Categories: Culture

A Sister Act in the Growing Domestic Art Landscape

Consider it a ripple effect that has long been overdue. Ever since Singapore emerged as an international art firmament, it was only a matter of time for other parts of the region to rise alongside it. Malaysia is no exception, and over a short span of time, interest in the arts grew; fairs and tradeshows began popping up alongside exhibitions and galleries, while collectors battled it out at auction houses for an elusive Yusof Ghani or Latiff Mohidin. All, are signs of a rich and flourishing landscape that painted a pretty picture of a progressive and culturally curious society.

Nevertheless, there was something that sisters Zena and Leila Khan found was missing. As long-time curators of one of the region’s most expansive collections of contemporary Malaysian art (the AFK Collection), the sister-duo discovered there was a much-needed recalibration in the industry–to not only be voices of change to an otherwise prosaic market but also spearhead the art community towards a more inclusive and dynamic future.

Here, fresh off their latest Art-Tastik exhibition, the co-founders of art consultation agency Dua Konsult shed light on Malaysia’s secondary art market, national pride and why food trucks (and coffee!) should be at every gallery event from hereon out.

You’re both currently on a mission to change the landscape of secondary art in Malaysia. Explain to us what secondary art is, and its state of in our homeland.

Zena: The secondary art market refers to the sale of artworks–through private sales, exhibitions or auctions–that have already been sold at least once from an exhibition, or from the artist’s own studio. They usually (but not always) come from collections, and their values are determined by a string of factors: provenance, condition, artist reputation and desirability of a particular artwork or series.

Now in Malaysia, the secondary market is still quite nascent. It does exist, however it is typically played out between one collector to another. The infrastructure is still very much emerging, and there are key elements to it which are not yet fully formed here. For example, strong art history knowledge alongside auction houses and galleries that can not only determine pricing and source desirable artworks from collectors but also have the ability to move works at benchmark pricing.

Why is the secondary art market crucial to any art ecosystem?

Leila: It is a natural evolution. You need a secondary art market to provide liquidity to collectors by creating a space for transactions, which then allows them to move back to the primary market and repurchase from the primary art market. This creates a more dynamic ecosystem. Given that art functions like any other asset market, it is determined by supply and demand. Today we are seeing a huge uptick in interest for artworks by senior contemporary artists, names such as Zulkifli Yusoff, Hamir Soib, and Yusof Ghani for instance, and as demand is outstripping supply in the primary market, collectors are naturally trying to source existing works from other collectors who already hold their works.

Additionally, as time goes on, certain artworks or series begin to gain critical relevance. Particular moments in art history also take on an increased relevance, such as the staging of ‘Pameran Tunggal’, Hamir Soib’s first solo exhibition where he debuted the super-size canvases that have not only become a mainstay of his own art practice but influenced the monumental scale on which Malaysian contemporary artists after him like to work.

The reason collectors would want works such as these is that seminal and historically important artworks are crucial for building an important art collection. Think of the most famous museums in the world such as MOMA New York or Louvre Paris–they gain their prominence due to well-known artworks housed in their permanent collections.

Hujan Lembing di Pasir Salak (2009) by Zulkifli Yusof, currently owned by the AFK Collection, has been part of international exhibitions, including the National Gallery of Singapore and Tate Modern Britain

Where does Dua Konsult fit in this equation?

Z: Looking at the secondary art market angle, Dua Konsult’s job is not only to sell artworks but to source the artworks and help establish the art market price. In order to execute this, we need a certain skillset which we’ve both acquired over the years. As a Master’s graduate in contemporary art curation from the Royal College of Art and curator of The AFK Collection, I’ve gained a deep understanding of the local art narrative, where it was developed, and how it fits into the global art story. I also harness this knowledge to aid collection building as well as discuss Malaysian contemporary art in a global context, which I think is important as we see a rise in interest in the Global South and emerging art markets.

L: On the other side, my role of managing the extensive AFK Collection for more than a decade has given me a first-hand insight into what is currently available in the market. As with art, access is key, and secondly, what excites the public and potential collectors.

Z: Because of our joint experiences, we often receive requests to help source and sell artworks, which led us to a natural model of working (albeit in a private sales manner) in the secondary art market. As we recognise the need for a marketplace where transactions can occur frequently to create a constant flow of money and art, we are now moving to develop a more public-facing secondary art market through projects such as our recent exhibition ‘Art-Tastik: The Foundation’.

What would you both say are your biggest challenges, and what do you think are the necessary steps to overcome them?

Z: Getting the market to understand the differences between secondary and primary artwork value. Newer art has a different price and value than the works an artist had done a decade or more ago. We are constantly seeking to establish benchmark pricing for artworks, this entices collectors to release really good artworks which makes the secondary market an interesting marketplace, and we also explain to the market the reasoning for the benchmark pricing. We do this through sharing knowledge and information. It is only through a continuing series of transactions that the actual value and pricing of Malaysian contemporary art will be established.

