Bacarat Magazine: Dear Faizal, I hope this email finds you well. My name is Syar S. Alia, and I'm a freelance writer working on a piece for Baccarat Magazine that looks into what curation is in Malaysia/SEA and the people that work for the institutions (private and public) that allow the public access to art. I found your name through the Singapore Biennale curators list, and got this email through Khairuddin Hori.
I'd love to speak to you about your experience with curation, especially within the National Visual Arts Gallery, and about the navigation of the relationship between artists, their artwork, and its display. Hopefully this request won't impose too much on your time. Likely the interview will be done via email. Thanks very much, and looking forward to your reply.
Just to brief you on the structure of the piece: it will be a compilation of hopefully 4, maybe 5, interviews with various curators - independent ones and those attached to a museum or gallery. The questions should roughly be the same for each interview, but with tweaks to personalize it to the subject I'm speaking to, and their experience. I want to take a large view of curation as an "art" in itself, to present the gatekeepers or mediators in the circuit involving artist-artwork-institution. Although you make take issue with either of those two words!
I come from a layman's perspective - I've never studied art, although I'm an avid museum/gallery-goer, and I try and take every opportunity to see & participate in all kinds of art, so I'd just like to put that disclaimer there if any of my questions seem too obvious to you; it all comes from a place of sincere curiosity!
Baccarat Magazine: What is a curator? What is their role in the world of making, displaying, consuming, selling, and learning about art?
Faizal Sidik: Curator from my point of view is a person who act as a bridge between the artwork from artist studio and gallery. He is a very powerful man who makes a decision whether the art work can be shown or not. In term of educating the audiences he is also may be able to share his eye view to give a talk and write about art.
BC: How did you become an art curator? What drew you to it? Could you perhaps tell us about the first show you ever put on as a curator, and how it went?
FS: First I curated a show when I just graduated from Fine Art Department, Faculty of Art and Design, Mara University of Technology (UiTM), it happened when we had a Degree Show outside of our campus in Seri Manjung, so my first curated show entitled ‘Dinamika Tampak' (Visual Dynamic) in 2001 at Perak Art Foundation (YKP) somewhere in Ipoh. It was a group show by 18 artist who just graduated from art school. For me it seems like ‘Frieze' show when Damien Hirst became a curator for the first time.
BC: How long have you been working for National Visual Arts Gallery? What is your role there, and what kind of work do you do? What are your goals as a curator within the premier art institution in Malaysia?
FS: I have joined National Visual Art Gallery (NVAG) since 2010, but before that I had a experienced 8 years teaching numerous art colleges and universities and at the same time was an independent curator for Mara University of Technology, MTDC Multimedia Academy, Art Film Design Academy (AFDA) and Segi University College. From indie-artist curator I changed my direction to be institution curator. I like to challenge my ability, I asked myself if I wanted to go beyond to stage a big show and need huge budget I need to associate with an institution which can give me that kind of material. What is interesting in NVAG is you learn so many thing. They put me as a Curator of Collection in the Collection and Conservation Division, my task was to propose a potential art work for new national acquisition, so I did a lot of artist studio visit and gallery exhibition.
After one year I was transferred to the Research Department under the Exhibition and Research Division, art collection is the heart of art museum liked NVAG, so when I was there from 2011 to 2012 I did a lot of research writing about our collection. We have big name artists like Victor Vaserly and Robert Rauschenberg, and our pioneer artists like Syed Ahmad Jamal, Redza Piyadasa, Sulaiman Esa, Lee Kian Seng, Nirmala Shangmughalingam and so on. I think so many stories are still undiscovered based on collection from the artist which are very interesting to discussed, I write a lot of reviews and published them in local newspapers and art magazines like Dewan Budaya, Senikini and blog.
Now I am the Curator of Publication Department in the Publication and Design Division, as assistant editor. We publish Senikini magazine 4 times a year, this art magazine covers local and international art event especially contemporary art in Southeast Asia. The articles contributor or correspondents of Senikini magazine not only a writer who based in Malaysia but internationally.
BC: What do you think are three necessary skills a good curator should have in their toolkit, or what three skills have gotten you through your time as a curator?
FS: Since 2001 I have curated more than 25 solo and group shows. Based on my experience artist as curator is the good curators. Firstly, you need a good eye, what I mean here your eye should penetrate the art work that you see. Uber-curator he will perforate what the layman cannot see inside the painting. Second, you need to be critical with what you see.
