Anurendra Jegadeva: Tradition and Colonialism

Written by Rupa Anurendra

Anurendra Jegadeva (b.1963) is a prominent figure in Southeast Asian contemporary art. A Malaysian artist of Sri Lankan descent, Anurendra has spent the past three decades creating a repertoire of work that deals with his place in the world as a product of colonialism. In doing so, Anurendra’s work explores the aftermath of British rule in Malaysia, and dissects the ethnography of his birthplace; a freshly independent Malaysia (1957). His work speaks of a universal longing to belong in a country that, under European influence, has always viewed his identity as a migrant one. In his art, he tells the stories of migrants and Malaysians alike, giving voice to minorities of wealth and ethnicity, using his own personal experiences as the authority for his storytelling. This discussion paper will address themes of colonialism in Anurendra’s work and explore how the artist deals with his experience of living in two colonised nations; Malaysia and then Australia. Firstly, Malaysia’s colonial history and its resulting postcolonial ethnography will be discussed. I will then discuss this in relation to the artists’ local identity in Malaysia, discussing traditions and histories that contribute to his Malaysian identity, mainly referencing his series of work Finding Graceland (2011). Lastly, I will focus on Anurendra’s migration to Australia in the late 1990s and explore the artists’ response to his new global identity as a migrant in another colonial nation. In doing so, supported by critical research as related to the topic, this piece is also written through an autoethnographic perspective; that is, in the context of being the artist's daughter and having grown up alongside his oeuvre and sharing the experiences of living in Malaysia and migrating to Australia as a family.

Anurendra Jegadeva is a product of British-rule over Malaysia. Colonial rule ended less than ten years before he was born and has thus lived with post-colonialism as a fresh wound in his home country. British implemented economic policies, division of labour and the introduction of race through European ideologies have had a lasting effect on Malaysia’s ethnography (Embong 2018). Ethnography is the study of cultures and people that make up a nation, and Malaysia is a nation defined by three races - Malay, Chinese and Indian - that remain divided and confused about their place. Malaya (the nation’s name before independence) was colonised by the British in 1824 and remained under British rule until 1957 when independence was gained under the new ethnic-based political party, the Alliance coalition (Gan 2015), and Malaya was renamed Malaysia in 1963. Despite their newly gained independence, the nation was sceptical about change. Cheong Soon Gan - a Malaysian historian - speculates in his article on Malaysia’s independence, ‘the Alliance coalition could not impose on the nationalist, racialized vision of Malaya, in which the language, culture and religion of one ethnic group – the Malays – were privileged over others’ (2015:3). Gan’s sentiments are supported by the fact that Malaysia has never had a non-Malay prime minister, and through the terminology of bumiputra (son of the soil) to refer to indigineous Malays vs non-bumiputra. There is a shroud of unity with programs such as 1Malaysia that attempt to promote ethnic harmony and unity, but analysts expose the racial tension that is prevalent within the nation. In an analysis of Malaysia’s ethnography, social analyst Abdul Rahman Embong describes Malaysia as a ‘fractured plural society’ (2018:282), and speaks of the inability of the nation to live harmoniously due to the actions of those in charge and the results of colonialism. Significantly the introduction of the concept of race by European ideologies in the 1850s (Embong 2018) and consequential division of labour based on race created significant divides and an ethnological hierarchy which went: Malays, followed by Chinese, then Indians. Still today Malaysian citizens have ‘Chinese’, ‘Malay’ or ‘Indian’ presented on their legal documents.
Anurendra’s work displays a constant struggle to decolonise himself; that is the undoing of colonialism, and the reclamation of culture and tradition. This is the same struggle shared by his nation who have romanticised their colonisers, looking back on British rule with nostalgia. Malaysians face a constant internal debate in regards to their national identity that is so closely tied to their colonial past. It is no surprise looking at the shortcomings of Malaysia’s Independence in 1957 that it has been easy for the nation to look back fondly at their previous rulers. Works such as Portrait of my Mother as the Queen (2010) explore these notions of nostalgia deeply held by older generation Malaysians such as the artists’ mother. In this heavy steel sculpture inlaid with canvases, the artist depicts his mother as Queen Elizabeth II on a large panel whose edges mimic that of a stamp; a motif used by the artist in much of his work to explore place and transnationalism. Printed faintly behind the figure of the Queen is ‘08 March 2008’ - the date of Malaysia’s 2008 general election. Surrounding the main panel are several smaller ones with paintings of monarchy memorabilia; plates and teacups adorned with portraits of the British royal family; Princess Diana, King Charles, Queen Elizabeth, as well as the British emblem. Facing the portrait of Anurendra’s mother in the top corner is a silhouette of Barack Obama who at the time was serving as president of the United States. The text on the piece reads ‘My Country, it is of Thee, Sweet Land of Liberty, I Sing For You’; lyrics of a famous American patriotic song written in 1831 and, as relevant to this work, performed by Aretha Franklin during Obama’s inauguration in 2009. The Obama election took place the same year as the 2008 Malaysian general election which was a historical event for the nation, just as Obama’s was for America. Both elections were signifiers of great political change and hope. Despite this, Obama’s silhouette appears small and cornered alongside the looming depiction of the Queen and her merchandise. Anurendra reflects on the unchanging beliefs amongst Malaysians, and a deeply rooted connection to the British monarchy that deems any political change insignificant in comparison. The patriotism present in the lyrics presented in this work evoke an emotional response; a want and desire to sing for your nation - a primitive desire that is universally felt - a longing to belong to the place you are from and to have pride in that place. Malaysians are from a colonised nation and many have pride in the narrative that has been fed to them throughout colonial rule and are still coming to terms with the idea of decolonisation.

