Mention fine art, and the neighbourhood of Taman Tun Dr Ismail in Kuala Lumpur, may not immediately spring to mind.
But that may soon be about to change. The newly-opened public art space Ken Gallery, which contains over 100 works from some of the finest Malaysian artists, has opened in the heart of this suburban sprawl.
Ken Gallery is also a free admission gallery. It features local classics dating back to the 1950s to contemporary edginess by emerging young talent, and is a testament to the diversity and scope of Malaysian art.
“We want everyone to have the opportunity to experience, participate and be inspired by the arts. And Ken Gallery will serve as another platform to engage the community. We do not want to see artworks going into storage and never seeing the light of day. We want the good works of artists to be experienced and appreciated,” says Datuk Kenny Tan, the gallery’s founder chairman.
Tan, the chairman of property development firm Ken Holdings Bhd, is a specialist engineer by profession. The sprightly and energetic man is full of amusing anecdotes about his art collection, which he started in the 1980s.
He opened Ken Gallery, which boasts 1,858 sq m of space, last month. The gallery is divided into four halls with different sections namely main hall, The Trail, Oriental Pavilion and a conservation centre.
“The Kenny Tan collection is a personal one and this inaugural exhibition presents a selection of over 100 Malaysian artists, drawing examples from the earliest known painters to the celebrated modernists and continues with the contemporary and avant garde expressions by the current generation of artists,” writes Syed Nabil, who curated the exhibition, in the Ken Gallery catalogue.
The main hall features works from Yong Mun Sen, Ahmad Zakii Anwar, Anurendra Jegadeva, Bayu Utomo Radjikin, Datuk Chuah Thean Teng, Gan Chin Lee, Datuk Ibrahim Hussein, Khalil Ibrahim, Jalaini Abu Hassan, Long Thien Shih, Datuk Tajuddin ismail and Zulkifli Yusoff.
“There is definitely a lot of talent in Malaysia. But there needs to be more platforms for them,” says Tan, 60.
One of his favourite pieces in the collection is a large untitled 1959 oil painting by Johor-born pioneer artist Chia Yu Chian. It shows a large crowd of people, many of them families, enjoying themselves in a park.
“You can see people had fun in those days. Those were simpler times. It’s how Malaysia used to be, and I feel this is how Malaysia should be. So much harmony, so much happiness,” he adds.
The highlight of the space, however, is a set of rare paintings from famed painter Abdul Latiff Mohidin, which Tan acquired a few years ago.
“I have always been a fan of the artist, and it is not every day that one has the chance to acquire his works. So when I got a call that these pieces were available, I immediately cancelled my meetings to go straight to the owner and view these works.”
These works Pesta Laut/Untitled (1962) and Palm Leaf/Untitled (1963) are notable because they are double-sided, with different art on each side of the canvas. Tan believes these are the only works by this artist of this nature. Also, interesting is how these works predate Abdul Latiff’s best known work Pago Pago (1964) yet contain many similiar elements to it.
While the main hall is a permanent exhibition, Tan says it does not contain all the works in his collection.
He also has plans to refresh the exhibition every now and then.
The main hall also contains The Trail, a small walkway which highlights a collection of highly-detailed, intricate Chinese porcelain from the 1950s-60s. Many of them highlight scenes from China’s storied past.
“I show these because they show how the country developed. I wanted to show people how China went from a communist, farming country, to a modern nation which will soon become one of the most developed countris in the world,” says Tan.
The Trail leads to the gallery’s Oriental Pavillion, which showcases a wide collection of Malaysian brush paintings, and Ming Dynasty furniture.
Near the entrance of The Trail, however, is a wide window which offers a sweeping view of the neighbourhood. It’s a reminder to visitors not to take the beauty around them for granted.
“I wanted to show the scenery. I didn’t want to forget to show people how beautiful Taman Tun is,” says Tan with a laugh.
Outside the main hall are a collection of smaller halls, which Tan uses for temporary art exhibitions. They recently played host to Fantasy World, a show by Chinese artist Duxi, as well as Nature, Naturally by Perak-born artist Teh Yew Kiang.
According to Tan, these halls are open to any artists or members of the public who wanted to host their own exhibitions. Also featured at the gallery is a Conservation Centre, which is dedicated to the preservation of cultural heritage for future generations.
It is led by Prof Lin Huan Shen from the Department of Cultural Heritage Conservation at the National Yunlin University of Science and Technology, Taiwan.
“I think we need more conservation centres in this country. We don’t have enough, and they play an important role. Most people neglect this aspect. Artists know to paint their works, and collectors know how to buy them. But who maintains their art? Who manages the upkeep?” says Tan.
“It would be so unfair if we accidentally destroy a masterpiece just because it’s not taken care of properly.”
Tan is definitely a firm believer in Malaysian art talent.
“Hopefully, one day, if a foreigner comes to our country and sees our local art, people will tell him or her to go to the main hall of Ken Gallery. Then I would have succeeded in my mission. I still have a long way to go, and I need a lot of support on the way. But I hope to achieve that in my lifetime,” concludes Tan with a smile.
Ken Gallery is is open daily from 11am to 6pm. For more information, call 03-7727 9933 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.