In early April 2012, the Malaysian government cancelled a ballet show due to, by some accounts, the “revealing” outfits that were to be worn by the performers. Just how pernicious is censorship in Malaysia, and what does this mean for Malaysian contemporary art?

Vienna Parreno and Krzysztof Osinski, 'Self Mark 1', 2004, type photograph mounted on aluminium. One of the censored works in the Malaysian leg of the travelling show "Open Letter".

Vienna Parreno and Krzysztof Osinski, 'Self Mark 1', 2004, type photograph mounted on aluminium. One of the censored works in the Malaysian leg of the travelling show "Open Letter".

Though their account is still disputed by government officials, some local critics are claiming that the Singapore Dance Theatre performers’ visas were denied because of concerns over the “indecency of their costumes”. This was not the only incident of censorship in Malaysia this month. After a post on the Department of Information’s Facebook page seemingly outlined a “directive” for media outlets to stop depicting LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender) characters, Information, Communication and Culture Minister Rais Yaim confirmed that there was a guideline in development to avoid portraying LGBT figures on screen.

Igan D'Bayan, 'Gothika Filipina 2', oil on canvas.

With censorship in popular media and performing arts seemingly on the rise in Malaysia, has the Muslim majority nation’s morality crusade impacted the visual art world as well? There is certainly no shortage of examples.

In a 2006 travelling show of Southeast Asian-born artists living in Australia entitled “Open Letter”, two works by artist Vienna Parreno were removed and a third installation piece altered for the Malaysian leg of the exhibition. The reason was ostensibly because they depicted nudity. The pieces were removed from the exhibition without consulting the artist. The National Art Gallery in Kuala Lampur, the exhibition venue, removed the works without consulting or even notifying the artist.

In another case, after painter Igan D’Bayan was invited, along with nine other Filipino artists, to be included in the Asian International Art Exhibition from November 2009 to January 2010 at the National Art Gallery, his work ‘Gothika Filipina 2’, a macabre take on Grant Wood’s iconic ‘American Gothic‘, was removed from the show for depicting, “the secret part of a woman”.

And censorship’s impact on visual art is not limited to the works themselves. Foreign arts publications such as ArtForum often find their content censored by the Internal Affairs Department before hitting bookshelves. On the (now seemingly defunct) site Censored in Malaysia, the blogger posts pictures of delayed editions of the Financial Times with the arts images blurred to remove nudity or smoking.

Gan Tee Sheng, 'Exhibition I', 2009, oil on canvas. Part of the exhibition "Blank Page", which looks at the relationship between contemporary art and censorship in Malaysia.

The issue lies in a debate over how modern Malaysian culture is to be defined. Though the Malaysian constitution guarantees free speech to all citizens, it also allows for government intervention to protect the safety of the nation, a loophole that has given the government license to shut down artwork they deem harmful to the culture or morality of Malaysia. The primary means of control is through the issuance of licenses and permits, forcing galleries and other outlets to consider their economic interests and long-term survival, with many ultimately choosing to toe the line and self-censor.

Such was the case when Valentine Willie Fine Art removed a multimedia piece by artist Fahmi Reza that satirised the then new prime-minister Najib Razak. The gallery removed the artwork quickly after the opening to pre-empt any “complaints” that might threaten the enterprise. The relative dearth of independent exhibition spaces in Malaysia also weakens the position of those who hope to push the boundaries of what is deemed acceptable.

Screenshot of the website of censorship-free Malaysian gallery, Minut Init.

The censorship policy is nearly monolithic. However, Chinese and Indian ethnic minorities as well as the moderate Muslim community often push back against what they see as oppressive restrictions that stifle creativity and growth. Censorship cases are often followed by vocal outcries from the arts community. Other institutions with less public exposure or reach have also hosted controversial exhibitions.

Wei-Ling Gallery has organised several exhibitions that should have run afoul of the country’s censors, such as “Blank Page“, which invited artists to directly address censorship in their practice, or the provocatively-titled “What’s Your Porn?” Established in 2010, Minut Init gallery was founded on the principle that “freedom of expression is paramount, sans censorship or discrimination”.

As Southeast Asia’s presence in the international contemporary art community continues to grow, it remains to be seen whether censorship will be a major hindrance on the path to global recognition.


Related Topics: art and the body, censorship and art, art in Malaysia

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By Brittney

Brittney is a writer, curator and contemporary art gallerist. Born in Singapore and based in New York City, Brittney maintains a deep interest in the contemporary art landscape of Southeast Asia. This is combined with an equally strong interest in contemporary art from the Asian diasporas, alongside the issues of identity, transmigration and global relations.

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