New Emissary

Art Visit to Kuala Lumpur

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New Emissary

Art Visit to Kuala Lumpur

Hospitable Kuala Lumpur forms the backdrop for Art Expo Malaysia – an event that lives up to expectations.

Each Thursday on the New Emissary, art consultant and Tokyo art gallery owner Bob Tobin reports on the contemporary art scene in the Asia-Pacific, sharing his unique insights into some of the emerging trends and artists from around the region.

Earlier this month, I took a trip to Kuala Lumpur to go and see Art Expo Malaysia. Unfortunately, I had to go before the launch of the new—and extremely cheap—service there by budget airline Air Asia, which is stepping into the virtual wasteland that is budget flying from Tokyo (and which operated from the far quieter Haneda Airport). But I felt I just had to go early to catch the Expo because I’d heard it was something different from other art fairs. I also admit I don’t know all that much about the art scene in Malaysia.

Although it was my first time at Art Expo Malaysia, the event is now in its fourth year. During my last visit to the city about five years ago, I was impressed with an artist co-operative called Ruma Art Panas, but I couldn’t find any of the members this visit and it seems they no longer have their space.

But Art Expo Malaysia lived up to the hype and really was different from any other art fair I’ve attended. If they needed a motto, I’d choose, ‘Something for everyone.’ There were artworks in every price range—and much of the work was very affordable. And it was a rather causal affair. There were no Armani suits or gorgeous galleristas. Many of the visitors came in shorts and flip flops and there were a lot of families with kids there too.

I’m used to art fairs with heavy security and long lines. Not here. I actually couldn’t find the entrance and accidentally walked into the expo, not knowing which door was the entrance. I was met by the mother of the art fair organizer who welcomed me and said, ‘Enjoy the expo.’ No admission fee was required.

I liked being able to see works from artists and places that I wasn’t familiar with—places like Pakistan, Myanmar, Cuba, Macau and Ecuador, as well as works from many Malaysian, Singaporean and Indonesian galleries.

The best painting I saw in the entire expo was ‘Geyser,’ from the Malaysian artist and Philip Morris award winner, Kow Leong Kiang. He asked a male and female model to engage in various poses nude in a 4 by 4 foot-space and then created an entire series of paintings of the models. In these works he uses a very subdued, almost dreamy, limited palate and there are drips and splashes of paints that unite and divide the couple. His work breaks through Malaysian art’s usual taboo of depicting nudes, and goes one step further than his previous paintings of one model in a confined space. The new paintings are sensual, ambiguous, violent, interconnected and very powerful.

Kow Leong Kiang

The artist is represented by the well respected Valentine-Willie Gallery, which is based in Kuala Lumpur. Willie is a pioneer in South-east Asian art, with many artistic discoveries to his credit. But he was nowhere to be found when I visited his booth. With galleries in Indonesia, the Philippines and Singapore, he’s now in continual orbit. He represents many of the top South-east Asian artists, including Agus Purnomo from Indonesia, Ben Cabrera from the Philippines and Chang Fee Ming, one of my favourite Malaysian artists. Ming does magnificent realist watercolours that are rich with colour and detail. He’s best known for his works of Malaysia, but has also been painting recently in South America, South-east Asia and Africa. The resulting sketches and paintings are always stellar. You can see more of his work at

I stayed at the newly-renovated Kuala Lumpur Shangri-la Hotel where the service and the food were top-notch. When I arrived, there was a huge fruit basket with more mangoes than I possibly could eat in the few days I was there. It was virtually non-stop good from morning to night on the club floor, and a lot of the food was Malaysian. One of the reasons I travel is to taste the local food and there was an ample selection to choose from here. I started every day with the traditional Malaysian breakfast, Nasi Lemak (coconut milk rice, considered the national dish), and topped off my evening meal with a selection of Malaysian traditional sweets—edible works of art!

Nasi Lemak


Images: Kuala Lumpur by Khalzuri Yazid (top), Kow Leong Kiang work (middle), Nasi Lemak by my cocoabutter (bottom).