From Tots to Teens, The Star, 10th July, 2011
ONE rarely meets a child who doesn’t like to draw. And one rarely meets a child who doesn’t draw spontaneously and effortlessly. Show me a child who fusses with perspective, setting and composition, and I’ll show you a child who’s very likely attending art class. At very least, I hope it’s not the sort of class where the teacher says the sky and sea must be coloured nothing but blue, and the trees and grass are always a non-negotiable green.
Are we all artists until we’re taught that we’re not? Do we need to be told what is good art? Is there such a thing as bad taste? Isn’t it just about personal taste? These are questions I’m constantly asking myself in relation to art and the arts.
Being exposed to a wide variety of styles and genres helps us develop our own tastes and also to be more receptive to different ideas and representations of ideas. This is one area where more is definitely more, which is why I think The Malaysian Art Book for Children (Khazanah National, 79 pages, ISBN: 978-9834419370) is such a great idea.
When I was a child and teenager, growing up in small towns in Johor, art was what I saw in magazines, on calendars and mounted on wooden frames on the walls of our home. These days, with a (working) Internet connection, children can experience so much more. Many of the major museums of the world even have online virtual tours of their collections. And of course, a click of the mouse gives anyone access to a wealth of information about works of art as well as their creators.
However, as usual, there is less information available about local art and artists. In the first place, who do you search for? After all, Malaysian artists are not quite household names yet. What we (Malaysian adults as well as children) need is an introduction to Malaysian art, and that is what The Malaysian Art Book for Children provides.
Inspired by Phaidon’s The Art Book for Children, our local version features 32 Malaysian contemporary artworks, accompanied by questions and prompts that aim to get readers (whatever their age) thinking about the pieces, the subjects represented, the media used and lots more. There is also information about the artists, and the art, including where they are displayed, the media used, and the year they were created.
Artists whose works have been reproduced within the glossy hardcovers of this book include Anthony Lau, Ibrahim Hussein, Yee I-Lann, Bayu Otomo Radjikin, Redza Piyadasa, Anurendra Jegadeva and Simryn Gill.
First up is the iconic National Museum mural by Cheong Laitong. The chapter heading is the rather uninspired and uninspiring Have You Seen These Murals? but other chapters fare much better, with more enticing and intriguing headings, like Magical Triangles, Music in My Bones and Liquid Light.
However, although the text provides context and reveals interesting and novel ways of approaching and responding to the art, it is the artwork itself that is most beguiling. Many of the pieces chosen will certainly challenge conventional ideas of what art is.
A metal sculpture of a crowing rooster; cross-dressing family members in an otherwise traditionally composed portrait; a herd of water buffalo staring straight at the camera, each one wearing a different expression ; a group of youths with fruit for heads; clothes on a washing line; wooden boxes bearing images and words associated with war; photographs of concrete animals and plants arranged to resemble a surreal amusement park; three men in traditional masks standing with their backs to a vibrant blue sky.
These are some of the images presented to readers. And, if my own daughter’s reaction is anything to go by, these works will certainly provoke many questions. The section titled Tips for Visiting Art Galleries, at the end of the book, indicates how the pieces were chosen: they depict subjects (e.g. animals) and have other attributes (e.g. bright colours) that are attractive to children. “Busy” work seems to be a favourite as well – that is, pictures and installations in which there are lots of details. Young readers are urged to spot a various objects in several of the pieces and my daughter really enjoyed this activity. (The book also suggests how readers can create their own works of art based on the content, styles and media featured in it.)
In my opinion, multiple copies of The Malaysian Art Book for Children should be ordered by every public and school library. I think it should also be made compulsory reading for all public school art teachers. It would be lovely if school field trips included visits to art galleries, but for children who live in towns with no public art, having access to this book would be a step towards encouraging creative thought and creative approaches to creative work.