View of Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, with the Petronas Twin Towers in the distance. Photo by Zukiman Mohamad. 

Kuala Lumpur

Also available in:  Chinese  Arabic

Whether in politics or culture, Malaysia has never really gained the kind of international prominence that her immediate neighbors in Southeast Asia (such as Indonesia, Thailand or Singapore) have over the past decade. Recently rated as the second-most corrupt country on a list of emerging economies in Time magazine, Malaysia is, in the eyes of critics, practiced in mediocrity. Even in the art of corruption, it remains merely second best. On the other hand, Malaysia’s relative obscurity on the international stage might be the result of its racially plural makeup. One could say the very idea of Malaysia is resistant to convenient profiling.

It is therefore commonly said that the Malaysian art scene is a fragmented one. This has resulted in a small but growing body of literature about Malaysian art in English, Malay and Chinese that is not always consistent or integrated. Translation remains a low priority, arguably because the country’s ethnic communities have never really displayed any concerted effort in bridging the different cultural divides. Nevertheless, if there is anything that I have learned over the years of working across Southeast Asia, it is that artists are an inventive bunch and they defy all odds and expectations. 

The Malaysian art world doesn’t have a fixed seasonal calendar because the dates of major religious holidays (such as Eid and Chinese New Year) change yearly. The art calendar makes its adjustment accordingly. Nevertheless weekly openings at galleries have become a staple in Kuala Lumpur, and increasingly one is overwhelmed by the amount of events and public programs that take place on weekends. Saturday has got to be the busiest day of the week, as many cultural event organizers make use of the ease in traffic to persuade the public to explore the city.

The recent destruction of National Laureate Syed Ahmad Jamal’s public sculpture Lunar Peaks (1986) by the Kuala Lumpur City Hall—the mayor of Kuala Lumpur said the work was “in bad shape”—is a case in point. The incident has galvanized many artists to discuss the need for a more concerted and strategic form of engagement that requires the art community to come forward as a united front.

This energy is a welcome change, because when it comes to contemporary art over the past few years, the art market has exerted an inordinate amount of influence. The proliferation of auction houses—four by my last count—has resulted in an unhealthy amount of speculation. This has also produced an unbalanced and unsustainable model in which artists produce primarily to meet the demands of a new breed of collector who views art primarily as a form of investment. Rather than encouraging younger artists to take their time to experiment with ideas, the lure of a sell-out show has taken hold of many burgeoning talents. 

Be that as it may, dig a little deeper and you might find a very different kind of spirit at work. One of the most exciting things that has happened over at the National Visual Art Gallery is the recent survey exhibition that reintroduced significant historical artworks in the collection to the Malaysian public again. Curators Koon Tan and Bakhtiar Naim played a seminal role in this process. Malaysia’s national art gallery is the oldest public gallery dedicated to modern art in Southeast Asia. Established in 1958, it boasts an important collection that charted the ambitions of a new multicultural nation that recognized the important role that art could play in fostering a new national identity. 

Others, however, have instead put their faith outside the ambit of officialdom. It is a testament to the ingenuity of art workers that alternative initiatives persist even if they have received no funding from government agencies. Currently in Kuala Lumpur, there are about three alternative spaces and more than 15 artist collectives, which can be creative in terms of both content and how they run their programs or organize events. Of these spaces, Kuala Lumpur’s Lost Generation Art Space has become an important hub for building art communities from the ground up and fostering new talents. 

This leads me to the important part that our educational institutions should play. Since 2003, the University of Malaya in Kuala Lumpur has offered an MA-level program focusing on Southeast Asian art history, started by the late conceptual artist and curator Redza Piyadasa (1937–2007). And next year, the university is expected to offer a new undergraduate course in art studies. Institutions are identifying the value of an extensive undergraduate program to equip the next generation of cultural workers with the ability to think critically and independently.

While the above examples point to future possibilities, what remains for Malaysian cultural workers to achieve is a willingness to work collectively. If we believe that art enriches our lives, there is no reason to jealously guard it. Through collaboration, we can foster a culture of sharing that is both creative and intellectually gratifying.