The Kings of Wishful Thinking – Anurendra Jegadeva at Wei-Ling Contemporary

The best things in life are free But you can keep ’em for the birds and bees

Now give me money (that’s what I want) That’s what I want (that’s what I want) That’s what I want (that’s what I want) yeah That’s what I want

Excerpt from the song Money by The Beatles

Money talks. It speaks a universal language and makes the world go round, so they say, but also the root of all evil. Money buys freedom but it unleashes the bondage of desire. Money is symbolic of our together–ness in that everyone, from the tek tarik seller to the King, parts hands with it every day, but it also marks the disparity of wealth – this year it is forecasted that the collective wealth of the world’s 1% will exceed that of the other 99% of the global population.[1] Money, it seems, is a thing associated with polarities, paradoxes and ironies. Money is also the backdrop of Anurendra Jegadeva’s latest exhibition at Wei-Ling Contemporary. In a new body of work comprising sixteen canvasses on which are printed the ringgit in various denominations – 5, 10, 20, 50 – money is employed as a lens to explore ideas around nationhood and the state of the nation. The use of the Malaysian currency (and within it the portrait of the father of modern Malaysia, Tunku Abdul Rahman) as an appropriated icon is unsurprising given Anu’s predilection for working with archetypical motifs, popular imagery and found objects. But, currency and nationality also make good bedfellows: the right to mint is key to national sovereignty. Currency is a barometer of the strength of a nation and one indelibly linked to a country’s mood or self-worth. Indeed, it was our country’s state of affairs that indirectly provided the inspiration for the series. A chance encounter with a misprinted 50 dollar note in which the Agung’s portrait was omitted struck the artist as particularly poignant; the error banknote with its absent monarch struck the artist “as an especially poignant reminder of the current social, economic and political challenges faced by Malaysian of all races and walks of life”. The large-scale notes printed on the canvases depicts the King in dialogue with a number of everyday Malaysian characters – a nasi lemak seller, a young nationalist, a hindu priest, an opera singer, a schoolgirl, a turbaned Sikh, a beautiful bride, a security officer. Vivid in their colourful depiction and pungent with character through firm black lines illustrative in style, these figures are immediately familiar to us; they are utterly Malaysian. Painted in an almost translucent white cursive script across the imagery, like a super in a film, are their names, which preserve their individuality, whilst, paradoxically, the artist’s choice of ‘everyman’ names reduces them to the generic or, as Anu has described not without irony, “a roll-call of taxpayers.” Through juxtaposing the ringgit with these archetypes, the work invites us to look deeper into the question of nationhood: what specific stereotypical associations do these characters invoke? What does it mean to be Malaysian? What values do we attribute to being Malaysian? In the run up to 60 years of independence how do we measure up against the visions and dreams of our King? And why – when you stop and think about it – is nationality so important?


Some of these questions and wider issues pertaining to nationality are tackled in Benedict Anderson’s influential book Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. Anderson, a historian and political scientist, explores a historically rooted understanding of what gives nationalism its ‘profound emotional legitimacy.’[2] For Anderson nations are social constructs existing only in the minds of those in the community. They were imagined ‘because the members of even the smallest nation will never know most of their fellow-members, meet them, or hear of them, yet in the minds of each lives the image of their communion.’ And they are communities because, ‘regardless of the actual inequality and exploitation that may prevail in each, the nation is always conceived as a deep, horizontal comradeship.’ Anu’s exhibition viewed from the lens of Anderson’s book invites us to contemplate the wider cultural, historical and socio-political hallmarks that constitute national identity. Two aspects prevalent in Anu’s body of work – individuals placed side by side with a very public symbol (the King), and the common man’s issues and aspirations compared with the nation’s own – demonstrate this point. Take, for example, Portrait of a King with Nasi Lemak lady. Nurul the nasi lemak seller and the King are placed on both ends of the banknote, whilst Nurul’s beautifully wrapped wares hover next to the nation’s fighter jets. The disparity between these scenarios serves to both enhance our empathy with the individual and, at the same time, highlight the difference between Anderson’s ‘horizontal comradeship of nationality,’ and the reality, which is the vertical difference of rank and power in society. Anderson also argued that despite nations being perceived as old and timeless, they are actually recent and modern creations or ‘the shrunken imaginings of recent history.’ He traces the rise of Malayan nationalism with the establishment in 1938 of the Kesatuan Melayu Muda (KMM) or Union of Malay Youth. With the end of World War II and the demise of colonialism Malaysia, like many Asian countries, commenced its nation-building. Policies typically emphasised youth and anti-imperialism, with “genuine popular nationalist enthusiasm, and a systematic, almost Machiavellian instilling of nationalist ideology through the mass media, education system and administrative systems.” The irony of nationalism, Anderson noted, ‘is that it is an idea so influential that people will die for their nations, yet at the same time it is an idea difficult to define.’ This concept is particularly pertinent in the work Ahmad and the Spirit of Merdeka, which brings to fore the country’s colonial past and the birth of nationhood. The painting depicts a man (the spirit of Merdeka?) proffering a skull to a young Malay nationalist. Blood drips from the skull bearer’s hand. On top of the skull sits a mini replica of the Tugu Negara memorial. The disconcerted nationalist is somewhat blingly accessorised through inclusion of real costume jewellery in the painting. An array of red hearts decorate the background (possibly a nod to the aphorism make love not war). On the left hand side background, like an enlarged screen-printed stamp, is a blood-red portrait of the young Queen Elisabeth II (the predecessor to the King on Malayan notes); on the other side lies the nation’s founder. Ahmad and the Spirit of Merdeka is an allegory on the price freedom. It can be read as a reminder that independence from imperial powers and sovereignty came at the cost of many lives and through the united effort of different nations and races. (The Tugu Negara memorial was built to honour the war dead of World War I and II and the Malaysian Emergency of 1948 to 60 which included British, Australian, Fijian, Maori and Malay troops.) The skull in art is often employed as a memento mori reminding us of our own mortality. Here, the Spirit’s gesture is also reminiscent of the famous scene in William Shakespeare’s play Hamlet when the latter holds up the skull of his court-jester Yorick and reflects on death. Hamlet realises that death eliminates the differences between people. The hierarchical structure of society is illusory and ultimately crumbles into dust, like the bones of those long gone. Three kings is another rumination on the origins of nationalism. In this image, a nineteenth century Western politician in the form of a bust sits cheek-by-jowl against the King and an indigenous tribal ruler. The painting is a reminder of the wider history of the country; although the banknote embodies the nation, choosing to depict any one ruler or person cannot be anything but a reduction of what makes that nation.


