Is Kuala Lumpur ready for a Biennial?


The National Visual Arts Gallery (NVAG) is spearheading the upcoming Kuala Lumpur Biennale, which will run November 1 – March 31, 2018. Set to take place over numerous venues across the city, including the Kuala Lumpur City Center, National Planetarium and National Blood Center, it will feature local and international artists from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, China, South Korea, Japan and India.

As with any biennial, Kuala Lumpur is looking to build its foundation in the international art landscape. While whispers of an impending art event began circulating in 2015, the move to put the Malaysian city on the map through a mega-exhibition format was formalised in late 2015, when December through January saw NVAG host discussions with the local art community, and then stage a pop-up show that outlined Malaysia’s history with biennials, followed by an informal announcement in January 2017 at a Singapore symposium entitled Why Biennale At All? Now, NVAG has a countdown running on its website.

However, there have been some reports that the Malay public and art scene may be getting ahead of itself. Art events have begun popping up in cities with less developed art reputations, including the Bangkok Biennale, MECA in Puerto Rico, Japan Alps Art Festival in Omachi, Sharjah Architecture Triennial, ARoS Triennial in Aarhus, RIBOCA in Riga and Lahore Biennale, amongst others. Malaysia is joining the fray in an effort to put itself more on the map, but there have been concerns raised on the success and artistic value of the art event considering the reported limitations on freedom of expression and critical discourse, suggesting instead that the biennial may prove a “wasteful and indulgent as a mere feature in the tourism calendar, as a government-backed spectacle that makes no lasting impression nor contributes to real development or advancement for the arts, let alone the people,” Sunitha Janamohanan, Lasalle College of Arts lecturer, wrote for Arts Equator.

Despite backlash, biennial organisers appear to be forging ahead and will have an estimated 100 artists grouped under five themes following the inspiration of ‘Belas’ (‘Be loved’): Love for Nature, Love for Heritage, Love for People, Love for Animals and Love for Icons. “The Kuala Lumpur Biennale will change our way of experiencing art,” said biennial chairman Johan Ishak in a statement.  “Not to revere, but to rejoice in the narrative presented by unsung heroes, conservationists, architects, art activists, practitioners and various other personalities.”

While no further announcements regarding the upcoming event have been shared, it remains to be seen whether the Kuala Lumpur Biennale has what it takes to change the minds of an already skeptical local public.


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