For the next three months, visitors to Parisian museum Centre Pompidou will discover, amid the Picassos and Matisses, the abstract, burgeoning forms of Malaysian modernist artist Latiff Mohidin.
The exhibition Latiff Mohidin: Pago Pago (1960-1969), which opened on Feb 28, is a landmark in two respects.
It is the first show by National Gallery Singapore to travel abroad and also the first dedicated exhibition of a South-East Asian artist to be held at the Pompidou, one of the world’s most important modern and contemporary art museums.
“This is an important milestone for us,” says Dr Eugene Tan, the gallery’s director.
“Furthering the understanding of South-East Asian art in a global context is very important to what we do here at the National Gallery Singapore.
“This exhibition is happening in the permanent exhibition of the Centre Pompidou and, as such, it is being inserted into the narrative of Western art history.”
The Penang-based Latiff, who flew to Paris for the opening of the exhibition, was “overwhelmed” to see more than 70 works and archival materials from his Pago Pago phase all together in one place.
“It is like looking at my lost children,” says the 77-year-old, who is also an acclaimed poet.
“Some of them, I have not seen for 40, 45 years.
“I never dreamt this day would come. Once upon a time, I really wanted to have a Pago Pago exhibition and, now, it is here in Paris, of all places. It is a very special day for me.”
The works, in a way, are returning to the continent which seeded them.
Pago Pago was first conceived in Europe during the Swinging Sixties, when Latiff, then already a “boy wonder” whose exhibitions had wowed Singapore, went to West Berlin to study art.
In 1961, he saw a series of Thai and Khmer relics that resembled pagoda forms in Dahlem’s Ethnological Museum of Berlin, which so excited him that he started drawing “pagoden” – German for the Thai word pagoda – which he later shortened to “pago”, then doubled to “pago pago” for rhythmic effect.
In this way, he also connected it to his own Minangkabau heritage from Sumatra, where “pago pago” is used to describe the shamanic carvings that make up many of the Minangkabau ancestral homes.
National Gallery Singapore senior curator Shabbir Hussain Mustafa, 33, the exhibition’s co-curator, says: “Latiff Mohidin moved between borders, between places and connected a whole series of writers, painters and intellectuals across what we consider today as South-East Asia.
“He allows us to develop a very different perspective on what constitutes a South-East Asian artistic identity.” – The Straits Times/Asia News Network
Pago Pago: Latiff Mohidin (1960-1969) will show at Centre Pompidou in Paris till May 28. More info: www.centrepompidou.fr/en.