December 1, 2008

Noteworthy News

I found this article from pretty interesting:-

Whither Malaysian Art

by Andrew Sia

Speculators are investing in Malaysian art as they would in stocks and shares. Works are fetching record prices overseas. And on Wednesday, the gargantuan 2nd International Art Expo Malaysia trade fair begins in Kuala Lumpur. Has Malaysian art arrived?

WHEN a computer-manipulated art work called Huminodun by Malaysian artist Yee I-Lann was sold for RM117,000 at a Christie’s auction in Hong Kong in May, it created a stir – the local selling price had been just RM12,000.

At another Christie’s auction last November, two of the hottest stars of the Malaysian visual arts scene also sold works for record prices: Ahmad Zakii Anwar’s depiction of a Buddha fetched some RM213,000 while a piece by Jailani Abu Hassan (aka Jai) nailed RM196,000.

And veteran artist Chang Fee Ming sold his watercolour collage for RM130,000 at a Beijing art fair earlier this year.

Considering how humbly the latter two artists started out in the mid 1980s – Jai was a KL street artist selling sketches while Chang sold his first piece for RM250 – Malaysian art seems to have come quite far.

Then again, it is still nowhere near the stratospheric multi-million US dollar pricing of Chinese and even Indonesian contemporary art.

“The boom began with global interest in Chinese contemporary art,” explains Lim Wei-Ling, owner of Wei-Ling Gallery ( in Kuala Lumpur. “Now there is talk that Malaysian and regional art will benefit from a spill over effect, as it’s still reasonably priced compared with China.”

But while the international market may create a buzz, for Malaysia, the bedrock is still the local market: “All of the museum quality work in Malaysia is being snapped up, mostly by local collectors,” says Lim.

And why not, when investments in art are increasingly seen as relatively recession proof. Lim Meng Hong, who represents Christie’s in Malaysia, notes that many people predicted a dip in the art market during the 1997/98 Asian financial crisis, yet quality works maintained or appreciated in value even in those times.

Ng Seksan, a landscape architect ( who is an avid art collector, says, “Fifteen years ago when we started collecting there was only a handful of consistent collectors. Today, due to the meteoric rise of art prices, many people are jumping onto the bandwagon.

“In the last two years, speculators have appeared. They buy art as a commodity like tobacco or shares to be sold later at a big profit. But some of them have really gotten hooked onto art and become passionate collectors themselves.”

Art = Thinking
But, say some, art should transcend such mercantile factors – and that is where Malaysia still lags behind.

“Art is not just a commodity to earn foreign exchange,” says Pakhruddin Sulaiman, a corporate lawyer and prominent long-time art collector.

“Rather, it’s about being proud of our culture. Art is one of the highest achievements of the human mind. But it has been associated with dungus (stupid people). Something is very wrong with the education system here.”

Yee explains, “Our education system heavily pushes the science stream while the arts stream is portrayed as a ‘loser’s club’. This highlights our misplaced values, for the arts are all about learning intelligent and critical thinking, and expressing opinions.”

The buzz now is all about “contemporary art” that is perceived to be “deeper” in thinking, more conceptual, as opposed to the pretty water colours of picturesque kampung scenes.

“It’s the sensibility of this restless age,” says Pakhruddin. “That’s why people rate the messy and coarse Picasso over (the finely executed realistic paintings of) Raphael as the world’s top artist.”

For Suherwan Abu, the founder of Taksu Gallery ( in Kuala Lumpur and Singapore, contemporary art is a serious enterprise, one that he distinguishes from the “commercial art” found in, say, KL’s Central Market.

“It’s not about painting 200 pretty flowers to sell to tourists,” says Suherwan. “There has been a surge of confidence among local artists in the past three years. One trend sees so-called low-brow, almost raw graffiti-like art, now selling in high-end galleries. Take the work of Samsudin Wahab showing two monkeys in (monkey) suits, suggesting how current politics is like a circus while we feel powerless.”

