Valentine Willie at Ilham Gallery, with Hoessein Enas' works in the background. Image by Lyn Ong.
Valentine Willie at Ilham Gallery, with Hoessein Enas’ works in the background. Image by Lyn Ong.

I’m from Sabah. I studied law. I’m a lawyer by training.

When I was a student in London, studying law in London. You stay in bedsitters, very expensive to heat your apartment. You have to pay… you have to put the coin into the heater to heat your apartment walls.

In winter, as a student you don’t have a lot of money so you rent a room. And the heating doesn’t come free. In winter, you have to pay a lot. If you stay at home, you’ll probably have to pay a lot for the whole day cause its like 20 pence or 10 pence per hour.

When you go to university, like Monday to Wednesday. Then Thursday, Friday I had no class so I stayed at home. But it’s expensive so I had to find another place where I can go study or just hangout without having to pay heating and basically, accidentally came across museums and galleries. So I found that they were free and my favourite was the National Gallery.

And it still is free. It has got a National Gallery, all the different free museums and you go there, it’s free. In those days, the museums were empty. It’s warm; you have a lot of beautiful things to look at.

So I go there on my days off, basically studying and going there to do homework.

That’s why all the projects that I do now, I want it to be free. One of my conditions when I took on the project like this and in Penang, if I do it, it must be allowed to be open to public. It must be free. We don’t want entrance charges.

I went to boarding school first, I did the whole O, A levels, university, call to the bar. Came back in ’78 and practiced law for 20 years in Sabah.

I had already practiced for 18 years. I had also edited a book on banking law which is totally dry. But you know, even when I was practicing as a lawyer… As a lawyer, what was nice being a lawyer was being able to travel around. As a lawyer, I would travel well to Manila, to Indonesia, to Thaliand from Sabah.

Because I already had an interest in art and I didn’t know very much about these countries. I know all the histories of the English kings and queens but nothing about Southeast Asia.

When I came back as a lawyer with the opportunity to travel across Southeast Asia, I decided to look at the countries through the eyes of artists. You can discover countries through food, through different things. I decided that art was something interesting to look at, to understand a country.

I collected art as a lawyer.

With Ahmad Zakii Anwar's works.
With Ahmad Zakii Anwar’s works.

Then in 1996 I think, I had just published this book called Banking Law. I also managed at that time, the largest law firm in Sabah.

You know there was the Asian financial crisis at that time. So I took two years. My partner said, “go away for two years, you need a break from law”. So I came to KL, after 6 months I got bored, got really bored. I said, “I’m going to start a gallery. If it doesn’t work, I’ll go back to law. I’ve one a half years so I’ll make a go for it”.

It was hard but it was also interesting because there was not much of a market when I started.

When I was starting the gallery, the issue then become how do you fill that space with art. What art do you fill it with? Because I had already collected art from Southeast Asia, I decided from day one that my focus would be just not Malaysia which would be really limited… it was to look at the whole Southeast Asia region. Instead of just 30 million, we’re looking at 600 million. The cultures are much more interesting, a bigger palette and trying to find if there are any common themes among the different countries.

I go to Bangkok; they think I’m Thai. I go to Philippines; they think I’m Filipino. You get what I mean? So there’s this whole idea of… countries and nations are basically artificial, it’s created by people. Flags are created by people. Countries are created by people.

It’s to find that common thread between all the different countries and people of Southeast Asia and looking at it through art.

Even today, the idea of contemporary, the idea of modern, its just a label. It’s a convenient label because we’re lazy. The idea of a chaotic mass without labels kinda frightens us. But that’s part of the attraction of Southeast Asia. It’s almost impossible to put a label on it.

It’s constantly changing, constantly redefining itself. Identities are in constant fluid and that’s what makes it interesting. And modern is just a date, contemporary is too limiting. I’d like to think I’m somebody passionate about art, it could be textile, it could be tribal woodcarving. It could be a piece of jewellery. It’s whether it resonates with me, whether it tells me a story, whether it gives me a different perspective on things is really what I consider. I don’t like this definition of “I only do contemporary” or “I do modern”, no.

