Over the past few weeks The Citymaker has published a series of podcasts and articles to mark International Women’s Day. Part of that has served to highlight the important work that Think City is doing to support women and girls in low-income and at-risk communities through initiatives such as K2K, safety audits, women’s initiatives under the Nature Based Climate Adaptation Programme, not to mention horticulture and health programmes related to Think City’s urban farm in Penang, Kebun Kita(r).
We’ve also used the series to cast a light on some of the inspirational citymakers in and around Think City. One such figure is Suryani Senja Alias, who sits on Think City’s board of directors. A former lawyer and investment banker, Suryani is the founder of CULT Gallery in Bukit Tunku in Kuala Lumpur, a private gallery showcasing modern and contemporary art from Malaysia and around Asia.
Suryani also founded Senijari, an online heritage-inspired lifestyle brand that is reshaping the way we think about artisanal crafts and their role in contemporary design.
We began by asking Suryani about her background and the strange journey that has led her to a career championing creative industries.
Suryani Senja Alias: I come from Malaysia, from the North in Kelantan. I started out life as a lawyer and worked for over 10 years in Europe, in London and Geneva, in law and investment banking. I came back to Malaysia around 2003 and found myself in the creative industry. And now I’m a founder of an art gallery called CULT Art Gallery. I also founded an artisanal lifestyle store called Senijari, [an] online [brand]. I do a lot of cultural projects as a consultant and adviser, apart from being a board member of think city. And that has been my life in the last 15 years.
How did you become involved with Think City?
Suryani Senja Alias: I have no idea how I landed on the board. I remember that it was a series of meetings and conversations and very exciting ideas that I shared with a lot of colleagues at that time. We were very influenced by…Richard Florida and the idea of sticky cities. I think it was a report from the World Bank on how talents are attracted to cities which are liveable and creative. It’s a very exciting model for cities to grow more organically through creativity and talent rather than just relying on foreign investment.
Various conversations led to the idea of setting up an urban regeneration arm for Khazanah, because all of us were working with the government investment arm, Khazanah, at that time. At the same time, Penang and Malacca became listed as a UNESCO heritage site or UNESCO heritage city, and at the time the government needed someone to manage the listing and status that the two cities had just acquired. And because Khazanah was also investing in Penang at that time, it became like a convergence: the idea of developing a city through creativity and talent and urban regeneration and using various tools like art and creativity and cultural mapping to regenerate a city. Think City was set up in Penang to become [an] experiment [laughs]. So, that’s how I became involved: with a series of conversations and a common sharing of ideas on how to make cities liveable,
And what about CULT? How did your journey lead you to become a gallerist?
Suryani Senja Alias: Actually, it was a childhood dream. I grew up loving art and literature. And my first choice was to do art history and literature, but growing up in Asia, and Malaysia is no exception, everyone’s expected to be either a lawyer, engineer or doctor [laughs]. So, the closest I could get to realise my dream was to be a lawyer. I guess I just put the dream aside for a while. Then, even in London, while I was practicing law, I would go and take classes in Central Saint Martins on curating and drawing. And I would join Christie’s, the auction house, their contemporary art appreciation nights, to learn about contemporary art for months, in the evening after work. So it never died, I guess.
The timing was great. I left Khazanah and I started doing art [which is] what I’ve always wanted to do. You learn about the world in a completely different way. You learn about history in a completely different way. You learn about technology and philosophy and religion in a completely different medium, which is art.
It’s a fascinating and nuanced way to acquire knowledge and understanding, through art. Khazanah gave me the opportunity to spend a lot of time with art, through [its] art collection. And when I first chambered as a law student I landed in probably the only law firm in Malaysia where the founder’s a major art collector. The firm was full of the best Malaysian modern art on the walls. I suppose you kind of absorb everything somehow, and it culminated in setting up an art gallery one day.
What need are private galleries like CULT providing that Malaysia’s public galleries and collections either aren’t providing or won’t meet?
Suryani Senja Alias: Education and programming. The public infrastructure and public spaces for art, and the ecosystem for art in Malaysia is still relatively underdeveloped. We don’t have a museum-going culture and we do not integrate art into our school system [and curriculum] very well. The awareness of art and culture, I would say, is pretty low in Malaysia, unless you grow up in a cultured household and you yourself have an interest in art or culture.
The private galleries open up this world to people who want to explore. Quality programming: the private galleries have access to better talent and they can pay for better talent. So they pay for highly qualified curators, academics to write about art, to speak on panels and create interesting talks and seminars. And they also document art in a way that I think that public institutions have done less of. That connects the live issues in art and culture right now, and connect them to everyday life.
It’s so important in a place like Malaysia, where everything is quite political [and] sensitive. A lot of public institutions will not be controversial. They will not present art exhibitions that could offend public sensitivities or political sensitivities or religious sensitivities. And I think this is where the private art galleries step in.
On that subject of sensitivities and wider society. Can you explain what links art and urban regeneration?
Suryani Senja Alias: I think art really provides the content and character for any form of urban regeneration. A city without character or depth or authenticity is pretty soulless. And I think that’s why we need elements of our own local culture, local art, local crafts, to be in any work on urban regeneration. It needs to be incorporated into design, into content, into wayfinding. Art and design go well together. Crafts and design go well together. And when I say design, it’s not just designing in terms of interior designing, but it’s designing public spaces.
One of the roles of art is to document the collective memories of the society. The public space should reflect who we are: our culture and our identity. [Urban regeneration] without art or crafts, or elements of culture, and the storytelling and the design that go with it; that space will not be authentic, it won’t have the depth of character that we need for our cities to be alive and distinct from any other city.
Picking up on that point about crafts. What role do traditional crafts have to play in that regeneration? Where do they fit into a contemporary setting?
Suryani Senja Alias: I attended a conference once and this Indonesian guy, a professor, said the primary role of crafts is to provide contentment and happiness. The whole idea of making something and achieving it while completing something. It does provide a sense of achievement and contentment. At a larger level, I think traditional crafts in Malaysia haven’t been presented very well in public spaces. There’s a lot of potential for storytelling. There’s so much history and stories and folklore, as well as problem-solving, in crafts. As well as visual designs in crafts that have not been tapped and presented in our public spaces through content and through stories.
I think that would add a lot of value to any regeneration of any city. It reminds people about our history and our origins. Crafts go back centuries, unlike, you know, modern art, which is much more recent. In Malaysia, our master artisans, our equivalents of Leonardo da Vinci, have been around for centuries and have created new techniques [and] inventions. We should celebrate it because it adds character depth and authenticity to any cultural mapping that we do in our cities and public spaces.
Shifting gears slightly, how well are women artists and artisans represented in Malaysia?
Suryani Senja Alias: Most craftspeople in Malaysia are female. What’s striking is that they earn much less than the male craftspeople. One of the reasons is that they are still not very visible. They have less time to promote themselves or market themselves because they’re also taking care of the family, bringing up children. And they have less access to funding. So they’re well-represented in [that] there are many craftswomen around, but they are less compensated for their skill because, [in a practical sense] they have less time to promote themselves and to market themselves effectively.
In the art world, I think there’s still a misconception that if a female artist gets married, she’s less interested in art and she’s not so serious anymore. That if you want to be a serious contemporary artist as a woman, it’s better that you don’t get married. There’s no [comparable] expectation for male artists. I’ve heard collectors say that: “She’s married now. I guess we won’t see much of her art anymore. I don’t think I’m going to buy so much anymore.” [The idea that] her career is going to go down the drain after marriage because she won’t have as much time to spend on her art.
When collectors buy less of you, your value is suppressed and you’re less visible. So I think the visibility and the fact that there’s still an unequal distribution of housework and child-rearing work between a man and a woman in the household. That does affect the career of a lot of female artists and their visibility because they have less time to be out there, to do shows and to hustle the galleries and the collectors. Unless they don’t get married, right? It’s not so much an under-representation: there’s less visibility because there’s less support for women artists at home. Especially when married; they’re not expected to spend all their time in a studio.
How do we tackle and change those mindsets? To increase the visibility of women working in crafts or the arts and challenge those prejudices?
Suryani Senja Alias: Support from collectors will help. If major collectors and museums make it a point to support talented female artists, document them, give them special exhibitions, just as they do with most talented artists. And for major collectors to make the move of visibly supporting female artists.
In society, there should be advocacy to support women artists at home with childcare and household work and not hold it against them. It’s more like a perception change: for major galleries and major collectors and public institutions and museums to make it a point [to think] when they have an exhibition: we definitely need female artists here because there are only male artists.
Sometimes galleries don’t think about it because they [only] think about who’s there, who’s visible. And most of the time, those are male artists. If you make it a point to have exhibitions…[that] create more visibility for female artists and create interesting platforms for documenting female artists, celebrating female artists and collecting female artists for public collections, it’s a big signal that female artists are just as talented, and as valuable.
On that topic, your own career path has taken you from banking and law to the creative sector. What more do we need to do to you think needs to be done to make arts, crafts and the creative industries valued and tenable as careers in Malaysia.
Suryani Senja Alias: One of the most important things, on a policy level, is to integrate art and creative education. I think that would increase awareness and create successive generations of art collectors, artists, people who appreciate art and culture and include it in their everyday life. That would be a game-changer, at a policy level, to integrate art into our education system. And that includes [traditional] crafts. Creative education, I think, is key to strengthening our ecosystem and to actually have a lot more systematic integration between crafts and art with design, architecture, film and other parts of the creative industries like fashion.
[Often] it seems as though they’re not talking to each other, whereas, in order to enhance our creative industries, they should be adding value to each other. We still don’t have that systematic integration [or] enough platforms where we bring all the disciplines together, so that they can feed off each other.
For example, [look at] Thailand, where crafts have been integrated into design of hotels, into interior design. It happened because of the financial crisis in the nineties. Because of that a lot of architects ended up in the villages, doing crafts, and they discovered there were so many techniques and different designs and visuals that they could use for interior design and architecture. That hasn’t happened yet in Malaysia, and it could happen quickly if there is a systematic integration of all of these disciplines. In marrying the disciplines, I think you would create a disruption in our creative industries, art and crafts included, and [create] more visibility… [more] use of art and crafts [as] cultural content in public spaces.
We don’t know who our major artists are because we don’t see their works in public spaces. We don’t see their works in sculpture parks. We don’t see their works on roundabouts. We don’t see their works on external walls. We don’t see their design in any public spaces. We need a major signal that we care about art and culture and it has to be in public spaces so that it’s visible to everyone and everyone can engage with art publicly.
Finally, policy. The interventions need to come through policy as well. We have a pretty outdated cultural policy and we don’t have [anything] like a national arts council. Those things would help because resources like investment in ecosystems and infrastructure [can follow] when you actually have a dedicated policy for art and culture. Then you have the strategic intervention in terms of funding, creating that world-class cultural infrastructure for the country.
We can’t let you go without getting some recommendations from you. Who are the young and emerging talents whose work is exciting you right now?
Suryani Senja Alias: I mostly collect female artists because…simply…I like their work. Among the young, emerging artists, even though they don’t have a big body of work yet, people like Nia Khalisa, Iona Danald, Hana Zamri and Ain Rahman. They’re quite bold in exploring new mediums for their work: there’s textile art, they’ve explored video, charcoal…and paper, you know, rice paper, as well as mixed media and installation.
I think female artists do that particularly well because they always have to distinguish themselves in order to stand out. And also because, in the domestic world, you come across a lot more materials. Textiles, for example, you do a lot more things with textiles and plants and things like that. The young female artists are really standing out especially because they are really bold in using different materials. With ‘Me Too’ and the feminist messages coming through very strongly now, they’re also exploring that side of things in their work. And people are paying attention because of that global ‘Me Too’ movement. So, I think these young artists have a strong backing behind them from this global movement. And that’s an exciting thing to see because they become braver and bolder.
7 Ways Of Seeing, a young artists exhibition celebrating the works of Amir Mansor, Ain Rahman, Faiz Mahdon, Hana Zamri, Haz Yusup, Mazlan Samawi and Nia Khalisa is showing at CULT Gallery from March 29 to April 12 2021.