Public Property: Ilham Gallery is a Trailblazer in the Malaysian Art Scene by Samantha Cheh

ILHAM Gallery is a trailblazer in the Malaysian art scene

May 21, 2018 | By Art Republik

Dance in response to Pinaree Sinpatak’s Breast Stupa Topiary. Image courtesy ILHAM Gallery.

ILHAM Gallery sits like a secret jewel box in the black-ice exterior of Menara ILHAM, where it has played host to celebrated artists and conceptual experimenters since it opened its doors in August 2015. Today, it is working at the frontline of arts education through an eclectic selection of multimedia exhibitions and public programming.

The gallery is run by a team led by Gallery Director Rahel Joseph, who was brought on by art impresario Valentine Willie, also ILHAM’s Creative Director. Joseph and her small band of curators and managers have staged some of the most relevant exhibitions in recent memory, drawing on themes of identity, politics and education in order to interrogate Malaysia’s history of social turmoil and development.

Installation shot of ‘Love Me in My Batik’ exhibition at ILHAM Gallery. Image courtesy Ilham Gallery.

Time and history have played central roles in the last four exhibitions at the gallery where they have been used as framing devices in order to interrogate the relationship between art and its environment. The long shadow of former Prime Minister Tun Mahathir Mohamad spreads across ‘Era Mahatir’, while the ‘Gerak, Rupa, Ubur dan Penyataan’ retrospective is playful with modernist flourishes.

Joseph and her team worked alongside prominent art scholar Simon Soon to produce a show that goes beyond the works of famous artists like Latiff Mohidin and Jolly Koh, and explores the relationships between a rapidly developing metropolis, cultural cosmopolitanism, and the artist. “We started off with the idea of the 50th anniversary of the GRUP exhibition in 1967,” Joseph says. “It is an iconic exhibition and we were trying to find a different way of looking at this exhibition, and one of the ways was to use it to talk about the 1960s as an important period in Malaysian art, and the connection between the city and modern art.”

Ibrahim Hussein, ‘Red and Purple Interludes’, 1973, acrylic on canvas, 128 x 251cm. Image courtesy ILHAM Gallery/Muzium & Galeri Tuanku Fauziah (MGTF) Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM).

Unlike more commercial galleries, ILHAM’s exhibitions brings depth and context to a Malaysian audience that largely lacks arts literacy. ‘Era Mahatir, ‘GRUP’ and another well-received exhibition ‘Love Me in My Batik’ were all carefully crafted with their historicity and significance in mind, partly to tap into collective Malaysian experiences, but also to locate the personal amidst vast swathes of history. This was most clearly exemplified in the ‘Era Mahatir’ show which featured artistic responses to the policies of the reign of Mahathir during the 90s, as well as its accompanying turmoils. As Joseph says, “Art doesn’t happen in a vacuum.”

Last year, the gallery launched its ambitious two-part ‘ILHAM Contemporary Forum Malaysia 2009-2017’ project which brought together seven curators from varied backgrounds to put together a show of works by artists of the present. The gallery was filled with a rotating menu of curiosities, including sketches, collections of soil traded for the contents of a pocket, and Liew Seng Tat’s kampong house. The forum was much less art historical than the exhibitions before it, but was in its own way a startling display of the power of public collaboration. The project produced a recognisable sense of the present and the personal expressions of collective history.

Inside the ‘ILHAM Contemporary Forum Malaysia 2008-2013’. Image courtesy ILHAM Gallery.

ILHAM gallery’s reputation as an advocate for public access remains a distinct hallmark in an artistic landscape populated by commercial showrooms and events. That spirit endures through its ambitious public programming efforts. In 2017 alone, the gallery organised more than 50 events, including theatre, dance and music performances, academic lectures, book launches, and even an architectural symposium.

The varied selection of events has helped grow a sense of ownership over the space among their audiences, a connection that reaches out to a bigger sense of belonging in Malaysia’s rich cultural history. “The exhibition necessarily is limited by space, but the public programming is an extension of it,” Joseph explains. “We want ILHAM to be a place where it’s not just about the paintings on the wall but also what’s happening in the space itself.”

Latiff Mohidin, ‘Imago (Berlin)’, 1963, oil on canvas, 82 x 62cm. Image courtesy ILHAM Gallery/Muzium & Galeri Tuanku Fauziah (MGTF) Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM).

Art shouldn’t be something “alien” or meant for a certain stratosphere of audience, according to Joseph, who insists on arts education as a central pillar of the gallery’s work. She says that building audiences from the ground up is key to ensuring that art continues to prosper in Malaysia. The gallery is one of a handful of places to run children’s tours in order to expose them to art from an early age. “My real interest in the arts lies in terms of education and public programming,” says Joseph. “Of course there are a lot of interesting private galleries but I feel that we need more art institutions in the country. They are the best place to have programs for schools, to hold exhibitions that are just about scholarship and research, not to sell.”

Serpentine Pavilion 2017, designed by Francis Kéré. Serpentine Gallery, London (23 June – 19 November 2017) © Kéré Architecture. Image courtesy Iwan Baan.

ILHAM made headlines when it was announced that the gallery would be the new owner of the 2017 Serpentine Pavilion, designed by Burkinabé architect Francis Kéré, thanks to anonymous benefactors. While Joseph could not reveal details about where and when the Pavilion would be available to the public, she did say that the gallery intended to locate it somewhere “accessible, free, and not housed where no one can see it.” “We want to keep to the original spirit of the gift as something that is meant for the Malaysian public,” she adds. “The benefactors liked the idea of ILHAM as a public arts space, and felt that we would be well-served to showcase it.”  

The gallery is also taking itself to task to cement Malaysia’s place in the greater Southeast Asian artworld through a clutch of events planned for the coming year. Following the success of ‘Afterwork’, an exhibition imported from Hong Kong’s Para Site, ILHAM will be embarking on partnerships with the Maiiam Contemporary Art Museum in Chiang Mai, Thailand, as well as the National Gallery of Singapore.

More information at

This article was written by Samantha Cheh for Art Republik 18.

This is part of ‘Better Together’, a series of conversations about how people have banded together in innovative ways to create, exhibit, teach, discuss and archive art in Southeast Asia, brought to you by ART REPUBLIK both online and in print.

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