THOU ART WOMEN is not intended to be a mere visual showcase of a collection of artworks but a comprehensive project involving other scopes of activities. Its key focus is to start off with some initial efforts to collect and organise data on women artists who have contributed towards the progress of art in the country. The showcase of artworks then will be supplemented with video-recorded interviews and written documentation of the artists’ recent development, which shall be useful archival materials for future reference. Initially part of these documentation items will be presented to the public through the website www.thouartwomen.com before they are published as a complete unit in a special volume. We acknowledge the fact that the narrative of Malaysian women artists in this inaugural show is fairly incomplete due to the absence of such artists as Yuen Chee Ling, Koh Shim Luen, Grace Selvanayagam, Nirmala Shanmughalingam and others. We hope this deficiency will be resolved in the said year-end show, which will also include several current contemporary women artists.
The role of women artists in the context of Malaysian art has only begun to grow and attain critical recognition circa1950s when art groups and associations started to take in female members. Wednesday Art Group (1952) under Peter Harris’s tutelage produced, among others, Renee Kraal and Sivam Selvaratnam. Angkatan Pelukis Semenanjung (1956) introduced Hamidah Suhaimi who later became a skilful portraitist after learning the genre from Hoessein Enas. The legendary Anak Alam (1974), an artists’ collective made up of visual artists, literary figures and theatrical performers, was the place where Maryam Abdullah fell in love with this subject.
The founding of the Nanyang Academy of Fine Art (NAFA) in Singapore in 1938 also influenced the advance of art in the country. Georgette Chen, a French-born artist who taught art in Penang (1949-1953) and moved a year later to NAFA to take the job as an art instructor until 1994, has been widely acknowledged as a seminal icon in the historiography of Malaysian women artists. Besides her, Lai Foong Mooi, who hailed from Negeri Sembilan and also a graduate from the academy, participated actively in the local art scene since the middle of 1950’s.
However, the 1970’s decade is considered a significant era that changed the landscape of Malaysian art in relation to women artists. Institut Teknologi MARA (now UiTM) and Malaysian Institute of Art, since their establishment in 1967, have produced numerous art graduates including women.
Sharifah Fatimah Zubir, Ruzaika Omar Basaree, Fatimah Chik, Norma Abbas, Kalsom Muda, Ham Rabeah, Faridah Yusuf, Wairah Marzuki and Normah Nordin were graduates from the School of Art and Design, UiTM who later pursued their further studies abroad. Apart from those who completed their initial art education in local institutions, several others acquired their Bachelors of Arts from overseas such as Siti Zainon Ismail from Akademi Seni Rupa Indonesia (ASRI) Jogjakarta and Khatijah Sanusi from Curtin University Australia. Ilse Noor who received art training from Fine Arts Academy in Munich, Germany is still a prolific artist until today. It is an undeniable fact that their names have been chronicled in our annals as notable figures who have coloured various aspects of the national visual art.
To be formally trained in art institution is not an underlying measure that determines an artist’s ability. Sometimes having high spirit and enthusiasm for art is sufficient to stimulate someone to draw on his creativity. This seems the case with a number of artists who made it on their own effort, and occasionally managed to learn the craft from great artists. Sylvia Lee Goh and Sharifah Zuriah Al-Jeffri are among those who are successful in their ventures into local art scene despite being self-taught. Continuous artistic output from them demonstrates their profound passion in this field.
The group of women artists introduced here have already been celebrated as ‘mothers’ to the current generation of artists. On that account we believe their artworks should be presented first in this inaugural exhibition of Malaysian women artists to pay homage to an entity that has become a testimony to the existence and talent of women artists in the national art world.
Ham Rabeah Kamarun
Ruzaika Omar Basaree
Sharifah Fatimah Zubir
Sharifah Zuriah Al-Jeffri
Siti Zainon Ismail
Sylvia Lee Goh