Malaysia boasts of one of the oldest if not the oldest history in South Asia. A country that had advanced due to it being one of the biggest palm oil and rubber exporters in the world, has some of the oldest rainforests in the world. Geographically divided into two parts, the smaller part houses the capital city of the country – Kuala Lumpur that has close to 2 million people living in and around it. The biggest group of Malaysians are originally from China and the second biggest one is from India. Buddhism and Muslim are two biggest religions that are practised in Malaysia.
Culture in Malaysia has seen a profound impact of India in the first three-quarters of the last millennium. Starting around 2 AD when Malaysia stated trading with the Indians, the influence of India could be seen in culture, traditions and religion in Malaysia. Though Islam was introduced only in the 15th century by the Muslim traders from the Arab west, it was soon adopted and became a dominant religion in the country. Although Chinese have been moving into Malaysia since earlier times, those coming in the 19th and 20th century had a rich contribution to the society in terms of influence and impact.
The varied impact of different cultures on Malaysian architecture is prominent with a lot of Islamic, Portuguese, Dutch and British architecture showing through in different buildings around the modern cities. The impact on architecture is much more than the impact found on art in Malaysia. The influences from India are apparent in a few structures from the 5th century and those from China could be seen in structures dating the 15th century.
The emergence of art in the modern times in Malaysia started with the European colonists and Chinese travellers in the 18th and 19th century when British artists were using pencil and watercolours. There are instances of modern art making its mark in the country around the first decade of the century with a few artists exhibiting their works in the 1920’s. An art group named The Penang Impressionists was formed around that time but it majorly had British and other Western subjects as its members. In those times, art was accessible only to the elite in the local Malaysian society. Abdullah Ariff and Ooi Hwa were among the earliest local Malaysian artists who were noted for their artwork.
Art as a faculty largely developed and started becoming accessible to the masses after the country gained independence in the 2nd half of the 20th century. The 1960’s saw the setting up of art institutes such as Malaysian Institute of Art and The School of Art and Design. Arts also started getting promoted on the much larger level such as by setting up of Malaysian Art Council and National Art Gallery which provided a boost to the art of the local populace.
Ahmad Zakii Anwar is one of the most recognized Malaysian artists. Born in 1955 to a politician father, he went to School of Art and Design. A left-handed painter, Khalil Ibrahim, was a well-known Malaysian artist who studies in London. His earliest painting exhibitions were held in National Visual Arts Gallery. Eng Tay, Sharifah Fatimah Zubir, Zulkifli Yusoff and Tew Nai Tong are other notable artists from Malaysia.
National Visual Arts Gallery is one of the oldest institution dedicated to visual arts in Malaysia. There are other notable galleries that provide quite a culture trip around Malaysia, such as Petronas Art Gallery, Islamic Arts Museum Malaysia – which is Southeast Asia’s largest museum of Islamic art, Bank Negara Malaysia Museum and Art Gallery, and Artemis Art Gallery.