In recent months, concerns over the rights of indigenous communities have surfaced. The most recent incident concerns the Temiar people in the state of Kelantan, who have set up blockades to prevent loggers from entering the Balah forest reserve. The state government controversially intervened to dismantle the blockades; in effect throwing their support behind the loggers in an ongoing land-rights dispute. 

Conflicts of this nature are not new. In fact, they are closely connected to a programme of modernisation that contemporary artists in Malaysia have grappled with since the 1970s. Though Nirmala Dutt very early on established herself as a pioneering contemporary artist with a voice of conscience, her practice in the 1990s crystallises her early conviction about the role that art could play as a tool for social commentary.

The exhibition GREAT LEAP FORWARD looks specifically at a period of immense socio-political change. The title of this exhibition follows from an important series of works developed by Nirmala throughout the 1990s. The phrase makes reference to the disastrous economic campaign initiated by Mao Zedong from 1958-1961. The campaign was aimed at transforming China from an agrarian economy to a socialist state through rapid industrialisation and collectivisation. Instead, it caused one of the worst famines in Chinese history. 

The contradictions encapsulated by the phrase help Nirmala to critique the ideological vision that drives Malaysia’s economic progress. In this series, she casts a critical eye on the cost of progress under then-Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, who sought to turn Malaysia into a developed nation by 2020. Her works from this period often incorporate indigenous motifs and newspaper clippings, which bring our attention to those who are left behind in Malaysia’s relentless pursuit for economic modernisation. These issues range from the construction of the Bakun hydroelectric dam and the displacement of the native population to the environmental cost resulting from illegal logging. 

The triangular form recurs constantly in her work. It anchors her pictorial collages, which are made up of segments that are both painted and pieced together with news articles. Upon closer examination, they indict those in power for the tragedies wrought upon those who are voiceless. In the two diagonal lines that converge in the upper point of the canvas, the shape of the triangle also conveys a sense of speed and dynamism, symbolising the civilizational ethos of the day—modernisation at any cost. 

The triangle could, for example, metaphorically refer to Mount Meru of Hindu cosmology or the Pohon Beringin of wayang kulit. In this instance, the pictorial schema is almost like a cipher for an axis that structures the unfolding events. It’s as if Nirmala is suggesting that contemporary social issues could be understood through the struggle between good and evil that underlies a wayang kulit performance. Except, of course, it is never guaranteed in the story of modernity, that good will always win.

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Nirmala Dutt (1941–2016) passed away peacefully on 5th December 2016. She was looking forward very much to the opening of this exhibition. We wish to pay tribute to her courage and artistic vision. May it inspire future artists to follow in her footsteps, to always seek out new aesthetic horizons and to always lend one’s voice to the voiceless.
 
 
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