Malaysian art and literature

Dikir Barat performers

Malaysia is famous across the world for its diverse, thriving art scene and the cultural centres of Kuala Lumpur, Melaka and Penang are home to some wonderful museums and galleries. Cultural performances can be found in many of the main tourist resorts and these can be an untaxing introduction into traditional Malay art. But there are always authentic displays and performances to catch in the big cities which can really open visitors’ eyes to the vibrant medley of communities that contribute to the ethnic mix.

Murals of Oriental mythology adorn gaudy Taoist temples while Christian tapestries and pages of the Koran meticulously reproduced in fine calligraphy can be found on display. Different parts of the country are more geared towards contrasting forms of art, with Islamic works prevalent in the capital and Eastern pieces occupying gallery space in Penang. Melaka is home to a variety of Eurasian-influenced artists with wonderful Portuguese, Dutch and British traits.

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Art in Malaysia

The Malaysian government believes that embracing art is a sure way to help embed the national identity, and has been making efforts recently to preserve forms of traditional art to ensure future generations continue to practice them. And this has certainly had some positive effects and served to beat back the sometime negative influence of popular US culture.

Silat is a complex Malaysian art form and also a self defence system with similarities to the Brazilian capoeira. A range of supple movements bestows combatants with the ability to repel attacks and save themselves from harm. Other ancient indigenous skills involve hunting and fighting with blowpipes (sumpit) while women would weave and dying intricate batik patterns with wax on fabric for cloths and decoration. Batik has been adopted as a national dress and is now considered a cornerstone of the country’s heritage, with civil servants actively encouraged to come to work decked out in trademark geometric patterns.

Famous Malaysian artists include Indian-born Syed Thajudeen who embraces the impressionist school. His distinctive stylisation and romantic treatment of subject matter and the use of rich colours characterise his works. He apparently attempts to evoke a state of rasa, or a heightened mood, which belongs to a larger tapestry of artistic traditions. In many works his favourite subject matters deal with love and women and archetypal symbols and metaphors of each.

There are many museums across Malaysia where it is possible to see a wide range of artistic displays. The Penang State Museum houses countless cultural exhibits and artefacts and possesses a superb collection of old maps and photographs as well as historic etchings depicting growth of Penang from colony to modern state. The Penang State Art Gallery showcase local artists’ works with special exhibitions on Malaysian artists. For more on Penang museums and art galleries.

The National Art Gallery in Kuala Lumpur is the country’s foremost centre of artistic excellence, with more than 2,500 permanent exhibits. The building is acclaimed as an architectural wonder in its own right and houses some of the highest-regarded artistic collections on the continent.

In addition, heading north of Melaka for about 14kms is the much vaunted Taman Mini Malaysia cultural centre, where cultural shows are put on regularly. The Bab-Nyonya Heritage Museum has hand-painted tiles, and ornate carved furniture of traditional styles.

Literature in Malaysia

The Sejarah Melayu (or Malay Annals) are the most influential Malaysia literary work. Penned in the 16th century, it tells the story of a powerful Melaka sultanate. Of course, literature styles in Malaysia absorbed the influences of European colonisers with the Portuguese, Dutch and British all leaving their mark. The classical style of Malay writing was replaced eventually with the vernacular language in print. The very first newspaper was written and printed using a form of the spoken language in 1876.

There are many Malaysian authors and writers that have made an imprint on the modern world, but Poesy Liang is one of the most remarkable. Liang, also a artist and sculptor, is most famous for her poem Reflection of Today and also founding the Helping Angles group. She was classically trained from six-years-old in carving Chinese stone seal, calligraphy, landscape painting and watercolours, despite battling paralysis caused by a rare form of cancer.