Public art galleries usually differentiate themselves from private galleries by scholarship and by putting education at the forefront of their agenda, versus private galleries which tend to be run as businesses and for profit.
Malaysia is fortunate to have established public art galleries such as Balai Seni Negara (the National Art Gallery), Bank Negara Malaysia’s Museum and Art Gallery, and ILHAM Gallery (ILHAM).
Housed in the impressive Ilham Tower, ILHAM is a newer kid on the block, having been established in May 2015 by Yayasan Ilham.
In a sea of diverse and often complex artwork, one of ILHAM’s main aims is to translate that complexity in a way that is accessible to public audiences.
Rahel Joseph, Gallery Director, says, “At ILHAM, aside from organising exhibitions, more importantly, it is about education and public programming. It is about how we engage with the public and the ways in which we can build what we call the ILHAM community. We aim to communicate art to the public in a way that is accessible to a diverse audience, without oversimplifying anything.”
“Many people can feel intimidated when visiting an art gallery and we want people to feel that ILHAM is welcoming – not just for collectors, artists, or curators alone, but also all members of the public, especially younger visitors. We aspire to create a gallery-going culture and the best way is to inculcate it from young. We are first and foremost a public art space.”
Among the ways that ILHAM improves accessibility is through language. As far as possible, communications on exhibitions are in dual languages – Bahasa Malaysia and English. This applies to wall texts, worksheets, and publications.
Texts are written in clear language to make complex ideas accessible to the reader.
Rahel says, “The idea isn’t about making art confusing and complicated. We ask ourselves frequently – who is reading this? Who are we writing for? The idea isn’t about making ourselves look clever but to communicate complex ideas in a way that people understand. We test it among ourselves and if our team members can’t understand what we are trying to say, then it is very likely that our audiences will not understand it either.”
Meanwhile, the worksheets that ILHAM produces for primary and secondary school students take it a step further in helping them understand and appreciate the artworks displayed.
The worksheets are produced by the gallery team and ILHAM hopes to organise learning sessions with interested teachers so that they can use the worksheets and resource material with their 2 students.
“While we keep the ideas understandable in the worksheets, we believe that you don’t have to dumb it down for children. They are so much smarter in so many ways. We adapt the questions for them in a way that is engaging,” Rahel adds.
ILHAM also prides itself on its diverse range of cross-cultural programmes that help audiences further engage with the exhibitions on display and to enjoy them. For example, the gallery organised a teen workshop for their exhibition on photographic cultures in Malaysia, entitled Bayangnya itu Timbul Tenggelam, held from 25 July 2020 to 9 May 2021.
Writer and educator, Jo Kukathas, engaged and discussed themes and ideas relating to the exhibition. Then each teenager created content for ILHAM’s Instagram account from 23 to 29 November 2020. Their thought-provoking content explored issues related to gender, sexuality, family, and self-image.
Rahel says, “The hope is that we eventually build an art-going audience, where going to a gallery becomes the norm. Moving forward, we hope to complement these initiatives by conducting more outreach programmes, to be more inclusive of those currently outside of our community.”
Among ILHAM’s key priorities from 2020 to 2025 is “to support and contribute to the development of the local arts infrastructure and the visual art community in Malaysia.”
In this regard, it recently launched the ILHAM Art Show with the main aim of recognising and supporting contemporary artists in Malaysia.
The art show encourages artists to experiment with and create new work while simultaneously promoting Malaysian art and artists to larger audiences. The call for entries was from 20 May to 23 July 2021 and winners were selected by 1 September 2021.
“We were delighted to receive about 360 applications for the art show and we selected about 30 winners. The winners’ list was interesting as it comprised not only established artists but also those who had recently graduated. One of the most interesting proposals was from the Mah Meri community,” Rahel said.
For a regional perspective, the judging panel comprised Rahel Joseph and included art experts from the region such as Shabbir Hussain Mustafa (Senior Curator from the National Gallery Singapore) and Zoe Butt (Artistic Director from The Factory Contemporary Arts Centre in Vietnam). The artworks will be showcased from April to August 2022 at ILHAM Gallery.
Rahel encourages up-and-coming artists who wish to build their career and to stand out, to continue to create work, “Try new and different things. Don’t be afraid to experiment.”
She adds, “Do also read extensively, whether it is just about current events or deeper research into your areas of interest. In this way, your viewpoint and your work benefits from depth of thought and becomes more three-dimensional in execution.”
During the pandemic, ILHAM Gallery pivoted in the following ways following the closure of the space for the larger part of 2020 and 2021:
Cover image and all images in this article supplied by ILHAM Gallery.