Meet Leila Khan Of The AFK Collection, One Of The World's Largest Private Contemporary Malaysian Art Collections
The AFK Collection is the physical embodiment of Aliya and Farouk Khan’s passion and involvement in the Malaysian art scene, comprising seminal works that make up the local contemporary art history. The prominent art patrons have been growing this collection since the '90s, and their expertise had also led them to speak at round tables such as the Terrace Talks of Art Dubai. Their passion is a family affair, shared by their daughters, Zena and Leila, who are fully involved in growing and overseeing the vast collection.
Leila was born in Singapore but moved to Malaysia as a teenager. While she was always aware of her parents’ collecting activities growing up, the magnitude of what they were doing only truly struck her when she moved permanently back to Kuala Lumpur after a stint in Dubai working in PR and marketing. Since then she has been managing the collection and working towards creating a revolutionary awareness and repository for contemporary art that has yet to be seen in this country.
Beyond the act of buying artworks, it is also important to produce documentation, both visual—through shows—and literal—through publications. Leila manages and oversees all aspects of the collection, from inventory to organising shows and publication documentation. Her sister, Zena, an international curator in her own right, is involved in a lot of the curatorial aspects of the collection. Together they cover all bases. Last year, they launched their website which has created a prominent global platform for Malaysian contemporary art in the digital sphere.
What was it like growing up in such an artistic environment?
We've always had a steady stream of artists and curators coming through the house. Even when we were really young, conversations at home were always about art and culture. There was a lot of emphasis to watch plays and musicals, listen to music, visit museums, read… even going to concerts was and still is very appreciated in my family.
Having a family that is so artistically and culturally inclined has led to me having a very different childhood. The emphasis was on experiences and we would always have lengthy discussions at home or in the car when we went for drives.
One story that I love is when I was 10, I met Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. He was at that time—and till his death in 1997—regarded as the greatest sufi singer in the world. My grandmother had arranged for him to perform at a function at my uncle’s wedding. I remember sitting with him and chatting and having no idea that I was with one of the greatest voices in the world!
But I do remember that all the guests were beaming and you could feel the excitement in the air. After that, I slowly started listening to his music— mostly sufi qawwalis—and that spurned my already growing interest in getting to know more about different genres of music .
Was your love for art, nature or nurture?
I would say it really is a bit of both. When I was really young my parents collected antique carpets, which is another amazing art form steeped in history and my mother also always collected and brought back traditional silverware from her home in Pakistan. The time I spent there also really exposed me to so many different aspects of art, with the stunning historical sites of the Moghul Era standing out as a favourite. Also, on any of our travels, visiting museums were and still are a must.
My mom also had a real love for buying beautiful pieces for our homes. She would always spend her time beautifying the home, always flowers everywhere, and she was really into interior design. So growing up, it was just all around me.
But I also remember all through my life my father always taught us that it was important to spend wisely. Always buy things of value so that we would have something to pass on to our children. That instilled a sense of understanding of what we have around us and really appreciating them. He also is a music lover and every time we were in the car or lazing about, he would be playing us tunes by The Beatles, Elton John, The Doors, Crosby, Stills and Nash, to name a few. He always asked us to listen to the lyrics. He would say songs are modern day poetry and an art form. That really stuck with me, and till today, music is such a big part of my life.
What are your thoughts on the Malaysian art scene?
I find the Malaysian art scene very vibrant. It keeps evolving, has changed and grown so much since my parents started collecting. There is a lot more patronage now, but I do think there is room for a lot more still. We have incredibly talented artists and passionate collectors/ gallerists but we definitely need more intellectualism to come into the local scene.
The AFK Collection has made great strides in curatorial content, but the local art ecology would benefit from an increase in academic events such as art talks, as well as more curators and writers who have wider exposure and training. We do have these now, but I feel there is still room for growth. All this will elevate the local art scene in line with the artworks that are being produced. As I mentioned, it is important for us to not just visually appreciate the arts, but to also have access to literature on why certain things are relevant, and thus have value.
There are so many young artists, and they are experimenting with different mediums. As a society, we are very connected to our traditions whilst living in a very contemporary time. Through the artworks we can see a lot of exploration into who we are, and as Malaysia is so multicultural, the answer to that question becomes interesting and diverse.
The increase in private collectors, the turn towards intellectualism, and the global recognition of Malaysian contemporary art have led to a huge demand for Malaysian art. We have seen a huge value increase over the last decade which looks set to continue through an increase in demand for artwork, and this is in line with the global art market as well.
How do you think the Malaysian art scene is unique in the Asian context?
The Malaysian art scene really stands out in the Asian context. Artists here work in a multidisciplinary manner, producing art in all genres, but their strength can be pinned down to strong foundations in the formal tenets of drawing and painting. One of the ways I notice local art standing out from is by using strong art-making processes to deliver highly conceptual ideas. Malaysian contemporary artists are thus able to communicate really complex conversations that relate to both local and global through dynamic visuals that are amongst the best in Asia.