New Straits Times, 18 November 2008
Our art’s going places
by Francis Dass

Zulkifli Yusoff says art is about society’s ability to think.

Zulkifli Yusoff says art is about society’s ability to think.

FRANCIS DASS speaks to National Art Gallery director-general Dr Mohamed Najib Ahmad Dawa in conjunction with the gallery’s 50th anniversary and finds him to be an inspiration behind the thriving arts scene.

Zulkifli Yusoff’s artwork, Different Skills II

Zulkifli Yusoff’s artwork, Different Skills II

Zulkifli’s Bobby

Zulkifli’s Bobby

Some of the exhibits at the National Art Gallery.

Some of the exhibits at the National Art Gallery.

TRYING to get hold of members of the Malaysian art fraternity had been a big challenge.

And this is good news. It means all those involved in the art industry (the artists, gallerists and art collectors) must be busy and their business thriving.

The reason we were trying to round up the movers and shakers of the art industry is to salute the National Art Gallery’s (NAG) 50th anniversary.

Naturally, NAG director-general Dr Mohamed Najib Ahmad Dawa was the man we were looking for.
A former academic at Universiti Sains Malaysia in Penang and an established artist himself, 54-year old Najib has been heading NAG since Dec 2007.

And already he has made significant contributions to both the NAG and the art fraternity. He is the perfect candidate to helm this national institution because he is passionate about promoting Malaysian artists (the works of our artists, he said, can be found all over the world).

In line with this, Najib is determined to increase the number of visitors to the NAG by actively reaching out to Malaysians in general, especially the younger generation. Children figure very high on his list, which explains why the gallery has been holding many events for schoolchildren around the country under its Education Division.

The exuberant director-general spoke frankly about his projects.

“My first exhibition was called Susurmasa (Timelines).”

It was on the NAG calendar till the middle of the year and ran for two months.

He has also overseen groups of artists travelling to Hong Kong and South Korea to promote Malaysian art under the aegis of the NAG.

The Art Expo Malaysia 2008 at the Matrade Exhibition and Convention Centre in Kuala Lumpur will take place from Nov 26 to 30.

“NAG will partner with private galleries to showcase artworks at this event and there will also be entries by artists and galleries from France, Spain, United States, South Korea, China, Thailand, Indonesia and the Philippines,” he said.

Najib has also successfully overseen the publication of a directory of art galleries in Malaysia. He has also set his sights on a directory of living Malaysian artists.

He has also done a good job of attracting more visitors to the gallery.

“We have set a target of getting 37,000 visitors to visit NAG this year. I’m happy to say that we met our target by June and as of August, there have been more than 50,000 visitors,” he beamed.

Najib shed some light on the current trend of the local art industry.

“My definition of an artist is someone who has painted or exhibited his works. Today, artists can survive in the business. There are more than 200 galleries around the country. With more than 10 institutions of higher education, we are generating about 1,000 artists each year,” he said.

In fact, he considers those who design kolam (i.e. the Indian art of creating designs on the floor usually during Deepavali) as artists.

His ability to see the larger picture of the art industry in Malaysia is invaluable. He cites Penang, Kuala Lumpur and Malacca as the three most vibrant art scenes in the country.

“The art scene in Malaysia is a bustling one. Each week, between three and four exhibitions are launched, and at each exhibition, there will be around 30 to 40 art pieces up for sale.”

Najib is determined to prove to the Government that there is a vibrant art industry in Malaysia and he wants to “systematically assist the Government to energise the art industry” and even propose tax incentives in favour of art buyers.

What are the prices that artworks can fetch in Malaysia?

Suffice to say that the price range is wide. Just ask maverick gallerist-artist Lim Wei Ling, owner of WeiLing Gallery.

“Prices of established artists can go up to RM300,000. A few of Datuk Ibrahim Hussein’s works have been said to have touched the million-ringgit mark,” said Lim.

Like Najib, Lim has her finger on the pulse of the nation’s art scene, and the prognosis is very positive.

“The art industry in Malaysia has definitely grown over the last five years and there is a lot more room for growth. It is an exciting time for artists and galleries, as there are a lot more serious and discerning collectors coming onto the scene.

