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Canvassing for Art

Wariah Marzuki. Portraits by LK Leong
Le Prestige, November 2002

Wilson Henry meets Wairah Marzuki, director of The National Art Gallery, who has made it her mission to make art accessible to all.

The venue is a large, modern, steel and glass construction. Art patrons, artists and culture cognoscenti move from one wide space to another. On view is a striking exhibition of contemporary Chilean art. Glasses clink and interesting discussions take place. This is a typical cocktail afternoon at the National Art Gallery, and its director, Wairah Marzuki is excited at the prospect of more international art exhibitions making their way to Kuala Lumpur. "I did not want this to be another static place," says Wairah of the National Art Gallery. "I wanted it to collide with life itself."

Wairah whose own collision with art began at the Klang Convent School and the Mara Institute of Technology developed an interest in art when the nation itself was coming to terms with its identity. "Those were exciting times," says Wairah. "I recall being interested in theatre, graphic design and even gallery management." Her artistic talents and creativity found expression in Kuala Lumpur's hit productions -Uda dan Dara, the musical Kuala Lumpur, Kuala Lumpur and Gemala Setia.

She adds, "I also met the big names in the art scene." She was later to marry one of them – the late Ismail Zain. Together they cultivated an appreciation in art. He through his work and she through gallery management. "Art does not have to be a snob pastime, it can and should involve all people," remarks Wairah, a softly spoken and articulate lady.

She does not get so actively involved in theatre anymore although she tries to support it by attending performances whenever she can.

Wairah's interest in art shaping life is personal and heartfelt, and attributable in no small part to her 11 year old special needs child, Nurul Akhmal. "Nurul attends a special school," says Wairah. "But I found that she could focus better through art. Art can be many things, but at the same time it can open minds through shapes and colours and I believe this helps Nurul."

At Nurul's school, Wairah plays a crucial role. "I think as parents we all have parts to play." Together with other parents, Wairah organised sundry art-related activities for the children in school.

In Malaysia, where art has typically been regarded as something of a fringe activity, the presence of the huge and gleaming steel and glass National Art Gallery along the busy 12 hectare belt of cultural Kuala Lumpur suggests changing attitudes. Much of that change stems from Wairah's own efforts to push art into everyday experiences. It did not take her long to secure a permanent and modern gallery for the nation's art collection.

   "Art galleries have to be contemporary. They cannot just be places where people come and see historic art and paintings"
The first art gallery was established in August 1958 under the patronage of Malaysia's first Prime Minister, Tunku Abdul Rahman and today the National Art Gallery ranks as one of the most established art galleries in the region. "I recall being at the first premises which was located at 109, Jalan Ampang at the Dewan Tuanku Abdul Rahman and we had a small space," recalls Wairah. "I believe many who were involved with the setting up of the first art gallery from the late Mubin Sheppard and Frank Sullivan among others would be pleased with what we have here."

The new building is a stark 13,500 square metre contrast to the previous squat or even smaller temporary premises. It boasts a permanent and temporary collection gallery and has provoked collective interest from the unlikeliest of quarters: the average Malaysian. The collection has grown to more than 2,500 pieces of artworks – no mean feat considering that the collection was started with four donated artworks in 1958. "We have some of the defining art works that trace the art development of the country from the various periods," says Wairah. She mentions Datuk Hoessin Enas, Abdul Latiff Mohiddin, O. Don Peris, Ismail Zain, right down to Nirmala Shanmugalingham. The collection has also grown to include what Wairah herself calls art relevant to our contemporary tastes – multi media and electronic art which is a reflection of the rapid and economic development of Malaysia.

Wairah is justifiably proud of what she has accomplished. Handling her daily agenda of dealing with government agencies, attending international art symposiums, giving talks, co-ordinating a team of curators and restoration staff and managing the day-to-day business of the immense new gallery is no mean feat. Wairah however is a picture of calm as she attends to her work quietly and efficiently.

"This new space is still not sufficient for what we have planned for the future," says the determined driving force of the local art scene. "Nothing has been confirmed as yet, but we have plans for Putrajaya. We hope to open a design based museum there, to house all the design exhibits and prototypes that we generate here on the local scene," explains Wairah of upcoming projects.

Wairah is wryly amused that KL's bestselling pewter brand, Royal Selangor, has its prototype designs exhibited at London's Victoria and Albert Museum. "I am sure there is a lot that we can do in this sector as well. Overseas there are museums that house everything from design logos to advertisements. Why should we not try that here?" challenges Wairah of the long accepted definitions of what a national art gallery ought to be. Wairah's training at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, the Liverpool City Museum and the East-West Centre has helped her see the broad role The National Art Gallery in Kuala Lumpur can play. "We have a long way before we can really say we have arrived. But we are at least on our way there. That is positive, I think the one challenge we faced early on was to get people into this place and that has been achieved through the various programmes, exhibitions and workshops," notes Wairah.

