Malihom–arty resort and affluent refuge


Over the last few years, a string of artists from all over the world have been fortunate enough to dwell for six-month periods at the eco-sanctuary of Malihom in Balik Pulau. All they had to do while there was enjoy the surroundings and do what they do best—create art. pem visits the place to fi nd out how some people can get so lucky.

Adrian Chan.

COME JULY, the bountiful harvest of durians, mangosteens, rambutans and langsats is an epicurean delight for residents of the Malihom eco-resort sanctuary at the Bukit Penara foothills in Balik Pulau.

“The fruits are from the surrounding orchards of the owner (philanthropist Datuk Seri Stephen Yeap), and there’s no extra charge for the residents,” says Adrian Chan, who is the de-facto co-ordinator, along with Annette Peow, Stephen Yeap’s special assistant.

The place is managed by Stephanie, the boss’s daughter, and conceptualised and designed by Datin Seri Irene Yeapnee P’ng Gek Ling, the boss’s wife.

Sprawled over 40 acres, Malihom is also known for its programme that started in 2007, now called the RBS (Royal Bank of Scotland)-Malihom Artist in Residence (Air) Programme of the Wawasan Open University (Wou). The owners have also bought 30 more acres of the adjacent hills.

Originally planned as a home for the prominent Yeap clan whose fortune was built on that of banking patriarch Yeap Chor Ee (1867–1952), the hillside retreat is unrivalled for its natural serenity, privacy and breathtakingly panoramic view.

It’s a place that chokes up the vocabulary for superlatives – great views, stunning, tranquil, unforgettable, heavenly, unspoilt, refreshing and relaxing…

It may not be everyone’s ideal to be cooped up in a hillside hideaway for six months, but it does present challenges of discipline and focus, besides the potential of surprising rewards.

Says Australian Daniel Brinsmead, the outgoing resident artist (together with Indonesian Bowo Purwadi): “I didn’t know what to expect at first, as it is my first residency outside of Australia. It affected me and changed the way I work as an artist. I have wanted this to happen for a long time.”

Brinsmead, 41, hails from Murwillumbah in New South Wales. A late-starter in art (he graduated with a diploma in fine arts in 2004 after getting a BSc degree in 1994), he has since made up ground, as attested to by his being a finalist of the Churchie, Australia’s National Emerging Art Exhibition, in 2009.

What has changed in his art, according to him, is the reductionist approach and the increasing simplicity in his work. “My whole aim has been to reduce what I did [with the colours], to take out the excess baggage, to isolate and do less. And not just to produce an artwork that is nice but something that excites, energises and fulfils me,” he adds.

A lot of Brinsmead’s art resorts to the textual, with a static and seemingly randomly arrayed phalanx of letters sandwiched together, but not in the same way as Hanne Darboven’s (1941–2009), who produced more kinetic running scripts.

He seems particularly pleased with one work that has the appellation “RM50” on an image of a pair of jeans and a hawker push-cart with a chimney-like roof on top.

The “RM50” has nothing to do with the Malaysian Ringgit sign – although the irony is not lost – but has to do more with his childhood fixation on his Suzuki RM50 motorcycle and his favourite pants.

“I find that I enjoy things when they are simpler, [as] with the line drawings [done with oil crayons]. The work is a combination of things that are related to my life back in Australia, to what I see and the way I see,” he explains.

So what’s next after Malihom?

“I will explore to see if there is any interest here or in Indonesia in my works, which are very different from anything else here, or to resume my art in Australia,” says Brinsmead, who has had two solos back home, in 2006 and 2009.

Brinsmead and Bowo Purwadi, 36, who espouses socio-political themes in his works, will have their “graduation” solos this month at RBS’ downtown gallery in Beach Street, where the proceeds of the sales will go entirely to the artists. For the next session starting in July, the combination of Canadian biochemistartist Angela Su and Japanese Rie Mandala should provide another interesting counterpoint.

The artists chosen for the programme come from all over the world and have a diverse background with progressive criteria that do not “discriminate on the basis of race, religion, national origin, age, gender or sexual orientation.”

They are billeted at the four two-level cottages mid-hill, with basic amenities and a kitchenette and mini bar. They are given a one-time-only preparatory allowance for art materials and a monthly stipend of RM2,000 each.

Daniel Brinsmead.

In return, Malihom and RBS have the first option of selecting a work each from the sponsored artist. The artists are also expected to facilitate art-related team-building workshops or charity projects.

Besides a studio space in their allotted unit, they can also make use of the 279sq m common gallery with its seven-metre-high ceiling.

