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Nirmala Shanmughalingam, “Kenyataan 3” (Statement 3) (1975-79), mixed media, 128 x 53cm. Source: Pengolahan Lanskap Tempatan dalam Seni Moden Malaysia 1930-1981 , Kuala Lumpur: Muzium Seni Negara (1981). 

Nirmala Shanmughalingam, “Kenyataan 3” (Statement 3) (1975-79), mixed media, 128 x 53cm. Source: Pengolahan Lanskap Tempatan dalam Seni Moden Malaysia 1930-1981 , Kuala Lumpur: Muzium Seni Negara (1981). 

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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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... a few Malaysian artists as early as the late 1960s and early 1970s. These are mainly collaborative works by Redza Piyadasa and Sulaiman Esa. The discussions on the works by Nirmala Dutt Shanmughalingam on the other hand, have been primarily on her roles and concerns as a woman and a political artist. She was not discussed as an important artist who has earlier introduced Malaysian art with a few approaches and techniques relevant to postmodern art strategies. The very limited sources available about Nirmala and the artworks that she produced have made this paper significant and important. This paper will examine the reasons why her works have been excluded from any postmodern art discussion and the second part will discuss the important aspects of postmodern strategies in the work that she produced in the 1970s and the 1980s. The discussion of this paper will mainly focus on three main strategies -- the artist’s usage of montage, representation of difference, and allegory. Born in Penang in 1941, Nirmala Dutt Shanmughalingam talent had been recognized even before she finished high school and she was also trained under Hoessein Enas. Subsequently, she enrolled herself at Corcoran School of Art in Washington, D.C. in 1966 and Fogg Mu- seum School of Art in Boston in 1971, both on a part time basis. In 1975 was she able to pur- sue her study full time at Oxford Polytechnic in United Kingdom and later she did her M.Phil. at Goldsmiths College (1992-1995). Besides a four-page essay on the artist in Modern Artists of Malaysia (1983), and her catalogue entitled Nirmala Shanmughalingam: The Making of an Artist as a Social Commentator -- a Review in 1997, essays on this artist is limited to only art reviews in newspapers and several magazine articles. The latest exhibition for which her work was selected is Breaking the Veils: Women Artists from the Islamic World which toured the United States from 2008-2011. Nevertheless, an extensive research on her artistic strategies has not been done. This is not a surprise since modern art in Malaysia since its inception has failed to generate a substantive critical discourse (Jit, 1994). It can be suggested here that one of the main rea- son why there is a lack of interest in Nirmala’s work is due to the more persi stent interest in the mainstream art that preoccupies Malaysian artists during the 1970s and the 1980s. With the domination of works in the Abstract and Abstract Expressionist style of artists such as Syed Ahmad Jamal, Latiff Mohidin, Choong Kam Kow, and Chew Teng Beng and also the preoccupation of Malay artists, especially on the adhering to the Malay/Islamic identities, early works that take a more postmodern stance in its approach, subject and techniques by artists like Nirmala during that time were not taken seriously. Besides that, a narrow understanding of postmodern art has also contributed to the exclu- sion of Nirmala’s work from the discussion of her work on employing postmodern strategies. For example, the late Redza Piyadasa, claimed that Malaysian artists have not been much involved in the postmodernist pursuit except for a few isolated developments in the mid- 1970s such as the Towards a Mystical Reality exhibition . He also asserted a few other works to be postmodernist and this includes the late Ismail Zain’s Digital Collage exhibition in Wong Hoy Cheong’s video art entitled “Sookching” (1990) and a collaborative effort to pro- duce the installation cum performance art by Liew Kung Yu and Raja Shariman Raja Aziddin in “Two Installations” (1991) (Piyadasa, 1993a, 1993b). In these few instances, Piyadasa’s writing seems to limit postmodernist works to the works that involve performance or works that are denoted by time, space and site specificity. This limited and narrow understanding of Malaysian postmodern art seems not to include works that involve other techniques such as photography, montages and allegory and works that raise issues such as feminism, marginali- zation or the treatment of the ‘Other,’ even political and social criticism in arts. In this limited postmodern artistic inclination and were not given the same merit or recognition as other artists that he had mentioned. Nirmala’s usage of postmodern approach could be detected in her works that she pr oduced after coming back from the United States. In the painting “The View from the Federal Hill” (1972), Nirmala had to confronted the reality of the deteriorating Malaysian landscape at that time. It was about this time that she abandoned painting altogether. Traditional painting techniques she felt, could not fulfill her objectives (Piyadasa, 1983). The limitation of painting as a technique in highlighting environmental deterioration made her explore the possibilities of 1 using photography and montage technique in mid-1970s. Unlike the works of Hannah Hoch, among the pioneers of the art form that would come to be known as ‘photomontage’, Nirm ala’s works in “ Statement 3 ” (1975 -79) (Figure 1) and “Pollution Piece” (1973) are straightforward and fit more into what can be described as a for m of “ photographic documentation ” rather than a photomontage. The technique, however, is almost similar as she pasted photographs or images on the flat surface. At a glance, “Statement 3” is just like a straightforward “present ation board, ” as the photogr aphic images used have been arranged according to the structure of a graphic presentation in a very literal and straightforward manner. This approach is probably derived from her graphic design background in which she learnt to convey a specific message (or messages) to a targeted audience. This work, consists of various photographs of children living in the area of her research divided into three sets of photographic images. These photographs were given titles or caption according to the premise of her inv estigation, differentiating her work from Hannah Hoch’s who combines crude im- th ages cut and pasted from newspapers during the early 20 century reflecting the Dada spirit in German. On the left, the caption of the first two panels says Kanak-kanak dari Kg. Batu 4 Jalan Damansara (Children from Mile 4 Village, Damansara Road) in 1975 and 1979. The caption in the upper right panel says Bagi Kanak- kanak Ini Perubahan Tidak Banyak... Batu 4 Jalan Road) in 1975 and 1979. The lower right caption says Berbanding dengan Pembangunan di Bukit Damansara/Bangsar (In Comparison with the Development in Damansara Heights/Bangsar) in 1975 and 1979. Undeniably, the clear message is that despite the rapid physical development 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 ...