“Let’s have some cake,” says Richard Koh when I visit him at Richard Koh Fine Art’s (RKFA) latest space, now located at the bustling Telawi block in Bangsar, Kuala Lumpur, after having moved out of a house on Jalan Maarof a few months back.
As an arts journalist, I have met and interviewed Koh on several occasions, usually during art fairs as RKFA is among the leading Southeast Asian galleries.
However, something felt very different about this meet-up. Dressed in a smart casual but relaxed outfit of button-down shirt and preppy shorts — an ensemble he has favoured since being a stay-at-home in Kuala Lumpur much of this year — the gallerist seems particularly relaxed.
As soon as we settle into a café across the street, I mention it, and he answers immediately: “I am [relaxed]. When you’re on the plane every week or every other week for God knows how long, and everything suddenly comes to a stop ... the first two months were uncomfortable, but after that it’s ‘oh my god, what have I been missing out on?’.” He bursts into laughter.
It becomes clear that Koh is one of those people who swim rather than sink with the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, despite its having put paid to RKFA’s anniversary celebration plans. There was supposed to be a larger celebration in May, coinciding with the concurrent 10-year anniversary show in his gallery in Singapore.
“Now, we’re keeping it low key. Mainly just to say ‘okay, we’re 15 and still pottering along’,” he says humbly.
There is a distinctive lack of grandiosity for an anniversary show. It is a deliberate statement. “The title for the show both in Singapore and here — In Our Own Frame — is explanatory of our approach. It’s saying we’re taking our time, doing our own thing and seeing where it goes from here. It’s a straightforward and simple show.”
He also gave the 11 artists featured (in the Malaysian show) the same space and freedom to dictate their works. “I think it’s apt in these times. Even our collectors can collect at their own pace, there’s no rush,” says Koh.
It is a strange message for a commercial gallerist to convey. He concedes that telling collectors and artists to slow down is mind-boggling commercially, but then again, Koh says he has never been “hard sell” when it comes to art. “We’re not selling clothes. Art is not something you can dispose of if you don’t like it after you have bought it, or simply give it to anyone. And we’re not here for world domination,” he shrugs.
Still, he admits that they can only do so because “we are one of the lucky ones” who are slightly more prepared financially. Having expected a slowdown in the art market since 2018, Koh had been gradually restructuring and scaling things back for a while, asking himself and his team, “Where do we want to go from here? Which artists do we want to work with? Do we really want to be anywhere in the world? Do we need to be?”
The last question is an interesting one, considering RKFA’s successful track record in putting its artists on the map. Anne Samat, who is showing three of her latest totem-like works for In Our Own Frame, is one of them. Her schedule is lined up to 2022. The other is Yeoh Choo Kuan, who has been selected for a solo showcase in Art Basel Hong Kong, though it is postponed till next year.
Both have one thing in common, in that they were not artists who caught attention when they first started. “Choo Kuan almost gave up his practice, in fact. But now we’re publishing a book on his last 10 years in practice,” shares Koh.
Regarding himself as an outsider by nature, Koh says he has always had a borderless perspective. For one, he never regarded himself as a “Malaysian gallerist”. “When I started, I thought of how I could put Asean together in an art dialogue. And to have it revolve more around the normal guys, the underrated ones.”
Having a global outlook is not so much about ambition as it is about necessity in promoting the artists he represents. Koh reflects, “Where you place the works is as important as selling the art. That’s why we go to the US or Europe, even when we know no one will buy the works because of the difference in visual language and aesthetic. But touch wood, we’ve been lucky that our artists do get noticed.”
It is also not about putting Malaysian art on the map, at least not directly. At art fairs, RKFA does not display the artists’ country in the tags accompanying the works. On the so-called rise in Asian art in the last decade, he notes: “It becomes like Orientalism in Paris back in the day, where it’s about the next exotic thing. Every fair in the last few years had a China feature, India feature, then Latin America, Africa, Middle East, then back to Japan and Korea. Then suddenly, it’s an Indonesia feature, because they’re running out of countries. For me, you can focus on art by geography, but you don’t have to brand it or typecast it. Extremism in any way doesn’t help anyone in the long term.”
After all, in this digital age, no one is truly local any more, says Koh. “You could have never left your home and still be global, everyone has access.” This means that artists who want to stand out would have to evolve.
On this note, Koh offers a critical view of our local art scene. “Unlike our Asean neighbours, our modern art history was dominated by craft-based and watercolour paintings that were skewed towards tourists and expatriates. Our collecting scene really only grew in the 1970s to 1990s, with the ‘It’ generation of artists like Syed Ahmad Jamal and Latiff Mohidin, followed by Yusof Ghani and Awang Damit Ahmad and then Zakii (Anwar), Jai (Jalaini Abu Hassan) and Kow Leong Kiang.
“But, now, 25 to 30 years later, that aesthetic is still favoured and hasn’t evolved as much as [it] should. Many of our younger or mid-career artists today are stuck making works that appeal to the older collectors’ visual language. On the flip side, young collectors tend to buy similar art because it has become a brand,” he says.
Drawing a parallel to fashion — incidentally Koh started his career as a fashion designer before switching to interior design and then becoming a gallery owner by chance — Koh says while the 1980s is all the sartorial rage, the cut and fit is nevertheless entirely different from that era. “It cannot be a direct influence or copy,” he points out.
At the risk of sounding supercilious, Koh says the gallery should never peddle artwork as mere investments. “Art records the times we live in. Not just the physical, but it also captures the atmosphere, perspective and expression of a moment. To me, art is unique in that it has its own rapport with every person looking at it. As a collector, it has to connect with you.”
Koh lays bare what attracts him most about an artist: honesty and passion. “I know it’s contradictory as a commercial gallerist, but I feel compelled to offer a platform for these artists — the ones that are maybe not institutional enough yet not sellable enough too — to put their statements out there, to at least have that opportunity, even if I may fail to bring them further.”
As we finish our afternoon tea, he talks about his future involvement in art. “I may take on more of an artist management role, but I think I will always be in art, though I did have a dream of a fourth career as a gentleman farmer.
“Because I just enjoy beautiful things. Even if it’s a plain black canvas or an ugly thing, it can be something of beauty if it tells a story. I think if we had learnt to look more at the little things in life, the world would not be in this situation today.”
This article first appeared on Dec 7, 2020 in The Edge Malaysia.