Recognising Malaysia’s Artistic Talents in An International Context

The Noon Bath by Amirudin Ariffin

By Professor Graeme Wilkinson and Bo Li, Sunway University Press Authors

One of the most surprising aspects of the Malaysian art scene, is that despite the country having produced and continuing to produce some outstanding visual artists, very few of them seem to be widely known or well-regarded internationally. A case in point is Amirudin Ariffin (1958-2023), who was a Kuala Lumpur based artist whose paintings, in our admittedly subjective view, compare favourably to those of some very well-known western artists whose paintings adorn the walls of such august institutions as the National Gallery of London. We first got to know Amirudin in 2018 when he was offering masterclasses at his Kuala Lumpur studio with mainly expatriate students. On slowly becoming familiar with his works we eventually came to the realisation that his works were of an outstanding visual and narrative quality and that they deserved much greater exposure and appreciation. That led us to writing a book about him, Colours of Malaysia — The Art of Amirudin Ariffin, focusing on the incredibly diverse range of his works mainly in oil and watercolour which embraces realist paintings of the Malaysian countryside and rural villages, scenes of people at work, portraits, and symbolist paintings many with oceanographic or cosmological themes. Amirudin’s paintings are visually appealing and demonstrate his technical versatility and absolute mastery of nature and light.

Take for example one of his landscapes, Morning Catch, which beautifully captures a tranquil rustic scene with a man and boy carrying home fish that they have just caught and compare it to one of Britain’s most famous paintings from the National Gallery in London, namely The Hay Wain, by 19th century artist John Constable showing a wagon crossing a stream in a similar rural setting, but in cool southern England as opposed to the bright humid landscape of the equatorial tropics of Malaysia. There are many visual parallels between these two paintings, yet one is world famous; the other effectively unknown.


Morning Catch, Amirudin Ariffin, 2020, Private Collection
The Hay Wain, John Constable, 1821, National Gallery, London


The same issue arises with other kinds of paintings by Amirudin. His paintings of people at work also demonstrate outstanding mastery of light and his ability to convey a narrative theme and mood. Take for example his painting Old Laundry Shop, which shows two rather bored looking men trying temporarily to ignore their work in an old wooden building serving as a laundry. We can sense what might be going through the minds of these men, one distracting himself with his newspaper, the other staring out of the window. The scene is dim but exquisitely lit in such a way as to accentuate the colours of the clothes being ironed and piled up. We can compare this to Night Hawks, the very well-known painting by the American artist Edward Hopper, from the Art Institute of Chicago. Hopper’s painting also conveys a narrative theme, and the mood of the characters. It is also dim but beautifully lit in such a way as to accentuate the colours in the scene. There are many visual parallels between these two paintings, even though they are set in extremely different contexts. Just as with Amirudin’s landscapes, Old Laundry Shop is little known outside of Malaysia, whereas Edward Hopper’s Night Hawks is well-known internationally. But purely as works of art they are comparable in many ways and the exceptional abilities of the two artists coming through very strongly in their chromatically dynamic creations. 


Old Laundry Shop, Amirudin Ariffin, 1998, National Art Gallery, Kuala Lumpur
Nighthawks, Edward Hopper, 1942, Art Institute of Chicago


Colours of Malaysia — The Art of Amirudin Ariffin was recognised as one of the fifty best books for international rights by the National Book Council, Ministry of Education of Malaysia, 2022. It was launched on 20th October of that year, at the National Art Gallery of Malaysia, Kuala Lumpur, with a live stream of the event at the Frankfurt Book Fair taking place at the same time.


Graeme Wilkinson

Graeme Wilkinson is Tan Sri Jeffrey Cheah Distinguished Professor at Sunway University and was the University’s Vice-Chancellor for ten years. He graduated from Imperial College London and Oxford University. He worked as a Head of School, Dean of Faculty, and Pro Vice-Chancellor in universities in the UK before joining Sunway University. His books on higher education reflect his experiences gained from his past senior management roles.  

Bo Li

Bo Li grew up in China and graduated from the Beijing Institute of Technology. After an academic career both in China and the UK she now resides in Malaysia where she is an art collector.