Some works in the exhibition allude to the economic stresses on the nation. Banana Republic, as the name suggests, is a reference to the ever-weakening buying power of the ringgit (affecting the working man pictured the most). Other works such as The Yellow King which alludes to the Scorpene submarine scandal, have more political connotations. The work, like many others in the exhibition, is laden with references. The use of the word yellow in the title is an overt reference to the block-yellow silhouette of the King. But there are many other possible readings: a metaphorical association of the colour with cowardice, as well as envy, jealousy and avarice; an allusion to the Beatles song ‘Yellow Submarine’; and a reference to the use of the colour by Chinese dynastic emperors to represent their divinely-entrusted powers (the earliest ancestor of the Chinese race was the ‘yellow emperor’). The latter reference is reinforced by the inclusion of an image of a Chinese emperor. The emperor could also be perceived as an actor in a traditional Chinese opera, hinting on the complicated drama of the Scorpene scandal. It is also ironic that the actor’s red make up, which is a reference to loyalty and bravery are qualities opposite to cowardice. These references have both playful and serious connotations. They add depth and complexity to the work and make for paintings that abound with multiple meanings. Like the subject of money, these meanings are loaded with ironies, paradoxes and polarities.


Art, like literature, can help us make sense of the world around us. The concept of art as having meaning is language governed. Yet it is possible to argue that the meanings that inhere in works of art are not entirely accessible to language.4 As such there is an inherent interconnectedness between art and literature. Anu’s figures are like the cast of characters in a novel. Rich and colourful, they appear repeatedly in his oeuvre, not merely characters in situ but protagonists in a fragmented narrative. There is something poetic about their depictions – they yearn, desire, seek goodness, truth, love, power and prosperity – they embody universal values of mankind. The struggles and woes of everyday existence depicted by Anu’s Indian-descendent protagonists also call to mind the characters of the influential Indian writer R.K. Narayan, whose short stories and novels brought modern Indian literature to the world. Anu’s characters like Leela the humble garland seller, Shanti the pubescent schoolgirl, Samas the pious learned man, Arjit the ghee seller, Manesh the lusty priest, and [?] the samsu-drinking factory worker make worthy comparisons with Naryan’s schoolboys, taxi drivers, teachers, astrologers and pundits in his books like Swami and friends, The English Teacher, The Painter of Signs, Grandmother’s Tale and The Man Eater of Malgudi. Like Anu’s paintings, Naryan’s books portray the everyday dramas, ironies and poignancies of human life in a post-colonial society. The protagonists negotiate a difficult path between the demands of modern urban existence and ancient tradition, dreams and reality, aspirations and the obstacles of bureaucracy and corruption. Both Narayan and Anu have a pithy narrative style infused with humour and more than a touch of compassion; Anu has the ability to convey so much in an image; Naryan has been compared to Chekov, the great short story writer, for his ability to compress a narrative without losing elements of the story. Their work has inordinate appeal because they have the capacity to make the ordinary, extraordinary and the everyday, magical.


The final irony lies perhaps in the depiction of money in works of art. Art, like money, can be a treasured possession. As the artist himself has written, “we fold it (money) lovingly in our wallets as if they were photos of our closest or dearest loved ones.” Money possesses a numerical value and so has finite value; art’s value is arbitrary – it fluctuates with the tide of time and whim of taste. A work of art can be priceless to its beholder, yet worth nothing on the market. Conversely works of art have been auctioned for hundreds of millions, as if in an attempt to put a price on the priceless. Ever canny, it is this tension that Anu plays on in his work by highlighting lower denominational notes. Value, he is saying, is utterly in the eye of the beholder. Our identities are forever linked with our sense of monetary worth. Money, after all, is what we all want.

[1] Oxfam, an anti-poverty charity, released a report titled, “Wealth: Having It All and Wanting More,” which reveals that the richest 1 percent, who had an average wealth of $2.7 million per adult in 2014, have seen their share of global wealth soar yet further, increasing from 44 percent in 2009 to 48 percent in 2014.
[2] Anderson, B., Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism, Verso, 1991