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Sunday April 29, 2012

Arty business

A university that has produced some of Malaysia’s most famous artists has now set up a commercial gallery.

THE biggest art school in Malaysia must be Universiti Teknologi Mara (UiTM). After 45 years of educating thousands of artists and designers, it decided to start a commercial art gallery.

Welcome to the Segaris Art Center in Publika shopping mall, at Solaris Dutamas, Kuala Lumpur.

The industrial chic setting of Segaris Art Center fits Bayu Utomo’s Menjalar, a charcoal work.

“Several generations of some of the top talents from UiTM’s Art and Design Faculty are represented at our inaugural exhibition,” says Jamil Mat Isa, artist and gallery manager. “The university’s alumni has the skill and the products for an art gallery.”

The works of 14 artists can be seen at the current Suarasa exhibition. Here, the charcoal works of Ahmad Zakii’s dreamily suggestive Agenda Larut Malam and Bayu Utomo Radkikin’s tense Menjalar contrast with Datuk Sharifah Fatimah’s vibrant Celebration and Jalaini Abu Hassan’s quizzical New York And Pahang.

Jamil explains that these established artists (plus others such as Tajuddin Ismail, Awang Damit Ahmad and Ahmad Shukri Mohamed) were chosen as they represented those who had graduated from UiTM in the 1970s, 80s and 90s. Added into the mix are the works of up-and-coming artists (who had graduated in the past 10 years) such as Ilham Fadli’s phantasgamorical Tender And Tired.

It’s good that the gallery has a grey industrial chic setting of bare cement walls and air-cond vents, forming a plain background that allows the works to stand out.

Sculptor Ramlan Abdullah, one of the board members of Segaris and an associate professor at the university, explains that UiTM’s Art and Design Faculty produces over 1,000 graduates every year at the diploma, degree and masters levels. And this is not just at the main campus in Shah Alam, Selangor, but also at branch campuses in Perak, Malacca, Kelantan, Kedah and Sarawak.

“There are probably about 150 active artists in Malaysia today who originally studied at UiTM,” says Ramlan.

“We all know the culture of selling art. For instance, I myself have to deal with engineers, architects and developers for my sculptures. UiTM has organised art shows before but they were ad hoc and casual. But if we want to do business, we need a proper, permanent set-up. So we thought, why don’t we try to do it ourselves?”

Jailani Abu Hassan with his works, New York And Pahang (left) and Celebrating Abraham.

Getting alumni members to display their works at Segaris is not a problem.

Jalaini, another board member, quips: “We just call up a few of our old schoolmates and say, ‘Hey, we’re doing a show.’ They tell us, ‘Sure, we’ll join.’ The old boys (and girls!) all have UiTM close to their hearts.

“Why now after 45 years? Well, I think the university understands that art is a lucrative business (nowadays).”

Segaris is a wholly owned subsidiary of UiTM Holdings, the commercial wing of the university. It’s group CEO, Professor Dr Sofiah Abd Rahman (who was seconded from the Faculty of Business Management) says this initiative is part of the government’s push for all public universities to become more self-sufficient in their funding.

She, however, underlines that Segaris is a private company and is meant to operate like any other commercial enterprise. “The idea is to inject more professionalism. Universities sometimes have their bureaucratic rules.”

Dr Sofiah says the centre also has plans to offer short courses, leveraging on the faculty’s 200 lecturers who can teach everything from porcelain and batik painting to print making and photography.

“We also want to do courses in art appreciation for top corporate managers. Mak Datins are also welcome,” she adds, smiling.

Sharifah Fatimah’s vibrant Celebration.

The artists’ alumni is happy to show their works, Dr Sofiah adds.

“Many of us were originally from the kampung. For instance, both Jamil’s and my parents were originally padi farmers in Kedah. We are grateful to UiTM for where we are today.”

Most commercial galleries take about 40% commission from artists. Segaris will take an undisclosed percentage but some proceeds will go towards the university’s Tabung Mengubah Destini Anak Bangsa (Fund to Change the Destiny of the Race), which supports education among kampung folks.

Ramlan believes that art is crucial for Malaysia’s future

“Look at Europe, Japan and China. It’s not just about science and technology – we must also have art to be a civilised, cultured nation.”

Reflecting that Publika is using art to promote itself as a shopping mall “with a difference”, Ramlan says: “I happened to launch an ex-student’s show at White Box (an art space in Publika). After speaking to the management, we developed the idea to have a gallery here.”

He adds that for this year, Segaris plans to feature only artists from UiTM. And so far, response has been good.

“When we were setting up the show, some paintings were still on the floor, but people had already bought them. It’s a good sign.”

> Suarasa is on show until May 13. For more information, visit facebook.com/segarisartcenter, call 03-6243 1108, or write to segarisartcenter@gmail.com.

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