For Pakhruddin, art is an “intellectual product”. He shows me a work, Lintang Pukang (Helter-Skelter), by up-and-coming artist Nadiah Bamadhaj. In it, songkoks seem to emerge from a keris-like groove.

“Does that suggest that Umno is breeding extremist nationalist Malays? Or are the songkoks going in? Which would suggest that the nationalists are being submerged by the practical concerns of Umno,” muses Pakhruddin. All that from one work....

Then there is the incorporation of modern technology. The Australia-based arts writer and curator Gina Fairley recounts that in Selamat Datang ke Malaysia, the first survey of contemporary Malaysian art to be exhibited in Australia (in 2007), artists like Sharon Chin used videos shot on cell phones along with sculpted prayer carpets as part of her installation work.

And the trend of synthesising traditional art with other media is evident with Yee, who, apart from her digitally reworked images, has also been a production designer for movies such as Ho Yuhang’s award-winning indie pic, Rain Dogs (2006), and Dain Said’s Dukun (finished in 2007 but yet to released by its producers).

“Some of the most exciting art is in new media, such as videos, installations, and photography, all of which have significantly less market appeal than paintings on canvas,” says Valentine Willie, the founder of Valentine Willie Fine Art gallery (, one of the local galleries known for featuring cutting edge works and installation art.

“We strive for a balance between what we obviously can sell and those less so,” says Willie.

National Importance
For the Malaysian visual arts industry to move forward, it needs buyers who look beyond that “mercantile factor” to lend financial support. And such support usually has to come from the public sector.

But Pakhruddin feels that our public art institutions, especially the National Art Gallery (Balai Seni Lukis Negara), have been “in a slumber” for the past 15 years.

Willie simply says that we should “revamp the cultural institutions with professionals, and put people with knowledge and passion in charge”.

Adds Pakhruddin, “The Balai is on the periphery of our artistic life. In contrast, Galeri Petronas ( has taken criticism very constructively and revamped itself in the past two years to showcase contemporary Malaysian art.”

The Balai’s loss has been the gain of discerning private collectors like him, though.

“About 10 years back, I was paying between RM4,000 and RM8,000 for works by Bayu (Utomo Radjikin), Zakii, and Jai. They are now worth about 10 times the price,” says Pakhruddin, adding that the current auction boom is pushing prices even higher.

This substantial appreciation makes it difficult for the National Art Gallery to belatedly chase after those works. In contrast, Singapore is positioning itself as the arts hub of South-East Asia, notes Pakhruddin.

The irony is that Singapore was once maligned as a “cultural desert” obsessed merely with economic growth. But even those dry and pragmatic folk have realised the importance of art.

Pakhruddin observes that the Singapore Arts Museum has had the foresight to collect many important Malaysian artists’ works, and it has been doing so since the mid-1990s.

“For instance, they used some of Zakii’s best pieces, including his series on Balinese dancers, to promote themselves as the regional centre of art!” he smiles.

Is it good that they have used “our” cultural heritage to promote themselves, just as Singapore Airlines uses the sarong kebaya as its stewardesses’ uniforms?

“I used to have that so-called patriotic feeling, that Malaysian art should remain in Malaysian hands,” says Pakhruddin. “But later I became more open minded. And if Singapore is doing a better job than we are at promoting Malaysian art, well and good.”

Willie believes that the Malaysian market is “too small” to have any significant impact on prices: “So, inevitably, artists need to venture beyond their comfort zones and address a wider audience,” he says.

Willie, in fact, has opened galleries in Indonesia and, recently, in Singapore; and another in Manila seems to be in the pipeline.

Ng (Seksan) believes that Malaysia should set up a National Arts Council (Singapore has one) with a lot of money to promote our artists and their works.

“The Council should sponsor them and their representative galleries at international art fairs and exhibitions. Or sponsor pavilions at the (world renowned) Venice Biennale (biennial) to showcase Malaysian artists.”