Our history is very young.

With Yee I-Lann's works.
With Yee I-Lann’s, Through Rose Coloured Glasses.

Doing really good shows, not good shows that sells but shows that kinda provoke you, that make you go home and maybe lose a nights’ sleep. Get you angry, makes you happy.

It’s an age thing, I turned 60 two years ago and I enjoyed it a lot. I thought “Time to move on. Stay within the business, staying within the field of art but do something else”. And I looked at the landscape and as far as publications, art history and education is concern, there is a huge gap in terms of quality, in terms of scholarships. So I thought it’d be nice if I could find somebody who could promote that.

Ilham is one of my projects and I’m working on one in Penang, for the Penang state government.

I had just retired from gallery dealings. I closed my last gallery in Manila. I have five galleries across the region, Manila was the last one cause the lease was still on. So I served out the lease which was March 2013 and then I took a break.

Then I was offered to look at the space, to turn it into a contemporary art space. But yeah, about a year ago, that’s how it started. I stopped all the dealings, all the galleries, so I have a little bit of time.

So I had to conceptualise things, design the space, how do we fit… cause this is not purpose built. So we had to look at the space. This is all glass, so how do we find walls, as you see on the fifth floor. So really from scratch, from an empty structure.

The challenge is to make it accessible, to make you want to come. Because even if it’s free, it doesn’t mean people want to come. So you got to add something more to the pot, make you angry, I don’t care. The idea is to make you feel something, and really that’s the function of art.

The fact that we’re opening the space here to the public means there is obviously a growing audience. This couldn’t be done in 1997. We’re in 2015. If we haven’t grown by then, I’d be very worried.

This [Picturing The Nation] is my favourite show because this is the one I’ve been working on for the last one year. I’m not even looking back, I’m not even looking forward. I’m just enjoying the show which took me one year to put together.

One of our ideas is to basically encourage writing so if you look we have five, six essays there and all Malaysian. So it’s not just pictures, there are interesting arguments. That’s part of our mission as well, not just to encourage painters but artists in words.

Valentine Willie.
Valentine Willie.

As we grow as a country, the art and how that art is written about is going to be very important a hundred years, two hundred years from now.

Especially contemporary art, should have a political angle, especially now. Politics is all pervasive, not all good but it affects each and every one of us.

There’s this idea that art has to be expensive, that it must be for sale. That’s bullshit. Art can be in any street corner.

That’s not a bad thing. Artists have to make a living and there’s lots of condos to fill. I rather they fill it with paintings than you know, movie posters.

You’re not going to go anywhere if you sit at home. Go out there and sell yourself. Bring your portfolio, go knock on doors, “ I want an exhibition and I’ll show you why you should give me an exhibition”. You have to have a thick skin.

If you look at any country’s history, you will remember for instance Michelangelo, Picasso. You remember the politician who ruled when they were painting? No. You remember the artist.

In the same way, we have to write that history from an artist’s point of view because 20 years from now, people will remember Hoessein Enas, they wont remember Muhyddin, they wont remember Najib. So it’s important that we write that history rather than wait for some other people to come and write it.

There’s no magic formula. It really is as simple as that. An art gallery should be able to make people want to come because they have interesting programmes, they have interesting shows. And that’s really it. There’s no secret.

Valentine Willie is currently the creative director for Ilham Gallery and curated Picturing The Nation which will run until 31 December 2015. In 1996, he established Valentine Willie Fine Art, a consultancy for modern and contemporary Southeast Asian art and managed five galleries spread across Kuala Lumpur, Singapore, Manila and Yogyakarta. After almost 20 years, he decided to retire from gallery dealings and closed his last gallery in 2014 to pursue other creative ventures, including Ilham Gallery.

Interview and images by Lyn Ong.

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