Ethnicity and class are at the centre of debate in Malaysian literature and art (Embong 2018), and the issue of identity in regards to these concepts is frequent in the work of Anurendra Jegadeva. As a third-generation Sri-Lankan Tamil born in Malaysia, the artist dwells on his multiple identities and his place within his home country. In 2011, the artist embarked on a road trip to his father’s hometown of Perak and created a series of work titled Finding Graceland (2011) which was the artist ‘staking [his] claim’ (Anurendra 2012:126) to being Malaysian. The work was a series of 22 paintings depicting memories and stories from him and his father, including intimate details and icons that only Malaysians would know; rural landscapes with landmarks of temples and factories, monitor lizards crossing the street, portraits of men drinking teh tarik at a mamak stall - Indian, Malay and Chinese sat side by side with the text ‘1Malaysia’ written across the perspex. A portrait of the artists’ grandmother holding a chicken, in the background the artists’ signature aeroplane silhouette, a motif in his work signifying migration and departure. The text reads, ‘Appachi: my paternal grandmother, T Anggamah, who raised nine children and spoke to me in Malay’. The work speaks for itself, each panel stickered with text, the artist

educating the audience very matter of factly that he is from that place and it is his story to tell. Contrary to a claim made by Shamsul (1998) that Malaysian discourse is ‘ethnicized’ and influenced in favour of one's own ethnicity, Anurendra’s art tells the stories of all Malaysians, regardless of race or class, representing one and all as heroic characters in the story. He recognises a common hope for a better Malaysia and strives to unite the nation through his storytelling, and in his ‘elevation of the everyday to the grand and poignant’ (Nelson 2003:2) he represents minorities whose stories would go untold.

