Nestled within the green foliage and tucked away from the feverish haste, is CULT, a gallery that houses a collection of noteworthy artworks, mostly pieces by budding and promising artists. It’s no surprise that Suryani Senja Alias, the brain behind CULT, is an ardent supporter who provides our local young artists with a sanctuary to grow and showcase their talent.
It’s a breezy morning and we were graced by a room filled with amazing and intriguing artworks Suryani curated for the gallery, with the scent of morning coffee and fresh pastries lingering around. The sunlight seeped through the leaves, casting soft springtime shadows on her face as she unfolded her personal experience and voiced her outlook on the local art scene, especially for the female cohort—a discussion that is rather solemn. But when her face lit up as soon as she mentioned the up-and- coming female artists she adored, I knew they were in safe hands, something I’m utterly grateful to witness.
I did a little background check and realised that you had a law and investment banking background. How do you go from that to co-founding a gallery?
I’ve always wanted to do art history but the choice in Malaysia is quite limited and growing up in an Asian household, you know, doing law is a default, not a choice. I decided to stay abroad after I completed my master’s in London. I worked in London and Geneva as a telecommunication analyst for an investment bank and then as an international lawyer. Art is accessible in these cities; they have some of the best museums and galleries. I then enrolled on a one-month course to study Contemporary Arts in Central Saint Martins which I’d attend after work. I want to at least equip myself with the basics and foundations of the arts. When I got back to Malaysia, I continued to work in legal and art was time-wise, luxurious to me.
During my time with Khazanah Nasional however, I was asked to sort out the art collection; no one was interested in doing that, so I volunteered (laughs). I’d go through artworks, get experts in to value them, and document them. That’s how I exposed myself to Malaysia’s modern and contemporary arts. I began to dabble in acquiring artworks, later programming visual arts, and eventually published The Malaysian Art Book For Children, making Malaysian art more accessible to children.
I found myself doing more and more art-related work, especially after I got married to an artist. I spent a lot more time going to art events around the world, meeting artists and collectors because of my husband. Since I had one foot in the door, starting CULT gallery and becoming a gallerist came naturally to me. Like a special affinity, it’s more than work for me. When Permodalan Nasional Bhd (PNB) was looking for a helping hand in setting up a Merdeka Textile Museum, my experience with Yayasan Tuanku Nur Zahirah, Kraftangan Malaysia and Senijari, my own business that focused on handcrafts, came into the picture. I took part in setting up and conceptualising the Merdeka Textile Museum, which is set to launch next year.
Does your previous experience as a banker and lawyer help you in being a gallerist?
To be fair, lawyer-turned-gallerist is a rather common path. Valentine Willie, for example. As a gallerist, I deal with people from various backgrounds. My experience working in a legal team and investment banking forged
my interpersonal communication skills. The gallerist is a middle person, it requires a lot of communication and conversations, and my background assisted me while I segued into my third career pathway.
Since we are on this topic, can you walk us through the activities you are involved with as a gallerist?
The misconception is that gallerists sell art, it’s beyond selling mere papers. It involves dealing with people, running a business, storytelling, and branding. How do you convince people to spend a hundred thousand dollars for a piece of canvas? Each artist has a different approach and story to tell through their works. So, as a
gallerist, we sell stories and emotions.
A gallerist is a conduit in the process of shaping an artwork into a valuable investment or even asset class—I’m not advocating this but there’s no denying that this is a phenomenon. Audiences and collectors, they’d love and buy artwork because it strikes a chord. But not everyone is a visual person and not every artist is articulate enough to share their stories. So, a gallerist plays a role in conveying what an artwork can potentially mean, translating them, hoping to be the bridge that links the emotional attachment in both the artist and the audiences. A catalyst and an interpreter in a way, helping the audiences to understand, appreciate and eventually find what they wish to gain through arts. Gallerists, in this case, have to be sensitive to emotions and equipped with enough knowledge to understand both the artists and the buyers, connecting them eventually.
What are your thoughts on contemporary arts in Malaysia?
The contemporary art scene is thriving, as in we have talented artists and collectors but infrastructure-wise, there’s room for improvement. Interventions by the government, or even just acknowledging the importance of arts—I think we need more of these. Our neighbouring countries like the Philippines, Indonesia, Singapore, and Thailand have a bigger market and higher demand. For example, Singapore positions itself as the hub of contemporary arts in Southeast Asia and we don’t have a vision like this. In fact, we have the potential: optimal geographical location and organic pull of collectors. I’m seeing more young collectors now, unlike how we used to only have celebrities, public figures or wealthy groups of people who collect art. The awareness and appreciation for contemporary art have grown, possibly because of social media. Artists would share their work on their own platforms, making art more accessible. With the help of tech advancement, artists get to present their artworks through a multidisciplinary format, gaining more potential audiences. Young collectors supporting young artists is a nice way to cultivate awareness.
