Art Detail | Ilham Gallery
Tsunami LIII
Tsunami LIII

This painting is part of the series Tsunami 2004–2005, Malaysian artist Nirmala Dutt’s last major series of works before she suffered a debilitating stroke. The series, comprising over 30 paintings, was created in response to the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. At the time, Nirmala forced herself to watch news reports on the tsunami and its aftermath, despite her sensitive constitution. Day after day, she witnessed  the devastation wrought across Indonesia, Sri Lanka, India, and Thailand. 

Prior to this, Nirmala had spent most of her career as a vocal critic of man-made horrors such as the Vietnam War, South Africa’s apartheid regime, and the persecution of indigenous groups in her own country. The Indian Ocean tsunami opened up a new cosmos of human suffering, forcing her to reckon with the sheer senselessness and indifference of nature. This tumult is reflected in her paintings, which feature great swells of ashen waves crashing beneath a placid sky. Foregoing a more natural shade of sky blue, she chose instead a deep, brooding cerulean for the background of the paintings. In the Tsunami series, the provocative nature of Nirmala’s previous works gives way to a more philosophical meditation on tragedy and suffering, shot through with the emotional force of her empathy.

Acrylic on linen
50 × 50 cm
Credit Line:
Collection of ILHAM Foundation
© Nirmala Dutt
About Nirmala Dutt

Nirmala Dutt (1941–2016) was a pioneering figure in Malaysian contemporary art and one of the few female artists to have emerged in the local art scene during the 1970s. Born in George Town, Penang, her practice spanned documentary photography, painting, silkscreen, collage, and public art. She began her training under renowned figurative painter Hoessein Enas and went on to pursue her studies in the United States and England. Often overlooked in favour of her male contemporaries, her art is characterised by its brutal social commentary, whether tackling war atrocities in regions as far-flung as Bosnia or the squalor of urban slums in her own country. To this end, she experimented with various techniques, such as the use of silkscreened newsprint and photographs. In 1973, her piece, Statement I won a Major Award in the National Art Gallery’s Man and His World competition, making it the first installation artwork to ever win a major art prize in Malaysia.

Further Readings

Learning Section

  • Look carefully at this painting and describe what you see. How has the artist applied the paint? What colours has she used? Nirmala Dutt Shanmughalingam has titled this painting Tsunami.  Does that change your reading of the painting? What aspects of the Tsunami has she chosen to show in her painting? What has she not included? What do you think she wants us to feel when looking at the painting?

  • Look at the artwork, Anak Asia by the same artist. Both artworks show the artist trying to make sense of a moment of immense human tragedy. Anak Asia is part of a series of work which responded to the horrors of the Vietnam war while this work responds to the devastation caused by the 2004 Tsunami. How has the artist changed the way she responds to the tragedy? Why do you think this is? Which work produces the stronger emotional reaction in you? Why do you think that is?

  • Much of Nirmala Dutt Shanmughalingam’s art is characterised by social commentary as she criticised injustice and war around the world. Do you think an artist should use their voice to draw attention to political and social issues? Can an artist bring about change?