A visit to the Malaysian capital reveals an art scene that has emerged as one of the most dynamic in the region.
By Gabrielle Lipton
Photographs by Ian Teh
My friend, an accomplished Indonesian poet named Khairani Barokka, was glowing when she described her residency at Rimbun Dahan, a private arts center just outside Kuala Lumpur. For six months, Okka had lived on a wildly gardened property in an old Malay house writing poetry all day, breaking just to chat with the other residents or go for a swim. A harmless python resided atop one of the houses and monkeys were known to pay visits. Though she would never let on how prestigious a stay at Rimbun Dahan really is, she was effusive about her time there—the backstory of the owners, the field trips to openings and exhibitions at galleries in the city, and the excitement of Kuala Lumpur’s art scene in general.
Okka’s enthusiasm convinced me to go and see what was happening for myself. In Southeast Asia, Indonesia and Singapore have largely been regarded as the two primary—albeit very different—art hubs, but recently, Malaysia’s art scene has hit a major growth spurt. Since 2010, four Malaysian art auction houses and a host of new galleries have opened, giving the country’s artists more visibility both at home and internationally at events such as Art Basel Hong Kong and the Asia Art Fair in New York.
“Everything’s really changed in the past five years,” said Harni Jonet, the manager at Galeri Chandan, which opened eight years ago in Damansara and was one of the first galleries to display Malaysian art abroad. I’d come to visit its second location situated in a line of contemporary galleries at the top of the enormous Publika mall, the closest thing in sprawling Kuala Lumpur to an art neighborhood. It was the month of Ramadan at the time, and on the walls was an exhibition called “Tawaf: A Sacred Journey,” which included works by four artists who had recast Arabic calligraphy as the subject of colorful oil paintings, the scripted letters formed into motifs and designs. The literal meanings were spiritual, but the larger objective of the works was to reinterpret a Malaysian tradition as contemporary art.
As I continued to galleries in Publika and elsewhere around the city, I noticed that much of the art I was seeing was inspired by Malaysia in some way, often in concept more than visuals. The results are distinct, a sure sign of a burgeoning art scene that can sustain growth. At Shalini Ganendra Fine Art in the well-to-do neighborhood of Petaling Jaya, I was immediately met with a massive wooden wall-hanging just inside the entryway. I knew from one glance that the piece was by Anniketyni Madian, a Rimbun Dahan alumnus whose work Okka had raved about after their residences had coincided. In an intensely laborious process, Madian carves small pieces of mixed hardwoods that, when pieced together, become patterns inspired by the woven Dayak textiles of Sarawak, her home. Her studio attire consists of a dust mask and carpenter gloves, but the finished products—often some three meters in diameter—are graceful, feminine, and distinctly Malaysian.
“Being from Malaysia is a strength,” says Ganendra. “It can’t be contrived. It’s an identity that needs to be organically developed. We only represent [Malaysian] artists who are doing that.” Originally form Sri Lanka, Ganendra has been an art collector most of her life and started SGFA in 1998 with the primary goal of educating Malaysian collectors on how to recognize and invest in art that will appreciate—the core of a profitable art market. Now, it’s at once a gallery, residency, advisory, and stage for art events unlike any others in the region, including an annual pavilion installation and lecture series endorsed by the UNESCO Observatory that brings in top curators from around the world. Even the building is—like Ganendra herself—impeccable and visionary, one of the first buildings in Malaysia to receive a Green Building certification.
The curators that come are in thanks to Ganendra’s connections from years of activity in art world circles. They come to speak, but also to scout for an undiscovered breed of art that could be the next big thing. Ganendra says they’re always shocked at the quality of art they encounter, which is carefully selected from regional artists, many Malaysian. When I visit, the second floor of the wind-chimney-cooled space is hung with large-scale oil paintings from one of the country’s top living artists, Zac Lee, which at first appear as wild murals—of fighting hawks, a fat boar, a wide-eyed tiger—but reveal themselves as visual fables with political morals. On another wall hangs a series by Bibi Chew of small sheets of different woods, each representing a different Malay skin tone and etched with the silhouette of a human face. Within the outline of the visages, Chew lifts up bits of lacquered wood with a penknife, as if the face is covered in dewdrops, or tears.