By John McCarry
It was a lovely evening (17 Sep 2005) in Kuala Lumpur – a bit steamy, but it was the kind of steaminess that only added to my sense of anticipation. It was my first trip to Malaysia, and I am embarrassed to admit that my knowledge of Malaysian life up to that point did not stretch much beyond Jimmy Choo shoes and Somerset Maugham short stories about the lustful wives of colonial planters. I knew, however, that I had found myself at the right place at the right time. At the invitation of a friend, I was standing, a glass of excellent chardonnay in my hand, on a narrow sidewalk in front of a handsome pre-war building in Brickfields. Cars began to roll up, one by one, and discharge passengers. It was a wonderful parade that spilled out onto the footpath before me. I watched as grandes dames in evening dress and corporate types in open-collared white shirts and dread-locked young bohemians joined me in the night. We were all converging on Wei-Ling Gallery, which was opening its new, multi-leveled space with an exhibition of eighteen artists “from Malaysia and beyond.”
I followed the chattering crowd into the tall, narrow building, where we comfortably mingled on the first floor. How easy it seemed to be to strike up a conversation in this city! A lawyer, fit and thirtyish, came up to graciously introduce himself. After a few pleasant words, he acknowledged my suit with a slight nod. “You’re in KL,” he said, helpfully. “You might want to lighten up a little.” As if to emphasize the point, somewhere from one of the floors above, a choir began to sing and a waiter smilingly appeared at my side to urge a canapé and another glass of wine upon me. Recklessly, I partook of both, taking the time to not only loosen my tie, but to admire the handsome colonial-era antiques that lined the walls.
“At least these were saved,” a voice murmured. I turned to see a man with longish hair and a beard, beads around his neck, standing at my side. He required no introduction. It was Jimmy Lim, the internationally respected architect.
Saved from what? “The fire,” Lim stated, matter-of-factly. He gestured to the ceiling, where fragments of charred beams had been preserved, in showcase glass, amidst the newly re-laid rafters. For many years, this building had housed the famous architect’s office. In the spring of 2004, it was gutted by a blaze. Now it was reopening, “like a phoenix, rising from the ashes,” Lim said. Only this time, his offices would be at the back. The building’s face to the world would be the gallery, which is run by Lim’s daughter, the painter Wei-ling, and her husband, Yohan.
A stylish and affable couple, Wei-ling and Yohan are no newcomers to the Malaysian art scene. The team – and they are, in all senses of the word, that – has been running a successful commercial gallery in the swanky hills of KL for three years. Their move to a bigger, brasher space in this earthy downtown neighborhood was a bold step forward. Appropriately, they had renamed their venture. Gone was the Townhouse Gallery in Bangsar. Here, with all the confidence that the new name implied, was Wei-Ling Gallery.
On cue, a curtain ceremoniously parted, and Wei-ling and Yohan invited us all to climb a narrow flight of stairs to explore the gallery above. Designed with Jimmy Lim’s impeccable eye, the gallery is laid out on three vertiginous floors. The feeling is open, airy, and the wood floors and bridges that connect the many levels give the space an organic charm. It is a wonderful space – and wonderfully designed to display artwork. The work that Wei-ling and Yohan had organized for their inaugural exhibition was thoughtfully installed. Entitled 18@8, the group showing displayed a cross-section of Malaysian talent, as well work by the well-known Pakistani sculptor, Amin Gulgee, with whom I had travelled to Malaysia, and the Australian narrative painter, Stewart MacFarlane.
Chatting with Wei-ling and Yohan, I learned that the art scene in Malaysia is relatively young. Also, it is very much centered in KL. As Wei-ling observed, “In terms of serious art, there is really not that much happening in other Malaysian cities. Everything comes through KL” Perhaps it is for this reason that so much of the work I admired at 18@8 was devoted to issues of urban identity. Chong Choon Woon perhaps best summed this up in his statement for the very handsome catalog that accompanied the show. Speaking of his work KL Haze, a dizzying cityscape captured from above, he wrote: “As I live in a city that is fast-growing and changing, it seems as if I go through what the city goes through, I experience what the city experiences.” And so it seemed with so many of the artists whose work was on display at Wei-Ling Gallery that night, most notably Chin Kong Yee’s panoramic paintings of KL street life. Multhalib Musa’s pleasing sculptures also seemed to be informed by the streamlined architecture that has come to dominate KL’s skyline.
Even the work that dealt, somewhat nostalgically, with village life and traditions seemed to speak of urban identity. According to Jalaini Abu Hassan’s written statement about his canvas, Pucuk Paku, the firecracker implied in the image represent “a metaphor of life in a little village.” Firecrackers become, in his words, “the famous Chinese icon of spiritual strength.” I wondered if they might not also be a source of inner strength for an artist recalling his rural past while working in an urban present. If this is the case, then Yau Bee Ling’s still-lites might also be seen as anchors of tradition in a city that is fast-growing and changing. The artist states in the catalog that her images of food-laden tables are “emblems of traditional Chinese family life.” Perhaps these images of rural and ethnic identity acquire a new urgency for an artist trying to make her voice heard in a cacophonous, multi-ethnic metropolis like KL.
To my delight, much of the work I saw that night seemed to celebrate technique. I found this unabashed display of painterliness refreshing. I was especially impressed by the deftness of Sabri Idris’ work. In his statement, the artist marvels at the myriad techniques he explored to create his movingly quiet works. The obvious joy and wonder that the artist took in painstakingly creating his technically skilled canvases communicated beautifully.
Before returning to the convivial crowd and the inviting possibility of friendships that would inevitably be made there, I made one last tour of the gallery’s three floors of paintings and sculpture. Seen as a whole, the exhibition was a stirring collection of highly subjective visions. Yet all these lone voices in the wilderness seemed to come together in a single harmonious chorus. Whether these artists were exploring the urban landscape where they worked and lived, or the myriad cultural traditions that have informed contemporary Malaysian society, or simply the techniques available to them as pioneering practitioners of craft, they all seemed to be searching for their sense of identity within a greater collective. Seen as such, 18@8 was an admirable endeavor, and Wei-ling and Yohan are to be congratulated for providing these very talented artists such a handsome platform to speak not only to each other, but to the city in which they live and work.
Let us hope that 18@8 becomes an annual event. I, for one, would be thrilled to have the excuse to come back to a city that, for me, was love at first sight.
Wei-Ling Gallery’s next exhibition is Jungle, featuring the works of Yusri Sulaiman, from Mon Oct 24 to Mon Nov 14, 2005.
John McCarry is a free-lance writer based in Pakistan. His articles have appeared regularly in National Geographic Magazine as well other American and European publications.
First Published: 19.10.2005 on Kakiseni