Look East - Cultural Salve - Malaysia Rising

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Researched by Will Forrester (MA Oxon) & Emma Talkoff

Opportunity amidst challenge for Malaysian artists: a look at the national contemporary art scene.

Indeed, it is a challenging but compelling time for the arts in Malaysia. In a year when global art markets have cooled dramatically, there is palpable economic challenge. But there is also exciting local progress, as independent cultural stakeholders and artists continue to expand mediums and subject matter.

This November will see the inaugural Gallery Weekend Kuala Lumpur launch as the city’s first international art marquee. The Weekend features programming from commercial galleries and public institutions . Emphasising a multidisciplinary dialogue, the Weekend features a Luminary Pulse Series of talks (supported by the Aga Khan Architecture Awards), with cultural luminaries, Hanif Kara (design) and Christopher Phillips (curator), in conversation.

GWKL is spearheaded by veteran cultural stakeholder and gallery owner Shalini Ganendra. Understanding both business of art as a former Wall Street lawyer and creative impulse as a gallerist, she stresses that whilst the Weekend shares lineage with other successful fairs and biennials, GWKL is a unique format that exclusively focuses on Malaysian voices and narratives.


With the backdrop of state-sponsored iconoclasm and fraught international markets, it is artists and cultural leaders who lead the way in building the nation’s creative identity.

‘Art practitioners who understand roots, surrounds, geopolitics and technique are destined to develop more meaningful professional practices’, Ganendra observes, pointing to the increase in mediums alternative to traditional painting, photography and sculpture.

This focus on Malaysian culture is productive when international interest in Southeast Asian art is multiplying. But it is often side-lined by less positive narratives. Coverage of corruption, headlines from the New York Times paint a disparaging if somewhat theatrical picture of kleptocracy in the Malaysian government.

Syed Nabil, a curator and former gallerist, expresses similar concerns: ‘Everyone’s afraid’. He suggests the fear of being blacklisted may discourage some artists from creating critical works, but that these conflicts can also be sources of inspiration and identity.

‘I think this is a period we have to go through, because [this generation has not experienced] a war’, Nabil says. ‘We never had that kind of struggle, so this is a different kind of struggle, without war’. He amends the statement further: ‘It’s a different kind of war’.


Despite challenge, there is positivity. Endeavours like the upcoming Gallery Weekend Kuala Lumpur aim to capitalize on growing momentum. The event is a ‘short, sharp and succinct’ vehicle for international engagement with Malaysian culture, Ganendra says. Whilst the project has been developed primarily on the goodwill of her talented network and key cultural stakeholders, (supported from the start by 5 star stay, The Majestic Hotel and premiere gourmet group, The Marini’s Group), she is driven by the successful delivery of an image of Malaysia as a cultural and artistic force; launching in tandem with GWKL is a cultural website featuring architectural, gastronomic, artistic and natural highlights in the city, alongside a program of bespoke tours that hopes to reveal a rich contemporary and heritage culture on a permanent basis.

Ganendra stresses the healing effect art has: ‘Art is a confidence builder. As we build personal and community confidence we are able to criticise and accept criticism without cowering or self-censorship. A quality platform from which to grow and deliver meaningful aspirations – that is what we have and will continue to develop. Art connects us to the world’.

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