Independent curator Tan Sei Hon believes outsider art needs to get more exposure in Malaysia.

He has curated shows featuring self-taught artists, which includes naive painters and authentic outsider artists. The first was the On The Corner in the contemporary art section in the exhibition Susurmasa in 2008. The second was In Our Own Way in 2010. Both exhibitions were held at the National Visual Arts Gallery in Kuala Lumpur.

“I’m interested in identifying artists who are proficient in their craft, but have no formal art education,” says Tan, who has worked on shows at National Visual Arts Gallery and Galeri Petronas.

There is a long list of individuals from the fringe – a middle-aged security guard who creates amazing doodles, an electrician with a penchant for geometrical shapes and a street masseur renowned for naive art – that Tan has encountered through the years, which has fuelled his passion in uncovering more outsider art names.

“Some of the names have come forward and presented their work for shows. Others, rather sadly, have just disappeared from the scene,” he reveals.

A work by Wan Jaafar Wan Derahman (aka Waja) called Jangan Marah (acrylic on canvas, 2010), which is presented in the late artist's no-frills, no-frame style – instead it's taped straight on to the wall. 

Through a recent collaboration with the Arch Kuala Lumpur City Art gallery (AKLCA), Tan has steadily made such outsider art shows more visible to the mainstream.

Last November, Tan presented From Malaysia With Love, featuring self-taught artists Angeloh Guik Choo and Chekri Mansor, at AKLCA, while the current We Are Self-Taught exhibition, which runs until this Thursday at AKLCA, has gone a step further with Tan curating a group show (16 artists).

What were the qualities required from the outsider artists when this exhibition was planned?

“A unique and personal approach that is markedly different from the many in the local art scene is the main criteria, while consistency and a head strong commitment to their personal artistic visions must rank as second in importance,” Tan reveals.

“The third though not necessarily acceptable to many, is the social background of the artist. This is important because their works, in my opinion, should reflect authentically their social status, concerns and everyday realities, as opposed to those who as aspire to be professional artists, whose considerations may be dictated by their training, current trends or the market.”

A visitor taking a photo of N. Shantamathe's Heart (pen and ink on wood, 2011). On the right is Ismail Baba's My Kampung.

For certain, We Are Self-Taught, featuring drawings, paintings and sculptures in non-traditional media and approaches, isn’t short on raw imagination and alternative creative currency. It features outsider artists like Mohd Nasir (Avroco), Bhanu Achan, Vong Ngiam Chee (Cheev), Chekri Mansor, Dennis Chan, George Daniel (Dany), Fathullah Luqman, Fai Zakaria, Ismail Baba, Jason Rao (J Sun), Sofian Sharifudin (Pyanz), Ummi Natasha Peie, Rahmat Haron, N. Shanthamathe, Thangarajoo (Raj) and Wan Jaafar Wan Derahman.

The show also pays tribute to two deceased artists – Mohd Nasir (Avroco) and Wan Jaafar Wan Derahman. Avroco’s Suffering, Hope And Flying (industrial paint on canvas, 2008) mirrors the late street artist/poet’s free-spirited vision, while Wan Jaafar Wan Derahman (Waja)’s work Jangan Marah (acrylic on canvas, 2010) centres on his signature focus on human relationships.

Performance artist/poet Rahmat Haron’s Jeritan A.M.A.N. (Anak Malaysia Anti Nuclear), channels Edvard Munch’s expressionist anxiety, while paying tribute to the anti-nuclear voices here.

Tan reveals that self-taught artists have made – and continue to make – undeniable contributions to the local art scene. Some of their makeshift methods, as he agrees, might seem illogical, but they do end up leading to profound works of art.

“In this context, the methods are just means to an end. It is considered makeshift because these artists are not trained nor are they too concerned with the durability of their works because it is not a commercial undertaking for them. What is important to them is that they are truthful to their artistic visions while realising it in direct, intuitive and spontaneous ways,” concludes Tan.

We Are Self-Taught is on at Arch Kuala Lumpur City Art Gallery (No. 27, Jalan Raja, Dataran Merdeka, Kuala Lumpur) until Jan 15. Opening times: 9am to 6.30pm daily. Admission free. More info: www.klcitygallery.com.