The main exhibition space at Hin Bus Depot. Image credit: Wael Qarssifi.

Building Practice: Arts Spaces in Malaysia

The arts ecosystems in many parts of Southeast Asia are under-resourced. In this environment, independent arts spaces provide invaluable opportunities and support to the wider community. Deborah Augustin interviews the people behind four arts spaces in Malaysia to learn more about their work and how they have survived in an evolving landscape.

What does it take to open an art space? More importantly, how do you keep one going over the course of many years? I was interested in finding out what the secret might be to running and sustaining an arts space or collective in Malaysia. Despite the ever present challenges of funding and the added pressures of the pandemic, there are arts spaces that have not only survived but continued to thrive. 

For Mohd Jayzuan, founder of multidisciplinary arts collective Projek Rabak that started out in Ipoh, a city in the North of Malaysia, discipline is key. “The most important thing is commitment and discipline…when we talk about collective[s] usually people…imagine benda yang leisure atau santai je kan (something leisurely or stress free, right)?…But when it comes to work…We really take it very seriously.” Projek Rabak started out in 2011 after Jayzuan was inspired by visits to the arts collective Ruangrupa in Jakarta while on tour with his band around 2004 and 2005.

According to Jayzuan, at that time in Malaysia it was difficult to become an artist or exhibit your work without institutional credentials. By contrast Ruangrupa helped him to see that he didn’t need the backing of an institution, “I saw…that oh, if you don’t consider yourself an artist or you don’t really have certificates [from]…universities or colleges,  you still can exhibit, you can like, do arts and do something that you really want to do.” Since its founding, Projek Rabak has curated and hosted exhibitions and festivals, and a variety of events and programmes, including being part of Malaysia’s Venice Biennal 2022 exhibition, Pera + Flora + Fauna. The collective members are musicians, poets, visual artists and multidisciplinary artists like Jayzuan. 

Projek Rabak’s performance art at the 59th Venice Biennale. Image courtesy of Projek Rabak.

For June Tan, a producer at Five Arts Centre, having a common vision is important to sustain an arts collective, “The collective members and our collaborators (non members of Five Arts) have a common vision of facilitating space for difference, for the alternative and I feel that common goal helps us to…keep working together and to make projects happen.” At 38 years old, Five Arts Centre is certainly a case study for how to keep an arts space going. It was founded in 1984, in part to tell Malaysian stories at a time when few local plays were being staged. Since then it has produced theatre, dance, and music performances that engage with the Malaysian contemporary and its politics. It is also a home for experimental and interdisciplinary pieces and the collective and its members have performed their work around the world. 

While the secret to sustaining an arts collective differs, physical space plays a vital part to many collectives. In Penang, physical space is the foundation of Hin Bus Depot’s work and impact. As its name suggests, the physical space of what has become a thriving creative hub and contemporary art space was once a bus depot that had fallen into disuse. On a Sunday afternoon in November, the space was bustling with its weekly Hin Market. Small local businesses had stalls that sold everything from paintings, handmade clothes, to delicious pastries. Meanwhile, a print making demo by artist Dolores de Sade took place in the main exhibition space in conjunction with the (re)constructed ecologies exhibition. 

“I think it’s important to have physical spaces,” says Wanida Razali, the gallery manager at Hin Bus Depot.  She elaborates, “…physical space brings physical activities which brings to a deeper and [more] meaningful engagement…and that’s what we believe art is supposed to be. It’s about engagement, it’s about how we grow the community.” In addition to the market, the hub also offers artist studio spaces at a rate lower than market rate, which is a boon in a city like Georgetown where its heritage status and the subsequent tourism boom has driven up rental rates.

In Kuching, a physical base is essential for HAUS KCH. The creative hub was founded in 2016 with the aim of creating greater accessibility to the arts and breaking the artistic silos in the Kuching arts scene. The latter objective being an exciting prospect for co-founder Syed Rusydie, “I wanted the space to house different creative disciplines–I was compelled by the prospect of previously-unconnected creative circles finally connecting.” HAUS KCH is currently home to 10 creative endeavours, which range from a music recording studio to a think tank. The hub also offers an exhibition space at an accessible rate to local creative communities for events. 

Rusdyie says that the availability of a space “managed by creatives for creatives…has helped play a role in revving the engine of Kuching’s previously-quiet arts scene. Pre-2017, Kuching would see only a handful of grassroots-run events per year. There were only large conventions, Kuching Festival, and the Rainforest World Music Festival to look forward to. We set out to wake up the city by having at least 2 events per month. In 2017, we did just that, and inspired many others to do their own thing.”

