(2,270 words, 10-minute read)
Located in Kuala Lumpur’s Golden Triangle in the heart of the CBD is ILHAM Gallery. The gallery is relatively new – it turns five in August – yet is considered by many to be an influential player in the KL arts scene. Some might say even more so than the state institutions.
The gallery presents interesting and incisive exhibitions which are curated and produced in-house, some of which are the result of collaborations, such as the current show The Body Politic and The Body, which sees iconic Malaysian works returning to Malaysian soil. It also organises a staggering number of public programmes, over 200 in 2019 alone, which runs the gamut from theatre readings, to music events, lectures, symposiums and film screenings.
ArtsEquator speaks to ILHAM’s gallery director, Rahel Joseph, to find out her thoughts on the past five years, Malaysia’s art scene and the gallery’s plans for the future.
The interview has been edited for length.
About the past 5 years:
AE: What sets you apart from the state institutions and other commercial spaces?
Rahel Joseph (RJ): We are different from the other private and state-funded spaces in Malaysia, primarily because we are privately funded but operate as a public non-profit arts space.
In Malaysia, we lack a museum infrastructure, as well as programmes which encourage art education. At ILHAM, we have worked to create a space where art can be seen and experienced by a wide audience, where ideas can be explored and where there can be critical dialogue and meaningful conversations about art and society.
As we are not a commercial gallery, we can focus on scholarship and research. We work towards building the arts infrastructure – the lack of art writers and curators, for example – by organising curatorial and art writing workshops. In 2017, we held an experimental programme, ILHAM Contemporary Forum where we invited seven young curators to collaboratively curate an exhibition of recent artworks and cultural projects to interrogate questions concerning contemporary arts and culture in Malaysia.
I hope we can continue to generate interest and conversation about modern and contemporary art in Malaysia and the wider region.
AE: ILHAM Gallery boasts some very exciting programmes that run alongside your exhibitions. What are some of the standout programmes?
RJ: When we hold an exhibition, we conceptualise a whole series of programmes with it because our core mission is education. The exhibition is necessarily limited by space so public programming is where we take some of the larger ideas behind the exhibition and extend that conversation.
Some of our standout programmes include a conversation between cultural icon and cartoonist Dato’ Lat and public intellectual Zainah Anwar; a traditional feast hosted by the late artist Roslisham Ismail (ISE) in conjunction with his artwork Langkasuka Cookbook which traces the history of the cuisine of Kelantan to the ancient Langkasuka kingdom, which was magical; and a very popular ILHAM After Dark event with musician Zee Avi and friends.
AE: ILHAM was established with the aim of giving Malaysians an accessible engagement with art. How successful has it been in sustaining this for the past years?
RJ: As a public art gallery, our mandate is to be accessible to the larger public, and not just to artists, curators and collectors. We are very conscious of this, for example, from the way we design and present exhibition texts which seek to communicate complex ideas through the use of simple and clear language. This is also why we actively invite schools to our space, produce educational material for younger visitors, offer them curator-led tours, and design programmes for all ages.
We do not have a gallery-going culture in Malaysia and it is important that we invest in school programmes so that young children get exposed to their own art and culture from a young age. We need to get away from this idea that visiting an art gallery is elitist and the way we can do this is by trying to make the experience of encountering art as accessible as possible. This is a long-term investment and we are not going to see the fruits of this anytime soon. But it is important that we invest in this if we want to see a real change.
AE: What are some of the difficulties associated with trying to make gallery visiting become part of everyday culture?
RJ: Because gallery visiting is not part of our mainstream education, it is difficult to get crowds of people in, even when admission is free. One of the issues sometimes is that parents themselves feel that they don’t know enough about art. That’s one of the reasons why we introduced discovery tours for parents and kids so that the parents can also learn about art and ways to engage with their kids in an art gallery. We also produce exhibition materials for kids, parents and teachers (with simple questions and activities that they can do with the kids) so they can better explore the exhibition together.
We hope that there will come a time when people are queueing up outside a gallery or willing to pay to come see a show. And that people will start to see gallery visiting as a fun activity that they can do with the family on the weekends.
AE: How would you describe ILHAM’s position in the Southeast Asian arts landscape?
RJ: Establishing connections and networks within Southeast Asia is important to us. Over the last five years, we have been working collaboratively with other institutions in the region, among them, Singapore Art Museum, National Gallery Singapore, NUS Museum, Para Site Hong Kong and MAIIAM Contemporary Art Museum in Thailand.
Most recently we have embarked on a project with The Factory Contemporary Arts Centre in Vietnam entitled Pollination which seeks to nurture critically active and supportive artist-curator-community networks within Southeast Asia. Building deeper connections between artists and curators to enable critical reflection, writing and dialogue is something that is deeply needed in our region. This year’s Pollination programme, Domestic Bliss, brought together two emerging curators and two artists, one each from Vietnam and Malaysia, on a parallel quest to unpack the fragile and often precarious notion of belonging.
AE: Artists and the state have traditionally had a tumultuous relationship, and Malaysia is no exception. What role does ILHAM play within this relationship?
RJ: As a privately funded space, we have a more leeway to programme the exhibitions we want to do without interference – we need to allow our artists to make art without the constant fear of censorship.
About The Body Politic and the Body:
AE: The Body Politic and the Body is a collaboration between ILHAM and the Singapore Art Museum (SAM). Could you take us through what the working relationship between the two organisations was like?
