Malaysian art comes out of the shadows: gallerists’ view from the ground



Malaysia’s art scene: justifiably overshadowed by Singapore? Three of the peninsula’s well-known gallerists talk to Art Radar.

Hong Kong and Singapore’s art scenes often receive a lot of international coverage, but little is heard in the press about Malaysia. Wondering whether this lack of attention was warranted, Art Radar Asia asks three Malaysian gallerists to describe their country’s contemporary art scene and how it fits into the global picture.

Chin Kong Yee, 'Infinite Canvas' 2012, oil on linen, 520 x 190 cm, Wei-ling Gallery. Image courtesy of Wei-ling Gallery.

Chin Kong Yee, ‘Infinite Canvas’ 2012, oil on linen, 520 x 190 cm, Wei-Ling Gallery. Image courtesy the Wei-Ling Gallery.

Is Malaysian contemporary art being unfairly ignored on the international circuit because of Singapore’s commercial clout? How does Malaysian art fit into the wider Southeast Asian and international scenes? Three directors from Malaysian art galleries Wei-Ling Gallery, Shalini Ganendra Fine Art (SGFA), and Pelita Hati discuss the situation for both artists and galleries in peninsula Malaysia.

Lim Wei-Ling, director of the Wei-Ling Gallery

Established in 2002 in Bangsar, Kuala Lumpur, the Wei-Ling Gallery exhibits the works of contemporary artists in Malaysia. Gallery director Lim Wei-Ling is an artist and daughter of the internationally-acclaimed architect Jimmy Lim. When her father’s office, housed in a colonial shophouse, was damaged in a fire in 2004, Wei-Ling refurbished it and relocated the gallery to the premises. In April 2011, she opened a second space, Wei-Ling Contemporary, at The Gardens Mall in Kuala Lumpur. This new 3800 square foot space features both new exhibitions and exhibitions from the Wei-Ling Gallery.

Anurendra Jegadeva, 'Migrant Altar', 2012, oil on canvas with mounted painted objects, 132cm x 122cm - 122cm x 46cm (2 panels), Wei-Ling Gallery, Malaysia

Anurendra Jegadeva, ‘Migrant Altar’, 2012, oil on canvas with mounted painted objects, 132 cm x 122 cm – 122 cm x 46 cm (2 panels), Wei-Ling Gallery, Malaysia. Image courtesy the Wei-Ling Gallery.

Please describe Malaysia’s contemporary art scene.

The local art scene has developed slowly but surely over the last ten years and has matured into a much more professional one. This has come about as a result of patrons of art who are more willing to collect art that is made by artists for art’s sake as opposed to works being made with a consumer in mind. Artists are thus able to continue doing what they believe in without having to compromise. Almost all serious artists are attached to and represented by galleries, there is an archiving and cataloguing system in place, art books are being published and in general there is a growing respect and interest in art. These are all the makings of a promising art scene.

No one would have believed that Asian art would take off the way it has done over the last decade. The Asian art boom has slowly begun to stir up more interest in Malaysian art, but the country is still lagging behind its neighbours in terms of visibility. In order for Malaysia to be a part of the movement we need to have more of a voice. We have a presence, but not enough of one. Although there is some very interesting art being made in Malaysia by artists who are thinking out of the box and reflect upon the state of our society, Malaysia has not placed an emphasis on promoting contemporary Malaysian art both within the country and in the region. Most international initiatives to promote the country’s artists have been undertaken by private galleries rather than institutions.

I would like to see an increase in collectors who recognise serious artists; to see stronger support of the industry by corporations and the government and the media raising awareness, to give voice to objective art writers and reviewers with integrity. As a gallerist my role is to protect the future for our artists and our nation’s cultural heritage.

Ivan Lam, 'I have loved you too fondly to be fearful of the night', 2013, synthetic polymer paint and resin on canvas on board, model submarine encased in resin, 235cm x 183cm x 10.5cm (Diptych). Image courtesy Wei-ling Gallery

Ivan Lam, ‘I have loved you too fondly to be fearful of the night’, 2013, synthetic polymer paint and resin on canvas on board, model submarine encased in resin, 235 cm x 183 cm x 10.5 cm (Diptych). Image courtesy the Wei-Ling Gallery.

Besides Kuala Lumpur, are there other areas in Malaysia where artists live and work?

Much of the concentration of the art scene is in Kuala Lumpur, primarily because the market is more vibrant than in other parts of the country. Malaysia is a country where artists can flourish and get down to making work because they can escape, away from a big city into less developed, more rural areas. This is primarily because the cost of living in Malaysia is fairly low and gives artists the freedom to choose. Thus, most artists have their studios on the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur and its peripheral areas as rentals are cheaper and the cost of living lower. This has allowed for a proliferation of artists communes where young art graduates set up studios together to make works. Despite this though, the artists who eventually prevail and make art a long term career are those who have the stamina, discipline and are making art for the right reasons.

