Can you name one Malaysian artist? Until recently I couldn’t. And even now, I need a cheat sheet to pronounce some names correctly. Finding good art in Malaysia is like finding food in the jungle. At first, you see nothing. But once you know where to look, you’ll discover a Land of Plenty where great art grows on trees.
Ruzzeki Harris - Surrealist Pop Art
My journey into the local art scene starts at The Wei-ling gallery, a beautifully renovated house in Brickfields, packed with art. In a central room, eight big canvasses are adorning the walls. They’re filled with oversized objects and bold typography. Little drawings and doodles turn each painting into a sketchbook. Paint is mixed on the canvas, not the palette. The artist is the rising star of the Malaysian art scene: Ruzzeki Harris. His new series ‘Gone Viral’ is a visual ‘J’accuse’ of digital addictions. A man literally shoots himself with his smart phone. A duck face takes on Donald Duck proportions. Two bananas cause a scandal. A monkey is ‘on the air’. It’s surrealist pop art. James Rosenquist meets Salvator Dali.
We get to meet the artist. He’s a fun guy, a man of little words, who lets the paintings do the talking. In ‘Heartless Intellectuals’ he takes revenge for a family member who suffered a heart attack because they couldn’t afford doctors. The greedy men are posing in the toilets. They are faceless and heartless. The pumping organ is sitting next to them. It reminds me of the famous Saint Sebastian motive in European Painting. Only here, the men are no martyrs. And Cupido doesn’t shoot arrows for everlasting love. Ruzzeki shoots to kill. Later on we see the artist gracefully posing for selfies.‘Gone Viral’ goes viral. How ironic.
Is 'Beauty' a dirty word?
The bohemian mall ‘Publika’ is a treasure trove of galleries. ‘White Box’ is KL’s most famous exhibition space. A nucleus for art activity, it houses almost weekly shows. It’s a bit of a roller coaster, with many ups and downs, but sometimes you’re in for a ride. Today's ‘Art Next Door’ looks very promising.
Another popular stop on my weekly art pilgrimage is Galeri Chandan, two floors up. The gallery specialises in figurative art from emerging artists. In today’s art world, ‘beauty’ has almost become a dirty word. Art is supposed to be edgy, controversial and upsetting. And yes, I do visit Documentas, Biennales and osé art shows. In Kassel I found myself staring at 2 dead flies in a giant glass display. Did I fly all the way to Germany to see two dead flies? So, call it guilty pleasures, call it whatever you want: I still appreciate a beautiful painting.
Gan Tee Sheng is obsessed by the human figure and the feelings that lie underneath, especially the oppressed ones. I’m not a fan of his dark, surreal works of figures in rather compromising situations. I love his monumental portrays, skilfully painted with vivid strokes. The paint is roughly plastered with a knife, adding a sense of movement. None of the subjects seems willing to pose. One man looks over his shoulder, as if somebody just called his name. Another waves to a bystander. Aunties and uncles stare into the void, their minds focussed on inner thoughts. One figure rushes home with a shopping bag. No time for picture!
In the same gallery, there’s more amazing figurative art. Najib Ahmad Bamadhaj is making waves with his ‘Black Portrays.’ The president of the Land of the Free is giving a speech in balaclava. The hunted becomes the hunter. He is flanked by Ai Weiwei wearing a sexy Zorro mask. Is he China’s most wanted man? Or the world’s most wanted artist?
Chong Ai Lei is clearly into ‘beauty’. Her ‘Wild dreams’ feels like a still from a hair commercial, each strand floating in the air. ‘Sebati Liat’ from Marvin Chan offers an even richer pictorial sensation. With vibrant lines of fiery colour he creates a gentle face. But there’s more than meets the eye. When I chat with the artist, I learn that the painting is actually a cry for help. Last year, the people of Manekurai (East Malaysia) saw their homes and livelihoods wiped out by floods. “Relief efforts were hampered by our endless political mud slinging.” Marvin explains. “Sebati Liat is my translation of mud mixing with hopes and dreams for justice.” The angelic face of the praying child is “impacted by slashes of colours and reds as if sliced by a knife to reveal the flesh beneath the ochre mud.”
Kow Leong Kiang’s ‘Rain’ completes my beauty section. Here there’s a gentler undertone. The dreamy depiction of rural Malay girls is a nostalgic longing for pastoral Kampung life, an idyllic way of life long surpassed in today’s rat race.
