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Postmodernity in Malaysian Art: Tracing Works by Nirmala Shanmughalingam


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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 on the limited understanding of postmodern theory, which fails to include her work as one of the early postmodern artists in Malaysia. This paper, by examining the artist's usage of montage, representation of difference and allegory contends that her works should be seen as some of the early postmodernist works in the Malaysian art scene that emerged in the 1970s.
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Postmodernity in Malaysian art: tracing works by
Nirmala Shanmughalingam
Publication History
Received: 15 January 2015
Accepted: 24 August 2015
Published: 1 December 2015
Sarena Abdullah. Postmodernity in Malaysian art: tracing works by Nirmala Shanmughalingam. Indian Journal of Arts,
2015, 5(16), 35-43
Indian Journal of Arts PERSPECTIVE
International Quarterly Journal for Arts
ISSN 2320 – 6659 EISSN 2320 – 687X
© 2015 Discovery Publication. All Rights Reserved
Sarena Abdullah
Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM), Malaysia,
ABSTRACT. Nirmala Dutt Shanmughalingam is one of the second genera-
tion 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 avail-
able about the artist and her work, this paper attempts to draw on the li-
mited understanding of postmodern theory, which fails to include her work
as one of the early postmodern artists in Malaysia. This paper, by examin-
ing the artist’s usage of montage, representation of difference and allegory
contends that her works should be seen as some of the early postmodernist
works in the Malaysian art scene that emerged in the 1970s.
Keywords: Nirmala Dutt Shanmughalingam, postmodern art, montage, re-
presentation of difference, allegory.
In Malaysia, postmodernist tendencies in the art scene have flourished since the late 1980s
and early 1990s. Wong Hoy Cheong, Liew Kungyu, Chai Chang Hwang, Eng Hwee Chu, Tan
Chin Kuan, Raja Shahriman Raja Aziddin and the Matahati artgroup have been described as
sharing similar artistic approach. Postmodern strategies have also been used by other artists,
namely Yee I-Lann, Nadiah Bamadhaj, Roslisham Ismail, and Shia Yih-Yiing. These artists
have been producing artworks under what is termed as postmodern condition or situasi per-
camoden (Abdullah, 2010). Nonetheless, if we trace the development of art with postmodern
strategies that have been adopted by Malaysian artists, postmodern art as a strategy has been
employed by 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 persistent 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
1989, Wong Hoy Cheong and Marion D’Cruz collaboration of performance presentations,
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
scope of writing by Piyadasa, Nirmala’s works were not mentioned and discussed as having
postmodern artistic inclination and were not given the same merit or recognition as other art-
ists that he had mentioned.
Nirmala’s usage of postmodern approach could be detected in her works that she produced
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 tech-
niques 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
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’, Nirma-
la’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 form of photographic documen-
tation 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 “presentation board,as the photographic images used have been arranged
according to the structure of a graphic presentation in a very literal and straightforward man-
ner. 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
It must be noted that the term montage” have never been used to describe any work containing assemblage of
photographs, pictures or texts in Malaysian art. The most common term is “collage”. Collage have been used
usually to describe an assemblage technique but not as an artistic methodology or approach.
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 investigation, differentiating her work from Hannah Hoch’s who combines crude im-
ages cut and pasted from newspapers during the early 20
century reflecting the Dada spirit in
Figure 1: 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).
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
Damansara (To These Children, There Are Only Few Changes… Mile 4, Damansara
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 fur-
ther interpretation.
The significance of this work and the discussion of this essay lies in how the artist under-
stands 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 com-
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 postmo-
dern 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 oth-
er 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” tech-
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 photo-
montage 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.
It cannot be denied that Nirmala’s education in both the Unites States and the United
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 inspiration from women’s and children’s experiences. This tenden-
cy is sometimes labeled as ‘feminist,’ even though empathy itself is a universal value belong-
ing to both men and women. However, I will not attempt to argue that Nirmala’s work is fe-
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.
