Malaysian artists are taking the industry into their own hands by setting up community-driven art spaces to rival big institutions and commercial galleries
By Ellen Lee
The highlighted independent art spaces below were set up out of the pure need for a more dynamic approach to art and artistic collaboration. These spaces also go against the sterility of commercial art galleries by directing their aims away from profit-making, and towards community-building, sustainability, and empowerment.
HAUS KCH, Sarawak
HAUS (pictured above) is Kuching’s first ever arts hub, transformed from a former abandoned police headquarters. It was pitched as a one-stop centre where all of Kuching’s art scene can hang out and exchange ideas, with long-term plans to branch out into the rest of Sarawak. They have a lively line-up of events, ranging from open mic and stand-up comedy nights to art exhibitions and workshops, and also, sometimes, the occasional yoga and skateboarding session. Always with an eye on long-term development, the space also serves to empower artists by teaching them business and financial skills.
Tamparuli Living Arts Centre (Ta LAC), Sabah
Ta LAC has become a hot hangout spot for young Sabahan artists who live away from the capital of Kota Kinabalu. With a focus on creative placemaking, Ta LAC is open to anyone with an interest in introducing the arts to public spaces as a tool to improve the quality of life for communities. You will often find filmmakers, beadmakers, musicians and artists using the space as a meeting place. On top of playing host to Sabah’s first ever artist residency, the space also hosts events, visits, and workshops that all aim to invigorate Sabahan art and traditional culture.
Lostgens, Kuala Lumpur
Lostgens is a small artist-run space located a stone’s throw away from Petaling Street that focuses on showcasing innovative artists. They put on a fair share of exhibitions and also play host to a range of interesting talks, workshops and film screenings in multiple languages. In the art scene, their exhibitions are known for embracing experimentation and multilayered art, more so than other regular commercial art galleries in the city.
Hin Bus Depot, Penang
You can’t talk about the art scene in Penang without mentioning Hin Bus Depot, an old colonial-era bus depot converted into a sprawling arts hub for the community with indoor and outdoor spaces. The gallery takes up the front hall of the bus depot and is known for being an accessible space that attracts young artists and audiences.
The surrounding vicinity also includes artist studios that run regular workshops involving sculpture, ceramics and woodwork. There is also an urban farm plot, reading room, and outdoor mural garden. The space hosts two kinds of markets for creatives and entrepreneurs to showcase their skills: a pop-up market every Sunday and the REKA creative market which happens twice a year.
Read more about how Hin Bus Depot plans to sustain itself despite hesitant art consumers in Penang.
Ipoh is an up-and-coming Malaysian city with a lively arts scene and one of the must-see arts spaces there is Kapallorek, run by artists Fadly Sabran and Syafiq Ali’am. The space is driven by interactivity – their exhibitions attempt to move beyond the visual aspect of art by engaging audiences sonically and kinaesthetically. For those interested in new media and technological art, Kapallorek is the place you want to visit – home to a line-up that embraces sound art, animation, video, and other forms of digital art that challenge established fine art traditions.
Founded by artist Yee I-Lann and architectural designers Phyllis Chin and Nurfilzah Jam Jam, this space aims to foster multidisciplinary conversations within the arts in Sabah. Kota-K hosts the usual line-up of artist talks and portfolio reviews but also go against the grain by hosting events such as tapai wine-making and basket-weaving workshops. The events not only work to preserve traditional Sabahan culture, but also to problematise the dialogue around what we consider art by bringing new disciplines into the conversation.
The Zhongshan Building, Kuala Lumpur
Located slightly off the beaten track, the Zhongshan Building is another shining example of an abandoned building re-purposed into an arts hub. The building, previously a row of shophouses, now contains various performance spaces, private studios, independent retailers and cafes, a design archive, and a library collective. The multidisciplinary aspect of the hub often makes for interesting collaborations between tenants, and you are bound to meet all kinds of communities from around Kuala Lumpur by spending some time there.
Ellen Lee is a writer and art worker based in Kuala Lumpur. She is interested in all forms of culture, from fine art and poetry to trap music and anime.