I am deeply concerned about media reports that the National Visual Arts Gallery removed from display a painting entitled “alksnaabknuaunmo” by Cheng Yenpheng as well as a series of T-shirts by Izat Arif ahead of the Bakat Muda Sezaman 2013 awards ceremony.

Jurors to the show have alleged that no reason was given for the removal despite the fact that the painting has been on display there since October 2013.

This is extremely disturbing as it suggests that the growing clampdown on freedom of expression in Malaysia is now spreading to the arts.

If these works were so offensive, why were they exhibited since last October in the first place?

When all is said and done, the arts—via its various mediums—are mirrors of the concerns and prevalent issues of society.

Expecting artists to avoid commentary on social and political issues is hence irrational and defeats the purpose of having institutions like the National Visual Arts Gallery in the first place.

On a larger scale, this is yet another painfully unfriendly reminder that Najib Razak’s Malaysia is a place that appears to no longer welcome independence of word, action and thought.

The National Visual Arts Gallery and the Ministry of Tourism and Culture which oversees owes the public a comprehensive explanation as to why these works were removed.

Failure to do so will mean that the long-cherished dream of creating a vibrant arts scene in Malaysia—if you’ll pardon the pun—will be nothing but ashes.

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