Over the remaining few days of my trip, I make sure to see the bookends of the gallery scene. On one end, there’s Wei-Ling Gallery and Richard Koh Fine Art, the Gagosians or Paces of Malaysia; on the other, there’s Lostgens’ Contemporary Art Space, a co-op atop a shop-house in Chinatown where the works are far
more experimental, often commenting aggres-sively. The galleries at Publika and a few others scattered around the city fall somewhere in between. And then, like a buffet with tastes of them all, there’s Rimbun Dahan, which I head out to visit on my final day.
In the early 1990s, architect Hijjas Kasturi—widely held as the most significant Malaysian architect—inherited a five-and-a-half hectare piece of land just outside of the city in Selangor. As a way to give back to their respective countries, him and his Australian wife Angela converted it to a residency, each year hosting one Malaysian and one Australian artist, all expenses paid. At the time, the Malaysian art market was just getting its footing, and Rimbun Dahan was one of the places where it had its first steps.
“It was just the right thing at the right time,” said Angela nostalgically, curled up on a black leather couch in her and Hijjas’s home on the property, looked down upon by two big, gleeful oil portraits of them both—gifts from Chong Siewying, a resident in 2000. “We developed a reputation for having all the best artists—Haslin Ismail, Samsudin Wahab, Ahmad Shukri Mohamed—and it’s simply because we gave them an opportunity to develop their craft on a full-time basis.” It also drew all the nascent serious collectors with its annual exhibition of work from the residents. The night before the exhibit’s opening, Hijjas would go to the gallery, and with the company of a cigar and a whiskey choose one piece for Rimbun’s private collection. Every other piece always sold. Since then, Rimbun’s residency program has expanded and now offers shorter sponsorships to a wide range of artists from around Southeast Asia. It also accepts artists from outside the region who pay to stay. The annual exhibitions sell out before they even open.
During my visit, the residents include an improvisatory performance group as well as Malaysian artists Hasanul Isyraf Idris and Yeoh Choo Kuan, both of whose works I had just seen that morning at Richard Koh as part of Koh’s special 10-year anniversary exhibition. I was enraptured with a triptych by Yuan of massive paintings slathered sculpturally thick with black oil paint and lacquer when the gallery assistant informed me that Yuan was presently at Rimbun as part of a special program to give some of Koh’s artists a space to work uninterrupted. (The assistant, it turned out, was up-and-coming sculptor and painter Haffendi Anuar, who’d received a residency as well.)
Just as my friend Okka described, it’s hard to imagine a more inspiring place to create. Angela, whose first love is botany, has spent years planting the land with native species—durian and rambutan trees, endangered dipterocarps, a spice garden—which clear occasionally for sculptures commissioned for the grounds. Restored heritage houses from Malaysian villages sit in one part, while other artists live in apartments above studios in another. But the centerpiece of the property is hidden: the gallery where Rimbun hosts its exhibitions, underground.
As Syar Alia, the arts manager, led me down the stairs to the gallery, we passed a poem painted on the wall—the work Okka left behind—before entering into a circular white space centered around a hollow glass colonnade extending up to the ground, tunneling in sunlight to illuminate the colossal works hung all around. There was an oil painting of a meat hangar by Malaysian painter Justin Lim, who wanted to paint something no one would ever want to see on a wall (the result is stunning); a mural painted on sarongs by Htein Lin, a Burmese artist who stayed at Rimbun after being imprisoned for more than six years under charges of planning opposition activities, using inmate uniforms as canvases and having guards smuggle him paint; an Escher-esque work by Australian artist Megan Keating of palm trees trapped inside a grid, lamenting the environmental problems associated with monoculture in Malaysia. It was an exhibit that could have put that of any international gallery to shame, yet couldn’t exist anywhere else but here.
Rimbun Dahan (Km. 27 Jl. Kuang, Selangor; 60-3/6038- 3690; visits by appointment only)
Shalini Ganendra Fine Art (8, Lorong 16/7b, Petaling Jaya; 60-3/7932-4740)
Galeri Chandan (L/G4, Block C5, Publika Shopping Gallery, Jl. Dutamas 1; 60-3/6201-5360)
Richard Koh Fine Art (229 Jl. Maarof, Bangsar; 60-3/2095-3300; visits by appointment only)
Wei-Ling Gallery (8 Jalan Scott, Brickfields; 60-3/2260-1106)
Lostgens’ Contemporary Art Space (8C Jl. Panggung; 60-19/683-8397)
This article originally appeared in the December/January print issue of DestinAsian magazine (“KL’s Creative Edge”)