History of Malaysian Art

Malaysia has one of the most developed and active art scenes in the region. It is home to some of the most exciting and interesting artists who have developed their body of work within the country, the region as well as to other continents. Today, artists like Dr Jolly Koh, Khalil Ibrahim and Datuk Ibrahim Hussein are considered masters in the art scene where their work have travelled across the world and garnered a lot of interests among collectors.

The history of Malaysian contemporary art dates back to the many decades

While Malaysia has a rich cultural background, its crafts and arts are already well-known around the region which have been passed down for generations. However, the area of contemporary art is more recent where among the earliest work of art came through from people like Yong Mun Sen, Khaw Sia, Abdullah Ariff and the likes of Kuo Ju Ping.

As with any other art movements and industries, there is no confirmed date on when Malaysian contemporary art began but the earliest works were recorded during the 18th century when European colonials, Chinese traders and other travelers had shown scenes in Malaya, the name of Malaysia then. Some research showed that modern art began taking centerstage around the 1920s when artists like Yong, Khaw and Abdullah began exhibiting their work. During that era, there were already some associations which have been established and this includes the likes of the Penang Impressionists, the United Artists Malaysia and the Penang Art Club all of which suggested that the art movement was already in existence then.

History of Malaysian Art by RogueartAsia

Prominent Art Movements

The art movements were basically formed by the Chinese traders and other communities and it was only after 1950s that the Malaysia’s contemporary art movement began to gain speed. This was at a time when the country was undergoing major changes and development in the social and political arenas which allowed more room for artists to showcase their interpretation of issues. It was around this time that the art scene began to gain more significance as both artists and their arts were getting prominence through the political and social scenes. The likes of Nanyang, the Angkatan Pelukis Semenanjung and the Wednesday Art Group were the few movements that gained much popularity then.

One thing for sure, Malaysia benefitted much from the multi-cultural society in which influence came through and was integrated to become what it is today. In understanding this, one must be able comprehend that the country was originally made up of Malays with Chinese and Indian immigrants coming in during the pre-war years. Of course there are the western influences of the British, Dutch, Portuguese and the Japanese whose culture have been widely injected into the communities.

More mediums after watercolour

Hence, it is very common that one would find a lot of different elements of modern art among Malaysian artists. The earlier generation of artists like Cheong Lai Tong, Dzulkifli Buyong, Hajeedar Abdul Majid and Jolly Koh were known to have a strong western influence while there were others who practically had to self-teach. And then there are the watercolour artists who were very much prominent during the 1960s and 1970s when it was the major medium around that era. The 1980s saw installation art becoming a common medium of interpretation although it was not as commercial as today. From the 1990s to present day, Malaysian art has grown to encompass more medium and methods where sculptures and installation have become common. It is in this environment that artists are more expressive and no longer confined within a specific method that one get to appreciate art from the likes of Ahmad Zakii Anwar, Jailani Hassan and others.

When the National Art Gallery was set up, it paved the way for more collaborations and opportunities for Malaysian artists to showcase their work while efforts were put in place to ensure that there are programmes and activities which would help to grow the local art scene. This gave rise to more prominence in the art industry where with more opportunities, artists were able to find more avenues to exhibit their art work in which they could do so in the local art scene or participate in international exchange programmes. This was provided for by the National Art Gallery as it is the national body involved in the development of Malaysian art.

Traditions, Arts and Crafts of Malaysia

With a diverse multi-cultural background and ethnicity, you would find some of the most unique types of arts and crafts. This makes Malaysia a truly land of craft and culture because each community has its own set of values and beliefs that bring about different practices and processes.

Unique elements in every craft

Every community has its own unique features, characteristics and personalities. As such, it is common that each has their own crafts and cultural traditions. Here are some that might interest you.

Lion Dance Making

Malaysia is one of the best producers of the Chinese Lion Dance costume. The Kun Seng Keng Lion Dance troupe has been World Champions many times and this performance has moved from just walkabouts to high poles and acrobatic styles. Many Lion Dance costume makers can be found in the state of Johor and Malacca.

