Malaysia’s urban art scene is booming. Street artists who would have once been arrested for vandalism now count amongst the country’s rising creative stars. Lauren Razavi reports from the streets of Kuala Lumpur.
The man next to me belches out a big, rasping burp. I look over at him and exhale a puff of my cigarette.
This probably isn’t the behaviour the Vallette Gallery expects outside its doors. The high-end art space, in an upmarket Kuala Lumpur neighbourhood, is more used to fine sculptures, installation projects and light chit chat over a glass of claret.
Then he burps again, aided by a swig of Sprite.
He looks like a skater, a rebellious 20-year-old with oil-smear moustache, unruly hair and a sleeve of tattoos. He’s the kind of kid that rattles around the bowls of the Putra Jaya Skate Park or gets scolded by the police for riding the rails of a municipal stairwell.
A few days later I find myself meeting him again, this time in his studio. His name is Donald Abraham and he is a skater, but he’s also in his 30s and one of the most promising new talents in Malaysia’s urban art scene.
His studio doubles up as a makeshift apartment, sometimes for his wife and young daughter too.
The walls are divided between floor-to-ceiling windows and colourful canvases that are just as big. A curtain splits the warehouse into separate sections for living and working, both littered with paintbrushes and artworks in progress.
“You’re from England, right?” he says as he clears a space for me to sit on the floor of his workspace. “I went to London once. It was a cool but terrible city.”
Donald has an ashtray in one hand and a children’s toy in the other. “When I got there, I had spent all my money on the flight, so I slept on the streets. It really was cold but I met some good people.”
Originally from Labuan, an island off Malaysia, Donald had never planned a career as an artist.
He only learnt to read aged 13, but has been sketching – “only for fun” – since he was five. Skateboarding was his passion as a teenager and his only experience of art as a young adult was the occasional custom-design board for a friend.
Donald started experimenting with painting on canvas just four years ago, after a skateboarding injury left him off his deck for six months. From these humble beginnings, his artistic reputation has grown quickly and organically.
“I just put some photos online for fun, and people liked them,” he shrugs.
Donald’s colourless, comic-style sketches in his notebooks are swiftly developed into enormous, distinctive wall canvases that now sell for more than $5,000 a piece.
“There’s definitely been a marked increase in the popularity of street art,” says Patrice Vallette, director of the Vallette Gallery and one of the first people to pay attention to Donald’s work. “More galleries are showing the art, and the artists are good at promoting themselves online.”
Christine Ngh, founder of Malaysian arts marketing company Bumblebee Consultancy, agrees.
“Traditionally, Malaysia has not been associated with street art, but now it’s one of the key features of our country’s scene,” she says. “Urban art is being discovered and celebrated in Malaysia.”
Wandering the Kuala Lumpur streets, it’s difficult to believe that graffiti was considered vandalism and deemed illegal here less than a decade ago.
Through one of Bumblebee’s central projects, Urban Art Central Malaysia, Christine has been widely involved with showcasing and promoting new artists from the urban scene, as well as educating and engaging local communities on the vibrant art forms in their midst.
“There’s now a better understanding from the public about what is vandalism and what is artwork,” she explains.
In 2010, the KUL Sign Festival was one of the first street art projects to be commissioned. Its aim was to revive the grey, concrete walls along the Klang River.
Today, the area is brimming with colourful urban images: futuristic cityscapes, cartoon characters, everyday street scenes and political messages have been meticulously crafted in reds, yellows, blues, greens, and just about any other colour you can think of.
Away from the waterside, street art has blossomed in KL’s Central Market too, particularly in an area close to the busy Pasar Seni LRT train station, and on Jalan Pudu Lama – a street set between down-and-dirty Chinatown and the upmarket shopping district of Bukit Bintang.
Formal exhibitions, sometimes produced on commission for a space, have also appeared in hotels, banks and shopping malls in the city. The widespread presence of graffiti and urban art across the Malaysian capital seamlessly showcases the diversity of those with an interest in the form.
Women play an active role in the urban art community here too. Aisyah Baharuddin organised a festival called Padang Jawa Street Art, covering entire streets in fun, tongue-in-cheek illustrations of cartoon faces, created through collaboration with children, students and artists.
Fine artist Nur Farhanah Saffie was commissioned by Shah Alam City Council to complete a city beautification project, Laman Seni 7, in which she produces detailed wall murals of animals, forests and landscapes.
Christine believes the hunger for urban art in Malaysia will continue, and sees a bright future ahead for the scene.
“We have reached the point where the Malaysian public wants more, and there are not enough projects to satisfy everyone,” she says.
“Promoters and advocates have to work harder to make more happen – and faster. Community groups and organisations are getting more projects rolling all the time.”
Back in Donald’s studio, sharing a cigarette over an astray made from a Coca Cola can, I’m curious to find out why Donald thinks Malaysian urban art is garnering so much attention these days.
“The Internet generation are very eager and have high expectations,” he says. “We live in a more fast-paced urban community than ever before.”
“People are always interested in something new, especially if it’s cool and looks interesting,” he adds. “And good art? Good art is always like that.”
When to go
Time your visit with the annual KL Urban Music and Art Festival by EDM Rockstar in April, a free festival celebrating cutting-edge sounds and visuals in the heart of the Malaysian capital.
Malaysia Airlines has direct flights to Kuala Lumpur from the UK. The flight time from London is around 13 hours.
Find out more about Donald Abraham and his upcoming 2015 solo exhibition here: www.vallettegallery.com/artists/donald-abraham.