A Home for Malaysian Contemporary Art

Step into Rumah Lukis, an alternative oasis for art nestled in the heart of one of Hulu Klang’s oldest housing districts.

By | January 1, 2021

Architect Mohamad Pital Maarof married his interests in art and architecture with the founding of Rumah Lukis. This non-profit alternative space, nestled in the heart of a heritage housing district in Kuala Lumpur, was originally intended to be a second home for Pital’s Johor-based family but morphed into a community space with a specific purpose: to create a platform where artistic process could be displayed, investigated and appreciated. Pital’s intention? To shine a spotlight on the Malaysian contemporary art movement with which his life and work are intertwined.

Rumah Lukis is a community space that aims to create a platform where artistic process can be displayed, investigated, and appreciated.

Rumah Lukis is warm and welcoming. Stepping into its chic concrete courtyard, the mountain range that demarcates East from West in Peninsular Malaysia acts as a backdrop. As a whole, the space rings with Pital’s minimal industrial aesthetic, honed since his youth in New York City, where he graduated from Pratt Institute in 1993 with a Masters in Architecture. Local touches come through, in the guise of plants, palettes or details such as brickwork and grills, grounding Rumah Lukis in its Malaysian location. Pital notes that several of his neighbours have lived in the surrounding homes for two or three generations now, and this compelled him to strive and keep the original essence of the home even as he updated it for new purposes.

Rumah Lukis, once a private home, has kept its original essence.

Malaysia has one of Southeast Asia’s most exciting contemporary art scenes, with several museums and commercial galleries where audiences can view art. Yet within this dynamic scene, Pital identified a gap for a specific type of space. He views Rumah Lukis as a “home” for art; a place where audiences can come to expand their knowledge through insights into the minds and workings of artists, from initial concepts right through to the final stages. A petite on-site library and sitting spaces dotted around the gallery invite audiences to stay, reflect and discuss.

Rumah Lukis is not a cavernous space that aims to host blockbuster exhibitions. Rather the focus is on carefully curated exhibitions that speak to intellectual thinking and smaller delights. Pital explains, “I’m more interested in the process of things, the act of making. I think the way artists work, the process through which they do things, is very important and needs to be shared with the public.”

The focus of Rumah Lukis is on carefully curated exhibitions that speak to intellectual thinking and smaller delights.

A perfect example of this desire to find out how artists make great work was Rumah Lukis’ inaugural exhibition, Carta. Featuring Jalaini Abu Hassan (popularly known as Jai), it took a different approach to a solo show for an established superstar artist. Rather than bringing together a selection of seminal works to celebrate Jai’s career to date, Carta investigated how Jai built his personality and creative style.

Pital chose to display 60 drawings and sketches, which date back to Jai’s student years at Slade School of Fine Art and Pratt Institute—coincidentally the scene of his first meeting with Pital in 1992, that led to a firm friendship ever since. The majority came from Jai’s own collection, with several documenting intensely personal moments in the artist’s life. Tracing through particular threads made clear how Jai developed particular tropes. A plethora of notes, obsessively recorded in Jai’s own hand, for example, were translated into the confident scrawl that has become a signature across his canvases, often relaying Malay proverbs and pantun. As such Carta succinctly expressed Rumah Lukis’ ambition to offer insights into artists and the art world from a whole new, intensely personal perspective.

Some of the works on display at Rumah Lukis.

Annually, Rumah Lukis aims for two exhibitions, showcasing a range of local creative talent across several areas from art to architecture to design. Due to the global Covid-19 pandemic, 2020 has seen a single exhibition, Painting Archives. The solo for Singaporean artist Hilmi Johandi opens with the question, “How does one examine process?” Curator Syed M Hafiz offers a possibility, through a mind map of drawings, notes and texts by Hilmi that span the length of Rumah Lukis’ main wall.

Pital’s aim to illustrate artistic thinking became abundantly clear as I sat in a chair that simultaneously offered me a vantage of several exploratory sketches, and the final canvas they came together in. Archival images and videos play throughout the different rooms, leading audiences to trace through Hilmi’s thought process, before landing on a tightly edited display of finished artworks.

Founder Mohamad Pital Maarof’s wish to make Rumah Lukis a true ‘home for art’ in Kuala Lumpur.

It is Pital’s wish that this space becomes a true “home for art” in the capital city. I found it poetic that each artist who exhibits work at Rumah Lukis is invited to leave their mark on the walls, typically in the form of a mural. These murals will become a collection marking the passage of time, and document the impact Rumah Lukis hopes to make in Kuala Lumpur’s lively art scene. 

Rumah Lukis, 11 Jalan AU5D/4, Lembah Keramat, Hulu Klang 54200 Kuala Lumpur. By appointment. Tel: 012 608 4038.  [email protected]; @rumah.lukis

Zena Khan

Zena Khan

Curator for The AFK Collection, Zena Khan is passionate about bringing emerging art worlds to wider audiences. Previously she has worked as a curator/writer on projects for Battersea Power Station, Delfina Foundation, Venice Biennale, and edited Harper's Bazaar Art. Follow Zena’s art adventures on Instagram @zenaaliyakhan