Meet Zena Khan: The Visionary Changing the Face of Contemporary Art in Malaysia. Bridging the gap between artwork and audiences, Zena Khan is working to elevate Malaysia’s contemporary art space.
Text Farrah Darma
As an art curator, Zena Khan specialises in Malaysian contemporary art and wants to grow appreciation within this space. Her passion for art and culture was instilled at a young age, having watched her parents, Aliya and Farouk Khan, build up the AFK Collection to the exemplary level it is today. Zena is now managing the collection, which her parents started putting together when she was growing up.
“We were always a close-knit family. As my parents were building the collection, it was very common for us to visit art galleries and just look at things. My dad always asked me for my opinions, and we would have discussions on what we saw. He would also challenge me, but I was always encouraged to have my own opinion, even at a young age.”
Her artistic sense comes naturally and part of it was nurtured through her mother’s family. She recalls winter visits to Karachi and Lahore in Pakistan, where dancing, fashion and music were commonplace. Her father always had music playing in the house.
“If it wasn’t music, it was literature. We were encouraged to read a lot – novels, newspapers, art… and that impacted my state of normal as an adult. My sense of curiosity also came from my grandfather, who sent me all sorts of books to read, be it history, biographies of famous figures and even spiritual beliefs.”
With paternal figures who were historians and literature buffs, she was always encouraged to read and think. Zena went on to pursue her BA in jewellery design. Having studio practice and the experience of making jewellery herself allowed her to initiate more intimate discussions with other artists, whose creative struggles she now understood.
In 2015, Zena was accepted into the Royal College of Art to pursue her masters in Curating Contemporary Art. Here, she found a line-up of mentors and intellectuals, who taught her how to expand her current state of thinking and writing about art.
After freelancing as a designer in the UK for some of the world’s top fashion brands, setting up her own studio in Bali and producing jewellery that featured in the New York Fashion Week, Zena eventually returned to Malaysia to continue her work with the AFK Collection.
“There is so much more to do here. I realised I had so much access to knowledge from my childhood, which I knew instinctively that many people didn’t. This was because there was so little writing available. Even if there were any, it wasn’t very accessible. The AFK Collection is a platform that addresses this issue.”
The AFK Collection is a private collection of first generation and seminal Malaysian contemporary artworks. It acts as a touchstone for knowledge on Malaysia’s contemporary art movement, playing a central role in the country’s cultural landscape. Recently, the collection has been digitised in its entirety and available on www.afkcollection.com to broaden audience access to the collection and its contents – all available for free downloads. Critical in quality, it encompasses all genres, mediums and forms of art produce from 1980 to present times.
Zena Khan on Contemporary Art
She believes that the contemporary movement in societies that are ex-colonies like Malaysia is extremely important. Such art arises only when these societies have established themselves, begun to think independently and become free of the colonial shadow. In Malaysia, this movement emerged in the 1980s and boomed in the 1090s and 2000s. Zena believes that the public needs access to information on who the artists are, the genres and their key iconic works, which AFK Collection provides.
When writing any material, Zena goes back to the first publication she curated. She wrote biographies for each artwork, and this has grown to be a career-spanning signature of hers. Zena covers senior, mid-career and young Malaysian contemporary artists as this better showcases the current state of artistic practice in Malaysia. This is especially important seeing as how she intends to intensify writing and research this year. For Zena, it is important to look through and around art via a more curatorial process.
“Essentially, you don’t just write on what the works look like and how they were made. You talk about what they mean.” She references a recent exhibition by local artist Anniketyni Madian, who produces pieces based on Sarawakian folklore and how information is verified, and how there is a shift in art from abstraction to more recognisable imagery.
The AFK Collection
More recently, Zena has been working on a collection that will feature the first generation of Malaysian contemporary artists. This collection would see chronicles of work that are scaffoldings to Malaysia’s contemporary art history. While the research on that is set to continue, Zena is also publishing a book on iconic art works from the AFK Collection, where she will be revisiting her signature style of writing biographies. She prides herself in presenting them in many formats, studying history of the works, stories behind them, and touching on different genres and artists.
Support, so far, has been overwhelmingly positive, an indication that Malaysians truly want to see good art and read good writing on them. Just last year, Zena curated an exhibition that featured 22 legendary artworks from the AFK Collection. The 500 catalogues she printed ran out within a week of launching and a new print run had to be done.
“I wrote a catalogue on each art piece. This includes things like why it’s considered iconic, in terms of the artists’ practice and local art history. Iconic pieces mean they have made certain advancements in the contemporary art world. I’ve extracted works that show those advancements and the heightened ability of the makers of arts, philosophical thinkers and commentators of the Malaysian world.”
A Creative Mind and Soul
Through the AFK Collection, wider Malaysian art is now able to become part of global conversations. Zena hopes to continue working on her macro writing and research on the collection, which means looking around more art and understanding the conditions that allow the artwork to exist. This may include historical, political, social and cultural influences, and what a specific piece means to society in modern day.
As a curator, the technical description of her job would be caring for a collection. For Zena, that’s just the starting point to thinking about larger things – social political stories, stories of women and contemporary arts. These collections are repositories of knowledge and a research resource. Zena finds herself in her writing studio most days, while others are spent filled with visiting galleries, installations for exhibitions, photography and research. Her weekly runs are moments where she can fully switch off and recharge before the creative writing process begins.
“I’ve reserve quiet days for writing and the process usually begins with at least 20 minutes of reading. I always go back to my core passions (research and writing). To operate in the creative world well requires a lot of discipline.”
Undoubtedly, Malaysia owns world class art that hits every note – well made, conceptual and captures the environment around it. However, the contemporary art movement has a long way to go when it comes to sufficient support structures. To an extent, the AFK Collection functions to provide exactly that, but Zena feels there’s more to be done within Malaysia’s contemporary art space.
Zena Khan on The Future of Malaysian Art
“Our collection is intentionally unique. Of high quality and assembles narratives of Malaysian contemporary history from its beginning to today’s development. Our art easily stands up on the global stage, so I want to write about these things. There’s so much more opportunity for museums to build collections. We need more serious collecting efforts with accurate knowledge and research. Even with AFK Collection, I’m always trying to get more information out. It’s a constant battle to figure out how and what the right platforms are to better engage the public.”
Despite these absences, Zena is slowly bridging these gaps. She has spoken on Malaysian art globally in Singapore, Warsaw, Barcelona, London and the United States. All of which she feels is a step closer in making an impactful difference in bridging these gaps. With a myriad of ways to think and write about the world around us, Zena is constantly thinking of ways to reach wider audiences. Whether it be through published writings, exhibitions or her own luxury publications.
For anyone just venturing into the art space, or any space for that matter, Zena strongly encourages having a sense of curiosity. “Be a curious person. Ask questions, read, gather knowledge and don’t be afraid to be wrong. Even if you haven’t found your passion, read. That’s what I always tell my nephews and nieces. You can only know what you like if you’re exposed to things.”