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Art Awards in Pandemic Times: Malaysia

The ILHAM Art Show was initiated by ILHAM Art Gallery as a way to give artists based in Malaysia (including non-citizens) an opportunity to experiment and make new work. The inaugural edition began with a Call for Entries, which opened on 20 May this year and closed on 23 July 2021. ILHAM received more than 360 submissions, and the selected artists were announced on 17 September 2021. The Art Show itself will open next April and run till September 2022. Selected artists are awarded a production grant for the making of new work. The proposals were reviewed by a jury comprising Rahel Joseph, Director, ILHAM Gallery, Shabbir Hussain Mustafa, Senior Curator, National Gallery Singapore, and Zoe Butt, Artistic Director, The Factory Contemporary Arts Centre, Vietnam.


LWC: Rahel, could we start with you summarising the key points about the application and selection process for the ILHAM Art Show?

RJ: We had initially conceived the idea of creating an ILHAM Art Prize, but with the coronavirus pandemic and the impact it has had on artists and the larger arts community, it did not feel right to just single out one artist to give a significant amount of money to. Rather, we wanted to spread it around more equitably – so that every single artist selected for the ILHAM Art Show got a production grant to make the work they had proposed in their application. We wanted to make the application process as open and as inclusive as possible. Artists above 21 years of age and with just one exhibition under their belt were eligible. We also decided it would be open to all artists based in Malaysia, not just citizens, so that all artists who make their home here, including those with PR/refugee status would be able to apply as well. It was important to us that the Art Show support the making of new work, especially work that was experimental, so artists had to send us an artist statement that outlined the concept as well as images of drawings/photos of their proposed projects. They also had to send a CV and images of previous works so we could have an understanding of their artistic practice. In terms of selection, it was important to me that we had a regional selection panel, not just for the sake of objectivity but also to include a regional perspective, which I think is very important. Also, I have worked closely with both Mustafa and Zoe on projects, and I have a lot of respect for their scholarship and thoughtful and considered judgement.

LWC: Next, a question for everyone: what are your own experiences serving on juries? Of course, there are many kinds of juries: for prizes, for residences, and so on, so please share about your whole range of experience.

SHM: Over the years, I have served on many different panels. From the UOB Painting of the Year Award to the Pinchuk Art Prize. For the latter, my fellow panelists and I looked through an incredible array of applicants from across the planet. I still remember how exciting and challenging the process was: how do you assess applicants from geographies and contexts that are beyond your circle of competence?

ZB: My experience in serving on juries is relatively recent, having been mainly a “nominator” for various international initiatives for years. Maybe it’s the obvious progression with life, in that you nominate for long enough, eventually you become a juror. That being said, I’ve been a juror for my own initiatives since 2012 (San Art Laboratory, Materialize, Re-Aligning the Cosmos, for example), and The Factory just launched our Artist Excellence Award. External juries lately include the 2020 Award of Art China; the 2022 BACA (Bonnefanten Award for Contemporary Art); the 2022 DAAD Residency Program, Berlin, and, now, of course, the ILHAM Art Show.

RJ: I have sat on various selection panels for residencies including the AHC Visual Art Residency programme and the PETRONAS Programme; I’ve sat on national selection panels for development grants, judged artist competitions, and so on. Currently, I’m on the judging panel for the HNF–Loop Barcelona Video Art Production Award.

LWC:  Zoe, I know you’ve spent a lot of time in Vietnam doing studio visits and critiques with artists—not all of whom you end up working with. But you do this also as part of your way of keeping connected to the community. Tell me how that practice affects how you approach being on a jury.

Zoe Butt, Artist Director, The Factory Contemporary Arts Centre, Vietnam.
Zoe Butt, Artist Director, The Factory Contemporary Arts Centre, Vietnam. Image courtesy of Lê Thành Tiến.

ZB: My desire for a deeper connection with the motivations and intentions of artists (which prompts my studio visits and critiques) means—perhaps obviously—that this is what I am looking for in an artist’s application or proposal for a prize or a grant. I want to hear from artists why they have chosen a particular subject and to share the relevance of the materials that they use. I like to see a connect between concept and form.

