A familiar landmark in the Malaysian art-scape celebrates its 10th anniversary this year. Here’s the story so far.
By ELLEN LEE
Flashback to ten years ago. It’s 2011, and a buzzy new mall that’s branding itself as an “art mall” is nearing completion in Kuala Lumpur. It has the optimistic name of “Publika”. It’s going to be a one-of-a-kind mall that centres art: there’ll be art in the toilets, art in the corridors, on the ground, and along the bannisters — still a mall, but with a little attitude. Its pioneering tenants include some new and experimental art spaces, one of which is called Segaris Art Center, an offshoot of a local art school that has the simple mission of promoting its students’ works.
Back in the present, Segaris Art Center is turning 10 this year and is one of the last few tenants of that original “art mall” fever dream. By remaining tethered to the art world while embracing the rapid commercialism of its surroundings, Segaris has managed to ride the waves of time and its momentum doesn’t seem to be slowing anytime soon.
Segaris was set up as a platform to promote works by the students and alumni of the Fine Arts department at the MARA Institute of Technology (UiTM). Over the years however, Segaris has come into its own as a commercial gallery that welcomes promising artists of any educational background, and initiates its own partnerships and projects.
The gallery has maintained the same space since 2011, located in a quieter part of the Publika shopping gallery. It features a black steel exterior and a roomy interior with a mezzanine level. The atmosphere is simple and straightforward. The exhibitions here tend to present things as they are, with little textual ornamentation. Segaris is run by a small team led by Nizam Rahmat and Azrin Mohd, both UiTM alumni who have found their calling in gallery management and helping fellow artists navigate the Malaysian art market.
“We try to do the best for our artists. Myself and Azrin, we also started out as artists, so we can imagine how artists want to be represented,” says Nizam.
On the identity and framework of Segaris as a commercial gallery, he says, “We receive so many exhibition applications and proposals by young artists. If they come to us and if we feel the work is suitable for a show, then why not? Our artists need space, they need somebody to manage them and give them a platform. So we give them a chance. As a gallery, we have a very open policy.”
Segaris cruised into the year on a high, by closing the much-talked-about survey of the young artist Fadilah Karim at White Box MAPKL, the event space on the ground floor of Publika. Following that, it breezed through exhibition after exhibition, online and offline, too busy to slow down for anything even as the nation entered its third lockdown. It presented a new solo exhibition by established artist and UiTM Fine Arts lecturer Jalaini Abu Hassan (popularly known as “Jai”) and the first gallery exhibition of works by Kide Baharuddin, a young, hip artist who has the brand partnerships and social media following that art students up and down the nation are aspiring to. Currently, the gallery’s wrapping up Panorama, the inaugural solo show by emerging artist Faiz Mahdon (a.k.a. “FaFa”), after which it’ll go on to present Stills, another inaugural solo, this time by Haziq Syawal. In between all that, it has managed to fit in a handful of group shows too. After learning to navigate the pandemic last year, the team has settled into a comfortable digital routine this year.
A decade of partnerships and collaborations
To commemorate its 10th anniversary, Segaris has planned a blockbuster showcase at White Box MAPKL in early October. Familiar names will be shown alongside artists that the gallery has never shown before. One of the expected highlights for the showcase will be an 8’×12’ piece by Kide Baharuddin that was previously shown at his solo, Sa-Hari-Hari, in May and brought out of storage again for the 10th anniversary festivities.
Throughout the year, Segaris has received assistance from CENDANA, PRISMA, and MyCreative Ventures, and for the 10th anniversary showcase, another partner will be added to the list: Samsung Malaysia. The Malaysian branch of the South Korean electronics brand has sponsored the use of five Samsung Frame TVs, a television that mimics the appearance of a framed artwork and which collectors can use to display their artworks digitally. All five of these TVs will be posted around White Box, showing different artworks, and visitors to the opening will be treated to a discount off a Frame television set.
Samsung is only the latest in a long list of names that Segaris has partnered with over the years. Among many others, this list includes Japanese make-up brand Shu Uemura, condom manufacturers Karex Malaysia (whose Art Against AIDS competition Segaris helps organise), the News Straits Times’ Galeri Prima, CIMB Artober and even certain sections of the Malaysian royal family.
Its partnerships have also crossed national borders. In 2018 and 2019, the gallery partnered up with Teras Management Yogyakarta to organise the Kuala Lumpur International Miniprint Exhibition (KLIMEX), which showcased between 100–200 works in each iteration. In doing so, Segaris has also helped to sustain the ongoing relationship between Malaysian artists and their counterparts in Yogyakarta, the regional art Mecca for many young Malaysian artists. The gallery has also maintained a regular presence at Art Expo, Malaysia’s only art fair, held at MATRADE Centre annually.
The role that social media has played in the gallery’s success over the years cannot be overstated. Despite its many years in age, Segaris has maintained a youthful spirit, reflected in its online strategies, which include posting regular updates on Instagram, experimenting with new features such as Instagram Live, and releasing short trailers to accompany solo exhibitions.
Segaris has the largest Instagram following of any commercial gallery in Kuala Lumpur. On top of that, many of its exhibiting artists, such as Kide and Fadilah, already have their own following. These artists intuitively understand what it takes to maintain a presence as an artist in the 21st century: how to post, repost, and engage, enthusiastically and persistently. In an unprecedented pandemic era, the team at Segaris, propelled by commercial incentives, continues to churn out non-stop programming, online and off. They continue to fill our feed with images and capture our imaginations.
Here’s another surprising insight: in recent years, the gallery’s collector base has become younger. “I’d say that around 90% of our collectors now are young, first-time collectors. I don’t know who they are! They find us on Instagram, they DM us about the artworks they want to buy, and it’s as easy as that sometimes,” says Nizam.
Segaris is in a unique position, partway between an institution and a commercial gallery. It began as an offshoot of the institution that is UiTM, but has gradually established its own identity as a commercial gallery. By showing emerging artists alongside established ones (some of whom may even be the seniors or lecturers of the former), Segaris gives these young, unknown artists a shot at being noticed within the wider art scene.
Segaris has formed its own community and its own identity, one that is constantly changing and growing. Part of this is surely thanks to having the institutional backing of UiTM, but credit must also be given to the team’s spirit of openness and its tech-savviness. Its strategies of quick turnover between shows, high social media engagement, mixing established and emerging artists, and sheer relentless showing are strategies that seem set to work for another 10 years more.
Segaris Art Center is currently showing Panorama by Faiz Mahdon (FaFa) in its gallery at Level G4, Publika, until Sept 25. Its 10th anniversary showcase will be taking place at White Box MAPKL, Publika, from Oct 4 to 17. At the same time, it will also be showing Stills by Haziq Syawal in the gallery from Oct 4 to 31, 2021.