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Finding Buyers: Malaysian Art Searches for a Voice

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n a picture taken on September 26, 2012, Malaysian artist Haslin Ismail talks about his creative work and its market inside his studio in Kuala Lumpur. ©AFP PHOTO / Saeed KHAN
n a picture taken on September 26, 2012, Malaysian artist Haslin Ismail talks about his creative work and its market inside his studio in Kuala Lumpur. ©AFP PHOTO / Saeed KHAN

Finishing art school, Haslin Ismail began as the typical struggling artist, selling just a few of his mixed media fantasy pieces for a few hundred dollars each over the ensuing five years.

But in September, a buyer at one of a sudden spate of Malaysian art auctions spent 30,800 ringgit ($10,100) for a wall-sized Haslin painting full of outlandish images including a large human foot without skin.

“It’s still quite risky to become an artist… but actually there is positive development. It has changed a lot,” the soft-spoken 28-year-old said.

Muslim-majority and affluent, Malaysia is known more for Islamic conservatism and a consumer culture embodied by its air-conditioned shopping malls than for the Bohemian pursuit of art.

But a nascent art boom is under way as the industry seeks to replicate the huge recent success in such markets as China and Malaysia’s neighbour Indonesia.

Art auctions were once unknown, but five major sales have been held in Malaysia this year, earning more than 13 million ringgit, with domestic art fetching ever-higher prices.

New galleries have sprouted with works depicting traditional village scenes, cautious commentary on modern society, or the wild imaginations of artists like Haslin.

“Prices have been rising and it has positively affected some of the younger artists,” said Ray Langenbach, an artist and art professor at Tunku Abdul Rahman University, who added that high prices in more established markets were stirring interest in Malaysia.

“It’s the least-tapped of the region’s markets.”

For much of Malaysia’s recent history, an authoritarian government focused on economic development — making it one of Southeast Asia’s most affluent nations, while religious and political constraints stunted the arts and culture scene.

But since strongman ruler Mahathir Mohamad retired in 2003, society is gradually relaxing, with more people expressing themselves via art and some collectors looking for edgier works.

In May, a vast 1984 abstract of interwoven, multi-colored lines by late painter Ibrahim Hussein sold for nearly 800,000 ringgit — a record high for a Malaysian art work at auction.

A painting by abstract artist Abdul Latiff Mohidin fetched 715,000 ringgit at an auction in early December, while another sold in October for 605,000 ringgit. Both sold well above their reserve prices.

Buyers, meanwhile, also have snapped up paintings of ethnic Indian rubber tappers and portraits of Malay women in the country’s colourful batik fabrics — expressions of Malaysia’s multi-cultural make-up.

But there are doubts over how long the current interest will last.

The former British colony has no deep-rooted art tradition, having developed as an agrarian society that drew large numbers of Chinese and Indian immigrants more concerned with economic survival than art and leisure.

Religious and social taboos in the country of 29 million people — more than 60 percent are Muslim ethnic Malays — have also been blamed for stifling more challenging art.

“For the moment, it’s very, very hot,” said Linda Leoni, business manager of Henry Butcher Art Auctioneers, which staged Malayia’s first auction in 2010 and has held three this year.

“Can we sustain the level? We have yet to see.”

But Langenbach said more daring art is slowly emerging.

“I think new artists are definitely coming up… A more political art has come out recently,” Langenbach said.

He cited as one example of such art Poodien, or Shaifuddin Mamat, whose dark works suggest a disillusionment with politics and the modern world.

But government support for art remains limited and lacks the “vision” to encourage more experimental themes and art forms, Langenbach said.

Auctions and other public sales steer largely clear of what little edgy content there is, and collectors are mostly Malaysians, with broad international interest elusive.

“For a serious collector, there is very little choice, really,” said Pakhruddin Sulaiman, a lawyer and art collector.

Bayu Utomo Radjikin, one of the country’s most established figurative painters, is part of a collective formed in 1989 by five Malaysian artists that today aims to encourage emerging artists.

Bayu said many younger artists who came of age under Mahathir were still struggling to find their voices, adding that art will not truly develop until more artists find ways around the taboos.

“Malaysia is safe and comfortable, so that shows in their art, and we (Malaysians) are easy to satisfy,” he said.

Haslin, a Muslim Malay, says the current interest nonetheless makes survival easier for new graduates, and he lets buyers find their own meaning in his art.

“I am not interested in political events or stories,” he said in his small home studio, crammed with large canvases and the Star Wars and Lord of the Rings action figures that he collects.

“But I think it’s good if the audience can relate it to political (issues) because that is the power of the paintings. It can influence the audience to think,” he said.

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