The team behind Richard Koh Fine Art (from left): Iqa Nabeera, Intan Umirah (seated), Michael Low, Richard Koh (seated), Shawn Chow, Haffendi Anuar (sitting on the floor) and Faizal Yunus. Photo: The Star/Yap Chee Hong
If you had asked gallerist Richard Koh a year ago what his plans were for the gallery, he would tell you that they would be moving into a bigger space on Jalan Maarof, in Bangsar, Kuala Lumpur.
“More wall space, you see,” he offers. There is no such thing as enough wall space for a gallery, he adds.
But when the new space was not ready in time, he put those grand plans on hold and renewed the lease at the current space – until the new space is ready, he told himself.
Little did he know what the future held.
Today, not only is Koh holding on to the existing space at Bangsar Village II, but he has also taken up the new space at Jalan Maarof, simply called 229 after its lot number.
Commemorating Richard Koh (RK) Fine Art’s 10th anniversary, group exhibition I Am Ten, featuring works by the artists represented by the gallery throughout the years, opens on June 10.
The works will be split between both spaces, with the gallery at Bangsar Village II featuring all Malaysian artists and 229 featuring an eclectic mix of artists from Malaysia and other South-East Asian countries.
The Malaysian artists featured at RK Fine Art in I Am Ten are Chang Yoong Chia, Gan Chin Lee, Haffendi Anuar, Hasanul Isyraf Idris, Justin Lim, Liew Kwai Fei, Nadiah Bamadhaj, Saiful Razman, Tan Wei Kheng, Wong Perng Fey and Yeoh Choo Kuan.
Also at 229 will be a showcase of a selection of eight seminal ink works from different well-known series by Chinese-born artist Yang Jiechang who now works out of France and Germany. The show, titled Still Trembling, features works dating back to the 1980s.
After his first presentation outside China, at the Magiciens de la terre exhibition in Paris in 1989, he dedicated the next ten years to working on his One Hundred Layers Of Ink series (1989-1999). In creating these works, he applied layers after layers of ink to rice paper, day after day, until the paper was completely saturated and started to take on a shimmery three-dimensional quality and moved into the realm of sculpture. One work from this series will be shown at 229.
This is a rare occasion where 229 will throw its doors open to the public; after this, private viewings are by appointment only. Much of the behind-the-scenes works, like preparing for art fairs, documentation, and such stuff, will be carried out at this new space.
RK Fine Art at Bangsar Village II will continue with their shows as usual – up to 10 exhibitions each year is starting to look like a norm – with a focus on young South-East Asian artists.
Meeting up with Koh, 50, ahead of the grand unveiling of 229 and the 10th anniversary exhibitions, he was all smiles during the interview, even as he laments that running a gallery – much less two – is “hazardous” to his sanity.
“If only I had the hindsight that it would be this difficult, I wouldn’t have started this at all,” says the former fashion designer and interior designer. “But after all these years in the business, I still get a kick out of stumbling upon a marvellous piece of art. I think it is this passion for art that kept me going, even though we went through some really tough patches along the way.”
RK Fine Art was a one-man show for over five years of the gallery’s existence. Up till two years ago, Koh was juggling the gallery and his interior design business at the same time. Profits from the interior design business were channelled into RK Fine Art.
“It was tough, yes, but I never once thought about throwing in the towel. Although I did complain a lot to my friends lah,” says the KL-born Koh sheepishly.
Today, there is a six-strong team behind the gallery which has represented artists from all over – from Malaysia and all around South-East Asia, from the Middle East to Taiwan, South Korea and China.
Koh, despite his misgivings (expressed with much melodrama during our chat) must be doing something right: The artists who were with the gallery from its early days – including Natee Utarit and Kedsuda Loogthong from Thailand, and Wong Perng Fey, Nadiah Bamadhaj and Chang Yoong Chia from Malaysia – are still with RK Fine Art after all these years.
“In the last three years, we have added a younger set of artists like Haffendi Anuar, Yeo Choo Kuan, Saiful Razman, Melissa Tan from Singapore and Promthum Woravut from Thailand,” says Koh.
Indeed, the gallery has a strong presence abroad – more so than within Malaysia, according to Koh – and is a familiar name in international art fairs.
An art collector himself, he says his favourite kind of art is “melancholic” ones.
“The kind of art where I can sit and look at it for hours, listen to some music, and then read a book,” he shares. This might look perplexing on paper, but Koh makes it sound so right.
Reminiscing about his childhood, he relates that he has always been a bit of a collector. “Or a hoarder, really,” he confesses with a laugh.
At one point, a young Koh had surreptitiously carted his favourite pieces from the family’s Nyonya ware from the kitchen cupboard into his room.
“I hid them under my bed and no one knew,” he relates. “We used them daily and pieces were always getting broken. Such a pity because they are so beautiful. So I kept them…and I still have some of them today!”
Koh didn’t stop there. By the time he left home forEngland, where he worked as a fashion designer, he has amassed a collection of ikat fabric from Sarawak which he left behind, and his mother mistook them for rags and used them accordingly.
“My old ikat fabrics! All gone by the time I returned,” he sighs.
Koh has spent his life collecting one thing or another.
“There are just so many things I like,” he says, adding that when he couldn’t afford to buy paintings when he was living inBritain, he turned to collecting English linocuts instead. Cheaper, but no less beautiful in his eyes.
And does he have his lifetime collections taking up much space in his home now?
“Strangely, I don’t have many things in my home now,” he is quick to answer.
But then he pauses, and then adds, “But all my friends think I do.”
“It is like with the artwork I have at home. I say I don’t have many, but perhaps that is subjective. They are even on the floor now,” he relates.
At any rate, Koh believes in two things: not to plan ahead “too much” because you never know what curveballs life throws at you, and that there is always a time in life where you will say, “What the heck, I will just do what I like.”
Which is partly why he now has two art spaces and no other side businesses (he stopped his interior design business because the gallery was taking too much of his time) to fall back on.
“It does seem like I am almost at that stage in life…almost!” he laughs.
I Am Ten will be showing at Richard Koh Fine Art at 2F-3, Level 2, Bangsar Village II, Kuala Lumpur, from June 10 to 24. The exhibition at 229, Jalan Maarof, Kuala Lumpur, will run from June 13 to July 1. Opening receptions are on June 10 (Richard Koh Fine Art) and June 13 (229). Visit rkfineart.com