Businesses such as CIMB and Sime Darby entered the conversation; commercial galleries, private institutions, and patrons like Ilham Gallery offering great programs; Dr Tan from The Urban Museum (Ur-Mu) showcases a good collection of SEA contemporary arts pieces and more people are exposed to them, building up our visual vocabulary, eventually normalising it. The more the audience knows about contemporary arts, the more interested they get.
Education is important. It’ll be good if we include arts in our education system. Most of the time, our local art is featured as part of the tourist attractions, but I think it could be more than that. Art is also a reflection of our
political situation, economical state, societal culture, history, and future. It is a soft power. Contemporary arts is a modern language that allows us, as a nation to be recognised and acknowledged, showing our capability to translate the soul of this country into various forms that everyone in the world can enjoy and admire. Look at South Korea, they invested in not just contemporary arts, but also music, pop culture, and food. Everything
else follows – national cars, food, investments, businesses, and more. I don’t think this is done by accident. It’s well-planned in a very systematic way. They have a vision, and they achieve it with their distinctive cultures.
Our local scene is growing, but unfortunately slower than what it can potentially be.
As mentioned, art is a world language, allowing both the artists and audiences to express their emotions and reflect a state of affairs. Female artists, for example, tend to add their personal experience their body parts and fertility to their artwork. Public acceptance, however, is relatively low. What role do you think CULT—or you as a gallerist—plays to break this taboo?
I think we provide a safe space for these female artists, allowing them to express themselves freely. I do know how some galleries censored artworks that were deemed unconventional or like you said, taboo. In CULT, censorship is not my concern at all. One of our young female artists, Haz Yusup, wears a hijab but draws nudes. We had an exhibition of her work. Even our art transporter found it astounding. She enjoys drawing bodies, not in a sexual way but with an appreciation of creation, like Adam and Eve, purity and innocence. For her, it’s a way to celebrate creation.
To some people, nudes and innocence might sound contradicting but to her, it’s not. In fact, her works decouple the idea of nudity from erotic connotations. We want to give her this safe space, allowing her to speak her mind without being labelled and judged. We’ve had so many male artists painting and drawing female bodies throughout the years. Why can’t we look at human bodies from a female point of view, the female gaze? We have the responsibility to provide a proper narrative and curation that represents her in the best way possible, breaking the prejudices and assumptions as much as we could. This is an example of how we empower women. We respect their perspectives, and no filter or toning down is needed.
What do you think about female involvement in the local art scene? What’s well done and what’s yet to be improved?
To be honest, some of the major contemporary artists in this country are women, Yee I-Lann, Nadiah Bamadhaj, and Umibaizurah, just to name a few. They make a name for themselves on an international level, Yee I-Lann for example, is represented by Silverlens Gallery in New York, Nadiah in Indonesia and Umi’s works were featured in Europe. They are great role models for young female artists.
Female artists need to, and will work so much harder to distinguish themselves. Which is why they are a lot more imaginative, creative, and versatile with the mediums. They are capable of being multidisciplinary artists. Binti, a young artist who uses mixed media, for instance, is bold in exploring different mediums or infusing different narratives in her work. If only our country could provide and give them the recognition they deserved, they can be very affluent. Yayoi Kusama says, she became a global icon recognised in every part of the world. I think our Malaysian female artists too have such ability. In some cities like London, female artists were commissioned to work on public art, you can find artwork everywhere in the train station or on the streets. We need this type of public awareness and normalising arts so more female artists have such opportunities. If done right, contemporary art can foster a sense of belonging, nurturing national pride.
Any young artists on your radar now?
Artists like Binti, a self-taught artist, whoseworks speak to not just the nation but a worldwide audience. Haz Yusup too, the classical painter who specialises in drawing figures and nudes, has a distinctive charm
that would go far. Her solid foundation in classical painting allows her to connect the European and Asian audiences together. The way she confronts the taboo too makes her work more exciting. Amani as well, who
started as a fashion photographer and is now a fine art artist, whose work reflects her sensitivity and awareness towards the mundanity of her surroundings. Ain is a very multidisciplinary artist who presents her work through various mediums, from charcoal drawings to video recordings. Her works challenged how beauty is perceived and how women are required to conform to a set of beauty standards. I think this is a topic that
speaks for and to a vast group of people.
Female artists have a lot to offer, they have different life experiences and perceptions compared to their male counterparts and I think their personal experiences can create
ripples in the local scene.