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Lim Wei-Ling, owner and founder of Wei-Ling Gallery and Wei-Ling Contemporary in Kuala Lumpur, knows just how serendipitous some things in life can be.
When she talks about art and the artists she works with, it is a conversation that rolls along a fiery path of blazing red, a story of forging ahead and taking risks, and sometimes, betting it all on the last metaphorical dollar, and believing that what is meant to be will fall right into place.
After all, Townhouse Gallery, the first art gallery in KL she helmed way back in 2002, was initially meant to be nothing more than a studio for her to do her painting.
“Then artists started approaching us to ask if we could represent them, and from one show, we did two shows, then five shows the next year, and so on,” relates Lim, an art history major and jewellery designer by training who spent a good decade or so in stockbroking before delving into the vast world of buying and selling art.
She recalls that the journey that brought her to where she is today was fraught with challenges and was hardly smooth sailing. Serendipity or not, this is also a tale of hard work, the result of a strong will to see things through, and taking on each new day as it comes.
“It was a steep learning curve, but we pushed forward because we had a strong belief in our artists, one that is still driving me today in many ways. And of course, we also wanted to take contemporary Malaysian art beyond our shores, to show that we have so much more than paddy fields and coconut trees to offer,” Lim, who is in her 40s, says.
Today, she runs two galleries in KL full time. The first one, renamed Wei-Ling Gallery, moved to its current premises in Brickfields in 2005, and Wei-Ling Contemporary opened at The Gardens Mall in 2011.
“Many might think this is a male-dominated area, but women are just as capable as men in doing the job. There are many trailblazing gallerists who are women, like Victoria Miro from England and Mary Boone from the US, to look up to and be inspired by. At the end of the day, it just boils down to how the individual, whether man or woman, runs the gallery and builds relationships with the people they work with.”
Hitting the ground running, the first major international exhibition organised by Wei-Ling Gallery was a collaboration with Amin Gulgee Gallery in Karachi, Pakistan, where the works of 18 Malaysian artists were shown in an exhibition in Pakistan in 2006.
Well, why hold back when things are ripe for the picking?
“We are at a time where the world is looking East, they are looking at Asia. If you could choose a time to be a Malaysian artist, you couldn’t choose a better time than now!” she enthuses.
Lim, whose expertise extends to advising art collectors and organisations on what to collect, both from an aesthetic as well as an investment angle, is convinced that this immersion in the world of art is her calling in life.
“It is a life mission,” she says, simply. “I cannot imagine not doing this any more, I have made a commitment to this, to the gallery and the artists we work with, and I have to see it through. I have to finish what I started. I always say to the artists we work with that we are going to grow old together!”
It is an exciting journey indeed: one would be hard-pressed to say any less of a gallery that is the first representative from Malaysia to have been selected to participate in three installations of the prestigious Art Basel art fair in Hong Kong from 2013 to 2015.
In 2015, Anurendra Jegadeva, one of the main artists the gallery represents, had his installations featured at the Singapore Art Museum in conjunction with SG50, and also at the National Taiwan Museum of Fine Art as the only Malaysian artist representative at the Asian Art Biennale 2015.
Last year, the gallery was the only representative from South-East Asia selected to exhibit at New York’s Volta NY, where Ivan Lam’s works were featured.
Lim’s gallery is the largest commercial art space in Malaysia and is also a prolific publisher of art publications. Since its inception more than a decade ago, it has printed up to 100 books/catalogues documenting and archiving the work of local artists.
“We have evolved so much from when we first started out 15 years ago,” muses Lim.
“Back then, we were just doing paintings and drawings; it was a time where even showing sculptures was considered going out on a limb. Today, artists are expressing themselves in different ways, and being evocative, or provocative for that matter, in creating fresh and exciting work that resonate with an audience.”
In conjunction with WOLO group of hotels, the gallery has set up the WOLO artist’s residency programme, where international artists live and work out of Kuala Lumpur for two months to realise an art project.
The first batch of eight artists came through the residency in 2015. The residency has now tied up with the Kuandu Museum of Fine Arts to collaborate on a reciprocal residency between Malaysia and Taiwan.
Lim was selected as an advisor to oversee the judging committee for the UOB Painting of the Year art prize for two years running in 2013 and 2014 in Malaysia, and was also a regional judge for the competition which covered Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand and Indonesia.
Gallery-wise, she prides herself on the long-term relationships forged over the years with the artists the gallery represents, which include Anu and Lam, Amin Gulgee, Chin Kong Yee, Chong Kim Chiew, Claudia Bueno, Diana Lui, Hamidi Hadi, HH Lim, Ruzzeki Harris, Sean Lean, Yau Bee Ling and Zulkifli Yusoff, just to name a few.
“I’ve worked with these artists for so long that they are like family – it sounds like a cliche, but it is true!”
Great art, says Lim, comes from artists who make work that they can validate and can stand by.
“What do I look for in the artists we work with? The one word answer is ‘honesty’.”
What she is looking for in an artist, she says, are those who make art for themselves and constantly push themselves to create the best they can at that point of time.
“I look for artists who have integrity and honesty, artists who don’t compromise, artists who give their work their all and do not allow anyone – be it collector, curator or gallery – to sway them.
“There should be depth to their work, and there should be progress, because I believe that great art is never repetitive. Art is alive, it is a part of the artist and a reflection of the times we live in, so it should never, ever be stagnant,” she states.
When someone pushes out work that looks suspiciously identical to all other work that came before, she observes, the lack of progress is rather telling.
Creativity knows no bounds and inspiration must be allowed to roam free, and no one knows this better than Lim, who firmly believes that a gallery is only as good as the artists it represents.
“I know for a fact that history is being made now with this group of artists we are working with and we want to be certain that we are instrumental in making that happen.
“Some of them are going to be recognised as some of the greatest artists of our time, I know that much,” she says.
In the ever-evolving world of art, anything is possible when the promise of great change hangs in the air.
And Lim, ever the visionary, is already there.