There is a misconception that art isn’t taken too seriously among Asian communities. What are your thoughts on this?

L: Surprisingly, we would disagree. That might have been the case 15 years ago, but I feel we have really changed our view on art and culture and the benefit it brings to society, the value (monetary and otherwise) that it holds, and also how we as Asians interact with art now.

Interest in art is a natural extension of society and as third-world countries become more developed, there is an inevitable progression towards focusing on culture, museums, galleries and other areas of enrichment. It seems that as a society develops and gains prominence on the world stage, its interest in art and culture deepens. This is fast happening in emerging markets across the world.

Dua Konsult recently curated and hosted Art-Tastik, an immersive exhibition detailing the evolution of contemporary art in Malaysia. What sets this exhibition apart from the rest, and how different is your curatorial approach?

Z: For Art-Tastik, we presented strong artworks by important artists from the secondary art market in key genres throughout the development of the contemporary art movement. We felt it was important for visitors and collectors who attended the show to understand the local art history narrative, how it grew, and why those on display had those values–what characteristics made THEM especially important to the artist’s practice, and wider art movement.

L: As a mother of three, I found that it’s really important for children to be exposed to art from an early age. So for this particular exhibition, we even had workshops set up for kids together with some of the artists featured. It was great to see kids–and their parents!–have such a wonderful time expressing themselves through art. As important as it is for us to discover our roots through art, I think it’s also equally crucial for them to have experiences such as this during their developmental stages so that we may nurture a more creative future generation. Additionally, we didn’t want this exhibition to seem … too stuffy. So we thought it would be a great idea to do something fun with it instead!

Z: Yes, instead of the usual canapés, we had food trucks instead! Ultimately, we wanted guests to approach art in a fun and interactive way.

You mentioned learning about Malaysia’s history through art. How can we explore our sense of patriotism through such mediums, and where would one start?

Z: There’s a lot to be learnt through contemporary art, especially via artists such as Zulkifli Yusoff. Zulkifli examines major Malaysian historical moments and policies, such as Tun Razak’s ‘Green Book’ or the events leading up to J.W. Birch’s death during colonisation or the writings of Frank Swettenham in ‘The Malay Sketches’, to bring about a more nuanced and rounded understanding of local history that moves beyond a series of dates on a timeline. In the era of decolonisation and moving to understand the histories and narratives of the ex-colonies through their own experiences and voices, works such as those by Zulkifli take on increased relevance in helping shape expanding global histories and voices.

Speaking of contemporary Malaysian artists, who are on your current to-watch lists?

Z: In thinking through which artists to look out for right now, my advice would be to keep an eye out for works by senior contemporary Malaysian artists. These artists are part of the first generation who developed the local art movement, and their work is absolutely stunning. At the same time due to the need for pricing on the secondary market to catch up to value, there is a real opportunity present here, where wonderful and important art by really heavyweight senior artists can still be acquired at prices nowhere near their ceiling. This is not a moment that will last forever. So I would keep an eye out for them. Top line senior artists I’d consider are Hamir Soib, Zulkifli Yusoff and Ahmad Fuad Osman. As for mid-career artists, look to Anniketyni Madian, Azad Daniel, Fawwaz Sukri and Najib Bamadhaj.

Lost Series, Identity Crisis (1994) by Ahmad Fuad Osman is a seminal piece by the artist. Said Zena, it “marks his shift from full Abstraction to creating forms (his Neo-Expressionist period).”

How would you advise potential buyers and collectors to begin their secondary market journey? What are the dos and don’ts?

L: As mentioned earlier there are several factors that determine secondary market pricing: provenance, condition and importance of that artwork in the overall narrative. So a really important place to start is with a reputable dealer who has access to strong artworks and great knowledge. For us at Dua Konsult, the production and sharing of knowledge are critical to the overall development of the Malaysian contemporary art market. We do a lot of research on the wider art history, as well as specific artworks and moments, and are armed with a lot of insight into what gives value to particular artworks and artists. This helps us establish pricing and also helps us to place the artwork with specific collectors. This also allows for deeper knowledge sharing and information transparency, which is so important in understanding the art market. Finally, understand why you are buying what you are buying. Do your own research. Go to shows, speak to various people in the industry, and don’t limit yourself.

Given our current climate, how do you foresee the future of the secondary art market in Malaysia? What can we expect in the next few years?

Z: There is a huge increase in the private collector base and that is going to create even more of a surge in demand for great contemporary Malaysian art. Additionally, art is very fast trending amongst the Millenial generation. As mentioned earlier, art follows the demand/supply model in economics, so as demand outgrows supply, prices will go up. The aim is–and we believe it is already underway–to create a boom in the secondary art market, and a new chapter in the history of art in Malaysia.

Frank Nelwan

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Frank Nelwan

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