At the same time, the Malaysian public could use further exposure to the arts and “big to not-so-big” foreign art shows on everything from Monet to Damien Hurst to Indonesia’s Affandi should be brought in.

“And, please, let there be no cronyism and corruption in the decision-making process,” he quips.

Cultural Pride
Lim of Christie’s says that Malaysian artists are generally under-valued compared to Indonesian and Filipino artists.

Apart from money, of course, there is the cultural richness of other Asean countries.

“Historically, Indonesia, the Philippines and Thailand had many aristocrats collecting art, and that helped their arts scenes to flourish. I hardly see any of our tokoh korprat (corporate titans) doing the same,” says Pakhruddin.

Artist Ivan Lam comments that Indonesia, for instance, has a rich, deep, and ancient culture of great diversity: “We can see how in Bali art is cultivated from young. In Malaysia, we cultivate more materialistic things,” he points out.

Adds Ng, “Indonesia and Thailand are naturally more cultured just by the mere fact that they have a longer, deeper history than Malaysia or Singapore. Which then naturally translates into a greater sense of ownership of their arts.”

This is where patriotism about art comes in.

“We actually had a head start as the Balai was established by Tunku Abdul Rahman back in 1958. But then we lost our way,” reflects Pakhruddin.

Part of the problem is that the Malaysian political and corporate elite does not really appreciate art. He remembers that Government bodies and Government-linked corporations such as Bank Negara, Malaysia Airlines, Maybank, and Tenaga Nasional used to play a key role in collecting (and hence, promoting) Malaysian art.

“This was before the first recession of the mid-1980s. CEOs used to be more enlightened and culturally aware,” he notes.

“If (Tun) Dr Mahathir had just said, ‘Okay, go and collect art’, all these companies would have. But he was not interested in art.

“In the past 20 years we have seen a rapid transformation of Malaysia’s physical urban landscape, in buildings and highways. But what do we have to show for our human and cultural development?”

Ng adds, “Imagine if the Malaysian arts had been promoted with the same fervour as the Proton Saga or Putrajaya projects. Even if we might not be as rich, at least we would be a bit more cultured.”

Ng might have been glad, then, to hear what International Trade and Industry Minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin had to say at the Nov 11 launch of the 2nd International Art Expo Malaysia: that he is aware that local artists’ potential economic contribution is under-estimated. He also said that local artists will be joining trade and investment missions next year.

Art as Lifestyle
While the corporations and Government may have been less than energetic in pushing Malaysian art to date, our rising middle classes have taken up the baton.

“People have become more educated and are taking art more seriously. It’s also become a serious business for investors,” says Lam.

Artist Chang Fee Ming notes that tastes have broadened in recent years: “There are many younger people nowadays who make good money and are starting to buy different genres of art. The young have a different way of seeing things. Even cartoon-style paintings can be art.”

Wei-Ling Gallery’s Lim believes that the Malaysian art scene has really improved, as the collectors are better able to appreciate and understand what artists are trying to say: “It’s not just about painting pretty pictures or buying a painting to match the sofa anymore,” she quips.

And Pakhruddin sees more middle class Malaysians buying art in recent years.

“After the nice car and house, then comes art. No more cheap posters. It’s becoming a lifestyle thing. One cannot be seen to have truly arrived unless you have original art prominently displayed in your home.”

And the upper middle classes don’t feel the pinch, as it’s often part of house renovations.

“A RM100,000 package is not much to renovate a home. The interior design people will include RM20,000 for a good local art work,” he explains.

Taksu Gallery’s Suherwan says that contemporary art goes well with current architectural and interior design trends that have a simple, clean even minimalistic look: “The art really stands out. The art is the primary thing, and the furnishings are designed around it.”

Ng, whose work is about creating beautiful outdoor environments, says that “lifestyle/status symbol, “interior design”, and “corporate/social image” are all “valid entry points” into the arts.

