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ART EXPO MALAYSIA IN RETROSPECT
WHEN the International Art Expo Malaysia (AEM) 2007 burst into the art landscape, it caught many by surprise – that it actually happened at all, although many would have been clued in on the buzz.
Reason was that Malaysia was still not known for having a great appreciation or even awareness of art, to respond to the sophistication of the fledgling art-fair and art-auction business. Government support was unheard of, while the big corporate boys were unlikely to open their chequebooks for something uncharted and unknown.
But Vincent Sim, the man behind AEM, is not someone easily deterred. After all, he had his dream come true when he headed the 1st, and only, Art Tourism Malaysia, at the Malacca International Trade Centre in Ayer Keroh, in 2006. For starters, most of the exhibitors were artists themselves, as many local galleries were skeptical that it would work. But the artists-run booths did have its advantages, for many collectors as well as the laymen got to talk to the artists about their works, their lives and their struggles.
Despite having to splashed out large sums of money and knowing that it was going to be a red-ink financial affair, Vincent Sim persevered, in his naive but challenging belief of bringing some of the best art and artists from all over the world to Kuala Lumpur, under one roof.
He started the AEM in Kuala Lumpur from scratch, with nothing but only his dogged determination and his willingness to pour in large funds into the project. At that time, China was flushed with cash in a cultural repossession binge and was willing to splash out. Vincent Sim made trips after trips to China to sell off part of his collection of Chinese brush paintings sourced directly from China artists some four decades ago, when there was no such thing as a China art market. He also had to sell off some property, in order to realise his dreams. All these, he pumped into the Art Expo Malaysia.
As a first time, the task was gargantuan. Everything had to be looked into – forming a new company and base, rules, statutes, pricing, catalogues, venue, transport, accommodation, insurance, personnel and manpower, logistics…
From the outset, the AEM was branded as an Art Expo with a Heart. It innovated the Special Tribute Pavilion to honour Living Legend Artists. The first honoured were the Malaysian batik painting founder and pioneer Dato’ Chuah Thean Teng (1912-2008), Malaysia’s Chinese art grandmaster Dr. Chung Chen Sun, Taiwan’s internationally renown Prof. Li Chi Mao and South Korea’s elder artist Prof. Jang Soon Up.
The next year, in 2008, the AEM honoured another great Malaysian artist, Datuk Syed Ahmad Jamal, who showed a sampling of his masterpieces. Datuk Syed Ahmad Jamal passed away on July 30, 2011, aged 81, leaving a strong legacy of his contributions in every aspect of art.
In 2009, the AEM paid tribute to the unassuming Cheah Yew Saik, the founder and principal of the now defunct Kuala Lumpur College of Art (1968 – 2002), whose students were known for their strong fundamentals.
But with each year and the need to constantly upgrade the AEM, the escalating costs can be prohibitive.
The 2007 AEM, held from November 3 – 7 at Matrade Exhibition and Convention Centre (MECC), Kuala Lumpur, was an instant hit.
Galleries from Russia, Spain, Taiwan, South Korea (Gallery Miz), China and Malaysia took part with individual artists being allowed to run booths. Malaysia’s landscape artist Peter Liew even took up two booths. Other booths run by artists or collectives were from Britain, Cuba, France, Hong Kong, Hungary, Indonesia, Ireland, Myanmar, Singapore, Thailand, Vietnam and the International Art Cooperative Organization from South Korea headed by artist Alvin Lee Bung Lyol and which was represented by 50 artists.
Painter-printmaker-sculptor Lee Kian Seng was given a special Charity Booth where he displayed some of his masterpieces. He donated six sets of Lotus prints of six pieces each (1988) for sale, with the entire proceeds going to the Spastics Association of Selangor and Federal Territory.
The 2008 AEM was held under the dark clouds of the US financial upheaval that bedeviled the world financial markets and some country economies. As a run-up to the 2008 AEM, the organisers also factored in a value-added programme. As China was hosting the Olympic Games that year, AEM organised a marathon art project called 888-Feet Art Olympic Games Banner, the brainchild of AEM supremo Vincent Sim. Artists, including some foreign ones such as Macedonian Ilina Arsova, took part in painting their impressions of the then forthcoming Olympics on a white cloth measuring 888 feet, one day at the National Art Gallery Malaysia premises.