In the case of Five Arts Centre, physical space is essential to the collective’s projects. “Five Arts Centre has had an office and rehearsal space for close to 30 years, in Taman Tun Dr Ismail from the late 1990’s and now we are in GMBB, a commercial mall in Kuala Lumpur. Prior to that we either rehearsed in people’s living rooms, or in the theatre. For the performing arts, I think it is important to have a physical space to meet, to gather and to exchange. Our work is all about being present and live, unmediated,” says Tan. 

Even for projects that don’t require rehearsal, a physical office has been helpful to the collective, says Tan, “Other projects like our two publications, the physical office was very useful and we prefer to have one. While it may not be entirely critical but I think it affects how projects are carried out – [it] centralises discussions, builds relationships between team members, [and] helps with archiving.”

Projek Rabak on the other hand has opened a number of physical spaces in Ipoh, Kuala Lumpur and even Jakarta and Hiroshima. In Ipoh they had Khizanat and Rumah Khizanat, with the former acting as an arts space for screenings and exhibitions with a cafe, bookstore and record store while the latter was a bed and breakfast as well as the archival home of the collective. In Kuala Lumpur they had Rabak Gallery, which was a distribution centre and hang out space, and Rabak Studio, which served as a meeting point for collective members and a work space. While the two spaces overseas, both cheekily called Kedutaan Ipoh (Ipoh Embassy), were networking spaces. 

Though the pandemic has meant that their Kedutaan Ipoh in Hiroshima is the only physical space they still have at the moment. Jayzuan had paid the rent for their Kedutaan Ipoh space in Jakarta for a year during the pandemic before deciding he needed to let the space go. But Jayzuan has no regrets about this, “…we experience[ed] things that, okay, if we want to open new spaces, we…know that okay what we should or maybe not do next time. We learn a lot from open[ing] up all of these places.” As an established collective of more than ten years, the loss of physical space wasn’t a huge blow to Projek Rabak. Though Jayzuan admits it’s “way better” to have a physical space, especially as a collective is getting started. 

The weekly Hin Market. Image credit: Wael Qarssifi.

During Malaysia’s movement control orders (MCO) in the earlier part of the pandemic, Hin Bus Depot stayed shut. While other galleries and art spaces adapted by hosting digital exhibitions, Wanida decided not to: “I did not do any digital programming at that time purely because I don’t believe in it and I don’t enjoy it…because as a consumer myself, I don’t enjoy consuming digitally. So for me to actually put up content like that myself is…against my principle.”

In addition to the pandemic, nearly all collectives and spaces face the challenge of sourcing funding. Tan of Five Arts Centre names funding as a “consistent challenge”. Though being an established collective and consistency does help when applying for grants and funding. Jayzuan credits Projek Rabak’s continuous momentum as a factor in their ability to secure funding, “We always have something going on. So to…give that commitment for 10 years and 11 years…people [feel] like [it’s] easy to…trust you with funds and grants.” However, he cautions that it’s no easy feat, and many people have quit the collective due to the intense pace of executing projects. In this respect, Hin Bus Depot is unique as it does not have to pay rental for the space. The space is owned by three Penang families who see the use of the property as a way to give back to the community.

While the pandemic affected HAUS KCH too, there was a silver lining. “We took a serious look at our business practices and took the opportunity to develop our procedures, planning, and revisit the vision we started with. It was a blessing in disguise – I feel that without the pandemic happening, we would not have enjoyed this level of maturity that it had forced us to grow into. And trust me when I say this: HAUS needed to mature,” says Rusydie.

Just as the “secret” to what makes a space sustainable has been varied, the advice these collectives and spaces have for those who want to start their own art hubs is distinct. From a practical point of view, Jayzuan advises anyone interested in creating a physical space to consider selling food and drinks as it helps to cover the rental fees. To ease getting funds, Rusydie advises that collectives find a way to incorporate legally, “Look into your main activities, and then decide how to establish your collective or organisation as an association or type of business – it took us almost two years to get to this point, and we wished we did so sooner. Establishing legitimacy in this manner allows your group to be eligible for financial assistance, and also recognised by local authorities. With each type of registration there are pros and cons. Again, understand the context of your group against local policies, and then make a decision. Lastly, having a friend in [the] legal [field] goes a long way.”

Tan on the other hand stresses the importance of keeping a vision in mind, “Remain clear why you are coming together, get the most organised person to be the producer, and while having a shared objective, don’t be too rigid about who does what – help each other whenever you can. And never stop listening and communicating with each other. Wanida echoes the need for collaboration in any successful collective, “Try to be open to collaboration…especially in Penang or even in Malaysia we’re so small and there’s not many art spaces around and I don’t think it’s a good idea to be so exclusive and so cliquish. I don’t think that’s healthy for anyone.”

About the author(s)

Deborah Germaine Augustin is a writer and educator born and raised in Malaysia. She dreams of a world where we all have freedom of movement.

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