Unlike Western feminist artists such as Barbara Kruger and Judy Chicago, Nirmala’s
works do not try to deconstruct femininity or even try to be feminist, but what Nirmala does is
actually to highlight the sufferings 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 news-
papers 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).
Figure 2: Nirmala Shanmughalingam, “Vietnam” (1981), acrylic on canvas, 102 x 201cm.
Source: Nirmala Dutt Shanmughalingam, the making of an artist as social commentator,
Kuala Lumpur: Valentine Willie Fine Art (1998).
Figure 3: Nirmala Shanmughalingam, “Children of Asia I” (1980), 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).
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. Piya-
dasa writes,
“The two trips that Nirmala made to the United State are significant in that she be-
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 breakdown of
commodity exchange” in which “the mass produced image as the bearer of desires was ex-
posed in its inadequacy by the reality of suffering and 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-
traying women as sufferers and victims is fitting both in Warhol and Nirmala’s work. Crow,
in tracing the use of silk-screen in Warhol’s work claims that, “The screened image, repro-
duced 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, al-
ways open to embellishment as well as loss.(Crow, 1986, p. 316).
Nirmala’s representation of women and children in most of her work differentiates her
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. Nirmala’s insight
and highlight on the plight of women and children can be argued as exemplifies Owen’s ar-
gument that “women’s insistence on difference and incommensurability may not only be
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 condi-
tion, Owen argues that postmodern thought is no longer binary thought of male and female,
men and women. “The feminist voice,” he explains, “is usually regarded as one among the
many, its insistence on difference as testimony to the pluralism of all times.” (Owens, 1983, p.
62). Thus, these images of women and children in Nirmala’s works can be evaluated as one
form of ‘representation of difference,’ since most of her subsequent work dealt with the sub-
In 1986, Nirmala produced “Friends in Need (Figure 4), another work that combined the
photomontage and silkscreen techniques in which she employs allegory as its main artistic
approach. Nirmala produced this work from the images of President Ronald Reagan and
Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher has taken from newspapers with mimicking characters of
wayang kulit (shadow puppet) silkscreened, both on the left and right of these two leaders. As
defined by Oxford Dictionary, allegory is “a story, poem, or picture that can be interpreted to
reveal a hidden meaning, typically a moral or political one” (The Oxford Essential Dictionary
of Difficult Words, 2001). In terms of artistic technique, Craig Owens in discussing allegorical
impulse in postmodernism says allegory has an all in one component the attitude, technique,
perception and procedure in which one text is being read through another. Therefore, allegori-
cal imageries can also become appropriated imageries in which an artist adds another mean-
ing to the image. The link between allegory and contemporary art could be seen from the
works of “artists who generate images through the reproduction of other images. The appro-
priated image may be a film still, a photograph, a drawing; it is often itself already a repro-
duction. However, the manipulations to which these artists subject such images work to emp-
ty them of their resonance, their significance, their authoritative claim to meaning. (Owens,
1992, p. 204-205). In other words, it is the kind of artwork that have both an apparent and a
deeper sense or meaning; in which it can have layers of meaning that seem to contradict each
other but yet co-exist and are present together in the work, so that the work never comes to
rest on a single interpretation.
Figure 4: Nirmala Shanmughalingam, “Friends in Need” (1986), acrylic and collage on
canvas, 123 x 123cm.
Source: Nirmala Dutt Shanmughalingam, the making of an artist as social commentator,
Kuala Lumpur: Valentine Willie Fine Art (1998).
