Event Recap | Reflections on SUSURMASA

Watch the entire talk here:

By Zhang Xintian
Year 1, History Major

What is a national identity? How does a nation narrate its national story through museums and how should we make sense of them? The first speaker of the Curating Nations talk series, Zanita Anuar shared with us her experience in defining and presenting Malaysian identity through curating the landmark exhibition SUSURMASA Seni Lukis Malaysia Bersama 50 Tahun Balai Seni Lukis Negara or Timelines of Malaysian Art.

Zanita Anuar shared with us how the Malaysian national identity is presented in the National Art Gallery of Malaysia. National identity is never a simple concept. It is made up of multiple threads and timelines. What the curator needs to do is attempt presenting perspectives on national history through artworks that resonate such themes the most. Creating exhibitions, then, is to narrates a national story from the curators’ perspective, giving visitors some insights into the nations past. How problematic this is, is a matter of debate.

For SUSURMASA, the timeline was composed into six sections: “Prehistoric”, “Maritime”, “Illustrated”, “Malayan”, “Iconic” and “Contemporary”. Chronologically placed, the aim was to engage the Malaysian national identity not only as a singular master narrative, but also as a story that contains multiple discourses and tensions. For instance, in the “Contemporary” section, new impressions and movements were represented. Contemporary artists were mobilized to voice their opinions through varying art genres and mediums. Zanita reflected that the curatorial team acknowledged that the diversity of contemporary art enabled numerous discussions and experiences to emerge. Perhaps the "contemporary" is a very potent site, if mobilized well.

However, presenting a national history is not without its challenges. How does one display a holistic national narrative? Zanita acknowledged the difficulty in presenting a diverse national history. Nonetheless, she shared the ideal situation that the gallery strived to achieve: to give the 'peripheral' a voice. These would add on to the diversity in the gallery and showcase all kinds of possibilities in defining a nation.     


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