Real people, narration and conversations
By Ian Tee
Sophia Shung is the executive director of Suma Orientalis, a Kuala Lumpur-based gallery founded in 2015. It specialises in Asian art and is committed to showcasing the work of emerging Malaysian artists. The gallery has hosted the debut solo exhibitions of Jane Stephanny and Sofia Haron, and represents UOB Painting of the Year award recipients Ong Cai Bin and Tiong Chai Heing, among others. In this conversation, Sophia talks about her entry into the art world, the gallery's latest curatorial projects and the importance of dedicating time to serve in the Penang city council.
Could you talk about your background and what led you to start Suma Orientalis with Kris Lee?
Many years ago, Kris invited me to visit the retrospective exhibition of Datuk Tay Mo Leong. At that time, my love for art was rekindled and I suddenly recalled spending a whole semester break painting murals on the walls of ten classrooms when I was in high school.
Kris and I went deep into different aspects of the art industry, studying art appraisal and auctioneering. Eventually, we qualified ourselves to be members of the International Society of Appraisers in the United States. We wanted to share this knowledge as well as promote a different sense of aesthetics. That’s how Suma Orientalis came about.
How would you describe the Malaysian or Kuala Lumpur art scene? Are there any challenges specific to starting and running a contemporary art gallery there?
The inaugural Malaysian Pavilion at the 58th Venice Biennale is an achievement for the team and a long-awaited stimulant for our art scene. As the saying goes, “keeping is harder than winning.” I am more interested to see what happens after this chapter, how we continue to make Malaysian art relevant to Southeast Asia and the world.
I noticed a chasm among art practitioners from various linguistic groups, which may be attributed to their ideological differences. Though the necessity to bring them together is arguable, but who knows? It could be helpful to beat the blind spots and maybe even creating opportunities to synergise for mutual benefit.
I postulate that the common sentiment among contemporary art galleries in Kuala Lumpur is an eagerness to see how the younger generation of collectors relate to the art of our time. We are also excited to know what issues our artists will speak about, without being banal and wearisome. I believe most people have no fixed solution for these concerns, and we can only tread mindfully. The path we take today will be regarded as history by people in the future.
What does Suma Orientalis hope to bring to the Malaysian audiences?
We love the artists we represent and we hope more people enjoy what they create. We are after real people, real narration and real conversations.
Previously, we have had solo exhibitions for hidden talents like Donald Abraham, Jane Stephanny and Sofia Haron. They are promising Malaysian artists yearning to be seen and we are more than happy to continue to work together with them.
The gallery in Petaling Jaya is divided into the main exhibition space and a smaller area called Apotheca. How do the two spaces function in your gallery programme? And what have been the responses from gallery visitors and collectors to this approach?
At any time, our main gallery can hold a decently sized exhibition. Artists have the liberty to respond to the unique features of the space such as the air well and water features by creating site-specific works. Meanwhile, Apotheca serves as an intimate experimental space, focusing on new media, installation or generally thought-provoking works.
When a new visitor comes in and has viewed the main exhibition, we invite them into Apotheca which is hidden behind a curtain. For us, this entrance is almost ceremonial, to build anticipation similar to one around the discovery of a secret pub. We have used the enclosed space to bring audiences in close proximity with Sherman Ong’s videos from the 'Nusantara' series, and also emerging artist Lith Ng Yee Leng’s installation of phallic-shaped resin casts. Each cast contains messages from girls who have had unpleasant or queer sexual experiences.
Suma Orientalis will be featuring a few pop-up exhibitions in conjunction with the Kuala Lumpur Architecture Festival (KLAF 2019). Could you tell us more about the project and artists involved?
Art and architecture are interconnected, and this was a focus when KLAF 2019 director Dr. Tan Loke Mun conceptualised this year’s edition. We gladly agreed to his invitation to curate art exhibitions as part of the festival and ended up with three shows!
The first show, 'Superstructure', is our response to the core of architecture. It features work by Australia-based Malaysian artist Jacky Cheng and Japanese conceptual artist Nakayama Hitori. Cheng, who was trained in architecture as well, will be showing her meticulously hand-cut paper bas-reliefs which evoke affectionate memories of family life and traditional ritual practices. Hitori will be showing his sculptural prototypes, and it is a prelude to his upcoming solo exhibition at Suma Orientalis. The sculptor is well-known for his public art commissions, particularly the 26-metre high 'A Celebration of Our Blue Sky' (2008) in Karpal Singh Drive, Penang.
'Malaysian Identity' is our collaboration with Malaysian collector Prof. Dr. Gopal Rampal Krishna. Paintings depicting places of worship in Malaysia will take centrestage in this show, showcasing the cultural richness and refined architectural design of these landmarks.
The third show, 'The Species of Spaces', looks at forgotten pockets of public space and how society has interacted with them. This series of photographs by Chong Kok Choon document the unique sense of aesthetics arising out of unconscious, concerted mark-making in graffiti and vandalism. The examination of obsolete and defaced public amenities, such as payphone booths, is timely when the architects and town planners come together for the festival.
You are involved in curating the inaugural ArtPenang, which is set to happen in 2020. What can visitors expect from it and how does it differ from the George Town Festival?
ArtPenang is still in the early stages of planning, but it will concentrate on visual art. This sets it apart from the direction of George Town Festival which is centred around performing arts and heritage-related elements.
Penang is well-known as a street art hub in Southeast Asia, in addition to having George Town listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. ArtPenang aims to be the bridge connecting the city's rich heritage and street art scene to the fine art world. So stay tuned for the official announcement!
On top of work related to the gallery, you also serve in the Penang city government. Why is this role important to you and did the experience change your perception towards cultural policy?
To be precise, I serve as a councillor representing non-governmental organisations in the Penang Island City Council. One of the council's chief concerns is to rejuvenate and repopulate George Town, and I think that place-making through the arts is an important aspect of this endeavour. I am grateful for this privilege to serve the city, as it enables me to approach the cultural agenda in a more holistic manner. When one is deep in the industry, it’s easy to fall into a mentality of entitlement.
Have we ever considered why visual art deserves governmental support which is an allocation of public funds and resources? How is visual art different from literature, music, performing arts and sports? Who does art serve and what are we hoping to achieve with art? If we want art to leave a greater impact, especially in the younger generations, then it is imperative to make it accessible to the masses.
Are there any future programmes you'd like to share?
We are currently showing the surrealist photogram works by Ricardo Chavez Tovar, a Mexican artist who is also a fine art lecturer in Equator College, Penang. Ricardo’s imagery is strongly infused with literature, historical and philosophical references. We also have Marvin Chan's solo exhibition in the line-up, featuring his recent paintings and sculptures.
We will be announcing our next project 'My First Solo' soon. It is an open call for artists, regardless of their years of practice, to come forth to discuss the challenges holding them back from showcasing their works in a one-person exhibition. Together, we will consider the course of action to be taken in order to make their first solo shows happen.
'Superstructure' by Nakayama Hitori and Jacky Cheng is on view at APW Bangsar, from 22 to 28 June 2019. 'Malaysian Identity' and 'The Species of Spaces' are on display at RUANG By Think City, from 22 June to 7 July 2019.