Appreciating Art in Malaysia with Jaafar Ismail and Fergana

Laying down the real deal behind art appreciation.
Tuesday 18 February 2020
Catching up with the man himself. Photo: Marcus Wong / MV Perspective

Managing an art gallery isn’t as straightforward as displaying works of art for all to admire and potentially purchase. For some, it is an avenue to invoke more interest in the arts through various methods and mediums. That includes creating a platform for budding artists to unleash their creativity. Fergana Art founded by Jaafar Ismail is one such establishment that follows through those goals.

More than just a gallery, Fergana has been championing the art cause since 2013. A corporate figure in the 90s, Jaafar turned to his passion for art when his friend, respected photographer and educator Ismail Hashim tragically died in an accident. He resolved to set up Fergana to manage the artist’s assets and honour his legacy with a posthumous exhibition, Unpack – Repack.


Organised alongside the late Ismail’s family, the exhibition ran for two months in 2014 at the Whiteaways Arcade in George Town, Penang, before making its way to the National Art Gallery the following year. A monograph published by Fergana in conjunction with the exhibition was an unprecedented effort to preserve, document, and critically examine Ismail’s life and work.

It was a first of its kind in Malaysia and it was produced in hopes to inspire others and for it to be used as research material for artists and photographers. Jaafar describes himself as a “cultural agitator”. “I publish books on literature, journalism, stories about Malaysia and our artists. All these subjects are key components of the intellectual narrative of a country,” he explains.

batik painting in fergana malaysia
Siri Nusantara – Fatimah Chik Batik Painting (1990)


Fergana: Helping Malaysians fall in love with art

From day one, through Fergana, Jaafar has been on a mission to encourage people to treat art as a form of knowledge, and not just a hobby or a pastime. The components he stresses on are just as important as science and technology.

“The intellectual narrative has always revolved around the arts – creative arts, visual arts, literature, theatre, writing and journalism. They form part of the intellectual narrative of any country. And my role is to try and be an agitator to mix and meld them together.”

The lack of appreciation for art he says, cannot be justified with the excuse that it isn’t easily accessible or just limited to a niche and elite crowd. Malaysia’s modern art history has a lifespan of over 100 years, but the existence of art itself has been part of our daily lives since day one.

painting in art gallery in fergana, malaysia
Ahmad Khalid Yusof (Circa 80s)


“When people say fine arts is for the elite, this is in reference to the additional acquired knowledge and research that is needed to understand certain aspects of art,” Jaafar says.

“It allows you to understand ideologies like symbolism,” he continues. Citing the words of the late Ismail Zain who once said, “seni harus dipersenangkan”, Jaafar stresses that arts and crafts has to be easy and accessible. The notion that art must be a very large framed painting that is hung on the wall is slowly dissipating. Anything, however small or big, has value.

“The idea of displaying something framed on the wall is actually a Western aesthetic,” Jaafar says. For Southeast Asians, art traditionally has a utilitarian value. “Like when you carve the hulu (handle) of the keris, for example. That craft has a utilitarian value, it is ornamental, and the item itself serves a purpose,” he continues.

paintng in art gallery fergana, malaysia
Ismail Mustam (1964)


Owning a gallery is a capitalist exercise that appeals to affluent individuals who can afford extravagant art pieces. Those with lower income buy ornamental items which are still as valuable. “The reach and accessibility is pretty wide across the board, it’s just how you treat it. Do you treat art as an investable asset, or do you buy it because you like it? There is no exact rule to it.”

The future of art in Malaysia

All is not lost in the pursuit of championing the arts as part of seeking knowledge. Malaysia’s art scene is expanding. Events like George Town Festival, Rainforest Music Festival and Urbanscapes are gaining traction with the masses.

Consuming art in various forms can also educate and instil that appreciation. “In the 21st century, art has to be a spectacle. Urbanscapes is doing so well because of it being a spectacle, otherwise people are not able to respond to it.”

oil on canvas painting
Emmanuel Garibay (1995)


“Millennials prefer absorbing visual content – bright lights, unique venues and a myriad of performances. Without those elements, the ‘painting’ will basically be deaf and nude,” he says.

Art is a wide spectrum and different people appreciate it differently but Jaafar is passionate that it must play a more significant role to expand Malaysia’s creative economy.

This article is an excerpt form UNRESERVED’s Jan/Feb 2020 issue from the article Appreciating Art as an Ilmu*

Related: This Renaissance Painting Hanging in a Kitchen Sold for €24 Million