With the coffin shaped sculpture, May 13, 1969 by Redza Piyadasa as a blurry backdrop, this image, titled 8 My Country, from the Dendang Koboi Gelap, 2016, raises the question of nation in contemporary Southeast Asian art. It marks the irony that one of the few art works that contemporaneously addressed our national tragedy, does not stand proudly and self-reflectively in the light of the Balai Seni Lukis Negara, Malaysia, but instead, presents itself nakedly to the gaze of others at the National Gallery of Singapore.
For those who are not familiar with South East Asian Art and Malaysian history -Essentially May 13th 1969 is an infamous day of racial rioting for Malaysia. Many people died. Reza Piyadasa is one of the few artists of that time who made contemporaneous artworks that have ‘survived’, which in the art world, means collected and written about, and in this particular case, commissioned and remade. This piece memorializes the tragedy and explores its meaning for the nation.
My photo above, which is a simple art gallery selfie type shot, carries within it the possibility of a critique of both Malaysian and Singaporean institutional attitudes –
1. Why has the Malaysian institution of record not bothered to collect this important work of national self-reflection and, in not doing so, missed the opportunity to interrogate and explore its meanings? May 13, 1969 is a work that should stand proudly in the National Gallery in Malaysia.
2. While National Gallery of Singapore is entitled to collect any work it finds interesting and should be commended for recognizing and preserving this important work, I can’t help but ask – what happens to the reading of May 13, 1969, when this this racially and politically provocative work is presented to the gaze of global others, outside of its meaningful context, far from its original function of affording self-reflection?
May 13, 1969 was remade in 2006, the original having been destroyed by the artist in a performative act.
Dendang Koboi Gelap, 2016 is the 4th series of the expansive Koboi Project.