"Art can be therapeutic," stresses Wairah Marzuki
The understanding of art here is slowly changing. "It is not as if we recently acquired an eye for art. We have always had it. We have an immense rich art tradition here which sometimes we overlook. We too have cave paintings that carry important messages and tell stories. Sometimes we do not connect the creativity we have between say, cave art or even animated art films," observes Wairah. As art custodian, Wairah sees her role as trying to put all these different arts and their practioners in one single venue.

"Art galleries have to be contemporary. They cannot just be places where people come and see historic art and paintings. They have to reflect society as well, and thrive on the new ideas that come from contemporary artists. These can be anything from installation artists to graphic designers," argues Wairah. Fashion designers are the other extreme of the creative lot, explains Wairah. "Look at Zang Toi's work. It is creative, international and I am sure he has sketches and works that can really be inspiring to others. I believe such .exhibits have a place in the National Art Gallery."

"There is so much art and creativity out there, I feel it only makes sense to keep it in one place, where we can see the achievement of people who are actively busy in the creative arts field," expresses Wairah. Architectural designs are yet another area that fascinates Wairah who sees the art of structure defining various periods.

Wairah, whose travels have taken her to some of the better known art galleries in the US, Europe and UK, has particular admiration for the Tate Modern in London. "Not only is the location interesting, but the collection inside is really marvellous and appeals to a contemporary society that appreciates new designs. Much of that society that finds fascination in design, is also found here in KL." To her satisfaction Wairah observes that art is finally attracting a newer and younger following locally.

"People are more open to the idea of art and going to a gallery, and there are growing numbers of art collectors," she reveals. "The art scene has flourished and now there are more private galleries that sell and buy art," says Wairah.

Wairah believes that a civilised country is not just about cold trade, but must include the arts and culture. She attends KL's numerous society cocktails and parties with the aim of promoting the arts. Now with a huge space available to her, she can explore the areas she is particularly interested in, from foreign art exhibitions to art workshops.

Visiting exhibitions tend to attract the biggest crowds. Wairah finds the exchange with foreign artists enlightening and says there is much to learn from the crossing of cultures. It is this spirit of exchange that piqued her interest in Art For All – a workshop for artists, amateurs, and disabled enthusiasts. "It all started when I was in Thailand and I saw the tremendous positive impact this Art for All programme had for participants in Thailand. I wanted to start something like that here in KL." She did.

Without delay she got the programme moving by engaging artists, teachers, parents and students. The results far exceeded her expectations. "When we decided to do Art for All here, we renamed it Art For All 2 and saw tremendous interest from all quarters. Teachers found the workshop helpful, and so did the students and the participating artists," says Wairah. "I think sometimes we never realise the potential that art has. With Art For All 2 – I think we managed to convince everyone involved that the time spent was well spent. Children who usually do not respond are willing to try something to move their limbs, to connect with colours and their surroundings. That surely has to be an achievement."

Does she see this expanding to schools? "Why not? I think programmes like this can be effective in any environment where the children might be able to express themselves better through the medium of art. We just have to have faith."

"I am always interested to discover more ways to reach out to special needs kids which is why I am quite fascinated with the work of the clinical specialist we have engaged for the Art For All programme," she admits. Her understanding of art and the role it plays has impressed so many that often she finds herself presenting papers. She has not stopped since 1976 when she presented her first paper on The Child as An Artist – a Unesco workshop in Jakarta up to her last one at the Asia-Europe Art Conference in London.

While Wairah spends most of her time expanding art appreciation in the country, she finds that her interest in art is also part of her leisure. "I sometimes get so inspired by my surroundings that I find myself heading off to the countryside to paint and draw the rivers or the rainforest. But my art is so private I am rarely willing to exhibit it!" laughs Wairah, who enjoys the outdoors and says she finds herself fortunate to be able to drive off into the countryside when she feels like it.

While home is in the green lung area of Ampang, she likes to head off into the real outdoors to regain her sense of calm and balance. "It is important to have time for ourselves, and when I am outdoors, I like contemplation. When I want to express it, I put it on canvas." When she is not out and about, the young fifty-something Wairah, who lives alone with Nurul, devises practical ways to keep her daughter occupied. "Motherhood is a blessing and I always find myself learning," admits Wairah. "The time I spend with Nurul is important, and while she is a special needs child, I find that Nurul sees the world in her own way. Art gives us that freedom," she concludes.

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