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Adulating Malaysian Art

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Farouk Khan

Just before my 2-month residency in Sapporo, I had the opportunity sit down and have a conversation with two of the most prolific collectors of contemporary Malaysian art today, Farouk and Aliya Khan. My colleagues Simon Soon and Alex Yong, as well as artist Choy Chun Wei were also present. The Khans are nothing if not opinionated and forthright, and have strong views on the state of the local art scene.

The transcript that follows is only part of the longer conversation that took place. It reveals the passion and love for Malaysian art that underpins their forceful observations.

The Khans, together with a team of artists, are behind the staging of IMCAS (Iskandar Malaysia Contemporary Art Show) 2009 in Danga City Mall, Johor Bahru. Featuring over 1000 works from more than 100 artists across 26,000 square ft of space, it is without doubt one of the most ambitious visual arts projects undertaken in Malaysia. The exhibition has been extended until 30 Aug 2009. Stay tuned, because ARTERI plans to take a drive down south to experience it. We recommended you do the same.

Iskandar Malaysia Contemporary Art Show (IMCAS) 2009
14 March – 30 August 2009 (Extended from 14 July 2009)
Danga City Mall
Johor Bahru

More information about IMCAS 2009 here, and here.

Blogposts related to IMCAS 2009:

What’s Art
Perkhidmatan Pameran Balai Seni Lukis Negara
Komuniti Pelukis Hutan Bandar
Lu Fikirlah Sendiri



L to R: Leila Aisha Khan, Aliya Khan, artist Choy Chun Wei and Farouk Khan

Farouk Khan: If we want the industry to be great, we have to find a way to overcome the divisions that exist, by having more discourse and dialogue. If I depend on what has been written in the last 50 years, it’s impossible to find out about contemporary art. I only learn about pioneer artists and the Nanyang art scene. So I only learn from dialogue. Speaking to people from MIA [Malaysian Institute of Art] and UiTM [Universiti Teknologi Mara], I get to know the history, and from there, who is relevant. That’s how I discovered Tan Chin Kuan, Eng Hwee Chu and Fauzan Omar. It’s very difficult to read everything about them in print. In this industry, we are teaching ourselves, you know?

I’m quite excited that people are logging onto and setting up websites. It’s a great direction. But I notice that we are going the same way that galleries were setup before, as in ‘your’ site will now jaga ‘this’ group. The adjectives of “greatness” and “fantastic” will apply to certain artists while other areas are ignored.

Sharon Chin: I acknowledge that it is a problem. As an art writer, I believe it’s a comfort zone thing, where one is used to moving in the same circles. ARTERI has been finding it a huge task to make links between these circles…

Farouk Khan: I think people are looking for a sort of cross-boundary movement. Too often sites end up becoming hate-sites.

Sharon Chin: Yeah.

Farouk Khan: Because you keep referring to the same group and frustrate other groups. From very good, well-meaning intentions, it becomes a thing filled with frustration and angst. But we can overcome that, if everybody feels that they are being attended to.

[Referring to ARTERI’s Whose Who? posts] It’s quite nice sometimes just to see photos. We don’t always have to have major discourse. Like why people buy Tatler or Prestige. Even that becomes relevant in itself. It adds more colour and interest. You’re playing up to all the individuals who are there, as well as the artworks. It’s pleasant.

Sharon Chin: Do you see language as a barrier?

Farouk Khan: I do. I see it as a major barrier, especially in our art scene. There is a big separation between the English-speaking and others. [Referring to a large painting on the living room wall] Take Mohd Noor for example. He lives in Kelantan, is Malay-speaking, and doesn’t socialize with the English-speaking crowd, while the English-speaking are the dominant art writers, you see? English-speaking art writers have not made an effort to penetrate the non-English-speaking art base. You get a situation (also happening a lot in Singapore) where there is so much discourse that the work itself becomes irrelevant. Artists become more and more conceptual because it’s easier to talk and write about it than to actually do it.

Art writers here seem to be going in that direction. They’re missing out on who the artists are because of the language barrier. This guy doesn’t hang out in Bangsar, doesn’t speak English, so he doesn’t get into the mainstream of English-writing society. That’s where writers’ interests should be: to penetrate and discover these things. As a collector, it’s interesting that the art industry is not able to do that. I have the advantage by bothering to go into that and I wonder when people are going to catch up. By understanding different artists, I’m able to source great works. By the way, Mohd. Noor has got a Masters in Fine Arts from Leicester University in England. He’s a teacher in a school in Kelantan.