RJ: SAM approached us in 2017 about doing an exhibition together around key Malaysian works in their collection. We were excited by the idea, and also with developing a relationship with SAM. We had several meetings together – in fact, the whole SAM team spent a couple of days with us at ILHAM – and a lot of email and phone conversations. We worked together as a curatorium, with each side suggesting works before coming to a consensus. June Yap, director of curatorial at SAM and I had worked together before on another show, and that made things a lot easier – it always is when there already is a certain level of trust.
AE: The exhibition allows for a sense of homecoming for works such as Redza Piyadasa’s May 13, 1969 and Bayu Utomo Radjikin’s Lang Kacang. How do you feel about this homecoming?
RJ: These two works were part of the original proposal and were always the key works in the exhibition. A lot of art students in Malaysia have read about them, and seen their images in art publications, but seeing them in the flesh, so to speak, is a very different experience. These are both very iconic works in Malaysian art history and for these works to be shown in our space has meant a very great deal.
AE: There are some exciting programmes lined up for the exhibition, such as the symposium, Main Rupa dan Tubuhnya: Bodily Forms of Play, Contemporary Visualities in Malaysia | Budaya Visual Semasa Malaysia on 22-23 February and
May 13 on 4 April. Why are these programmes important?
RJ: The accompanying programmes, in particular the symposium, seek to extend the conversation about artmaking in Malaysia today, as well as address the lineages of those art historical trajectories. Over the two-day symposium which is being convened by Dr Simon Soon of the University of Malaya, art historians, artists, and curators from Malaysia and Singapore will address issues and present research projects related to modern and contemporary Malaysian art and visual studies. Topics will range from early 20th century Nanyang print culture to indigenous ideas in contemporary art, and admission to the symposium is free. We hope to reach out to students and initiate thoughtful conversations about Malaysian art.
We are also organising some public programmes to provide context to some of the socio-political issues explored in the exhibition. For the talk on 4 April, writer and researcher Ong Kar Jin will share some of the stories he has collected from people who lived through the race riots of May 13 1969.
About the future:
AE: What excites you about the KL and the larger Malaysian arts scene?
RJ: The diversity of it – we have more and more arts spaces opening up. We lack a strong infrastructure in Malaysia, but artists have always been inventive. Artists have often come together to create an informal but alternative infrastructure where they can support practices that are experimental and may not be supported by either institutions or commercial galleries.
In KL, there are numerous artist spaces such as lostgens (Lost Generation), HOM (House of MATAHATI), amongst others. Both HOM and lostgens have their own arts space where they also host art residencies. HOM also organises art exhibitions and supports younger artists. We have had festivals organised and run by artists, such as notthatbalai Art Festival by lostgens. There are also newer spaces like Kongsi KL which is housed in an old warehouse and hosts experimental interdisciplinary work, and new art venues like RexKL which is housed in the old Rex cinema in downtown KL.
kotak8sireh, a community of cross-disciplinary makers & thinkers in Sabah, organises workshops, performances and talks related to arts, architecture and crafts. In Ipoh, there is PORT, that recently organised the Ipoh International Art Festival and in Penang, you have art hubs like Hin Bus Depot and also newer non-traditional art spaces like a café called Narrow Marrow in George Town where artists hang out and hold exhibitions
About your personal experience:
AE: In the past five years, what were some of the challenges you faced as gallery director? What is the best part of your job?
RJ: When I joined ILHAM, we hadn’t yet moved into our physical space. As gallery director, my first year was really about building all of the nuts and bolts that comes with setting up an institutional gallery – from ensuring that we maintain proper temperature and humidity levels and proper signages, to building our audiences through social media, and engagement. I also had to build the gallery team to make sure we were all on the same page and shared the same commitment to creating a quality experience for our audiences.
The best part of my job is programming. I come from a cross-cultural background so I try to ensure that our programmes are diverse. Education is also very important to me so our school programmes as well as the ILHAM Kids programmes are very fulfilling. I was also involved in the setting up of the gallery shop – helping to source beautiful products for the shop is definitely one of the nicest aspects of my job! And most of all, leading the gallery team at ILHAM – I have a great group of colleagues.
AE: Can you share some of the more memorable experiences you have had at ILHAM?
RJ: When we were preparing for the PATANI SEMASA exhibition at ILHAM, we had to bring in one ton of raw earth as part of one of the installations. Our interns had to microwave the earth bit by bit (the whole process took six days) so as to kill off any microbes in the soil before we could bring it into the gallery space.
AE: It’s no secret that ILHAM Gallery has one of the best gift shops in Malaysia. What was your best purchase from the shop?
RJ: An old school friend supplies us with baskets from her mother-in-law who lives in Ba’Kelalan, a remote part of Sarawak. They are really lovely baskets and so unique. Apparently her mother-in-law gets a huge kick out of the fact that her baskets are being sold in our gallery shop!
The symposium Main Rupa dan Tubuhnya: Bodily Forms of Play, Contemporary Visualities in Malaysia | Budaya Visual Semasa Malaysia takes place from 22-23 February 2020. For info on the gallery’s latest exhibition, The Body Politic and The Body, click here.
This post is sponsored by ILHAM Gallery.
Guest Contributor ila is a visual and performance artist who works with found objects, moving images and live performance. She creates alternative nodes of experience and entry points into the peripheries of the unspoken, the tacit and the silenced. With light as her medium of choice, ila weaves imagined narratives into existing realities. Using her body as a space of tension, negotiation and confrontation, ila creates work that generates discussions about gender, history and identity in relation to pressing contemporary issues. She also writes short speculative fiction about the region on her Instagram.