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Sunday June 6, 2010

Big and beautiful

Two private collectors and their daughter have put together a mammoth book that profiles and pays tribute to local contemporary artists.

MALAYSIAN CONTEMPORARY ART
Aliya & Farouk Khan Collection
Publisher: Bandar Raya Development Bhd, 932 pages

THE book on the Aliya & Farouk Khan Collection is a colossus. Simply entitled Malaysian Contemporary Art, this behemoth of a tribute to our art movement – 932 pages, 10 kilos and over 80 artists strong – is undoubtedly one of the defining moments of Malaysian art. It is that huge, as an object and an event.

Three years in the making, the book is a beautiful and awe-inspiring art object in itself – to see and to traverse, to lift and to open, and to turn each page. The very physicality of the ritual underscores its importance as a record of and a testimonial to contemporary Malaysian artists and their works.

But don’t let its size detract you from its content, that certainly matches and even surpasses its impressive physical dimensions. For while its immediate impact may lie in its sheer scale (it is possibly the largest publication of its kind in Asia, art book or otherwise), this book is much more than that.

The tome provides an expansive and exciting profile of our contemporary art movement that has been long overdue. In light of the dearth of documentation and in the absence of credible institutional platforms to inclusively profile developments and new directions in our very dynamic art movement, Malaysian Contemporary Art, is especially precious.

Farouk and Aliya Khan have put together a book that highlights contemporary Malaysian art.

This mammoth private collection is the physical evidence that our Malaysian art movement is worthwhile, that it is dynamic and relevant, that it stands tall and proud alongside any of the other worthwhile, dynamic and relevant art movements in the region, as well as internationally.

It has emerged in the last decade as arguably the most important, extensive and impressive collection of Malaysian contemporary art in the country. Seemingly growing out of nowhere and in an unimaginably short period, it easily exceeds any Malaysian institutional or corporate contemporary collections as far as the stature, range and quality of the works as well as its near incomprehensible quantity is concerned.

When they started the collection, The Khans may have intended it as merely décor. But, inspired by the high quality of the artifacts, the range of works still available in the art market and the resonance of a cultural product that was truly Malaysian, their interest in art quickly exploded into a passionate obsession. In the process their collection has taken on institutional proportions, quickly becoming the foremost repository for contemporary Malaysian art in the country.

The Khans’ diligent collecting strategy, dictated firstly by a love and enjoyment of art, turned quickly into a serious, all-consuming endeavour that involved a gruelling research methodology, and then into art appreciation for the couple personally. It also involved tirelessly growing a network, supporting galleries, visiting studios, attending openings, interacting with curators and writers and, of course, always making deep and meaningful connections with artists.

Many factors, from cost and innovation to availability of masterworks, steered this collection in the direction of the contemporary. Today, it boasts more than 1,000 works, a majority of them seminal – major works by not only the most sought after, but, in some instances, sidelined contemporary artists in the country.

Spanning the last 30 years of Malaysian art, the portfolio of artists represented is expertly curated by Shooshie Sulaiman to reflect the chronology and key players in the development of contemporary art in Malaysia.

The book is divided into seven categories, beginning with the Avantgardist. It continues with Just Jai, Eclectic Contemporaries, Empat Persepsi, Matahati, and Young Contemporaries, and ends with the Young Ones. This is the first major publication since Vision & Idea: Relooking Malaysian Modern Art to contextualise our art movement.

While there have been significant artist monographs and meager group exhibition catalogues published in the past, few have taken a broad overview of the movement aside from the versions in Vision & Idea and its even more modest predecessor, Modern Artists of Malaysia.

Few have even attempted any alternative theories on the development of Malaysian art and neither have there been any memorable published writings that have assessed the contemporary movement since 1988.

This book also brings together significant essays, namely A Tribute to the Failed Curatorial Process by Farouk Khan and The Aliya and Farouk Khan Collection by Safrizal Shahir.

Khan’s essay is candid and delicious as it highlights the failures in the management of Malaysian art. His is an ironic lament about what he sees as the absurd state of curatorial practices and commercial interests that could allow them – private individuals – to amass a national collection of this vintage, size and quality at such a late stage of Malaysian art history.

Told in an almost anecdotal vein, the short essay addresses serious issues within our socio-political make-up that extend beyond the art movement, views that have made him an often triumphantly contentious figure on the local art scene.

Safrizal’s essay uses the Aliya & Farouk Khan collection for entry points into the analysis of a Malaysian contemporary art. Beginning with broad definitions of the contemporary, the writer quickly maps the clusters within the collection according to innovation, influence, age and content, connecting it to broader international art histories while consciously finding ways to assess and read the merits of the works within a distinctly Asian-Malaysian context and aesthetic schemata.

The Universiti Sains Malaysia academic aptly closes with the politics and strategies of how this private collection has affected the art status quo, the art market and always, to some extent, as with any kind of patronage, the way artists make their work.

Once you launch into the colour plates there is no turning back. Beautifully designed by Joshua Fernandez and project-managed by Leila Khan, the book is a feast for the senses.

All the artists have sections of their own complete with formal portraits taken by Puah Kok Chin solely for this book. It is almost like a book within a book – a compilation of the artists’ portraits would also work as a stand-alone publication.

Each section is also accompanied by individual bios written by Rachel Jenna – sentimental and concise without being trivial – that go a long way in capturing the concerns, preoccupations as well as the more subtle character traits of each artist.

Then there are the reproductions of the works themselves. Malaysian Contemporary Art pulls off the rare feat that most art books aspire to – near-perfect colour separation. I have seen many of these works in real life and they are true to life.

In opting to present each work in relative scale to the actual works there is also a conscious attempt to truthfully and respectfully depict each artist’s work and his/her development. And there is no other way to say it – the pictures are BIG!

The eye for detail – from descriptors to design elements as well as colour keys and a painstakingly constructed index – lends for an extremely enjoyable and engaging reading of the book. Finally the inclusion of the Malay translation of the main essay by Safrizal at the close of the publication provides a bookend that encourages us to enter the book from both ends. There is no beginning or end, like the collection itself.

Having been involved in art management and the publishing of books myself, I am only too aware of this gargantuan task. Special acknowledgement and due credit need to be given to Leila, who visited all the artists, talked to people with experience in the industry, negotiated her way through her father’s exacting standards and finally managed the project in her own way, from concept to design and finally, production.

Despite being told it couldn’t be done. The results are staggering.

The book, priced at RM1,500, is sponsored by Bandar Raya Development Bhd with the support of chairman Datuk Mohamed Moiz Ali Moiz, executive director Datin Sri Maria Bettina Chua Abdullah and CEO Datuk Jagan Sabapathy, as part of the organisation’s CSR initiative. Proceeds will go towards other publications on contemporary art in Malaysia.

‘Malaysian Contemporary Art: Aliya & Farouk Khan Collection’, the book and exhibition, will be launched tomorrow by the Deputy Prime Minister at Bangsar Shopping Complex, Kuala Lumpur.

Anurendra Jegadeva is an artist and writer who lives and works in Malaysia. He was a journalist at ‘The Star’ for almost 10 years and more recently worked as an art administrator and curator in Australia and at home. He currently maintains a full-time studio practice.

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