Sharon Chin: Do you think your role as collectors is bigger than that of buying and appreciating artworks? Coming back to IMCAS, what prompted you to take on such a humongous project?

Farouk Khan: Sometimes things become bigger at the end than how you started. The MB of Johor has interest in the arts and I do a bit of business in Johor. By way of conversation, one day he asked, “Why don’t you do something about the arts in Johor? Why don’t you give us an art show?” I sort of felt a bit obliged to do it. When I came back I got a team of us together including [Abdul] Multhalib [Musa], [Choy] Chun Wei, Hamir [Soib] and Shooshie [Sulaiman]. As we discussed it, the momentum, interest and energy picked up. We also had the opportunity of the space. Danga City Mall was being refurbished, so the fourth floor was available. They had a massive anchor tenant space of 30,000 square feet and about 40 – 50 shoplots outside. We came up with the idea to fill the anchor tenant space with a major collection. With the shoplots outside, we thought of giving a platform for young artists to show their work.

Then we started the process of sourcing. With the anchor tenant space, I had never showed my collection. I thought, okay, this is the time and opportunity to do it. Shooshie put a lot of effort into sourcing young artists and the response from them was quite incredible. I mean, how do you try and source 700 artworks? But as people responded, the energy created itself. Everybody wanted this thing to happen and they made it happen. Initially, if you had asked me whether it would end up this way, I wouldn’t have seen it.  So when everything was done, we felt like, wow, this is Malaysian art, you know?

Sharon Chin: How long did it take to put everything together?

Farouk Khan: 4 months. It was a Herculean effort.

Sharon Chin: What was it like collaborating with artists in this effort?

Farouk Khan: It was the only source I had, you see. You have to go back to the industry. The whole process came from discussions with artists: What do we do? How do we do a good show? Even basic things like… imagine we’ve got to transport nearly 1,000 works from KL to Johor. Never done that before! Don’t even know how to start! Then we found out Multhalib had great logistical skills, and he became in charge of logistics.

Choy Chun Wei: That comes from what you were talking about before. You’ve engaged with artists before and you knew the strengths of each. It’s like saying: beyond your work, let’s do something else. I think it’s the bigger picture that interests the whole team. Let’s make it happen, a big wave… Just do it lah!

Farouk Khan: Don’t worry about results lah. We are not commercially driven so the idea was to put up a good show. Then we discovered each other’s talents…

Aliya Khan: It’s fantastic. You see the development of an art industry, which doesn’t just produce art. There are so many other relevant things to the industry, like writing, framing, transport… When you have 2,000 students coming out every year from art institutions, not all of them will become painters. IMCAS is like a capsule of what the whole art industry needs in order to get to the level it should be at. It’s ridiculous the Malaysian art industry. It’s at a very poor level.

Farouk Khan: Yah

Sharon Chin: What is the reason for that? I’m interested in the difference between working and operating in KL versus a huge project like this in JB.

Farouk Khan: I find in Kuala Lumpur, we suppress more than we develop.

Aliya Khan: It’s too nepotistic, you know? Like, if you are with Valentine [Willie Fine Art], that’s it. If you’re there, you’re just there.

Simon Soon: So was choosing JB a conscious choice?

Farouk Khan: No, not a conscious choice. It happened, like I said, through conversation.

Simon Soon: But do you think that it’s a more strategic location?

Farouk Khan: Shooshie made an interesting comment: “I might not want to go back to KL. I’d like to maybe make my base here”. I said “Why do you want to do that?” She said “There’s no poison here”, and “Every time I meet new people coming in to see the art and talking about it, the focus, the enthusiasm and everything…” In KL, you become so divisive. Everybody is poisoning one another all the time. And when we meet each other, we’re all sour already.

So there is essentially quite fresh, you know? That creates a life of its own.

Aliya Khan: Malaysia is not only KL, Malaysia is the whole of Malaysia.

Farouk Khan: Initially a lot of people were asking me, why Johor? Well, why not Johor? I would love if from Johor we can go to Malacca, then Perak.
ARTERI’s Simon Soon and Sharon Chin

Simon Soon: Would the nature of the show be different if you had done something like this in KL?

Farouk Khan: I have a strong belief in Malaysian art, but I feel that it has not been able to grow because the art writing that has existed for the last 40 years has been tremendously negative and racist. When I look at the young painters of today, I find you can no longer differentiate the works by race. Going back 20 – 40 years, you could actually tell from a painting whether it was by a Chinese, Indian or Malay painter.

