Zulkhairi Zulkiflee is an independent curator, educator and visual artist, and the joint curatorial winner of the 2020 IMPART Awards. Recently Zulkhairi co-curated How to Desire Differently at the Lim Hak Tai Gallery, a group exhibition that imagined complex representations of bodies of difference. Through artworks ranging from photography to painting, Zulkhairi and 8 fellow artists reframed prevailing issues of identity as informed by their practices. In this post, we speak to Zulkhairi about curating and showcasing his work in the exhibition, topics of interest in his practice as an artist-curator, his experience with IMPART Awards and what he’s been up to lately.
Congratulations on the opening of your exhibition! What was the inspiration and curatorial process behind How to Desire Differently?
ZZ: Following the last exhibition I put together called MAT, which was generously supported by Objectifs under their Curator Open Call, I wanted to focus on creating more alternative spaces for discourse by gathering works that intersect concerns of race, class and sexuality. In some sense, these topics represent social variables that are mediated by the body in particular ways.
As such, there were a few concerns that I prioritised in curating the exhibition, such as how the artists’ list could represent a diversity of ethnicity, age, sexuality and artistic experience. It was also important that the people and characters in the works themselves had balanced gender representation. These would enable a form of visual discourse within the exhibition space (i.e. between past and present works, and perspectives of how different artworks were made, and what they feature).
Like MAT, the exhibition was made possible with the generous support of Nanyang Academy of the Fine Arts (NAFA) Institute of Southeast Asian Art, who I worked closely with. I would like to thank Dr. Bridget Tracy Tan, Iris Lim, Farizi Noorfauzi (particularly for being a critical sounding board in this project) and the artists for allowing this to happen: Yeo Tze Yang, Vimal Kumar, Susie Wong, Adeline Kueh, Jason Wee, Rizman Putra and Fitri Ya’akob.
How to Desire Differently
Tell us more about your work featured in the exhibition, and how it relates to your artistic interests.
ZZ: It’s part of a new series of works which begins with Cheong Soo Pieng’s 1953 painting Malay Boy with Bird. My work specifically responds to possible tropes of the Malay male body as mediated by imaging sources like paintings, and how that can be reimagined today. My interest is centred on Malayness and its social ontology, where I focus on creative knowledge-making through lens-based artworks. I attempt to see Malayness through an intersection of decoloniality (as aesthetic subversion), the sociocultural tensions of taste, class and habitus in the artworld, and particularly, the racialised Malay male body. I think my artistic interests parallel the overarching concerns of representation and difference in the exhibition.
Left image: Malay Boy (Posterior) (after Cheong Soo Pieng), Installation view – Zulkhairi Zulkiflee Right image: Bust (Kepala) – Zulkhairi Zulkiflee Source: Courtesy of artist
You’re also the founder of Sikap, a project group that engages with creative values and experiments. Could you tell us more about that?
ZZ: Well, Sikap is a project group that is not typical of most groups/collectives. For one, Sikap is not concerned with fixed memberships as it is mostly task driven (i.e. the “group is activated when there is a working exhibition). Secondly, it is focused on visual arts presentation, the way things can be organised and importantly, the redistribution of creative opportunities.
How has it been for you since winning the IMPART Awards in January?
ZZ: I’ve been keeping myself active. Winning the award definitely gave me the encouragement that I think most practitioners require. It was very affirming! I also reflected a lot on my approach to work, and it’s clearer to me now that I should continue focusing on making work and the rest would naturally follow.
The 2021 IMPART Awards is now open for applications. Is there anything you would like to share with the potential applicants?
ZZ: I want to encourage everyone, especially my peers, to apply and to try again and again, even if you don’t win or get shortlisted in the beginning. It was definitely nerve-wrecking but the process of applying is itself an experience. I was excited to be shortlisted but to win the prize was a bonus! It was like being rewarded for all the projects that I had worked on previously with my collaborators (i.e. artists and co-curators). I also really appreciate working with the amazing Art Outreach team behind the IMPART Awards; Eve, Colin, Mae, Dina and Audrey.
What’s one piece of advice you have for budding curators and artists?
ZZ: I remember a particular artist-lecturer prompting me and my classmates to consider why we do what we do by asking: what is at stake? I think what this question encapsulates is having an understanding of why one’s creative contribution matters, and whether it is urgent (or missing in the art scene currently). It really made me think about what I’m doing when positioned within a larger ecosystem. Hence, my advice would be: to hone one’s clarity as a creative contributor.
The IMPART Awards 2021 is currently open for applications and will close on 16 October 2020. Download application form here.
How to Desire Differently is currently on view at the Lim Hak Tai Gallery in NAFA until 30 August 2020.