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Nirmala Shanmughalingam, “ Children of Asia I ” (198 0), acrylic on canvas, 153 x 153 cm. Source: Nirmala Dutt Shanmughalingam, the making of an artist as social commentator, Kuala Lumpur: Valentine Willie Fine Art (1998). 

Nirmala Shanmughalingam, “ Children of Asia I ” (198 0), acrylic on canvas, 153 x 153 cm. Source: Nirmala Dutt Shanmughalingam, the making of an artist as social commentator, Kuala Lumpur: Valentine Willie Fine Art (1998). 

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Nirmala Dutt Shanmughalingam is one of the second generation artists in Malaysia. Nevertheless, besides a four-page essay on the artist in Modern Artists of Malaysia (1983) and a few art catalogues, there are hardly any articles written about her. Despite the very limited sources available about the artist and her work, this paper attempts to draw...

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... at Damansara Heights and Bangsar, these physical developments in these two places have no impact to the children who live on Damansara Road, the main road that leads to both of these areas, as they are still living in dilapidated timber houses, deprived of basic amenities. To the audience, the message of this work is very direct and needs no further interpretation. The significance of this work and the discussion of this essay lies in how the artist understands and employs elements of site and time specificity and in her usage of photographic montages. Though “Statement 3” (1975-79) is literal and straightforward, these photographic montage techniques or methods were still new in Malaysia at that time. Since artworks that explore postmodern strategies were still in its infancy in the late 1960s and early 1970s, the simplistic photographic montage approach in Nirmala’s work was actually pragmatic in co m- parison with conceptual art approach taken by Piyadasa and Sulaiman Esa in their Mystical Reality attempt (Abdullah & Chung, 2014). This is because the usage of photography as a form of modern expression in the Malaysian art at that time was relatively still new. Walter Benjamin, in discussing the usage of photography explains, “...[ photography] can bring out aspects of the original that are accessible only to the lens (which is adjustable and can easily change viewpoint) but not to the human eye; or it can use certain processes, such as enlargement or slow motion, to record images which escape natural optics altogether.” (Benjamin, 2002, p. 103). This early photo-documentation by Nirmala is not only important as an original photo-documentation, but most importantly, for the first time, as the artist who introduced photographic images and the messages that she elevated as a form of art imbedded with political statement on changes that was happening in front of her eyes in Malaysia. This is quite different, even though not totally irrelevant to the points raised by a postmodern theorist such as Craig Owens. Owens has always linked the use of photography with allegory in postmodern art. He claims that due to the impermanence of site-specific works in postmodern art, a work is frequently preserved in photographs . “As an allegorical art, then, photography would represent our desire to fix the transitory, the ephemeral, in a stable and stabilizing image.” (Owens, 1992, pp. 206-207). Nirmala’s photo -documentation, on the other hand, does not preserve the artwork, but it actually preserves the original viewpoint of the artist on the subject seen through her lens by preserving the site and time specific condition of these children of that time as part of the artwork itself. This “photographic montage” tec h- nique, although essentially viewed in a very simplistic manner should be seen as an important breakthrough that introduces Malaysian artists to other strategies and techniques in relation with postmodern art. It is unfortunate that Nirmala did not employ and explore photomontage in her subsequent works, but we can still detect the elements of these techniques such as through cropping, editing and making composite images in her silkscreen works that she produces in her later works. Kingdom had exposed her to the latest artistic discourses and movements contemporary to that time. It was during the 1970s that issues such as feminism and works by feminist artists gained so much attention in the Western art world. Being a woman, it is not uncommon for a woman artist to derive her inspir ation from women’s and children’s experience s. This tenden- cy is sometimes labeled as ‘feminist,’ even though empathy itself is a universal value belon g- ing to both men and women. However, I will not attempt to argue that Nirmala’s work is f e- minist work, as I think this premise can be much contested but I will point out that Nirmala’s “representation of difference,” (Owens, 1983, p. 71) in this case of gender difference, should be taken into account in seeing her as a postmodern artist. works do not try to deconstruct femininity or even try to be feminist, but what Nirmala does is actually to highlight the sufferin gs of women and children instead. In “Vietnam” (1981) for example, Nirmala uses silkscreen on canvas to capture photographic images of war taken from mass media and international newspapers. Instead of directly cutting images from newspapers and magazines like Hannah Hoch’s work, Nirmala transferred these images into her work by using silk screen. The images of women embracing their babies, and children with destroyed homes due to the bombings were repeated and overlapped a few times. Strokes of paints and repetitive texts taken from international news reports on the Vietnam War fill up parts of the canvas, adding tension to the black and the white color of the work. The theme of women and children as sufferers and victims is consistently repeated in her other works such as “Children of Asia I” (1980) (Figure 3) and “Children of Asia II” (1981). It cannot be denied that the introduction of silk-screen technique in the realm of art is syn- onymous with the works by Andy Warhol. Robert Motherwell and Robert Rauschenberg, Warhol’s contemporaries have been noted to have a deep influence on the artist herself. Piyadasa writes, “The two trips that Nirmala made to the United State are significant in that she b e- came exposed to the excitement of the American avant-garde scene. She has recalled that she was influenced by Abstract Expressionism and also by Pop Art tendencies. Two particular American painters, Robert Motherwell and Robert Rauschenberg seem to have been her favourites. ” (Piyadasa, 1983, p. 156) As her stylistic approach is similar to Warhol and his contemporaries, so is the connotation of women and themes such as suffering and death. Thomas Crow in discussing Warhol’s work argues that Warhol “produced his most powerful work by dramatizing the brea kdown of commodity exchange” in which “the mass produced image as the bearer of desires was e x- posed in its inadequacy by the reality of suffering an d death” (Crow, 1986, p. 313). Crow even further argues in discussing works by Warhol that the semiotic styles that bind Marilyn Monroe, Elizabeth Taylor and Jackie Kennedy in his pop art works are the fact that they are bonded with the threat or the actuality of death. The usage of the silk-screen technique in por- in tracing the use of silk- screen in Warhol’s work claims that, “The screened image, repr oduced whole, has the character of an involuntary imprint. It is memorial in the sense of re- sembling memory: powerfully selective, sometimes elusive, sometimes vividly present, always open to embellishment as well as loss. ” (Crow, 1986, p. 316). from other artists in Malaysian at that time. Artists such as Syed Ahmad Jamal started to look up to his Malay roots for his source of artistic inspiration, Nirmala however, addressed the gendered universal plight that crosses boundaries of culture and religion. Nirm ala’s i nsight and highlight on the plight of women and children can be argued as exemplifies Owen’s a r- compatible with, but also an instance of postmodern thought.” (Owens, 1983, p. 61-62). Since plurality of cultures is part of the crisis of cultural identity linked to the postmodernism condition, Owen argues that postmodern thought is no longer binary thought of male and ...