Art writing has never adulated art. It is something that you need to sit down and psychoanalyze. Because you find the differentials there… art writers were pre-dominantly English speaking. The tradition of art writing today came from [T.K.] Sabapathy and [Redza] Piyadasa. You have to appreciate that both of them were from USM [Universiti Sains Malaysia], and were affected by the change in national policy from English to Malay. You find that English-speaking writers had certain agendas that were not in line with the direction of the country. Art actually suffered as a result of that because art writers never adulated art. Instead they used it to come up with propaganda, political feeling or whatever. That dominated more then the art itself.

But I think now [it’s changing], because of the movement towards the private sector. If we depend on the structure as it is, it will remain that way. Private collectors have the strength, energy and resources to approach art in a different context. If I have a strong art collection, I want the public to focus on the art, not the angst of art writers. So we are coming up with a different direction on how art should be looked at.

It’s interesting how the public is responding to that. People have not had the chance to see a hundred young artists, or Fauzan Omar’s works, for example, but now they can. When a private collector puts up his collection, it’s different from an institutional collection. Institutional collections are something you’ve had to see again and again for the last 20 years. Private collections from that era are also similar. If you move away from that, people get upset at you. It is amazing the amount of frustration aimed at you because you don’t buy what everybody else has been buying. That’s something we’ve endured for quite a long time. We want to collect what we want to collect. We thought we should make the effort to research, and basically give aesthetics a greater consideration than the political writings of the art industry. This I find the public is responding to very well.

Aliya Khan: The cross-section of the people who have come to see IMCAS is amazing. We have people from all walks of life coming to see it with their children. I think Malaysians are smarter than art writers consider them to be. You give them a good product, a well-curated show, they will go. IMCAS every public holiday is chock-a-block.


Farouk Khan: On Labour day we hired somebody to count the number of people attending, and it was around 1100. The public is responding to art, in contrast to what we’re made to believe.

Sharon Chin: There’s also an art fair component to the show, isn’t there?

Farouk Khan: Yes that’s for the hundred young artists.

Sharon Chin: How were the young artists identified? Was there a proposal process?

Farouk Khan: We appointed Shooshie from Gallery 12 to do that. It was inclusive in that if you were young and wanted to take part, you were welcome. We tried our best to reach out because we needed a lot of works, and there was no time to play politics. We did have a panel to scrutinize each work to make sure they were up to standard. From there, we had to curate the works in 40 rooms, and that was the most impressive part of the show for me. People fail to realize the success of a show depends on how well it’s curated and it’s not easy. It’s important to move away from politics and agendas, and focus on the right people to do things.

That’s my advice to art blogs and writers. Come out beyond your own agendas. There’s a very vibrant art world out there. When I look at the region, I feel that Malaysian art is well above. A very serious Indian contemporary art collector told me recently, “I’ve stopped collecting Indian contemporary art. I can’t believe it. Malaysian contemporary art is much better.” And she says the price difference is ridiculous.

Aliya Khan: It is ridiculous. When I go back to Pakistan, I can’t afford to buy Pakistani art. It’s so expensive and the quality is nowhere compared to what it is here.

Farouk Khan: But we’ve not adulated it

Aliya Khan: Yes.

Farouk Khan: We always try to keep it down. You’ve got to go beyond that. People complain that the media, The Star and The Edge especially, only focus on art shows and seldom write about overviews of the art industry, or even critiques of individual artists.

Sharon Chin: You mean more about the whole practice of an artist?

Farouk Khan: About the industry, rather than the galleries linked with the media.

Sharon Chin: When you say art industry do you mean the art market?

Farouk Khan: I mean anything to do with art. I remember reading an interesting article once about Ben, a local art handler. Whether it’s a curator or a guy who transports art, it’s an industry. Or write about UiTM and MIA. The interest cannot be based on the few agendas that you have, because you keep repeating it. It’s like an artist doing the same work all the time. How to get excited? But we’re all so polite, we don’t say it but we have to say it. We beat around the bush a lot.

I really enjoy the arts scene. I’m amazed at how much politics I have to go through just to collect art. My intention is collect art. That’s it.


Images (except IMCAS banners) by Alex Yong
Thank you: Farouk and Aliya Khan for being gracious hosts, Alex Yong, Haseena Abdul Majid and Zahirah Suhaimi.

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