Latiff Mohidin, first artist from Southeast Asia to showcase works at the Pompidou Centre.

An experience I failed to have four years ago — because of transport links — was the sight of Syed Ahmad Jamal’s staring out in poster form onto the streets of Zagreb. The late art laureate was the first Malaysian to be honoured with a solo exhibition at a major European gallery. Having missed out on that one, I was determined to see a similarly intense-looking but more youthful poster of Latiff Mohidin staring down on the people of Paris.

The location is much easier to access than the capital of Croatia, and the institution perhaps more familiar. Time has mellowed the once-controversial Pompidou Centre a bit, and opinions a lot. Latiff met no such opposition when his Pago Pago paintings first hit the market. They have remained central to Malaysian art ever since.

The crowd at the Pompidou Centre is not as huge as some of the exhibitions but the excitement is still there. Latiff is not just Malaysia’s first artist at this venue; he’s the first from Southeast Asia. This is quite an honour, which deserves to be reciprocated with a visit from France’s most famous living artist, whoever that is.

The sad reality is that while Southeast Asia is building up a reputation from its rather low baseline, France has been sinking into artistic obscurity since the demise of its superstars in the 1970s. There are no replacements for Picasso, Matisse, Chagall or the others who ruled the art world for much of the 20th century.


Tropika 1969, collection of the artist.

The Pompidou Centre is a glorious venue, even if contemporary French artists don’t get the limelight they would have done in the past. It’s mainly the dead ones who draw the crowds. Latiff, on the other hand, is lively enough to have been present for his own launch. It must also be said that it was Malaysia’s southern neighbour that took the initiative for this project when the National Gallery of Singapore coordinated the exhibition with the Pompidou Centre.

The NGS was also responsible for curating the show, which it has done to revelatory effect. This is a better attempt at explaining Pago Pago than I have ever encountered. It’s perhaps the most-admired series in Malaysian art, but keeping it enigmatic seems to be part of its mystique.

Collectors and curators will usually grunt “totemic” or “regional primevalist” and then hope that viewers are captivated by the sheer artistry rather than the philosophy. Latiff, as a poet, doesn’t like to get too prosaic about what’s going on in this series although the connection with pagodas is fairly clear.


Imago 1968, collection of Singapore’s National Gallery.

Puzzle of Pago Pago

I would like to think that there’s some totemism too, as the one area of collecting that the French have really excelled at for a hundred years is tribal art. This arouses minimal interest in Malaysia, but deep in the soul of every French art lover there should be an association with the ethnographic sculptures that influenced the great artists of the 20th century. At last year’s big exhibition at the Royal Academy in London were the contents of Matisse’s studio. There was the frisson of seeing bits of Southeast Asian culture amidst the inevitable tribal art of Africa and Oceania.

The puzzle of Pago Pago is, fortunately, not entirely resolved by this exhibition. Just as we will never understand the minds of Nusantara’s formative artists, there’s a lot about Latiff’s output that will remain as quietly and poetically discreet as the artist himself. Having worked with him on an exhibition of insect renderings, it’s certain that he can create a masterful visual meal out of the most unpromising ingredients. When the two are viewed together — not at the Pompidou Centre — I see a similarity for the first time between the cutting curves of Serangga and the scythe-like horns and sometimes sinister shapes of Pago Pago.

Pago Pago remains a more attractive proposition for collectors than insects or any of his other excursions into the improbable. To see so many of these works in one place is unprecedented. Judging from the mainly French audience’s reaction, admiration for Latiff is not a piece of hype generated in Malaysian and Singapore. This exhibition seems like a focus of global art enthusiasts.

There are no obvious French prejudices for or against Latiff. They barely know Malaysia, which in French (Malaisie) is uncomfortably close to the word for illness (malaise). With none of the preconceptions they may have about, for example, Vietnam, Cambodia or Laos, they can perhaps approach with a fresh impartiality. It’s a relief to find visitors admiring the works for themselves.

Created at a time when France was going through civil unrest on a revolutionary scale, viewers might be looking for political content; and they might be relieved to find that there isn’t any. Latiff wasn’t a student in Paris, dreaming of lobbing rocks at the riot police. He studied art in Germany, a country desperate to recover from losing the biggest war in world history.

Whether he’s painting pagodas or insects, Latiff’s work looks much further back into our roots than the tired feebleness of politics. It is raw and energetic, drinking deep of the fertile land of Southeast Asia and its water resources. It embraces all the elements that the artist didn’t piece together until he was in the vastly different environment of Germany in the early 1960s.

It would have been even better if the exhibition had taken place there, in the land that helped inspire his fascination with Southeast Asia. But France is just across the border and has better shopping opportunities.


Two Standing Figures 1968, collection of Singapore’s National Gallery.

WHAT: Latiff Mohidin: Pago Pago (1960 - 1969)

WHERE: Pompidou Centre, Paris.

WHEN: Until May 28

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