Vincent Sim led a delegation of artists to Beijing to present the finished banner to the Chinese Olympic Committee supremo H.E. He Zhenliang. The artists in the delegation also took the opportunity to visit the sights and sounds as preparations were frenetically under way for the grand Olympic showcase. On their return, a special art exhibition of their China impressions called Ni Hao! attracted great interest when it was held at the City Art Gallery in Kuala Lumpur.
It was another banner year for the AEM with artists and galleries from 22 countries taking part. They were from Britain, Cambodia, China, France, Hong Kong, Hungary, India, Indonesia, Iran, Ireland, South Korea, Macedonia, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Spain, Sri Lanka, Taiwan, Thailand, Venezuela and Vietnam.
The Kuala Lumpur-based Edi.A Art Gallery showcased what it claimed to be the thickest koi paintings by its owner-artist Edi.A, while some of the top Malaysian watercolourists from the Malaysian Watercolour Society also showcased their talents.
The Art Commune presented the art savant Yeak Ping Lian, whose works are collected in the United States and Australia.
Yahong Art Gallery’s participation was cancelled by the death of the batik-art doyen Dato’ Chuah Thean Teng, but the organisers opened a special booth displaying a few works of the great world renown artist, for visitors to “pay their respects” by signing a condolence book. Yahong Art Gallery booth was also to showcase works of his two dedicated sons, Chuah Siew Teng and Chuah Seow Keng.
Taiwan’s famous ‘Penguin Man’ Vincent J.F. Huang attracted many curious visitors, who took the opportunity to take pictures with his penguin sculptures in human forms and clothes, while Peter Liew again took up multiple booths for his panaromic-scale paintings.
The National Art Gallery Malaysia (Ministry of Unity, Culture, Arts and Heritage) provided some support for the AEM. For the first time too, the AEM was given the royal patronage of the affable Crown Princess of Perlis DYTM Tuanku Hajjah Lailatul Shahreen Akashah Khalil.
The AEM organisers over-extended themselves that year, with chockfull of special activities to enhance interest. Apart from the Special Tribute Pavilion featuring National Art Laureate Datuk Syed Ahmad Jamal, there was the Advisers Arcade showcasing works of Dr. Chung Chen Sun, then National Art Gallery Malaysia director-general Dr. Mohamed Najib Ahmad Dawa, Malaysia Institute of Art president Dr. Choong Kam Kow and Cheah Yew Saik. A Grandmasters Pavilion also featured works of Malaysian pioneer artist Yong Mun Sen besides China’s Liu Haisu and Li Keran and France’s Zao Wouki.
There were also ‘live’ painting demonstrations by Prof. Li Chi Mao and Dr. Chung Chen Sun. A documentary of the 888-Feet Precious Artwork was screened throughout the Expo.Malaysian Sculpture Now showed off some of the leading young sculptors. A sampling of the National Art Gallery’s Susurmasa (Timelines) exhibition also drew some interest besides the interactive Visualising Rukun Negara, and the special art talk on the international art market by art writer Ooi Kok Chuen and children’s workshop by Ilina Arsova. The Henry Butcher Art Auctioneers previewed its works for its Charity Auction, while Wairah Marzuki’s HeArt Group comprising underprivileged children artists made their presence felt. Daum also displayed its art crystals.
The AEM 2008 registered a sales turnover of RM5.3 million, with the top price for a work sold being RM300,000 for a painting by Malaysia’s Lim Kim Hai, who has been based in Kuala Lumpur and Malacca since his return from France.
The 2009 Art Expo was another great success with the advent of digital art in a big way with the mega video presentation of Miao Xiaochun’s Microcosm. Adapted from Hieronymus Bosch’s The Garden of Earthly Delights, the giant presentation drew huge crowds to the Expo. Also on display were digital art by five other e-artists from China. To mark the 35th anniversary of diplomatic relations between China and Malaysia then under its Prime Minister Tun Abdul Razak, another China exhibition also took centrestage in the programme. The event displayed the highly accomplished works in various genres of 19 professors from Beijing’s Central Academy of Fine Arts.
AEM 2009 attracted some 43 galleries from 14 countries namely China, Hong Kong, Hungary, India, Indonesia, Japan, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, South Korea, Spain, Taiwan and Thailand. But the artists involved were also from Bangladesh, Canada, France, Mongolia, Portugal, Switzerland and Vietnam.