Who is your typical collector and what type of art do they buy?

Mostly Malaysians with a few foreigners picking up pieces now and then. There is a rise in young, savvy collectors who have been exposed to the international contemporary art scene and are interested in collecting the works of contemporary artists from this generation. They are mainly looking for artists who have something to say in their works, not merely decorative art.

Do you think Malaysian artists get plenty of international exposure and opportunities? Why or why not?

Not at all, especially when compared to our Southeast Asian neighbours. You may have one or two artists who have achieved some level of international recognition but that is not sufficient to give Malaysian art a boost. Malaysian art is still lagging behind in terms of pricing, and as a result it doesn’t always make financial sense for private galleries to participate in international art fairs, nor organise exhibitions beyond the shores of Malaysia. This can partly be contributed to the fact that there is no system in place where grants and/or funding are allocated to artists, galleries or people in the creative industry to assist with art projects, which may or may not have any commercial value, but are purely for art’s sake and to put Malaysia on the map.

Sporadically there have been instances where the government has tried to assist with the promotion of art or to fund art exhibitions overseas, but these initiatives have not made an impact, largely due to the lack of curatorial direction and selection processes.

The local art scene is a disparate and fractious one, where there is no real collective in place.

Choy Chun Wei, 'Architecture of Desire', 2011, mixed media on wood, 108cm x 81cm. Image courtesy Wei-ling Gallery

Choy Chun Wei, ‘Architecture of Desire’, 2011, mixed media on wood, 108 cm x 81 cm. Image courtesy the Wei-Ling Gallery.

Would having an art fair or biennale help the Malaysian art scene?

I don’t think having a biennale in the country, nor joining the rest of the world in the setting up an art fair would boost Malaysian art’s exposure. In Asia, there are already two notable fairs: Art Basel Hong Kong and Art Stage Singapore, which each has its own direction, so we would be hard-pressed to have an edge over these two fairs.

What is required is for Malaysia to boost its art on an international presence through participating in significant and important art events around the world, which are properly and thoroughly curated to show the works of only serious artists e.g. taking a pavilion at the Venice Biennale to highlight the best of what the country has to show, regardless of whether it is commercially viable or not.

What noteworthy art projects are happening in Malaysia?

Most galleries still put up standard commercially viable exhibitions at their spaces, however I feel that it is very important to shake things up a little to expose the Malaysian audience to art projects which allow them to experience something new in art. Thus for three months, August through to October 2013, I am relinquishing my gallery space in Brickfields (Wei-Ling Gallery) to a Venezuelan artist, Claudia Bueno, to create a site-specific light project entitled “FibreSpace” which will drop down over three floors and through the triple void in my gallery. I daresay that this is the first time that a site-specific exhibition of this nature has ever taken place in Malaysia, so it is all very exciting.

Who are the top Malaysian artists? And who are the emerging ones to look out for?

I have based this list on artists who are serious in their approach to their works and are working with a strong sense of purpose and direction. Sadly there have been several artists in Malaysia who started on the right footing and may have been well-regarded several years ago, but have gone down the commercial route over the course of their careers so I have not included them.

Malaysian artists of an earlier generation:

HH Lim (Italy and Malaysia), Wong Hoy Cheong

Contemporary Artists of the current generation:

Yee I Lann, Ivan Lam, Anurendra Jegadeva, Zulkifli Yusoff, Yau Bee Ling, Choy Chun Wei, Nor Azizan Rahman Paiman, Phuan Thai Meng.

Emerging Artists:

Wong Chee Meng, Justin Lim, Cheng Yen Pheng, Azliza Ayob, Ilham Fadly.

Amin Gulgee, 'Spider Raga V',  2011, copper, 196 x 69 x 61cm. Image courtesy Wei-Ling Gallery

Amin Gulgee, ‘Spider Raga V’, 2011, copper, 196 x 69 x 61 cm. Image courtesy the Wei-Ling Gallery.

Where do you think Malaysian art is headed? What will the art scene be like ten years from now?

In my opinion and I have said this countless times over the last few years, if there is a time to be an Asian or Malaysian artist it is now. The focus of the world is, for the first time, on Asia and art is no exception.