Batik Making Workshops

One of the oldest textile art, the Malaysian Batik is often seen in official garments. Using leaves and flower motifs, it is also always compared with the smaller-patterned Javanese Batik although each has their own characteristics and unique designs. The art is still very vibrant and used by royalties, officials and people from all communities.

Calligraphy Art and Styles

The unique cultural landscape in Malaysia brought about some very rich calligraphy art. Here, you can learn water brush calligraphy in Subang Jaya or appreciate the beauty of Islamic Calligraphy. Besides that, Chinese calligraphy which dates back to hundreds of years is available too.

Modern and Traditional Sculpture

Sculpting as an art form is appreciated by Malaysians from all walks of life. From the traditional type of engraving deities to masks by the Mah Meri community and in contemporary art, they continue to tell stories of myths, legends and other subject matter today. You can see a lot of them at museums, art galleries and public parks.

Wayang Kulit Puppetry

Malaysia’s own unique shadow puppetry, known locally as Wayang Kulit dates back to generations. It is used in the past for storytelling and is very entertaining which is packed with its own ensemble. The stories told are usually mythical tales and legends of folklore and culture which have been passed down for generations.

Pewter Making and Craft

Malaysia is the largest manufacturer of pewter in the world. With a rich source of tin, this element is usually matte in outlook and has been made into all types of products. They are perfect items for souvenirs and are great for home cutleries as well. A popular name in this would be Selangor Pewter.

Traditional Rattan Weaving

The wood-like Rattan has a rich history in the country. It is also the ‘official’ punishment used by mothers to discipline their kids. Traditionally used to make furniture and household products, they are known for long-lasting and strong. Today, rattan weaving producers are slowly disappearing but you can still find a few of them in pre-war shops around Kuala Lumpur and Penang.

Wau – The Traditional Kite

Popular at the eastern coast of Kelantan, this is hand-made kites with traditional motifs. Known as one of the national emblems, each Wau has its own story and character. You will find a lot of kite-makers who still hone these skills around this state and the flying of these kites is considered an art form by itself.

Chinese lanterns – Mid-Autumn Festival

Usually, out around September, the Chinese people celebrate the Mid-Autumn festival with much fanfare and most notably, lanterns. The traditional ones use colored, transparent paper and candles and are an integral part of growing up for most people. They are usually celebrated with mooncakes and fruits.

Malay sword Keris

The Keris is a short sword-like weapon used by the traditional Malay warriors and royal families. Some believed that the Keris has magical powers, they are seen as one of the items in the Malay costume. Today, it is used as a symbol and only used by those with certain social status in the community.

Bamboo Weaving Art

Bamboo trees can be found all around the country. They are known to be as strong as wood which is why bamboos are used to make household items and even for the building of houses. Bamboo craft and souvenirs are great items to give away and still used to make household products including furniture and such.

Nyonya Beads from Peranakan

A signature craft of the Peranakan tradition, they are intricately made with the fine beads being stitched onto apparel and accessories. That is why these items are not cheap to come by where people are constantly fascinated by them mainly because of their unique and beautiful designs.

Handmade traditional shoes

Gone are the days when your shoes are measured and made from the ground up. There are only a few shoemakers left around the country who will use the leather of your choice and spends time carving out the ideal shoe that you desire. This is truly one of its kind cultures which is very rare today as well as extremely unique.

Beautiful Henna art

This flowery design is used only on occasions like weddings but you can have them painted on your palms with designs of your choice in Central Market and Little India. They usually last for a few days and can be easily washed off.

Kebaya Sulam Weaving

Part of the Peranakan culture, you can have this beautiful weaving patterns on the Kebaya (yet another elegant garment). Sulam refers to the traditional method of hand embroidery which is aesthetically very pretty.

Signboard engraving styles

The Chinese homes and temples would have large characters engraved on hard wooden signboards high above the front entrance. Not many do this now with only a few in Penang and Ipoh who still make them by hand.