“Friends in Need” (1986) as well as “Save the Seed That Will Save the Black People”
(1986) have hit a controversial note due to their allegorical nature. These works were even
removed before the opening of an exhibition entitled Side by Side: Contemporary British and
Malaysian Art in 1986. “Friends in Need” (1986) for example, is an anti-war statement
against the US bombing of Libya supported by Margaret Thatcher. The characterization in
this work was inspired by Nirmala’s research into the arts and crafts of Southeast Asia at that
time, particularly shadow puppet theatre. Accordingly, the wayang kulit character, the Raksa-
sa Tjakil, the arch villain on the left, personifies Ronald Reagan. Raksasa Tjakil was chosen
to represent Reagan because the character is a warlike creature that wears two queries (a Ma-
lay dagger which signifies warring tendencies). On the right, Margaret Thatcher is depicted as
a bare-breasted wayang kulit figure called Raseksi, the demon’s wife in the wayang kulit sto-
ry. Nirmala has chosen Raseksi because the creature has a strong physical likeness to the Brit-
ish Prime Minister. These wayang kulit figures are juxtaposed with photographs of a child
killed in the attack and a newspaper cutting from which the title was derived (Ahmad Fauzi,
1986). Therefore, it was interpreted as an allegory that criticizes international political events
related to these two leaders. As sometimes intertwined stories and plots in wayang kulit high-
light various crises, backstabbing, friendship and loyalty among the royal people, these works
that appropriate these two main characters from wayang kulit can be suggested as portraying
the realities among political powers.
It must be noted that Nirmala Dutt Shanmughalingam’s work on the three premises that I
have discussed seem to be very direct, simple and straightforward, and these initial attempts
actually are important as the art that uses postmodern strategies becomes more complex. The
investigation on Nirmala’s however, is very important in helping us understand the current art
situation in Malaysia and how it has developed and changed over the years. In comparison to
the decades of the 1970s and 1980s, postmodernity in Malaysian art has now become more
intricate. Female artists like Shia Yih-Yiing, Nadiah Bamadhaj, Yee I-Lann and Sharmiza
Abu Hassan have used these overlapping strategies in producing their works. The acceptance
of more complex artworks in terms of themes, techniques and approach was made possible by
the early attempts made by an artist like Nirmala herself.
The author would like to thank the National Visual Art Gallery for allowing this paper to
be presented and published for this conference. The paper was initially submitted to the
BSVN’s monograph Kata-kata Seni, that has not been published until today. The author
would also like to thank Universiti Sains Malaysia’s Short Term Research Grant
(304/PSENI/6312126) for funding this presentation.
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Full-text available
In the 1960s, when Malaysian artists seemed to be influenced by the Abstract Expressionist art movement of the West, a group of Malaysian artists known as the New Scene were interested in the " cerebral and impersonal " , analytical and constructivists aspects of art making. They were mostly interested in space, colour and materials that were exhibited in art exhibitions such as The New Scene, experiment '70, and Dokumentasi 72. Only the partnership of Redza and Sulaiman Esa, in their effort to provide an alternative aesthetic to the Abstract Expressionists, lasted. Both artists' propositions on objects of real time and space were presented in the exhibition Towards a Mystical Reality in 1974 in which they took over the role of the critic by framing their own propositions, ideas, and concepts written in the manifesto published in conjunction with the exhibition. This essay attempts to discuss random objects without any aesthetic value selected by these artists as works of art by employing Dickie's Institutional Theory. Furthermore, it will examine a few aspects from the theory that justify the exhibition and its content as art and thus argue that it has its own aesthetics that demand our own contextual analysis and understanding.
Postmodernism in Malaysian art
  • S Abdullah
Abdullah, S. (2010). Postmodernism in Malaysian art. Retrieved from
The Very Private Nirmala. New Straits Times
  • Ahmad Fauzi
Ahmad Fauzi. (30 October 1986). The Very Private Nirmala. New Straits Times. Kuala Lumpur: New Straits Times Press.
Saturday Disasters: Trace and Reference in Early Warhol
  • T Crow
Crow, T. (1986). Saturday Disasters: Trace and Reference in Early Warhol. In S. Guilbaut (Ed.), Reconstructing Modernism: Art in New York, Paris, and Montreal 1945-1964. Cambridge: MIT Press.
Introduction. In Vision and Idea: Relooking Modern Malaysian Art
  • K Jit
Jit, K. (1994). Introduction. In Vision and Idea: Relooking Modern Malaysian Art. Kuala Lumpur: National Art Gallery.
Nirmala Shanmughalingam
  • R Piyadasa
Piyadasa, R. (1983). Nirmala Shanmughalingam. In Modern Artists of Malaysia. Kuala Lumpur: Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka.