There is no shortage of contemporary art exhibitions in Kuala Lumpur. Every other week there will be a few galleries – big and small – in town launching new shows and introducing new artists.

The art gallery system, which has assumed the gatekeeper role and nurtured generations of artists, has become an industry standard.

Undoubtedly, the gallery model is where you can find a real social network for people interested in art.

Is there a need to rethink the idea of this gallery and artist connection? That’s a question to divide opinion.

What is certain is there is a huge amount of undiscovered art – and talent – to be found outside the art gallery circuit. Be it emerging artists relying on Instagram for exposure or art hobbyists wanting to take the big leap forward, there is little reason to ignore these artists seeking a platform.

Is there also a new generation of art lovers who are looking for something different?

The SH/FT exhibition, now showing at the White Box and Black Box in Publika, Kuala Lumpur, is not here to provide big answers. But it is a bold step where a government agency steps in to create a strategic platform to recognise the artistic abilities of local talents and fuel the creative economy.

The exhibition is an initiative parked under the Art In The City programme by the Cultural Economy Development Agency (CENDANA).

SH/FT closes one of our campaigns that started in 2018. It is a contemporary-focused effort that contributes to the sustainability of the independent artists, collectives and art associations that are working on their own and require more platforms to showcase their work to the wider public,” says Izan Satrina Mohd Sallehudin, founding CEO of CENDANA.

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Alya Hatta’s wall-sized work 6:30 AM (MP4 video, 2019) at the SH/FT exhibition in KL. Photo: The Star/Yap Chee Hong

SH/FT came together through an open call (April-May 2019), attracting 94 submissions. A team of independent curators, featuring indie gallerist Sharmin Parameswaran, art consultant Nur Hanim Mohamed Khairuddin and James Ly (co-founder of alternative space Minut Init), picked 176 artworks by 42 emerging Malaysian artists.

“Open call exhibitions are required ever so often to invite, expand and include a wider base of artists and creative types into our visual arts industry,” says Nur Hanim.

In SH/FT, names like Ng Kim Peow, Ajim Juxta, Lee Mok Yee and C.C. Kua might be familiar enough to art scene regulars. But let’s not forget the works coming from the street art scene, social projects, music/arts festivals, photography circles, design/illustrator groups and the architecture community.

With two gallery areas divided between analogue and digital elements, things are kept fresh, edgy and exciting. In terms of scale and content, the viewer has a substantial amount of works to discover.  The curators made sure to not keep the exhibition “safe” and predictable.

SH/FT is a change in position, direction, thinking and action. The word shift in itself is not radical. It’s how we apply the shift to ourselves that matters,” says  Sharmin, a curator who has worked with an array of independent artists and collectives.

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The SH/FT exhibition features 176 contemporary artworks by 42 emerging Malaysian artists. Photo: CENDANA

SH/FT offers various mediums, including painting, audio visual, collages, woodwork and sculpture, the artwork touches on contemporary topics such as the effects of mass consumerism, mental health, the female body, the nature of personal relationships and the impermanence of modern life.

To draw a more cohesive narrative, the exhibition is divided into three themes: identity, technology and pop culture.

“The sub-genres of identity, technology and pop culture are to frame the exhibition (and artworks) in relation to today’s context. Again, what are we thinking of in today’s hyper-digital, over-exposed connected world? The areas for questioning and re-imagining are endless,” she adds.

The Black Box might be the best place to start if you’re interested in digital art culture and its many related forms.

Tomi Heri’s Sunflower, a video projection on transparent cotton, is the street artist’s tongue-in-cheek take on how in today’s media culture of streaming content, we are constantly staring at the video buffering icon. He seems to be asking the viewers to enjoy the icon instead of dreading it.

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Tajrin Faruqi’s installation series Merdekakah Kita?, which is part of the Black Box exhibitPhoto: The Star/Yap Chee Hong

Alya Hatta’s 6:30AM video wall has its crowd-pleasing Insta-ready qualities, but the work’s underlying theme seems to suggest deep anxieties, especially when national identity is dictated by the power of the state. Tajrin Faruqi’s installation series Merdekakah Kita?, featuring a college dorm mattress, mineral water bottles and the national anthem played on video loop, is a strange one. Perhaps, this work reflects the lost spirit of intellectual freedom and critical thought.

Fancy a more contemplative, reflective experience? Then the White Box is right place for you.

“The artworks exhibited here deal mostly with identity of self in relation to the nation and interestingly a number of strong voices from women artists confronting body identities,” says Sharmin.

Photographer I-Ling Yee’s works, which are hung in a small corner of the White Box, have an unassumingly strong presence. Her photographs deal with the female identity in the rural Sabahan landscape, with a notable focus on the voiceless, especially young mothers.

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Yati’s Familiar Or Trauma (yarn, thread and sequin embroidered onto calico, 2019), a disturbing take on embroidery. It informed by the modern female experience, which is often dictated by societal pressure. Photo: The Star/Yap Chee Hong

Shiela Samsuri, an architect by profession, offers Human Remnants, a conceptual work questioning of the “elements” that make us human. The work is presented through a periodic table in the form of digital art and acrylic on tar (yes, road tar).

Kara Inez and Lith Ng’s works, which are presented in conversation with each other, focus on topics surrounding the body. Inez’s work touches on endometriosis and dysfunctional female bodies, while Ng’s work questions the lack of sex education – a taboo subject – in Malaysia.

“As you can see, creative energy exists in our country, a nation deep in its own chaotic uncertainty. There are many concerns and timely topics fuelling our independent artists and collectives, and this further extends to creatives not within the visual arts industry. This exhibit reaches out to everybody,” says Sharmin.


SH/FT is on at the Black Box and White Box, MAPKL, Publika, Solaris Dutamas in Kuala Lumpur till Aug 11.  Opening hours: weekdays (11am to 7pm) and weekends (11am to 8pm). Free admission.