A Mandate for Art

For many years, Dato’ Mahadzir Lokman spoke to the people of Malaysia from their television sets. As a television presenter and host of numerous Malaysian events, his deep and booming voice became accompanied some of the nation’s most high-profile events including the successful 1998 Commonwealth Games, the launching of Malaysia’s space mission in Russia and Kazakhstan, and the annual Merdeka Parades.

Affectionately known as Dale, this multi-talented impresario spent the last few years acting as an ambassador of sorts, promoting Malaysia on the international platform such as the Malaysia Week celebrations in London and the World’s Fair in Seville. However, 2013/2014 sees Dale take on a different role as the ambassador of Malaysian art through his appointment as the Chairman of the National Visual Arts Development Board (NVADP) and the National Visual Arts Gallery Malaysia (NVAG).

The National Visual Arts Gallery, formerly known as the National Art Gallery was established in 1958. It was established to promote awareness and appreciation for the arts among Malaysians. The Gallery holds exhibits of local and international artists as well as organizes seminars, workshops, art competitions and other art-related activities. In its permanent collection, the Gallery holds over 2,500 artworks.

‘I was appointed on the 1st of November 2013, and the Minister of Tourism and Culture, the Honourable Dato’ Seri Mohamed Nazri Bin Abdul Aziz, gave me the mandate of heading this 55-year-old establishment, the former National Art Gallery. I thank him for his trust in me, to head this prestigious organisation and also to upkeep and the preservation of our rich cultural heritage and national treasure. My job is to maintain these mandates and so here I am, heading this organization,’ said the personable Dale when interviewed by EZ.

Dale, the son of the late Dato’ Lokman Musa, former Malaysian ambassador to France, has always had a penchant for art even though he confesses to not being an artist or a collector, for that matter. ‘Art was something that I appreciated very much, and with all my travels when I was small,’ said Dale, adding that his stint in France gave him ‘a real, big exposure to all the wonderful, magnificent art galleries.’

In retrospect, Dale confesses to not ever for once thinking he would one day end up holding a prominent role in the Malaysian art scene. Not even through his passion for music, which he has not pursued professionally. Dale, who has at times serenaded his audience with his singing, is an avid classical music lover. ‘I play the cello, the piano and the trombone, and I was not at all forced by my parents as it was my choice,’ he said on his musical inclinations.

Moreover, during his undergraduate days in the US, this International Business Administration graduate from Ohio University in Athens, Ohio, had a formal introduction to the fine arts through the elective course he took. ‘In university, being an American graduate, we had little activities so I did a lot of art history and comparative art courses,’ he said. He considers his appointment as the chairman of NVAD a blessing, adding that he wants ‘to do well and visit more art museums and galleries around the world and improve our art industry because now, art is not just art, but art economy and art tourism.’

Just as every project that he has attached his name to, the responsibility of leading NVADB is something that he takes seriously and he hopes to bring the board as well as the overall Malaysian art scene to another level. Over the past 55 years since the establishment of NVADB, Malaysian art has made some important strides. ‘We have our names including Datuk Syed Ahmad Jamal, Abdul Latiff Mohidin, Datuk Ibrahim Hussein and many more. But it’s not as well-known,’ said Dale when asked to comment on the state of Malaysian art in general, ‘I don’t understand why our artists never manage to be in the fold of many other international artists.’

However, he does make concession for the latest developments on the local art front, especially in terms of government support. ‘Art is very lucrative, but I think now since the advent of 1Malaysia Contemporary Art Tourism, that art, especially in these last ten years to be exact, has become very ‘lucrative’ because art was supposed to be elitist at one time but now, art can be appreciated by anyone in the social structure.’

Expounding on the economics of art in terms of its value, this head of the nation’s foremost art institution thinks the recent developments in the local art scene is healthy. One development in particular bodes good news for the Malaysian art scene that is the setting up of auction houses in the country. In the last four years, four auction houses have been established here, namely Henry Butcher Art Auctioneer, KL Lifestyle Art Space Art Auction, Masterpiece Auction and The Edge Auction.

‘The presence of auction houses is good for Malaysia, for the region and for the local artists. I think Malaysian artists can go very far because their work is now being recognized with the advent of all the auction houses now as compared to before,’ said Dale.