Everything is cyclical and that applies to the art world as well. For centuries art was centred in Europe, in the twentieth century (with the birth of Modernism) it shifted to America and for the twenty-first century it will be Asia. The first decade of this century has already demonstrated that. I foresee that the next ten years will see many exciting changes, developments and interest in Malaysian art. As it is, Malaysian art has been largely undiscovered by the rest of the world, but I do not think that that will always be the case. Undoubtedly, it is only the artists who are dedicated to their art practice, making works which resonate and possess strong conceptual ideas, and constantly pushing the envelope, who will make the difference and remain relevant in the long term. The rest will fall by the wayside.

Despite the set backs with funding as a whole there is definitely a strong collecting base  building up in Malaysia and this will hopefully grow over the next decade. The interest in collecting art is there and hopefully through more serious art programmes and exhibitions, the art scene will continue to develop and cultivate a more discerning collector. This will make for a much more developed, interesting and fruitful art scene.

Interview conducted by email.

SGFA @ Gallery Residence. Image courtesy SGFA

Shalini Ganendra Fine Arts Gallery Residence. Image courtesy SGFA.

Shalini Ganendra, director of Shalini Ganendra Fine Arts

Shalini Ganendra Fine Arts is located in Kuala Lumpur and housed in Gallery Residence, an award-winning environmental space designed by Ken Yeang which opened in January 2011. According to the space’s website, Shalini Ganendra specialises in “Asian Contemporary Art with particular focus on artists from emerging regions. She is experienced in advising arts organisations and individual collectors in building, maintaining, and appraising museum quality collections.”

Zac Lee, 'Truth Dare', 2013, oil on jute. 145 x 244 cm. Image courtesy SGFA

Zac Lee, ‘Truth Dare’, 2013, oil on jute. 145 x 244 cm. Image courtesy SGFA.

Please describe Malaysia’s contemporary art scene.

Energetic, progressing and speculative

Besides Kuala Lumpur, are there other areas in Malaysia where artists live and work?

Throughout the country, including Penang, Johor, Kelantan.

What are some of the trends in Malaysia contemporary art?

The ambition to succeed financially and in the international arena are more pronounced in the current generation of artists. Consequently, trends differ with motivation. Those artists who aim for the biennial and museum circuit are naturally creating work that is less ‘art to live with’ but rather what I call ’art for the moment’. The artists who are mainly commercially driven tend to have derivative western aesthetic. The best artists – and there are a growing number, marry their cultural connections, in-depth knowledge and thought with technical expertise and global aesthetics.

Bibi Chew, 'Where have all the flowers gone 2', Wood. Image courtesy SGFA

Bibi Chew, ‘Where have all the flowers gone 2′, 2003, wood. Image courtesy SGFA.

Who is your typical collector and what type of art do they buy?

SGFA has a growing advisory practice because of our extensive reach to artists in Malaysia. We have numerous projects with artists who are not represented by us, as well as actively representing our stars through special programmes, residencies and exhibitions. We are thus able to support the expectations of the variety of collectors who rely on us: corporates, individuals (both local and foreign), foundations and museums.

Do you think Malaysian artists get plenty of international exposure and opportunities? Why or why not?

There are some who are beginning to get exposure through their own efforts and the support of  well connected advisors and galleries.

Would having an art fair or biennial help the Malaysian art scene?

There is an art fair in Malaysia already. Biennial – not another one – [not] just yet! We have so many throughout the region [that] resources are better spent on developing the art scene in a substantive and qualitative way first and then making the splash.

Eiffel Chong, 'Teluk Pelandok', 2013, C-Type Print  ed. 5. Image courtesy SGFA

Eiffel Chong, ‘Teluk Pelandok’, 2013, C-type print ed. 5. Image courtesy SGFA.

What noteworthy art projects are happening in Malaysia?

We like the cross-cultural projects started by SGFA, the Vision Culture Lectures (fourth year)  and the Vision Culture Art Residency (second year), because of the free educational outreach they provide, and accessibility to understanding. The lectures have hosted top international curatorial, design and art talent, often introducing Malaysia to these personalities. Participants have included: Debra Diamond, Curator, Smithsonian;  Christopher Phillips, Curator, International Center of Photography; Michiko Kasahara, Curator, Metropolitan Toyko Museum of Photography; Antoine D’Agata (Magnum photographer). We will be hosting Art Jeweler Robert Baines and Beth Citron of the Rubin Museum later this year.

Who are the top Malaysian artists? And who are the emerging ones to look out for?

For excellent skill, thoughtful and clever works, that are also beautiful (and well priced) consider Zac Lee, Bibi Chew (nominated for the Smithsonian Artist Research Fellowship Award last year),  Eiffel Chong, Minstrel Kuik. There are a host of others.