Clement Greenberg told us that a good art critic is he who can tell layer by layer something behind the scene inside the artwork. Lastly, for sure as a curator you need travel a lot, you need to meet the artist, do a studio visit, be a regular face at the art party (exhibition opening), have a close relationship with the galleries, peer curators and collectors. You need a ‘radar' with the artworld.
BC: What are the challenges of being an art curator in Malaysia?
FS: You need to know in Malaysia art history is different from western art approach. What I can tell you is our art system is quite different from other area. In Malaysia we have the same problem what was face by our neighboring country Singapore. When I attended the Art Talk at Art Stage 2014 in Singapore last January, one of the panel said there are no Liberal Studies in art school in Singapore.
Based on that statement but I am not sure whether other Southeast Asian countried like Indonesia, Thailand and Philippines offered a Liberal Studies in their art academy institutions. The lack of art academy which will offers this subject in their school is our major challenges here. We produced thousands of artists and designer every year, but dont produced so many art historians, art critics, art writers, philosophers or aestheticians who will take part as curator. For me the imbalance of art production in art education system should be reviewed. We need art and design faculty in university to open their liberal art programme.
BC: Outside of working on NVAG exhibits, do you have personal curation projects that involve your own personal interest in art?
FS: As a institution curator I am quite often invited to be the guest curator, writer and judge to the private gallery or state gallery for their exhibition. But beside that I have also my personal interest to curate show by Manjung Artist. Let me give you a short history of Manjung Artist. Manjung is one district in the centre of Perak, the ITM Seri Manjung opened in 1985 but only after ten years later fine art, ceramic and fashion deparment was established. Manjung Artists are artist who studied of ITM Seri Manjung from 1996 until 2002, I myself is a product from this art school. Like a School of Paris or New York School each art school has its school of thought.
For me Manjung School is very unique compared to it peer in Shah Alam because of the location nearby the sea and it has very strong with a Malay history and maritime influences. It seems like East Coast artist in California versus New York artist, For the first project I started last year, I curated first Manjung School group exhibition titled ‘Manjung School: Pilihan Rakyat’ in Gallery Shah Alam. I invited 5 artists who are active making artworks but unrepresented by the private gallery.
They were also an art star in the Manjung School who won so many national award and competition like Young Contemporary Art Award (Bakat Muda Sezaman), Nokia Art Award. Philip Morris Asean Art Award and so on. Why I used the title ‘Pilihan Rakyat’ when I curated this show, has because our country was in a general election fever or PRU (Pilihan Raya Umum) so In this project I wanted the artist to react with a political issue surrounding them. For the next show I plan to make one more show at the end of this year, still using the Manjung School but maybe I will open not only fine artist but also the other department like ceramic and fashion designer.
BC: All things being equal - that is, putting asides issues of "genre", location, medium - what makes a good exhibition? As a curator, what do you want people to walk away with after they've seen or participated in an exhibit?
FS: For me a good exhibition not only to put right issue of genre, location and medium in a one roof but it is beyond that. As a curator you should also look at the type whether your show is a thematical, chronological or retrospectical. Thematic show is based on one issue or manifesto brought by the artist or group of movement. A lot of private galleries in Malaysia exhibited solo or group show like to hire independent curator or writer to curate their shows based on the theme. Even that, a big institution like a national gallery or museum they have different kind of direction and vision. They have a committee who makes a selection and approval of an the exhibition.
The show is actually in honor of the prominent and senior solo or group artist who have made a huge contribution to Malaysian art history. And actually the museum invites a big name of art historian who look at this show based on the chronology and retrospective of the artist. The good show not only the production the object being displayed in the show but we should look also at the pre-production and post-production like the promotion, public relation to media, opening management and post-mortem of the show, for me all this are related to each other.
As curator you have a very big responsibility about what show you want to display. For me to stage a good show you invite a people to into your worlds, your intellectual and your images. You are also like a narrator of a story book who brings audiences to your journey. As if you bring them inside the mouseleum and after that they walk away with different feeling and the way they look at the world is the not the same as before.
BC: Do you think art curators have a responsibility to the public, with regards to art education? Especially with your experience in Malaysia, what roles can curators play, what dialogues are they having, or should be having with the public?
FS: For the last question please refer to my writing titled ‘TheTransformation of Roles: Curatist (Artist as Curator)’ at the link below:.
BC: Thanks very much for taking the time to answer these questions, Faizal, and for providing your bio and extra information. The article should come out in Baccarat's April issue, and I'll keep you posted when it does come out. Thanks again, have a good week ahead.