The previous residents were (Session 1: January to June; Session 2: July to December): Canadianborn Drew Harris (S1, 2009), Indonesians Bahtiar Dwi Susanto (S1, 2010) and Januri (S1, 2008), Germantrained Teguh Ostenrik (S2, 2007), Mexican Cecilia Ramirez-Corzo (S1, 2009), Australian Gabrielle Bates (S2, 2008), Th ai Sarawut Chutiwongpeti (S1, 2008), Briton Th omas Paul Powell (S2, 2010) and Americantrained Taiwanese You Sue-Ching (S2, 2009).

Local beneficiaries are Chan Kok Hooi (S2, 2007), Hoo Kiew Hang (S2, 2009), Sharon Chin (S2, 2008), Wong Chee Meng (S1, 2007), Kang Hooi Keng (S2, 2010) and Ruzzeiki Harris (S1, 2010).

As a rule, Malaysians prefer to go for overseas programmes. Kok Hooi had been to Vermont (2007, Freeman Foundation) and Beijing (Red Gate Gallery) and Sharon, to Australia (Australian High Commission grant) and Sapporo (2009–2010). The London-trained Cecilia had also taken up Sapporo residency in 2007– 2008, while Gabrielle was at Malaysia’s Rimbun Dahan in 2007.

Drew Harris has been exhibiting in Malaysia since 1995, starting with the Taksu Galleries in Kuala Lumpur, and now manages the AWAS Creative and Design enterprise in Penang with his Malaysian wife, Sher Mazwari, who is also an artist.

In an email response, painter-sculptor Teguh, who at 60 was the oldest artist-resident, says: “The Malihom residency has made me more creative, especially in breathing new life into rusty scrap-metal pipes, which I used to comment on the clothes (abbayah) worn by Arab women where the front or back are sometimes indistinguishable.” Teguh was a medical student who decided to switch to art studies when in Germany.

His DeFACEMENT exhibition from the Malihom programme engendered two more series of works under the same title back home in Jakarta and Jogjakarta.

Powell, then 24 and known for mural collaborations and community-based projects, had been reported to have been moved by the potential for exploring a variety of materials and the wide range of styles.

In the beginning, non-resident artists were also allowed. Kok Hooi followed up in S1, 2008 while Kang had a foretaste in S1, 2010, but these extensions were approved with the artists not getting any stipend. The others under this category were Hamir Soib (S1, 2007); Helen Kim Yeon-Tae (S1, 2007), who lived in Penang until recently when she returned to Seoul, South Korea; Katsumi Mukai (S1, 2007); Lye Yau Fatt (S2, 2007); German-born Lovis Dengler (S2, 2007) and Angelika Boeck (S2, 2009). Boeck also had a stint at the Lost Generation Space in Kuala Lumpur.

Wood sculptor Mukai, best known for his Henry Moore-like sculpture at the junction of Penang Road and Magazine Road, has an installation of tree trunks, carved, textured, hollowed, grooved and chiselled, standing like a new version of Easter Island sentinels at a slope area in Malihom.

Malihom is a Thai word signifying the fragrance of jasmine rice. There are nine units of accommodation with sunset and sunrise views for paying guests, including two for triple occupancy. All are reconverted from disused rice-barns that are more than a hundred years old, brought in from Chiangmai in Thailand. They were reassembled at Malihom using the traditional lock-and-groove technique, without any nail being used.

The non-profit programme started off when Irene Yeap learned from her daughter Janice’s friend, Chong Siew Ying, of the tough life of a young artist. Chong, who is based half-yearly in Paris, was a former resident-artist at Rimbun Dahan in Kuang, Selangor (1999–2000).

ABN-Amro (now RBS) was roped in as sponsor while the Wawasan Education Foundation, of which Stephen is the chairman, also backs the programme.

Adrian Chan says that the programme is to help budding artists kick start their careers.

The retreat, staffed by a skeletal retinue of Myanmar workers and headed by supervisor Myint, has a 1.3-metre-deep outdoor swimming pool, a 14-seater conference room, a well-stocked wine cellar, a tower deck and lower lookout deck, a lounge area with satellite TV and internet connectivity. It also offers massage services including raindrop therapy (by request).

The whole place is eco-friendly, using natural spring water which is filtered, while no chemical agents are used for cleaning. The floorboards of the main dining space are made from discarded railway sleepers while recycled white shingles constitute the barn roofs.

As it is niche and caters to a high-end clientele seeking some premium-quality P&Q, it doesn’t get distractingly crowded, making it ideal for romantic interludes, corporate brainstorming sessions or photography scenarios. With its dense secondary forests and water sources, it is also a haven for botanists and bird-watchers.

“Originally, we didn’t have TVs in the rooms but we had to eventually make concessions for the modern lifestyle of the guests,” says Adrian Chan.

And for all its understated charms and sensitively plotted setup and features, the Malihom retreat is truly a work of art in itself.

A special viewing deck of the picturesque surroundings.

Ooi Kok Chuen has been writing on the art scene at home and abroad for 28 years.

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