Eric Peris, 'Tin Mine Landscapes - Grasses', Lambda Print ed. 10, 54in x 39in. Image courtesy SGFA

Eric Peris, ‘Tin Mine Landscapes – Grasses’, Lambda Print ed. 10, 54in x 39 in. Image courtesy SGFA.

Where do you think Malaysian art is headed? What will the art scene be like ten years from now?

In ten years, Malaysia will be able to host a biennial that will rival the best of them.

Interview conducted by email.

Raja Shahriman, 'Kelewang', 2011.

Raja Shahriman, ‘Kelewang’, 2011, forged and fabricated metal, 40 x 63 x 40 cm. Image courtesy the Pelita Hati Gallery.

Raja Annuar, managing director of Pelita Hati Gallery of Art

Established in 1995, Pelita Hati Gallery of Art is devoted to promoting Malaysian artists both locally and abroad. The gallery is located in Kuala Lumpur’s fashionable Bangsar Baru. Besides holding exhibitions, the gallery also hosts workshops, talks, forums, and sponsors Art in Community projects.

Jing Chung, 'Are You Looking For Me', 2012, Acrylic & ink on rice paper, 23 x 23 cm. Image courtesy Pelita Hati.

Jing Chung, ‘Are You Looking For Me’, 2012, acrylic and ink on rice paper, 23 x 23 cm. Image courtesy the Pelita Hati Gallery.

Please describe Malaysia’s contemporary art scene.

From my observation, at the moment there are a lot of new galleries being set up, not only by individuals but also by institutions and companies. Also there are a lot of auctions going around. Somehow I feel that the mushrooming of galleries and the auction activities are kind of related. Everybody is getting their hands in selling art. It is more about selling and more about money nowadays. With the widespread use of selling through the internet, it seems that everybody can sell art.

Besides Kuala Lumpur, are there other areas in Malaysia where artists live and work?

Yes, there are other places such as Perak, Melaka, Johor, Kelantan and also Penang.

Haron Mokhtar, 'Merisik Waris I', 2011, Acrylic on canvas, 92 x 122 cm. Image courtesy Pelita Hati Gallery.

Haron Mokhtar, ‘Merisik Waris I’, 2011, acrylic on canvas, 92 x 122 cm. Image courtesy the Pelita Hati Gallery.

Who is your typical collector and what type of art do they buy?

They are mostly people who are very passionate about art. They buy art that they personally like. They are not the type that buys art because of investment.

Do you think Malaysian artists get plenty of international exposure and opportunities? Why or why not?

A very hard question to answer because from one perspective, it does seem that yes, Malaysian artists do get plenty of international exposure and, in term of opportunities, I believe there are many of that sort. However, I personally don’t see it that way because when you talk about international exposure, one needs to be properly represented and connected to the real international art market and buyers and not just having exhibition overseas.

Rahman Amin 'Untitled', 2012, steel. Image courtesy Pelita Hati.

Rahman Amin ‘Untitled’, 2012, steel. Image courtesy the Pelita Hati Gallery.

Would having an art fair or biennial help the Malaysian art scene?

Yes, an art fair would benefit the Malaysian art scene.

What noteworthy art projects are happening in Malaysia?

At the moment, there are efforts from the National Visual Art Gallery to do more collaboration projects with private galleries, which I think is a good effort to promote Malaysian art and also to foster good relationships between private and government sectors. The tourism ministry is also recognising art as a good way to boost the industry and is also collaborating with the National Visual Art Gallery in organising several art projects.

Who are the top Malaysian artists? And who are the emerging ones to look out for?

If the top Malaysian artists are defined by the price of their artworks and the number of artworks that they sell, then that will be Ibrahim Hussein, Latiff Mohideen, Ahmad Zakii Anwar, Raja Shahriman Raja Aziddin, Jailani Abu Hassan. Actually there are a lot more than the ones I mentioned here. As for the emerging and upcoming artist, I would say Samsudin Wahab.

Zainuddin Abindinhazir, 'Konspirasi 3.0 (1) Dewi Kuning', 2012, Metal, 76 x 34 x 21 cm

Zainuddin Abindinhazir, ‘Konspirasi 3.0 (1) Dewi Kuning’, 2012, Metal, 76 x 34 x 21 cm. Image courtesy the Pelita Hati Gallery.

Where do you think Malaysian art is headed? What will the art scene be like ten years from now?

Malaysian art is still new in the art scene, very young and no doubt very promising. Therefore, I believe we still have a very long way to go. As of now we are trying to make our mark, especially in the international market, and with the proper exposure and opportunities we will be one of the best producers of art in the world.

Interview conducted by email.

Susan Kendzulak

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Related Topics: Malaysian artpromoting artgalleries, interviews

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