A detail from an untitled work in progress by Malaysian artist Azliza Ayob
A detail from an untitled work in progress by Malaysian artist Azliza Ayob

Malaysia’s artistic community is slowly but surely reaching out to the world – and as Kuala Lumpur prepares to host its inaugural Gallery Weekend, from November 25-27, hopes are high that the event will shine a light on a scene not often revealed to outsiders.

The initiative is aimed at giving younger, emerging artists a much-needed window to gain exposure alongside more widely recognized Malaysian names such as the painter Zac Lee and mixed media practitioner Bibi Chew, in an arts scene that has had to be largely self-reliant due to minimal government funding.

The upside of that is that less government involvement means more artistic freedom in a nation often bound by government-enforced moral and religious codes.

But still, the funding situation is far from ideal. Malaysia has set aside some US$18.6 million to set up a committee next year to invigorate the arts and cultural sector, but it still trails its closest neighbor, Singapore, whose National Arts Council program had a budget of about US$83 million this year. To put this in some kind of other perspective, Malaysia is home to around 30 million people, Singapore to around five million.

“While Malaysia’s arts scene is booming with new artists and galleries, breaking through at an international level is still difficult because other countries present more real and open contemporary topics compared to Malaysia,” says the artist Azliza Ayob, whose exhibition, Everlasting Love, at the Rimbun Dahan private arts centre, offers a chance to view her signature collages and sculptural works constructed from discarded materials.

Hanif Kara's Coca Cola Beatbox
Hanif Kara’s Coca Cola Beatbox

“Even today, the Malaysian government still doesn’t consider art as being as important as, say, sports. Although there are funds available, they’re usually not properly distributed due to a variety of factors. The criteria for selection should not be dominated by cronyism or politics. Unless Malaysia recognises the importance of art and culture for the nation, local artists will have to continue forming independent spaces and enterprises to achieve financial freedom and continue making art.”

The theme for the first Gallery Weekend – “Mapping the Multidisciplinary” – aims to provide a wide-ranging but also intimate exploration of the sprawling Malaysian capital. Regardless of the city’s struggles, an increasingly dynamic contemporary creative scene has evolved against the backdrop of a multicultural inheritance from diverse communities: Malay, Chinese, Indian and indigenous orang asli.

With more than 20 galleries and institutions participating, the project will present overseas visitors and local art enthusiasts with an insider’s experience of established institutions such as the Islamic Arts Museum Malaysia and the National Visual Arts Gallery, as well as smaller-scale, edgier grassroots studios. Gallery cluster tours, specially curated exhibitions, and commissioned works – all of which will be free to view and attend – make up part of an extensive three-day program that also includes dining experiences, hotel collaborations and bespoke city tours.

A silk sculpture by Bibi Chew. Photo courtesy of Shalini Ganendra FIne Art

One highlight of the program is the Luminary Pulse Series, which is supported by the Aga Khan Award for Architecture and brings an international perspective to the table – it consists of lectures delivered by the British structural engineer and design guru Hanif Kara, and contemporary curator Christopher Phillips of the International Center of Photography in New York. In-keeping with the theme of the weekend, Phillips will examine contemporary artists who work simultaneously in multiple mediums, while Kara’s focus falls on the impact of multidisciplinary practices for sustainable design-based development.

“This year’s GWKL is the gold nugget that will start the gold rush, providing a platform for discovery of a new region, Malaysia, [and] the country’s contrasts, compliments, controversies and extensive culture,” says founder and organizer Shalini Ganendra, whose gallery Shalini Ganendra Fine Art also features prominently in the program.

“The international art scene is vast, with enormous competition for attention in terms of exhibitions, art fairs, and auctions, so this is about creating a credible platform that provides an informed view of Malaysian creative practices.”

Gallery Weekend Kuala Lumpur 2016 runs from November 25 to 27.