Vince Low - Doodle your way to fame
Darling of the Internet, poster boy of ‘Dyslexia didn’t stop me’, triple Cannes short list … I can only describe Vince Low with a French expression: ‘un talent fou’ (madly talented). A man with a golden heart and a golden hand, able to draw any style. But it’s his scribbling technique that made him world famous. It’s order in chaos. A web of nervous lines creating familiar faces. His portrays of Hollywood stars are overnight hits on social media. The work has such an international appeal, collectors are surprised to discover Vince is Malaysian. And let’s face it, a name like Vince Low sounds like Mick Mars & Nikki Sixx from Mötley Crüe.
Vince - a dyslectic himself - developed his famous doodle technique while working on a dyslexia awareness campaign. Last year, he added another technique to his repertoire, more action painting inspired. Like Jack the Dripper, he made portrays of Death Row prisoners with wild spots of DNA infused ink. Vince has recently left advertising to focus on his career as an artist. Chinese millionaires are lining up to have their portray done by him. Exclusively for Tapir Tales, Vince drew us a little homage (scroll down). And no, we’re not millionaires.
Hoe Say Yong - Time for reflection
At The Pipal Art Gallery I'm totally mesmerised by Hoe Say Yong's monumental waterscapes. Yong started as a modest landscape painter. His early water colours are rather naive depictions of Malaysian kampung life. He’s an observer making images, not an artist creating pictures. Until he saw a fish swimming under the rippling water’s surface. The never ending play of light and water would launch his career.
His early reflections are still realistic depictions, but over the years, he moved to more meditative, inner reflections. There’s an incredible brightness in this work. Flashy colours dance in endless ripples. The movement of light and water brings realism and abstraction together. We recognise the swimming pools of David Hockney and Claude Monet’s Giverny gardens as we stare into the water. His work is filled with melancholia. Each reflection captures a moment in time, a unique combination of colour, light and shadow that will never be the same again. Water moves and so does time. Oh vanitas.
For art lovers with great taste, little money
In today’s art market, Malaysian art is still relatively cheap, with prices ranging from 1 to 3000 dollars for a big painting of an emerging artist. For most mortals, that’s still a lot of cash. All my life, I have been collecting art with my eyes, not my wallet. I have built virtual collections, not real ones. Still, in these places, you can bring home more than the postcard or the flyer:
Artemis Art (Publika lot 21 & 22, level G4) is a breeding ground for new talent. Many fresh graduates make their first steps in the art scene here. Some are clearly struggling to walk, others have the talent to go a long, long way. Yasmeen Cheong is one of them, I was struck by her expressionistic charcoal portrays. Haris Rashid is another rising star. His debut solo ‘Beauty in the Beast’ roars with talent. His ‘Forgotten Glory’ is Jungle Book for bikers, Bagheera on acid.
Kitch-n-Art (on Art Row, G2) definitely deserves an Award for most original name. The gallery is specialised in modern Russian art. Overall feel is very ‘street’. Not convinced? You can just follow a workshop here and create your own masterwork.
Next door, the more hipster Dumpster presents outstanding, limited edition prints of KL street scenes for as little as RM 580 (edition: 30, signed, framed). I wouldn’t mind having Lina Tan’s ‘Core-Lumpo’ or Kide Baharudin’s ‘Rasa Satang KL’ on my wall.
In the nearby Bangsar expat heaven, Jane and Julienne are the driving forces behind the Raksasa Print studio. Every quarter they manually silk screen a series of prints around a central theme. Prices start at 60 RM (12$). Muchlis Fachri’s contribution to the ‘Giants’ series has a high Charles Burns factor. The recent ‘Mad Science’ collection mixes even more amazing talent into a potent graphic cocktail.
For as little of 1$/month you can even become a patron of the arts, a privilege normally reserved for the Medici’s and Guggenheim’s of the world. Some of the most exciting art isn’t hung on gallery walls, but published in graphic novels. Chin Yew does to Malaysia what Marjane ‘Persepolis’ Satrapi does to Iran and Guy Delisle to Burma: offering a unique, local insight into every day life. Little observations, personal stories and inside jokes, lah. Through a crowd funding portal, Patreon, Chin tries to secure a basic monthly income. So he can focus on finishing his Magnus Opus ‘I see so many butterflies’. In return, patrons get pampered with daily drawings in your inbox. Eat that, Peggy Guggenheim. And Terima Kasih for the drawing, Chin.