First thoughts on Kuala Lumpur — known as KL locally — usually steer towards the city’s record-breaking twin towers and its street food. But the city’s more recent developments see its cultural side stealing the limelight. Things are a far cry from what they were even 10 years ago, with young fine art graduates now finding themselves on fertile ground to hone their craft, gallerists busy plying their trade, and collectors and the general public enjoying lots of great art.
So just what is KL’s art scene like? “Malaysia is a multi-racial society, therefore the diversity makes for good ingredients in terms of aesthetics and histories,” argues Nazli Aziz of Galeri Chandan (www.galerichandan.com). His gallery is one of those to have popped up in the last few years, and he’s benefitted from the changing currents.
“Commercially, I would say that it is ‘healthy’,” he adds. “There is a much broader appreciation of art, the market is evolving well, and art is now beginning to be traded and validated in the secondary market. This is a good foundation for growth.”
Other gallery owners also note the positive changes in the industry.
“It has been an exhilarating time for the industry as we have seen many positive developments over the last decade,” says gallery owner Lim Wei-Ling. “[We’ve seen the] introduction of more discerning collectors and a growing number of artists who refuse to compromise on their art for the sake of commercialism.” Running Wei-Ling Gallery and Wei-Ling Contemporary (www.weiling-gallery.com), Lim boasts almost a decade’s worth of experience both supporting and promoting contemporary Malaysian art.
Things getting more serious means that contemporary artists in KL have begun to elevate their practice — the business side included — to a more sophisticated level too, she says.
“Most of the artists I work with only produce between 12 to 15 pieces over a course of two years. More often than not, there are not enough works for collectors as there is not enough supply to meet the demand. As a result, prices of artworks have appreciated significantly over the last six years”. Still, prices in KL are still fairly reasonable compared to contemporary art from China or India, for instance. Works by emerging artists cost from RM1,800 to RM12,000 (VND12 million to VND80 million), but ballpark figures for senior artists will set you back RM20,000 to RM150,000 (VND135 million to VND1 billion) — sometimes much more.
And you’ll be spoilt for choice over where to go for your purchase, as Bayu Utomo Radjikin points out. Galleries have been mushrooming over the city.
“I think KL’s art scene has been very vibrant for the last five to ten years,” he observes. He’s in the right place to comment. An established artist himself, Bayu helms the art space HOM (houseofmatahati.blogspot.com) in Ampang, a surburb of KL. “It’s more exciting today and the audiences are more curious too,” he adds, going back to the simple calculation that more galleries mean more artists and more exhibitions. “You need that buzz,” he concludes.
At HOM, the key to their programmes is on nurturing young artists, and the gallery is also big on exchange — they have three residency programmes, including the Open Residency, which allows any artist to set up camp at their studios for a specific period. To date, they’ve hosted artists from Brazil and Latvia, while artists from Indonesia and the Philippines have been part of their regional residency called SAGE.
But it’s not just the galleries and their stable of artists who are enriching the local art scene. Recent developments have also come by way of new events that add colour and clout to the industry, the very sort it needs to capture international attention.
The art fair Art Expo Malaysia takes place annually around the end of October and attracts international galleries, eager to have a share of the pie that is the advancing art market here. And to boot, the Malaysian government has been marketing contemporary art as a tourism product through its annual 1Malaysia Contemporary Art Tourism Festival — advertisements for the festival have been spotted as far away as Europe.
Local aficionados, however, have had their eyes and ears peeled to developments at home, especially the pounding of hammers at Henry Butcher Art Auction Malaysia. Its third installment was just this May, and this year’s outing garnered a standing-room-only crowd and eager bidding that totalled RM4million in sales (about VND27.3 billion) and a RM797,500 (VND5.45 billion) hammer sale for the late Malaysian artist Ibrahim Hussein’s abstract painting Red, Orange and Core (1984). So clearly, big bucks — or make that Ringgit — are at stake here. In fact, forecasts are so promising that the auctioneers have even decided to make their auction a twice-yearly affair.
The marked boom in KL’s art scene has undoubtedly changed things. There are now art events or openings every other day of the week, and those in the industry remark that it’s sometimes a struggle to attend them all; it’s not unknown for someone to squeeze in two or three openings in a single night, just to stay in the loop. But one big problem remains — Joe Public is struggling to attend these events himself. The notion of art appreciation isn’t nationwide (KL remains the hub, with its northern counterpart, Penang quickly catching up), and the average individual will still struggle to name five Malaysian artists off the cuff. In short, the old adage that art is only for the one percent remains.
Working against this problem are two salient individuals on the art scene, Nani Kahar and Peter Kiernan. The architects behind labDNA, they have been the creative and conceptual brains behind landmark art spaces in the city. Their first project from 2007, Annexe Gallery, made great headway in terms of altering the city’s cultural landscape, as well as rejuvenating a part of KL’s city centre that had a rep for being a little rough around the edges.
“We’re more interested in creating social spaces,” argues Peter, now busy with Nani spearheading creative matters at Publika (www.publika.com.my), KL’s latest retail and commercial development. Publika is unique in that art and culture was central to its blueprints, and it’s already made a discernable difference to the city’s cultural landscape in the short time that it’s been around; they run a busy schedule that balances events from all across the cultural spectrum (so it’s not just the visual arts), and they have also secured a high number of art tenants for the development; art galleries like Segaris, RA Fine Arts, and even Nazli’s aforementioned gallery have all set up base here, the latter two abandoning previous spots elsewhere in KL.
Publika know that their main audience is the general public, so public art here is a priority. There are artist-designed murals within the actual retail space, installation art in the mall, and even artworks that were made from the construction site’s electrical spools around the development. Theirs is a bona fide case of ‘if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em’, and just how close have they brought art to the people? Very, as even the public toilets here feature specially-commissioned artworks.
Peter and Nani speak about their efforts being firmly rooted in the principles of egalitarianism, and they argue that it’s about “adjusting eyes” and getting the public attuned to art’s many possibilities. Arguably, theirs is a slow but pertinent revolution, but with so much optimism in their voices, it’s safe to say that KL is experiencing great shifts in its art scene. And with all the good people in the industry, it’s also safe to say that KL’s art scene has the prospect of an even more exciting future.
To find out what's going on in the KL arts scene, check out the following websites:
Time Out Kuala Lumpur Arts Section
The Kuala Lumpur Performing Arts Centre
Expat KL (click on the events link)
AirAsia offer cheap flights to and from both Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City to Kuala Lumpur. Go to www.airasia.com. Return flights can be bought for as little as VND2.5 million. Alternatively, return flights with Malaysia Airlines (www.malaysiaairlines.com) start at just under VND5 million. Kuala Lumpur acts as a great hub for travelling onto other locations in the region.
Check out the following websites: