Connecting Collectivity

Clarissa Lim Kye Lee and Yap Sau Bin in conversation

This conversation builds on a lineage of dialogue between Clarissa Lim Kye Lee (2022-2023 Emerging Curator) and Yap Sau Bin (educator, curator, and artist) that has developed over the past three years or so. Often gathering over food, these discussions involve thinking critically about social practices around art, arts collectives, and in general, sharing gossip about the art world around them. When given the opportunity to reflect on the discussions that took place in Kuala Lumpur as part of Making Mamak: A conversation on collective spatial practices of art communities in the Malay Archipelago, Sau Bin remarked that after the event, there was much left unsaid.

Making Mamak workshop, Papan Haus, Kuala Lumpur, 27 April 2024. © Constant/Variable

Defining collective in the Malaysian context

Thanks, Clarissa, for having me in the Making Mamak conversation and to continue it here! It would be good to refresh me on the journey of your research and to share your thoughts or findings, if any, on collectivizing vis-à-vis artistic and spatial practice. These are such complex entanglements, and to have five1 very different types of collectives as case studies in the Making Mamak workshop makes for an interesting project. I am sure there were more in-depth discussions, or preliminary data collection perhaps, in the closed-door workshop, which we were not able to explore in the public session I took part in.
Maybe we can pull back the conversation and begin with the complex socio-political context of Malaysia. Right now, I’m seated in the Asia Art Archive in Hong Kong, surrounded by Malaysian art books that I can never seem to find in Malaysia.2 I was recently discussing with Zanita Anuar3 about the Young Contemporaries in Review: 1974-1997, which she edited with Sulaiman Esa (but she also can’t seem to find a copy in her own home).4 Included in the publication is the judging criteria for the Young Contemporaries Art Awards. It’s written, as part of the 1982 marking scheme, that “good art” includes “an evolving modern Malaysian art tradition.” This was then removed and changed in 1983 to “relevance in societal/cultural context.”

With modern and tradition (often positioned as binaries) as judging criteria, I often wonder how collective practice relates to the cultural context of Malaysia. I know there was a history of arts collectives as a way of alternative education when tertiary institutions were not yet formalized for arts education.

I also wonder how the relevant cultural influences have changed the trajectory of collective practice. For example, I know that in Hong Kong, it is used as a form of censorship and tactical practice to hide individuality and bring a collective voice.

Okay, a lot of thoughts here to begin with!
It is interesting to know that the criteria of the Young Contemporaries Art Awards (Bakat Muda Sezaman) by the National Art Gallery have changed over the years. I wonder if the inclusion of “relevance in societal/cultural context” was a response to the often-heard critique towards the arts for not being able to contribute to society at large? That there is a need for arts to reflect the social and political reality of the time, and for artists to be conscientious, socially responsible, and politically aware?

Although my caricature has overtly simplified this dichotomy of aesthetics versus social mission of art, a binary which I don’t subscribe to, nonetheless, it raises the question of how can the making, doing, and appreciation of arts allow us to carry out or fulfil a sense of responsibility and critique of certain cultural phenomenon, society, or political ills, amongst other attributes of arts, which I would not elaborate here for brevity sake. This warrants separate research on the development of the Young Contemporaries Award in Malaysia, how the institution and the changing personnel, organizing committee, and jurors especially, over the years, defined and demarcated contemporary art practice in the competition.

Returning to the relationship of collective arts practice to the cultural context of Malaysia—are you referring to the practice of gotong-royong (lifting together) or the socioeconomic value of “helping each other”?
In the cultural context of Malaysia (to be honest, most of the Malay Archipelago), gotong-royong as a collective everyday 日常5 practice, goes beyond the collective cleaning and maintaining of a place for collective use. This term is used, from my observation of the collectives, as a form of collective practice in a space of commoning.

So, if, in the Malaysian context, collective practice is embedded in our everyday life, should we, or do we, disentangle this from arts practice? Oftentimes, I hear that collective is a broad term. Similar to the notion of commons or commoning. This feeds into the field of architecture, where the sharing of resources also includes sharing space.

Recently, I heard about the notion of commoning situated in the region of East Asia from a PhD classmate. Citing Yan Zhang, they highlighted that it can be translated to 公共6 a term often used for “public.” This term holds two different facets of commoning, 公 as the quality of a shared resource, and 共 as the action/management of sharing the goods resource itself.7

When thinking through arts collectives, we are not only discussing the space and the resources, but the practice of engaging with the public through the arts. Or maybe… not? What do you think about the politics of collective arts practice? How does one embed politics into the socio/cultural context?

  1. The five collectives were Papan Haus, Little Giraffe Story House, COEX@Kilang Besi, Kapallorek, and Ruang Tamu Ekosistem. 

  2. The Asia Art Archive is in Hong Kong, where Clarissa is based. Their scope also includes Southeast Asia, with a generous collection of reference books, exhibition catalogues, zines and art books.  

  3. Zanita Anuar was a curator at the National Art Gallery of Malaysia, she is currently teaching at The Universiti Malay.  

  4. The Young Contemporaries Art Awards is a seminal competition for emerging artists to enter annually. Many of the artists awarded in the award are now notable art practitioners in Malaysia and abroad. See Zanita Anuar and Esa Sulaiman, Young Contemporaries in Review: 1974-1997 (Kuala Lumpur: National Art Gallery, 1999).  

  5. rìcháng or daily activities. 

  6. gōnggòng which translates to public. 

  7. Zhang Yan, Governing the Commons in China (London: Routledge, 2019). 

Making Mamak workshop, Papan Haus, Kuala Lumpur, 27 April 2024. © Constant/Variable

In 2019, I attended a symposium on “Collective and artists/curators initiative in South East Asia” organized by the Biennale Jogja. There was a lot of critical reflection and sharing of the challenges faced by various collectives and art-initiatives. There was much reflection, especially on the collective as a mode of critical engagement with issues or activism related to the art world and cultural ecology, institutional reform, or local and regional politics. A fellow curator from Surabaya told me of a survey on art collectives that revealed that there were over three hundred such art groups in Java Island alone. Another Jogjakarta-based artist opined that the understanding of collective practice in the arts should not be exclusively limited to the purview of activistic or social-political activities, and very often, artists come together to share resources, materials, and studio space.

Hence, your question on the “politics of collective art practice” reminds me of the question of the “politics of space,” which I didn’t raise at the Making Mamak event. When it comes to collective practice or collectivizing in relation to art practice, I wonder if it helps to ask if it is a matter of “the end justifies the means” or “the means justifies the end”? If “collectivizing” is merely a means of social commoning, or is it an artistic end goal to be attained? It might be interesting to address the complex entanglement of internal manoeuvring of resource and labour-related matters vis-à-vis the external cultural (art world) or social capitals/currency they gain/lose/subvert/exploit in this process.
Over three hundred arts collectives! And only on the island of Java! There is so much to organize! The sharing of resources, materials, and studio space is a collective reality to face—how to build reflective and reflexive practices with one another responsibly.

In curating this project, I thought deeply about what it means to be an arts collective in an arts space (I have often thought they are the same thing). There is an inherent artistic practice of running the space itself, programming, and bringing the arts to the public. Perhaps you can speak about your own practice at Rumah Air Panas (R.A.P.).
There were two overlapping phases of Rumah Air Panas—as an artist-run space from 1997–2006 and as a collective from 2003 to the present being dormant. Hence, there were two sides of running R.A.P.—managing the space, and programming events and projects. The physical space and the content are interrelated, but the labours involved require a different kind of dedication, mindset, organizational skill, and knowledge. And certainly, different resources—from financial to cultural and intellectual inputs. In the case of R.A.P., the collective endeavours manifested through the running of the space, production of exhibitions, curatorial work, and art talks. One could say that a certain sense of allyship, solidarity, mutual-aid, co-learning, and growth came from these processes. Rarely, if I recall, did we equate the spatial practice as artistic practice, but there were certainly some collective endeavours involved in both. For example, the project SPACE(s) in 2003 was organized based on a discussion initiated to find out if there was any willingness or interest to work together as a group.1 And the installation exhibition Isolation House by Chong Kim Chiew was exemplary in responding to the context of space and site.2

We ought to be more careful not to conflate the method of collective process with the merits or the impact of the artwork. And I would consider the practice of Pangrok Sulap as an example. The collective collaboration should not exclude the artwork or practice to be examined critically in terms of their artistic impact. On the contrary, it opens a question of the potentiality of art, which, to me, is the goal of art practice.

  1. “Spaces: dialogue and exhibition,” Rumah Air Panas, last modified June 3, 2003, 

  2. “Isolation House,” Exhibition, Rumah Air Panas, last modified August, 2005, 

Making Mamak public conversation, Papan Haus, Kuala Lumpur, 28 April 2024. © Jography Studio

History of arts collectives in Malaysia

Returning to what you mentioned earlier on the cultural context of collective practice in Malaysia, how far back is this history of art collectives as alternative art education? Do you mean Anak Alam or the various art societies, or groups from earlier times?1
Alternative education presupposes a centre. In this case, the lack thereof of any arts education. As the rise of tertiary education only really came during the nation-building years of the mid-twentieth century, the arts societies during the colonial era gave a space for collective pedagogical practice before arts learning was widely available. This built the foundations for the art teachers in secondary schools in Malaysia.2

For Anak Alam, I think this is when contemporary arts practice comes into play, a modern interpretation of Islamic arts practice. Of course, I’m not an expert on Anak Alam, but it’s often cited as the first collective practice in Malaysia, but also embedded deep with government support. So, what of the political positioning of collective practice? Does it always have to be top-down or bottom-up?

The shift from pedagogical practice to transversal arts practice began with Anak Alam. But what really underpins the majority of arts collectives selected here for Making Mamak is the shift towards a counter-narrative of top-down institutional frameworks to present art-making and arts practise to the public. In this case, a DIY and self-organizing spirit.
In the 1990s–2000s, there was also emphasis on self-organizing and the D.I.Y spirit of many artists-run-spaces or initiatives.3
Yes. Nur Hanim Khairuddin’s article on the 1996–2001 institution Yayasan Kesenian Perak (YKP) was foundational for my previous writing on the practice of arts collectives in Malaysia, as well as the shift towards the architectural inquiry for today. Also, this text is significant and a “forever article” in my Zotero because there are not many written accounts of what happened during the 1990s to 2000s. Arriving from the margins to this project as the centre, Nur Hanim highlights key festivals and collectives of the period, such as Notthatbalai and lostgens’.4 Nur Hanim makes the case that the majority of these spaces from the 1990s–2000s did not reject institutional structures or the art market, instead, they provided an alternative space to operate in relationship with the art world.

  1. Established in 1974, the Anak Alam (Children of Nature) group was a collective of artists of diverse practices including painting, printmaking, writing, poetry, drama and performance.  

  2. Beverly Yong, Nur Hanim Khairuddin, Rahel Joseph & Tengku Sabri Ibrahim, Infrastructures: Narratives in Malaysian Art, Volume 3 (Rogue Art: Kuala Lumpur, 2016). 

  3. See Nur Hanim Khairuddin, “Rumah YKP: Art in the Margins of Society,” Yishu: Journal of Contemporary Chinese Art,, Vol. 11 No. 5, (2012).  

  4. To see more please read about lostgens’ practice here: 

Making Mamak public conversation, Papan Haus, Kuala Lumpur, 28 April 2024. © Jography Studio

Art collectives and maintaining space

One theoretical framework I have been thinking a lot about is the solidarity trinity, introduced by Yin Aiwen and developed in collaboration with Zhao Yiren.1 It is a networked diagram, streamlined and seamless, of three components: Relationship, Space, and Labour. For them, this underpins most mutual aid and collective efforts, drawing from a mutual aid society in Shanghai as the primary resource. What could be further elaborated is the connection between these three elements—who holds the power to tend to each element for any collective effort?

  1. Yin Ainwen, “The Solidarity Trinity,” Arts of the Working Class, January 16, 2024, 

Schematic visualiztion of the Solidarity Trinity © Yin Aiwen and Zhao Yiren

How do you think this solidarity trinity could be applied to your analysis of both collective art practice and the space they engage with?
Like the solidarity trinity, Making Mamak doesn’t necessarily foreground artistic practice. This is perhaps where we may diverge in our investigations. Yin and Zhao’s diagram offers these three elements to elucidate how collective practices have to be attended to. By curating a workshop that maps these three elements together, we can slowly reveal the politics of space.

Making Mamak began with an interview with each collective, where we asked about their ownership/rental models. Many relied on existing networks and relationships, having to ajak1 again and again to makan, lepak,2 etc., before being entrusted a space for their use. Other collectives decidedly jumped into the deep end to take up the space. There is no existing model to ensure that one can attain a space to begin with.

The artistic collective practice is also something to question. I’m not sure that all the collectives in Making Mamak have a typical arts practice. Soon, Papan Haus will curate their first in-house exhibition, COEX@Kilang Besi will continue to curate new forms of festivals, and Little Giraffe Story House will continue to host the annual Mid-Autumn Festival. In a way, perhaps the artistic practice has broadened to facilitate maintaining a space. This constant negotiation moves the collective forward towards meaningful ways of bringing emerging civic spaces for the public to 享受 (enjoy).3

  1. Ajak means to ask, or invite out in a more insistent way.  

  2. Makan means to eat. Lepak means to hangout. 

  3. xiǎngshòu means to enjoy, but also to feel and indulge in. 

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