because so much in this country runs along racial lines. The fact that my community doesn’t have enough of a wealthy group that is collecting art means that the subjects that I am interested in, which are quite specific to my community, is still seen along racial lines. I see it as is part of the human condition but it still is read as the Indian condition.
There’s still a difficulty with a Malay collector coming home to Hindu priest standing in front of a Ganesh statue. That story is not only disconnected from him but almost taboo to him. So my choice of subject matter is problematic.
Ultimately, if the work is good, with really amazing skill, like anywhere else, ten percent of the art movement, which is fantastic and then thirty percent which is OK, and the rest of it is rubbish, anywhere else in the world you see that. There is no substitute for skill.
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- Strength in numbers: 4 Southeast Asian art groups – October 2013 – Four collective artist groups to watch in Cambodia, Indonesia, the Philippines and Vietnam.
- “Six Emerging Indian Artists to Watch”, according to leading Indian art curator Heidi Fichtner – August 2013 – Curator Heidi Fichtner discusses six emerging Indian artists and their innovative artwork
- Malaysian art comes out of the shadows: gallerists’ view from the ground – July 2013 – Art Radar speaks with three gallerists in Malaysia to learn more about the country’s emerging artists and future within the region
- Burmese artist Htein Lin breaks free of censorship and prison – interview – May 2013 – Htein Lin discusses his experience as an artist and political prisoner, and how it set him free
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