“However, what is more important is that the people who buy art for those reasons will eventually move on to something deeper.”

Money Rules?
While rising Malaysian prosperity and more refined tastes have given a gradual push to Malaysian art, it is now international auction buyers that are really driving up prices.

“A Jai (Jailani Abu Hassan) piece typically sells for RM35,000 to RM50,000 locally. Suddenly, it shoots up to RM196,000 at Christie’s,” comments Pakhruddin. “I wonder if this is due to ‘hot money’ from speculative buying. The bubble may burst.”

Gallery owner Willie’s opinion? “Pricing art is an inexact science at best. At worst, it’s just a gut feeling. Also, like the prices of other things, it’s a function of supply and demand. And like the stock market, it’s susceptible to hype, especially in a field with so few players.”

He observes that regional art prices only shot up at the Sotheby’s April 2007 auction in Singapore, while before that his gallery would “at most” increase prices for an artist’s works by between 10% and 15% in every subsequent exhibition.

Pakhruddin fears that money may dictate how Malaysian art should evolve – and that does not bode well.

“Somebody with financial muscle, as opposed to curators’ scholarship or genuine long term art collectors, may end up determining what is good art,” he laments.

“Artists should not make art for the market,” stresses Wei-Ling Gallery’s Lim. “They should make it for their own artistic vision, and then the market will follow them. And it’s the job of a gallery to support that artist’s journey.”

She notes that some galleries give “suggestions” to artists on how to create works that follow “hot” trends. Yet, she points out, this “selling out” may result in an artist becoming stagnant as he or she keeps reproducing a “winning formula”.

Lam describes it thus: “Some artists think, ‘I have a signature style so why rock the boat?’ They keep milking the cash cow, they sell until they cannot sell, until the collectors are tired of it, and then everything burns out. Like rock music, you may be the flavour of the month now but you need constant reinvention.

“It’s not right to gauge art by the prices. Sometimes it’s just not the artist’s time, as people are not into his type of work. For example, Van Gogh was not appreciated during his lifetime.”

Future Glory
High prices driven by foreign collectors may add some glamour, but it does not mean true cultural success.

Artist Yee I-Lann feels there are still crucial shortfalls, especially in the “severe lack” of critical art writing, and thoughtful curating: “Without these, our great works kind of float about. This is a kind of ‘death’ to art.”

Pakhruddin adds, “If a new collector has RM20,000 to spend, he will read up to see what to buy. We have many good art works. But exhibitions come and go. It requires writing up in catalogues, books, and newspapers to illuminate these works. Otherwise, the works will be virtually lost.

“As art becomes a seriously expensive business, there is a need for writers of integrity who will not make idle claims, as catalogues become like a company’s ‘prospectus’ inviting the public to invest in the art works.

Most of all, art appreciation is still lacking. Pakhruddin believes that this needs to be cultivated in schools; Ng adds that the Government and corporations could sponsor artists to conduct art programmes in schools, such as those that the art collective Rumah Air Panas carries out on its own initiative.

Another avenue is through public art – “In Singapore, we see so many good public sculptures around,” points out Pakhruddin.

Ng suggests that property developers could commission large outdoor public artworks as an alternative to “high maintenance and energy chomping” water features. The Government could also pass laws requiring private property developers to contribute 1% (of profits) to create public art in towns and cities.

“And please stop censoring and let the public decide what is acceptable or not,” he adds.

“Local corporations should buy good local art to fill their walls. All new (big) hotels should be encouraged by the approving local authorities to use local artists’ works rather than some substandard foreign artist’s works.”

Artist Sharon Chin once said at a National Art Gallery forum that the true value of an arts industry is to understand its social importance, how we value culture, and what we can learn about ourselves. Yee agrees: “The greatest value of our art is not just monetary. We have not ‘arrived’ on the international stage yet, as we generally still don’t appreciate our own art.” -or any art for that matter!

See Original Article



blogger templates 3 columns | Make Money Online