Traditional Songket Weaving

The Songket has a very traditional feel which was once a royalty textile. The art of weaving songket gives it the charm and characteristics of being old is gold because they are often regarded as a classical art form.

Kolam for Deepavali

You will see this colored artwork on floors of shopping malls and public places, usually during the month of Deepavali. Considered to be the distinctive art form in celebration of this occasion, it is getting rarer these days to find Kolam artists.

Thundering sound of Kompang

The Kompang remains as one of the most luminous sounds of Malay music. Made from wood and goatskin, they are used a lot in possessions during weddings and other special occasions. The Kompang is a great item as a souvenir as well.

Kuda Kepang dance

This art form comes from the south. The traditional people of Johor once used the Kuda Kepang dance as a form of worship that tells stories of battles during the Islamic wars. The Kuda Kepang performance is usually presented with a full ensemble of traditional instruments.

Leaf Origami of the Mah Meri

Mah Meri has some of the richest traditions and the art of leaf origami is one of them which is used as wrappers for food and also roofs. Besides Mah Meri, this art form is also used by Indians with coconut leaves.

Mak Yong Dancing

Awarded the ‘Masterpiece of The Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity’ by UNESCO, it is regarded to be one of the original elements of Malay traditions. Mostly popular around Terengganu and Kelantan, there are now very limited troupes still performing the Mak Yong.

Burning of paper effigy

This is a common practice among Chinese around the world. Malaysian Chinese still very strongly following this tradition especially among the Taoists who burn paper models of material items for the deceased to bring to their ‘afterlife’. This includes iPads, Rolls Royces and branded goods.

Sape Carving Art

The Sape is a traditional musical instrument of the Orang Ulu people in Sarawak. It resembles the modern guitar with a distinct and sharper sound. The carvings are unique on the long piece of wood and are a sight to behold.

Goldsmithing process

In an age-old practice, this process involved a delicate and careful exercise. The allow is created before the gold is put into a mold and has the impurities removed. The end product is then done after the item is purified.

Making traditional Songkok

The Songkok is the traditional headgear for Malay men which is worn with the Baju Melayu. It is the finishing touch of the costume. You can buy them off shelves but here are still some handmade tailors who still do this in Penang and Kedah.

Attractive Tekat Weaving

The Malay culture has a strong and long history of weaving art. Tekat is one of them where golden threads are embroidered onto velvet cloth which is then made into household products like pillowcases, coasters and such. It is considered as items that can show the status of the household.

Trishaw Zipping Tours

This is a common sight in places like Penang and Malacca. The traditional ones are rustic and cycled. Today, the trishaw peddlers have moved on and decorated these vehicles with colorful themes like Hello Kitty and Doraemon with loud thumping music!

Ceramic pottery making

The making of pottery has been around for generations and you can only find a handful of these experts around these days. In places like Ipoh, it remains as one of the oldest craft-making arts that still exists in the world.

Malaysian Wooden Clogs

Malaysians growing up in the 80s might have heard the ‘clogs’ worn by their grandparents. They are all handmade and usually red (and some brown) in color. This footwear is loud, traditional and very interesting but unfortunately, it is a dying art. It’s now hard to find clog makers around.

Borneo Beads and garments

The beads from Borneo are traditionally made and very unique in designs. They are used by many indigenous tribes in Sabah and Sarawak and is considered to be one of the most distinctive features of their practices worn as formal clothing during official occasions.

Indian flower garlands

Known to be one of the iconic items for Hindus, you will find the fragrant flower garlands around Hindu temples and also by the sidewalks of Little India (Brickfields). The flowers are seen hung on dashboards in cars as well as in homes.

Charcoal Making in Perak

Charcoal might not be as popular as before but it is still being used for barbecues and cooking in a lot of traditional cuisines. The art of making charcoal has been around since the Second World War and you can find them doing this in Kuala Sepetang in Perak.


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