top of page

The Popularisation of Art and Woodcut as Social Engagement

By Krystie Ng (Independent Researcher)

To discuss the development of modern woodcut printmaking in an inter-Asian context, one cannot disregard the historical moment in in the 1930s when Lu Xun introduces European Social Realist woodcut to modern China. From this point onwards, offshoots of woodcut practice start turning away from romanticism and instead take on a more realistic and expressive approach. Woodcut develops such that is not only portrays social reality and offers social commentary, but also often takes on the responsibilities of educating the masses and of disseminating propaganda, in addition to being adopted as a tool to mass organisation.

To attain widespread popularity and to maximize outreach, these woodcut always incorporate elements from everyday life, drawing on colloquial languages and images which resonate with the masses. This approach to art creation makes use of concrete figures, everyday objects, simple language and direct slogans as a set of strong concise cues that command visual attention. The text and images of woodcuts are compositions built out of positive and negative blocks; occasionally we do see artists adding colour by applying multiple blocks to create a layering effect.

Woodcut on Fabric, 360x240cm, 2017

(left) Pangrok Sulap, Sabah Tanah Airku (I), Woodcut on Fabric, 360x240cm, 2017

(right) Pangrok Sulap, Sabah Tanah Airku (II), Woodcut on Fabric, 360x240cm, 2017

Although woodcut is generally categorized as an art form, it is essentially to apply an alternative lens by viewing woodcut as the product of activisms emerging from leftist perspective. A common feature of these woodcut is that they provide a medium for artist to engage directly with the masses, especially with precarious groups in the lower stratas of society, such as farmers, labourers, migrant workers, the homeless, and sexual minorities. In these woodcut prints, marginalised communities are not only the target audience but more importantly are also the subject matter. Lu Xun described the phenomenon as " the blending of elegance and Vulgarity "- an alchemic fusion that belongs uniquely to the popularisation of art

A low threshold for entry - owing to the simplicity of the requisite technical skill, the affordability of the materials, and the accessibility of the production methods- has allowed woodcut to play a crucial part in modern mass movements as a propaganda tool. Thus, the role of woodcut in social change extends beyond the main land China of the 1930s. Indeed, it is instrument in subsequent waves of democratisation across the region: the format is observed to proliferate Japan, Taiwan, Bengal, Korea and other part of Asia, including the Nanyang.

A contemporary instance of employing woodcut to respond to social issues can be traced back to the end of Suharto's military regime in Indonesia. Formed in 1998, Taring Padi was made up of young people who occupied the abandoned Akademi Seni Rupa Indonesia (ASRI) and converted it into a base to create art and engage with people through art. Since then, they have been going to the countryside to teach children with no access to formal education, to work together with farmers and labourers, as well as to organise people to resist tyranny. This format has subsequently served as an inspiration to many artists, designers, culture workers and other activists of the region; it has been duplicated and adjusted on indirectly inspired the following practices: Denpasar Kolektif in Bali, Pangrok Sulap in Sabah, A3BC in Tokyo, Print & carve Dept: in Taipei, Printhow in Hong Kong and Wavecut Movement in mainland China.

Memeto Jack , Wanita Mencipta Sejarah (Women Create History),

52x40cm, Woodcut on Paper, 2020

As for Malaysia, woodcut - or even printmaking in general - is not as popular as painting where the contemporary art scene is concerned, perhaps due to the fact that duplicable prints do not generate as much commercial interest. Nevertheless, we have seen artists like Juhari said, Kim Ng, Faizal Suhif, Sabihis Pandi, Lee Mok Ye, Mark Tan and Hug Yin Wan, Who embrace the medium and push the possibilities of woodcut. Besides, thanks to the international recognition that Pangrok Sulap has recently gained, printmaking has attracted slightly more domestic attention. Still, the fact is that woodcut and woodcut artists continue to be underrepresented on the local art scene - an issues which this exhibition hopes to address by serving as a much - needed platform.

This exhibition is divided into two parts. The first is presented at Courtyard @ The Zhongshan Building, where large - sized banner works created by artist collectives are exhibited. The second part is hosted at The Back Room, where prints created by individual artists and artist collectives of the region are displayed. While some of the prints will be available for purchase, it is important to note that most of the participating artists and collectives do not regard the art market as the primary motivation of their work. On the contrary, they emphasise woodcut as a medium to reveal and resist social injustice, to spread message, and to extend solidarity. Based on my conversation with them and on information relayed to me, many of them contribute their personal time and labour voluntarily, making sure that revenue from print sales and merchandise is always either reinvested back into the operations of the collective or devoted to community - building programmes.

In conjunction with the exhibition, we took the chance to compile research on the topic of printmaking, particularly in the context of the local art scene, to further provide perspective to readers. The first article is written by Jane Khoo together with Rahman Mohamed. By introducing form of printmaking in daily life and also by distinguishing between daily use, commercial mass production and art, the article leads us through the development of printmaking over time and draws attention to the artists who have nurtured the scene. In the second article, Pok Chong Boon focuses on Malaysia and summarises how printmaking has potrayed social realities from the 1930s to the present day.

Last but not least, I also included the prints we are showing in the exhibition into the latter part of the book. You can also find more information of the artist and collectives in the final section. I hope everyone enjoys the exhibition and these prints will resonate in various forms in our lives.

* (Taken from the catalogue book entitled "An Outline of the Development of Social Realistic Woodcuts in Malaysia" In conjunction with the exhibition: " Carving Reality: Contemporary Woodcut Exchange Exhibition from East Asia

7 November – 6 December 2020 @ The Back Room, Kuala Lumpur.

34 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page