LWC: Mus, not that the other two jury members don’t also value research in their own work, but extensive research is one aspect of your curatorial practice that stands out to me. Tell me how you approach your jury decisions, when you don’t have this luxury of doing extensive research on the participants and their proposals.

SHM: What you describe is the perennial challenge. On the one hand, I am seeking as much information as possible. On the other hand, time is limited. Over the years, I have developed a system whereby I look through applications in small batches spread out over a number of days. Each time, I find something intriguing in an application, I turn to the artist’s website or even seek out secondary literature on the artist. The internet is an important aid in this process; but there have been instances when I made a trip to the National Gallery Singapore’s Library and Archives. I am fortunate to have access to this incredible resource that focuses on Southeast Asian art and artists. For the ILHAM Art Show, I have tried to stay true to this process.

Shabbir Hussain Mustafa
Shabbir Hussain Mustafa, Senior Curator, National Gallery Singapore.

LWC: Rahel, being the only jury member based in Malaysia, and being most familiar with the Malaysian scene, could you share your thoughts on whether there were any surprises amongst all the proposals.

RJ: Apart from the sheer volume, I was pleasantly surprised by the fact there were proposals from such a diverse group of artists. We had proposals from very senior artists as well as from those who had just come out of art school. We also had applications from artists who occupy the space between visual art and other disciplines, including architecture, performing arts, and sciences. One of the most surprising applications came from an artist just out of art school. Her work exploring textile traditions was a smart, thoughtful interrogation of artificial constructs of race and ethnicity. Another proposal that left an impression on me was by an indigenous association whose proposed work relating to the pandemic will I think be one of the highlights of the ILHAM Art Show.

Rahel Joseph, Director, Ilham Gallery.
Rahel Joseph, Director, Ilham Gallery.

LWC: Finally, another question for everyone. People may say that they want to keep an open mind when they serve on a jury, but we all know that, after many years in the field, one has, not so much preferences and prejudices—we certainly have those—but we each have our own peculiar ways and approaches to looking at art. The point though, is that, hopefully, we’re always trying to learn more about how to look at art. So, I’m asking you not to comment on the range and quality of the submissions that you assessed, but rather to reflect on your own processes of selection for this project, and what you learned from this process.

SHM: Each time I am asked to contribute as a jury member, I am humbled. In terms of process, I observe one rule, each and every applicant needs equal care and attention; take nothing for granted. If my schedule does not permit such a commitment, I gently decline the invitation.

RJ: With other judging panels I have been involved with, it’s been a matter of assessing a finished artwork. For the Art Show, it was slightly different because we were assessing proposals and so we had to examine and assess the artist statements to try to gauge the strength of the artistic concepts and how successful the artists were in conveying that idea. Discussions with Mustafa and Zoe, hearing their viewpoints and perspectives, was also valuable. Ultimately though, more than ever, particularly after the last 18 months, the art that I continue to be drawn to is that which has a relevancy, that speaks to our current condition and shared experience, and which helps us make meaning of this time.

ZB: In reflecting on my own processes of selection, I would always take note of age and gender when first reading an application. I would then seek a bit of a background of experience (what I hoped I could glean from a CV) and then I would look at the imagery provided. Only after all that would I read their artist statement. I think what this tells me is that though I am very much drawn to the storytelling of an artist, I am firstly inspired by the visuals of an artist and how that “visual” provokes my interest. I then am prompted to ask more about what I am looking at. Artists offer encounters, after all, and that must be firstly what is powerful about their practice—the space of that encounter and how they perceive its meaning. So it goes back to my interest in the connect between concept and material. Also, I want a balanced outcome in gender, age and experience for this first ILHAM Art Show.

List of artists selected by the jury panel for the Ilham Art Show 2022.
The list of artists selected by the jury panel for the Ilham Art Show 2022.

[Disclosure: While I will be working on the publication for the ILHAM Art Show, I was not involved with the Call for Entries, nor the selection of artists.]

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