Framing the pandemic: A look into Malaysia’s art scene with Anju

By Iman Annemarie Sulaiman
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MALAYSIA is no stranger to contemporary art, which has grown and made a home in the hearts of many, and some have chosen to dedicate their lives to it.

Malaysia’s young but rich art history has gifted us with the ability to connect with the spirit of Malaysians who had lived throughout the ages via their depictions of cultures and lifestyles in paintings, films, woodworks, and much more.

Art has laid the foundations for building Malaysia’s identity as an independent nation after wading away from a colonial period where skilled labour to earn a living took precedence above all else.

Though an important part of Malaysian identity, the arts never seem to win a spot on the podium. Maybe it is because the older generations rarely take the arts seriously or because they would rather persuade their children to pursue more traditional careers.

This attitude could definitely be a spill-over from the colonial era which lingers in the mindset of Malaysian society today. Whatever it may be, the arts just do not seem to receive enough credit.

In Malaysia’s modern art scene, the old gives way to the new, or more precisely, the new makes space for itself on centre stage. It diverges from tradition by using art beyond the purpose of posterity as a medium of expression and identity.

Here we may get a glance into the turbulent minds of our electric Malaysian youth who surely know how to make themselves visible.

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Where better to get a glimpse into the current art scene than from a young artist’s perspective?

Above: Anju sitting in her studio with a collection of leaves and a recent painting.

For this, I had a conversation with multidisciplinary artist Anjali Nijjar Venugopal or better known as Anju. Born and raised in Kota Kinabalu, Sabah, she currently resides in Kuala Lumpur where she actively works in film, theatre, and the fine arts scene.

A maven of colours who favours soft hues of pink, at 26 years of age, her works have been featured in exhibitions across Malaysia and in Tokyo, Japan.

To get familiar with Anju and what she does, I asked her to describe her art style.

Anju’s art is messy, mostly abstract, serving as an extension of herself like an extra limb. Most of her creative works are splayed-out messes, be it in her artworks, performances, films, or paintings. Her paintings visualise her impulses, self-expressions, and reactions to the world.

“It is where I allow the ugliest feelings, space. I guess I tend to amplify ugly feelings in my art, feelings that are rough, unforgiving and feelings that most of us usually hide or keep from ourselves,” she said.

Anju is currently doing a residency in Rimbun Dahan, working on a personal project called ‘To Create, To Destroy, To Put It Back Together Again’ where she explores how the deconstruction of things in our life affects us and if it is something that should happen.

Her current project reflects relationships in our lives, how they collapse, and how we find ourselves coming to terms with an end, rarely having the chance to rebuild again.

Like a butterfly deconstructing and putting itself back together in a cocoon, Anju also explores this idea in relationships with ourselves. She hopes to show the emotional toll of creating, destroying, and rebuilding through her artwork.

Rebuilding relationships and our sense of self is something we can all relate to as we slowly find our own way back into society after having much of our lives uprooted in the past year.

Anju finds solace in her work and hopes that her art can comfort everyone in different ways, even if it brings uncomfortable feelings up to the surface.

‏‏‎Now hold on tight as we plunge head first into the more daunting questions.

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Above: “how are you so comfortable when there are people dying on the streets” (Anju, 2021)

What has been the biggest challenge for you as an artist during this pandemic?

“There is definitely a decline in jobs, especially freelance jobs, so financially it has been a challenge. There isn’t a lot of financial support available as well. But the main thing is working and creating in a world that’s currently trying their best to survive.

Every few days now I hear of someone falling sick or passing. I can’t pretend that doesn’t take a toll on my mental health. I recently wrote on a sticky note, ‘How do we create in a dying world?’ and also, I guess, is it ethical? Half the time now, I am creating just to stay sane and if I’m able to comfort others who are going through the same thing, I think, for now, that is enough.”

It is kind of you to share your comfort with others even when things are going rough. Our surroundings definitely influence the way we think, act, and even what we draw. Has the current state of the world influenced your art?

“My art has always been influenced by how I’m feeling and how I feel about everything around me. So yes, sometimes there is so much sadness and frustration that I let out onto the canvas. Other days, I can’t even get myself to paint. There are sometimes too many feelings or nothing at all. When I do let it out, I do feel like my art has grown uglier. I stopped bothering to keep my art pretty a long time ago. So we will see where it goes (and grows) from here.”

That’s fair, art doesn’t have to be pretty, and you prove why. I find it brave that you chose to let your art be free from the boundaries of beauty, allowing your creations to grow without it being stunted by the perceptions of others. As someone who has been in the creative industry for years, have you observed a noticeable shift of attitude towards the arts in Malaysian society?

“I think one thing that’s been quite apparent right now (especially in the midst of this pandemic), is how a lot of creatives have shifted online and are constantly finding more interesting ways to showcase their arts. And with most of our youths being online, there’s definitely an increase in interest! Which excites me! I hope the youth will continuously support art by our local creators and help amplify their love for art.”

While we love Malaysia, sometimes this adolescent country has its tantrums, and I’m sure the local artists feel it the most. What is your biggest frustration as an artist in Malaysia?

“Definitely the lack of support and also the lack of a market (especially since I am an abstract painter). It’s hard being a one-woman show and playing producer, creator and marketer all by myself.”

I hope we may see better days ahead. In my final question for you, do you think the arts will be able to recover from the impacts of the pandemic?

“The hard truth is that the local arts scene is constantly trying to stay afloat. Now with the pandemic, it has definitely hit the scene very hard. I’m not sure if we will recover but we do have individuals, groups and companies who are still striving to find means of making sure we don’t die off. How long can we sustain ourselves? I just hope it’ll be enough.”

Above: “pain spores? maybe?? stop spreading????”
(Anju, 2020)
Above: “GIVE IN”
 (Anju, 2021)

The pandemic has hurt the arts the same way it has torn down everything that once existed as a normal part of life. In over a year of national lockdown, the pillars of society as we knew them have crumbled. Some are able to be rebuilt, but some are destined to stay in the rubble, at least for as far as we can see.

For the arts, there remains a glimmer of hope under the paintbrushes of our creatives. In the hands of the youth, Malaysia’s future in the arts looks bright, sometimes quite literally. Coming in a flurry of colours, Malaysia has so much to offer.

Surely from being stuck at home for most of our days, we have gained greater appreciation for the arts. Hopefully once we see the sun shines again, we will continue to show artists the love for keeping us warm during these tough times.

‏‏‎Find Anju and more of her works on:

Instagram: @pertatos

Twitter: @pertatos

Tumblr: https://pertatos.tumblr.com/

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