In the past, art in Malaysia was considered as the anak yatim, or orphan, not receiving much support from outside the art circle and been relegated to the lower rungs of the government’s priorities. Yet, the tide has changed with the active participation of the government in promoting art on a larger platform. ‘This anak yatim will completely go forward and be accepted in the main line in the family. He cannot be tersingkir anymore. He cannot be left alone, and live his ‘own little life’ in the corner, and be cocooned because art now is not like art before,’ explained Dale, adding that this is all the more true now since Malaysian art has shown the potential of being very lucrative.

‘Art in Malaysia has to go for a complete turnaround. It was once upon a time something that was very strong, (Malaysia was) a hub for Southeast Asia. Now maybe we have to lead in our own way,’ said Dale. Indeed, at one point in time, Malaysian art enjoyed prominence in the region, but over time, it fizzled down. Neighbouring countries, especially Indonesia, emerged as the new leaders in Southeast Asian art, leading many to claim that Malaysia is a jaguh kampong when it comes to art.

In regards to this matter, Dale said ‘That was maybe so, but during that time we never had to push. The Ministry of Culture then was subtly going away with art as it was very conservative then. But now, I think, with the present ministerial support, we hope that his strong interest in art and also my strong interest in art would see a complete turnaround. We have to work. There’s no such thing as it’s too late to achieve what we have not achieved until now, which is just 55 years of the establishment of the National Art Gallery.’

The way forward, he added, is to ‘have continued dialogues with the local artists and hear their ideas. Either we accept it or we could compromise and go towards the middle of the road and try to improve. We cannot be selfish in our approach of appreciating art and also our approach to make sure that the art will get developed as it should be at 55 years.’

One way, he said, to create a conducive environment for the propagation of the national arts is by getting the people involved. ‘I have asked the National Visual Arts Gallery people to start formulating symposiums, bookshops and also conferences to involve all the artists from Southeast Asia, to make sure that our voices are being heard as compared to all the other artists from the world. If we do not have this unity-in-diversity approach to the whole thing, we would always be left behind and Malaysia will be always in tertiary or secondary compared to the other ASEAN brothers.’

To get to that level, the entire artistic community of Malaysia needs to get on board with the agenda to advance Malaysian art. ‘I want the art industry to grow, and I need help from a lot of people, from all the artist groups in the country present in the country,’ emphasized Dale. Concerted effort is vital for the growth or anything, more so a national art agenda, and the artistic community in Malaysia are quite fragmented. This might pose a threat should NVADB want to work towards increasing the Malaysian art profile internationally and also for Malaysian art to be a strong and have an identity of its own. So how can a united artistic community working for towards a common goal be cultivated?

‘We have to do a deep study that is why dialogues, symposiums and workshops are a must. It’s a need for the young breeds. We have a lot of artists, developing now from so many schools, from the art schools, from the colleges coming up – so many artists but what kind of artists that you like them to be? Are they creators or are they doing art for the money? Or are they doing art themselves and beautify the walls? Are they just graffiti artists? So, we need different kinds of dialogues to understand the whole thing, and how to improve our system. We have 55 years in this business and yet, we are not at par with the people practicing art around the world,’ he explained.

Meanwhile, for the immediate future, Dale said that it is important to bridge the gap between the people and NVAG, mainly to cultivate the interest for the arts. ‘For NVAG, my aim is to increase the accessibility of the Gallery and also to encourage more visitors as far as we can,’ he said. As for the long term, Dale said he hopes ‘to encourage more rapport and cooperation with other international art galleries around the world – for them to have their shows here.’

With the success of the 1Malaysia Contemporary Tourism Festival and the rise of the local art and auction markets, the future of Malaysian art is looking bright. And hearing Dale’s plans for NVADB and NVAG to systematically strengthen the local art community and to raise the standards of Malaysian art is heartening. His closing remarks to EZ captured his zeal for the mandate that has been bestowed upon him; ‘We hope to do a fantastic biennale, triennials organised properly in Malaysia, and I hope we can all fly together to achieve greater heights for everybody. Not just for art lovers, for ‘lovers’ of the Gallery and lovers of anything to do with it because in art, there is beauty and beauty is art.’

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