Only galleries with bona-fide showrooms were accepted this time. Myanmar art made a big splash through ACD Gallery and Myint Soe’s Summit Arts Collection, while India also made a stronger presence with Samanvai Art Gallery and Kolkata-based Janus Art Gallery. For the third consecutive year, ATR Gallery showcased the fast-emerging Spanish sculptor Jesus Curia, this time with three other promising artists – Guillermo Oyaguez, Jacinto Moros and Carmen Pombo. Also a three-time partipant was the Hungarian father-and-son team of Zoltan and Daniel Ludvig. Swiss artist Gao Qing Fang slipped in her Hong Kong Return to Motherland series. Noda Contemporary’s top draw was the Japanese Patterning Pop icon Yayoi Kusama, and Ken Matsuyama while Indonesia’s H Gallery Art & Painting brought works of Balinese Nyoman Gunarsa.
The 2009 show also saw younger artists taking part. The alternative space of the House of Matahati with its cult founders Bayu Utomo Radjikin, Ahmad Fuad Osman, Ahmad Shukri Mohamed, Hamir Soib, Masnoor Ramli Mahmud made its debut. Others included Haslin Ismail, Ruzzeki Harris, Khairul ‘Meme’ Azmir Shoib (R A Fine Arts – The Gallery), Lim Keh Soon and Eiffel Chong (The Annexe Gallery), Raduan Man and Diana Ibrahim (Threehundredsixty). Arts and culture website Arteri presented an irreverent ‘portable’ exhibition called Suitcase of Stuff, representing Roslisham ‘Ise’ Ismail and Liew Kwai Fei. Two US-based artists Eng Tay and Khoo Sui Hoe were also represented.
The National Art Gallery’s offering was its Malaysia Open 2009 exhibition while the Malaysian Art Idols: New Directions / Different Voices curated by Ooi Kok Chuen featured the new breed of Malaysian art icons Abdul Multhalib Musa, Chan Kok Hooi, Fauzin Mustafa, I-Lann Yee, Kelvin Chap Kok Leong, Kow Leong Kiang and Ramlan Abdullah. Other highlights included the 1Malaysia painted styrofoam mosaic while the HeArt Group of enterprising underprivileged artists was a revelation in terms of skills and insightful expressions. A special section was given to Lotus to show off its cut-out components of two of its signature cars. The AEM 2009 registered a sales turnover of RM5.6 million.
The AEM 2010 was again held at MECC, from October 28 to November 1. A total of 19 countries took part namely Argentina, China, Cuba, Ecuador, Germany, Hong Kong, Hungary, India, Indonesia, Japan, South Korea, Macau, Malaysia, Myanmar, Pakistan, the Philippines, Singapore, Spain and Taiwan. Artists from Pakistan and Macau also made their debut while there was a larger representation of Japanese and Indian artists.
The international food chain, Secret Recipe, came in as Sponsor cum Supporting Partner for the first time, with strong support from the Ministry of Tourism Malaysia.
All the special projects were grouped under the Events Arcadia and it was highlighted by the Digital Art China showcase, particularly Miao Xiaochun’s latest blockbuster, Restart. Works from the Cuiheng Culture and Art Village and the Shaanxi Artists Association, both from China, were also displayed. The buzz was over the celebrated artist Wang Xijing, who gave a breathtaking demonstration of his artistic skills – a feat matched by the painting demonstration of the 85-year-old maestro Prof. Li Chi Mao. The Embassy Row featured contemporary works of Argentina, Cuba, and Ecuador. The Henry Butcher Art Auction Malaysia trumpeted its great success in its inaugural auction, which recorded a sales total of RM1,737,910 that year. Peter Liew again impressed in a special Archi-Heritage extravaganza, featuring works of architectural facades from three continents – Asia, Europe and the United States.
AEM 2010 is the most successful yet, with sales turnover exceeding RM11 million, including a RM2 million paid out for a set of Andy Warhol silkscreens (sold by Singapore-based Collectors Contemporary), and with visitorship of 12,000-plus!
It was also a cause for celebration as most of the leading Malaysian galleries were represented this time.
Perhaps, the best part about the AEM is that entrance is FREE, unlike other art fairs which derived substantial revenue from their ticket sales, to help defray the high costs. The AEM rationale is to have a friendly and even family-orientated showcase, in order to generate greater art appreciation and awareness and to attract enthusiasts and players from around the region, to make AEM a top fixture in the world art calendar.
By Ooi Kok Chuen (September 2011)