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Monday, June 25, 2012

The Star : Underground art up front

Sunday June 24, 2012


Underground art up front


A gallery that bristles with bohemian creativity welcomes undiscovered artists.
IN THE middle of the room is a miniature golf set, next to an arrangement of plush, red chairs. Each offers a comfortable vantage point facing out to different corners of the room, where works by undiscovered artists hang provocatively alongside that by established names.
Floating tribal faces stare out of an Apollo Hui; some are feathered, some tattooed. One particularly sinister one wears a court wig. Next to it hangs a row of Nizam Abdullah’s signature faces, budding off and then rejoining each other, on a black and white canvas.
Dali Abdul Aziz, pictured with his own works, is keen to expose Malaysians to fresh perspectives.
But it isn’t simply the art that strikes out when you walk into Minut Init, it’s the entire space, which feels warm and welcoming, yet is bristling with bohemian creativity. There’s a chill-out room at the back where you can have a sit down and google the Lucky Luciano stencil you stepped on during the way in, or debate the meaning behind Mils Gan’s weirdly dynamic sculptures.
An underground art gallery hidden away on the top floor of a shoplot in Petaling Jaya, Minut Init feels like a discovery. Co-founders Dali Abdul Aziz and James Ly like it quirky, hence their guerrilla style art, where notorious Malaysian 70s gangster Botak Chin jumps out at you in a cowboy hat from a wall stencil, and stray wiring fixtures wave at you like sea polyps from framed holes in the building’s interior (tastefully camouflaged, alongside the rest of the art).
The gallery was formed in 2010. Both Dali and Ly had by then been exposed to multiple adventures abroad, filled with encounters of music, culture, and most importantly, a liberal splattering of art. The alley they lived above in Melbourne, Australia, during their Fine Arts degree days at Deakin University was filled with graffiti. The city’s art, which spilled from galleries and into the streets through everything from politically charged and skilfully executed stencil works, to street performances seemed like manifestations of its beating pulse.
“Why can’t we have that in Malaysia?” Dali thought then, impressed by how different ideas in society could trickle outwards, using the street as a canvas, and exposing society to a constant stream of fresh perspectives.
After his return, the idea of being permanently trapped in a nine-to-five job left a bitter taste in his mouth, and he was soon off on a working holiday in Europe, where he travelled off savings from odd jobs. He came across dozens of little independent art galleries along the way and “that’s what gave rise to the idea of doing something similar in Malaysia,” he says.
He returned and teamed up with Ly, who was fresh from getting his masters in 3D animation from the University of Dundee, Scotland, to make it happen.
“We rented the space, converted it, and called up all the artists we knew. We told them, bring your best five pieces, and mark the one you think is least likely to sell at the highest price!” says Dali, laughing. They received 173 pieces in total, and the first one that got picked out was a small life drawing sketch by Justin Lim, an old classmate of Dali’s who has made it big in the Kuala Lumpur art scene.
“A dentist from down the road paid RM800 for it and we framed it up for him,” he adds. The sale was a misleading start to the show, which attracted good attention but didn’t result in a great deal of financial returns. But Dali and Ly aren’t in it for the money.
Big names make money, and commercial success makes life as an artist viable. What’s missing is what happens in between.
James Ly in front of his own piece, Occultation Of The Sun (left), at Minut Init.
Unlike art capitals all over the world, which are littered with small galleries that incubate up-and-coming artists as they develop in style and maturity, slowly gaining respect and recognition, only a handful of these exist in Malaysia.
Minut Init wants to be the bridge between the country’s creative arts community and the marbled halls of highbrow art, an objective which seems highly achievable with it’s accessibility and lack of pretentiousness – art without the formalities, if you like. It’s the perfect place for well-connected gallery owners and collectors to scout for raw and unsullied talent.
The quality of the work on display at its current exhibition, Creole, is quite impressive. Among the standouts are photographer G-Pix’s black and white shot of a slender, aged man with tattoos, standing in a frame that cuts off just below his eyes so all you see is his worn body against the mouldy concrete backdrop of Pudu Jail (in Kuala Lumpur). It is intriguing not just because of it’s historical context but also the subject’s identity.
“Apparently this is the best friend of the Malaysian underworld’s answer to Robin Hood, Wong Swee Chin, aka Botak Chin. I think G-Pix managed to get this picture when he was part of the crew for some documentary about Pudu Jail, before it was decommissioned,” Ly explains.
Other favourites are Apollo Hui, whose ability to produce aesthetic works in varied styles is testament to his skills as an artist. Dill Malik, whose The Owl And The Pussycat, a refurbished portrait based on two old paintings, and Dear Leader, Supreme Leader, a portrait of two North Korean supreme leaders which bears scorch marks from a fire-breathing stunt, brings out the cartoon in irony.
Also notable are Audrey Tan and Calvin Chan, whose Elly and Happy Horse, respectively, are charismatic and elegantly detailed, whilst Layla Ebrahim’s strangely ethereal wax paintings ignite the imagination, forming distant yet familiar landscapes.
The works, though loosely associated by the theme that each (consciously or subconsciously) contains foreign influences, are self-contained – each is a story uniquely unto itself.
“We chose this theme because we believe that in our individual paths through modern society, it is almost impossible to stay pure to an original root, without being seduced by the immense variety of cultures in the world,” Ly says.
Dali points to a simple sketch outlining a delicate and prominent chin, the details of a Caucasian face. “My favourite by Maryam. The aesthetics and features in the sketch are very western, so the fact that the artist is Malaysian makes it Creole.”
“Creole” is a term used to describe a stable natural language, developed from the mixing of parent languages, and nativised by children as their primary language, a concept all Malaysians are, arguably, familiar with.
Malaysians, adds Ly, sometimes have a tendency to view embracing foreign influences as a bad thing. “The idea behind Creole is to celebrate these influences, instead of being cynical about them.”
Creole is on show till June 30. Viewing from 8pm-11pm on weekdays and 3pm-11pm on weekends. Viewings outside these times can be arranged via e-mail ( Minut Init is at 29B, Jalan SS21/37, Uptown Damansara Utama, Petaling Jaya, or visit

Old pictures

James New Stencils