August 14, 2015 3:00 pm JST
Malaysian art legend

Valentine Willie brings free public galleries to the nation

KATE MAYBERRY, Contributing writer

Valentine Willie in his new Kuala Lumpur gallery, Ilham (Photo by Kate Mayberry)

KUALA LUMPUR -- In London in the 1970s, Valentine Willie spent many hours in the National Gallery. Unlike the boarding house room he then called home, the British capital's pre-eminent art museum provided a warm and comfortable place to think. It also offered the young law student the opportunity to see some of the world's greatest paintings.

     Those visits were to prove the inspiration for a career as one of Southeast Asia's most celebrated art dealers. That appeared to end when Willie closed the last of his five galleries two years ago.

     Yet Willie was not contemplating a quiet retirement. His plan was to open an exhibition space that would be free to enter and encourage education and scholarship. His first, called Ilham, opens in Kuala Lumpur on Aug. 16.

     "I've never worked so hard in my life," Willie said from the sofa of his 10th-floor apartment where the stunning views of the Malaysian capital struggle to compete with a vast collection of art and sculpture that covers the walls and floor. "I'm on site wearing a hard hat, dealing with lighting, dealing with contractors, floors and materials. I have no idea -- I make sure I get good people to advise me."

     Willie, who was born in Sabah in Malaysian Borneo, gave up law in 1996 to open his first gallery. The venue, above a shop in one of Kuala Lumpur's most fashionable suburbs, developed a reputation for staging high-quality shows, championing not only established contemporary artists, but also the work of younger creators.

     At the height of his success, and undeterred by the Asian financial crisis or subsequent economic downturns, Willie was operating five galleries in four Southeast Asian countries. He had also established himself as the dealer of choice for discreet collectors and lent his expertise to institutions such as the Singapore Art Museum.

     "He always stated that artists were the most important part of what we did as a gallery," said Eva McGovern, who worked with Willie as head of regional programs. "His passion and energy was extraordinary. Valentine always stressed the importance of studio visits and on-the-ground research to know the pulse of a place, and he would schedule a packed itinerary during field trips."

"Going crazy"

By 2012 Willie was exhausted. At the end of that year, he closed his Kuala Lumpur gallery and began winding down his regional operations, telling reporters that his sales were not covering costs. His thoughts turned to the idea of a museum, a space where Malaysians could be inspired by art and discover more about its origin and place in a wider society.

     "I had promised to myself that I would stop dealing when I was 60," Willie said. "I was going crazy.  I had this idea to do something in Penang: a dedicated gallery, purpose-built rather than a heritage building which limits so many things, especially with contemporary art. I thought of it as a 'retirement' job."

     Last year, as he sought to convince potential backers and the authorities of the merits of his Penang project, Willie received an offer he found difficult to refuse.

     Daim Zainuddin, a businessman and former finance minister of Malaysia who is a close confidant of former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad and one of Willie's earliest clients, asked if he would be interested in turning a couple of floors of the Kuala Lumpur office tower he was developing into a permanent exhibition space.

     "I made some conditions," Willie said . "There must be no selling, so it's non-profit, he must let me decide on the kind of shows we do and it must be free.

     "For me this is ideal," Willie said. "Here's someone who's giving me the money to realize the vision that I have; that through art we can learn and look at the world and life differently. I'm an incurable romantic like that."

"Picturing the Nation"

The Ilham Tower is British architect Norman Foster's latest contribution to the Kuala Lumpur skyline; its steel-clad diamond facade thrusts 60 stories into the sky close to the iconic Petronas Twin Towers in the city center. A sculpture of two copper-colored balls by Ai Weiwei, the first public work by the Chinese artist anywhere in Southeast Asia, has been installed permanently outside the gallery.

     "Picturing the Nation," the first exhibition for the Ilham gallery, whose name means "inspiration" in Malay, features pieces from the personal collection of Hoessein Enas, one of Malaysia's foremost portrait painters. Daim acquired them on the artist's death and they have never been shown publicly. Visitors will enjoy an immersive experience, with the opportunity not only to see a recreation of the Indonesian-born artist's studio but also to listen to the kind of music that inspired him.

     Awarded what became known as the Shell Commission, Enas travelled across Malaysia sketching and painting the peoples of the newly independent nation. His paintings show ordinary people of the 1960s at home and at work -- the policemen, doctors and schoolchildren that defined an era.

     Contemporary artists commissioned by Ilham, including photographer and multimedia artist Yee I-Lann and filmmaker Dain Iskandar Said, whose piece will build on his feature-length film thriller "Bunohan," have created works that explore what the concept of Malaysia means today.

A much-need space

"Art has an intrinsic value," said Pakhruddin Sulaiman, one of Malaysia's leading art collectors. He agrees the country needs a professionally run public exhibition space. "The intellectual aspect must be promoted. When you talk about the development of art, it's not just about buying and selling, it's about the appreciation of art and scholarship."

     The Ilham team of six is already planning its next shows. The second exhibition, scheduled for April, will investigate batik as both a tradition and an art form in Southeast Asia, while the third, "Mahathir at 91," will focus on the impact of a leader who dominated Malaysian politics for more than four decades. The fourth aims to tell the story of Malaysia through vernacular photography.

     Earlier in August, with Ilham close to completion and a revival of his annual Singapore Survey contemporary art show only days away, Willie flew up to Penang. His cherished plan for the island to have an independent art gallery had finally been given the green light.

     The Penang Art and Heritage Square will take shape on a site in the city center fringed by 19th-century shophouses that once housed a market. Encouraged by the thriving arts scenes in Yogyakarta, Indonesia and Beijing, the 100 million ringgit ($24.7 million) project will conserve the original buildings and include a purpose-built gallery space. Willie is the art consultant for the scheme.

     As at Ilham, entry to the center will be free -- at least for schoolchildren -- and it will have a strong public education ethos. Willie is determined that art in the region moves beyond auction houses and a focus on price to scholarship and understanding; "writing our art history before someone else writes it," as he puts it. He hopes, too, that these new spaces will prove a source of inspiration to the next generation of Malaysians.

     "Anything I'm going to work on has to be free," Willie said, recalling his student days when money was tight. "If [the National Gallery] hadn't been free, I wouldn't be where I am today. If I'd had to pay even 10 pence, I would not have considered it. It wouldn't even have been an option."    

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