One process of decolonialism in Asian art is to assert or reclaim cultural histories and traditions, which Anurendra does effectively without remaining stuck in the past. His work is nostalgic, but as he states in an interview with Eddin Khoo (2012), it is moreso ‘a contemplation of [an] alternative future.’ This speaks of a longing that his position as an ethnic minority has provided him. In his work the artist combines elements of his Sri-Lankan self, Malaysian self and western self to create a picture of what postcolonial Malaysia is; a hybrid of cultures that intermingle and exist together. Simultaneously manic and harmonic. This is Where We Live (2009) is a family portrait of sorts. A portrait of the artists’ sister on the streets of Wales, her western identity perceiving her Tamil identity. Within the landscape are cartoon characters from the artists’ childhood; Noddy, The Bash Street Kids, Korky the Cat - all British icons, a statement to colonial conditioning of childhood heroes, an ode to the Motherland and the Britishness that is held generations on. The painting appears innocent and colourful, only a very subtle seriousness in the looks of confusion of his sister’s western self and the blank, preserved expression of her non-westernised self. There is a strong sense of disconnect between the two selves, an unrecognisable self that Anurendra uses to address the loss of culture caused by colonialism, but also accepts what culture is then gained through the adaptation of a second global identity.

Through writings on his work, it is apparent that the artist has always dwelt on his place within Malaysia significantly. In a speech by Dr Farish Noor (2010), Noor speaks of Anurendra’s rejection of being ‘a minority concern’, and an ‘ethnic artist’ in his own country. In the late 1990s looking for change and better opportunities as is the hope with migration, Anurendra moved to Melbourne, where being labelled an ethnic artist seemed more appropriate than its use back home. Now, the artist is faced with forming a new identity; brown migrant in Australia, no longer brown migrant in Malaysia. The work he created
during his first migration in 1998, to a much-less culturally diverse Australia than presently, reflects a family disoriented in a new nation, alienated and displaced. Inpa Goes To Work (2005), the artists' homage to John Brack's Collins St., 5pm (1955) ,carries this feeling of alienation and being perceived as other. In this portrait of his wife in a busy urban landscape, surrounded by white faces journeying to work, Inpa almost fits into the scene, but inevitably stands out against the crowd of white. Telephone and tram lines fill the sky, parking signs and traffic lights forefront bleak buildings, a bleak scene. A small white packet hovers in the air above Inpa’s head; nasi lemak bungkus; a national Malaysian dish. The painting mourns a loss of culture in this new world of theirs (Yong 2005), Inpa’s uncertain expression speaks of a longing for home. Similarly in works such as Migrant Landscapes I - VI, the artist uses stark landscapes of urban factories and imposes images of Asian pantry items - lap cheong, luncheon meat, kecap manis, maggi - items that he longs for.

Fat Jentayuh Lost in Geelong (2004) is a self-portrait of the artist shirtless, in a sarong, wearing a Balinese headpiece appearing disoriented, his hands held out, unable to see due to the mask covering his face. The backdrop, more telephone lines and factories, used prominently in Anurendra’s migrational work to exaggerate the intensity of urban life and his displacement within it. All of this work produced as a migrant in Australia bares the artists’ deep connection to the culture and traditions of his home in Malaysia, traditions that colonialism could not take. In these paintings he doesn’t long for the British culture imposed on his childhood, he longs for nasi lemak and being at home in a sarong, surrounded by familiarity, and feeling comfortable in himself. His work depicts the migrant struggle of leaving the place you are from for a better life, but undoubtedly missing and loving that place, flaws and all.

Anurendra Jegadeva’s work exposes a constant struggle of identity in a postcolonial world. From coming to terms with being a colonised nation and questioning the hierarchies that have been put in place, to learning to reject the narrative that continues to be fed post colonial rule and realising the heavy burden of decolonising ourselves. Anurendra’s gift to Malaysia has been to do this in a way that holds space for the past that the nation has had and forgive it for its mistakes. He celebrates it as it stands, his patriotism is for the people and their stories.

Figure 1: Anurendra Jegadeva, This is Where We Live, 2009. Oil on canvas. Image courtesy of the artist.

Figure 2: Anurendra Jegadeva, Fat Jentayuh Lost in Geelong, 2004. Oil on canvas. Image courtesy of the artist.

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