Living Art History: A book review on Emelia Ong’s ‘Living Art’
Review by Farah Dianputri

It’s my deadline today and I’ve been putting off my essay on the crown of Monomachus for weeks. I’m in a cafe at Marchmont Street, in London, dedicating as much time to trawling the Internet for journal articles as for people watching in the dim evening. The sources I could find on the crown only contributed to analysis paralysis: explanations of Christian theology, references to possible Persianate influences, all the way to questioning whether the crown is even authentic or a really good 19th-century knockoff!

I think what contributed to my near-misses and mad-dashes towards essay deadlines were the fact that texts on art history seem to pride themselves in speaking in ciphers. These writings are sometimes just as mysterious as the artworks they seek to demystify. In the process, they actually offer more questions than answers.

I once gave advice to someone who was applying for an art history masters that the most important thing is having a unique line of inquiry. What makes the way you write about that painting different from the thousands of other tweed-armoured academics who already have?

To me, Emelia Ong’s Living Art signals one of the many possibilities of recording Malaysian art history. As an art history student who has spent my days drowned in impenetrable journal articles and indecipherable compendiums of this-and-that-isms, it’s refreshing to find a record of Malaysian artists that feels not only closer to home, but closer to the heart.

Ong delivers insights about art straight from the artist’s mouth. The book is a collection of interviews, glimpses into the lives and practices of 14 artists. You dive head-first into how the experiences of the artists are intertwined with their works, conversations which you are pleasantly allowed to eavesdrop into by leafing through the pages of the book. My favourite sections are the photographs of the artists at home. You can really see their personalities come through from the collection of bric-a-brac skewed around the shelves in Ise’s living room, to the floor to ceiling barricade of books in Shia Yi Ying’s family home.

Something that comes to mind when I read her biography was how easy it would have been for her to just do what my previous professors had done: write a lengthy dissection on some vacuous theme in Malaysian art that would only find readership in unwilling students. Instead she conducts the primary research that makes art history possible. Interviewers seldom identify as art historians (although in Emelia’s case, she’s both). I think it poses an interesting thought on how we view hierarchies of art writing. Why shouldn’t we consider interviews as co-publications in art history?

In short, I think Living Art is a valuable contribution to Malaysian art history, for the academic and casual reader alike. It provides a way to look back at some of our most renowned artists, not detached and explained to us in a white placard on a gallery wall, but in a personable way, inviting us into a dialogue. This book also has the potential to be a tome to encourage a new generation of creatives, to remind us that we don’t have far to look for sources of artistic knowledge and inspiration.

Image courtesy of Areca Books.

Living Art: The inspired lives of 14 Malaysian artists and their art practice was published in 2020 by Areca Books. You can order a copy of the book here:

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Farah Dianputri is a writer under the CENDANA-ASWARA Arts Writing Mentorship Programme 2020-2021.

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