“People are no longer only interested in buying a painting to suit their decor, now they are on the lookout for artists who have something to say in their works and are evolving as artists.

“Many collectors seek out works that have messages and are relevant to the times we are living in. This development in the industry has definitely given serious artists the chance to bloom, as their works are not commercially-driven, and thus, have not had the patronage they deserve,” she explained.

From her vantage point, Lim sees the big role that NAG can, and does, play in fostering the Malaysian art industry.

“The National Art Gallery acts as an institution that collects the works of major Malaysian artists so that it can have a permanent collection that boasts the best of Malaysian art.

“Although the NAG has not been collecting actively over the last few years, it has recently started to do so again and this is a great boost for the industry.

“It is only public galleries like the NAG that can collect and exhibit video and installation works as well as large sculptures and monumental paintings as they have the space,” explained Lim.

So, are the days of starving artists over?

Zulkifli Yusoff, who is celebrating 20 years as an artist this year, certainly thinks so. Although he himself was a “starving artist” in his early days, his love of art saw him through the hard times. He wants artists to be accorded the respect that other professionals — like lawyers and celebrities — are given.

Today, Zulkifli’s works fetch tens of thousands of ringgit. He is of a genre of serious artists who see art as an extension of social commentary, which he does brilliantly.

“The National Art Gallery’s 50th anniversary is very important and must be observed as it gives us an opportunity to celebrate and look back at our development in the arts. Art enables us to compare our past, present and where we are heading in the future,” said Zulkifli, who recently had an exhibition called Icons at WeiLing Gallery.

“The NAG has helped our art industry grow and nurtures our young artists,” he said, recalling his own experience of having won three art prizes as a young artist of 20.

Kedah-born Zulkifli, 46, teaches fine arts at Universiti Pendidikan Sultan Idris in Tanjung Malim, Perak. He has been doing so for the past 11 years.

“Art makes a society confident because art is not just about creating something, but it is also about a society’s ability to think,” he explained.

Outspoken playwright-director-artist and cultural activist Normah Nordin spoke of the important role played by national art institutions.

“The artist is the yardstick by which a country’s maturity is measured. The National Art Gallery acts like an archive and it has to collect works by new and emerging talents as well as seasoned artists.

“In due time, the country’s history can be traced through the works. The NAG must create many programmes that are forward-looking.”

Where’s NAG again?

THE National Art Gallery Malaysia is under the purview of the Ministry of Unity, Culture, Arts and Heritage.

Set up on Sept 28, 1958, it has been in several locations.

Its first (with a grand total of four artworks then!) was in Dewan Tunku Abdul Rahman at Parliament House.

Then in 1984, it moved to the former Majestic Hotel (built in 1932) along Jalan Sultan Hishamuddin, overlooking the Kuala Lumpur Railway Station.

Now it’s at Jalan Temerloh, off Jalan Tun Razak in Kuala Lumpur.

Be a savvy art collector

ARE you thinking of investing in art? Then read on.

Gallerist and artist Lim Wei Ling, owner of WeiLing Gallery in Brickfields, Kuala Lumpur, gives you tips on collecting artworks:

First, keep an eye out for serious artists who slowly evolve over time. A good way is to look at the works they have made over the past five to 10 years. If you can see an evolution or development in their career, then you know you are investing in something promising.

Second, it’s imperative to collect works by artists who are not overly prolific and commercially-driven (who flood the market with their works). If you see their paintings all over town in every gallery and frame shop, one should be cautious as the artist is obviously only interested in sales and not in the development of his/her art.

Third, if you collect the works of serious artists, there will always be a secondary market, as what you have in your collection is no longer being produced by the artist. Serious artists experiment and take risks in their work. They do not stagnate or regurgitate the same work over and over again. If you look at famous artists like Picasso, you will see that in his lifetime, he went through many phases in his artistic journey. He did not paint in the same style all the time.

Finally, in many ways, artworks are like Veblen goods: i.e. the more expensive they are, the more people want them.

Lim foresees that, as the local art industry grows and works start getting more expensive, interest in collecting them will similarly grow. And when the interest escalates, the sky’s the limit as the demand will far exceed supply because most serious artists produce only up to 20 pieces a year.