A Mission-Driven Gallery Aims to Bring Modern Malaysian and Muslim Life to the World

Jul 12, 2016 5:58PM

Last week marked the end of Ramadan, the ninth month in the Muslim calendar and a period traditionally characterized by religious observance, including strict fasting during daylight hours. In Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia—a country of 30 million people, about 60 percent of whom are Muslim—Galeri Chandan celebrated the holy month with “An Inclination: Sharing of Ideas, Beliefs and Choices,” the latest in a series of culturally relevant events organized by the mission-driven gallery.

Every Ramadan, the gallery invites local artists and emerging talents to create public art projects. This year’s show is a solo exhibition by Megat Zaim Zharif, a Malaysian artist whose youth might seem at odds with the solemnity of his traditional subject matter. Zaim’s new works, a series of lush watercolor and ink paintings, depict Muslim men in prayer as they kneel on prayer mats, read the Koran, and stand solemnly in cavernous mosques.

As Ahmadrashidi Bin Hasan, a senior lecturer at the School of Visual Culture at UiTM Melaka, notes in an essay accompanying the exhibition, the artistic direction is slightly unexpected from a 24-year-old.

“In an era where the local art scene is laden with new ideas on thoughts [and] the postmodern claims of human rights,” Bin Hasan writes, “Zaim goes back to grip on the purity of life, returning to the Islamic knowledge, where he seeks to unravel the way to love God.”

The subject might be traditional, but Zaim’s approach is fresh. He generally shies away from human faces, focusing instead on bodily details like the bare feet, hands, and folded arms of figures who are calmly seated, kneeling, or pacing. He depicts the quiet moments of prayer and, perhaps more poignantly, the natural moments before and after, as if to prove that prayer is a humble, human act. These worshippers are relatable; we recognize ourselves in their casual postures and subtle gestures.

Ramadan may be over, but Galeri Chandan’s work continues throughout the year. In addition to hosting commercial exhibitions, the gallery is involved in a number of social causes and community initiatives. For instance, in collaboration with Islamic Aid Malaysia, they helped raise funds for flood victims, and they host Southeast Asian artists in a dedicated residency program called Nafas Residensi.

Galeri Chandan also pioneered the Kembara Jiwa (Traveling Soul) project with a goal of introducing Malaysian contemporary art to the world. Indeed, Zaim’s naturalistic portraits offer appeal beyond their region and religion.

—Bridget Gleeson

Megat Zaim Zharif: An Inclination: Sharing of Ideas, Beliefs and Choices” is on view at Galeri Chandan, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, Jun. 10–Jul. 17, 2016.

Follow Galeri Chandan on Artsy.