Why I Collect: Kwong Yee Leong

The founder of the experimental exhibition space Blank Canvas in Malaysia embodies an innovative approach to philanthropy

‘I was born and grew up in Malaysia. I studied philosophy in Singapore. I then worked in Hong Kong, and later in Shanghai before moving back to Hong Kong. I’m a Management Consultant and my professional career has taken me to many places. Many of my clients are French luxury companies, which explains why I spend much of my time in Paris.

‘I started collecting after I moved to Hong Kong, in 1999. It was before Art Basel started, before M+ or any of those institutions were created, and before any international gallery had opened. The only way to see international contemporary art then was to go to auctions. I met my partner at the time, with whom I shared a passion for art. Somehow, our collection started from love. It was also deeply connected to Hong Kong itself, where more and more art was shown, first Chinese and then international, and which was starting to play a new role for contemporary art within the region. Today, I see our collection as being particularly representative of Hong Kong and of those developments.

Portrait of Kwong Yee Leong. Courtesy of Kwong Yee Leong.
Installation view of Trevor Yeong, a friendly distance at Blank Canvas, Penang, 2023. Courtesy of Kwong Yee Leong and Blank Canvas.

‘I learnt about art through looking, exploring, and through conversations. What quickly became important to me were the strong relationships I had started to build together with some gallerists. Gallerists are part of an ecosystem with the artists and the artworks. It is this whole system that makes the work significant. Very often, when I like a work, the artist’s gallery plays an important role, and I want to know their program, their philosophy, etc., because I believe it adds to the practice and work of the artist.

Installation view of Heman Chong, The Library of Unread Books at Blank Canvas, Penang, 2023. Courtesy of Heman Chong & Renée Staal.

‘I started my collection as I developed conversations – and often deep friendships – with gallerists. I met, for instance, Leo Xu [Senior Director at David Zwirner in Hong Kong] in 2011 when I moved to Shanghai, where I’d stay for 4 and a half years. He was then running an art space called Leo Xu Projects. At a time when the obsession was with Chinese artists, he was introducing many international artists such as Danh VoWolfgang Tillmans, and Nina Canell to China. He became an important figure for me – simultaneously a mentor, an art consultant, a friend – and through him I started collecting works by artists such as Guo HongweiChen WeiHe An, and Sun Xun. He also introduced me to many other curators, gallerists, and collectors. Leo’s way of interacting with art and artists and the art world prompted me to think about my collecting process, and I began to look at artworks not so much as objects anymore but as relationships. With Leo Xu’s influence, my collection evolved from paintings to conceptual works.

Installation view of Dahn Vo, Untitled at Art Basel Hong Kong 2023 Encounters, 2023. Photograph by Mike Pickles for Art Basel Hong Kong.

‘I later met Jan Mot – because I was interested in Tino Sehgal – and discovered another independent mind with the unique points of view on art that I crave for. I love Mot’s program and I collect many of his artists, who I got to know personally through him. My collection has become even more conceptual in recent years. Many other galleries have become important to me: Vitamin Creative Space in China; Blindspot Gallery in Hong Kong; Taro Nasu in Japan; Experimenter in India; Proyectos Ultravioleta in Colombia; Barbara Wien in Berlin; Chantal Crousel and Balice Hertling in Paris, amongst many others. I met Barbara Wien through Haegue Yang, and she introduced me to the work of Daniel Lie. I discovered Jitish Kallat’s work through Chemould Prescott Road, and Ser Serpas through Balice Hertling. One relationship constantly leads me to another.

Installation view of Why I Collect at Blank Canvas, Penang, 2023. Courtesy of Kwong Yee Leong and Blank Canvas.

‘During the COVID-19 pandemic, I realized that I also wanted to spend time in Malaysia, and I settled on Penang Island’s capital city, George Town. I now split my time mostly between Paris and George Town, where I inaugurated an independent contemporary art space called Blank Canvas in 2022.

‘I travel constantly and am involved in multiple international conversations. Meanwhile, Malaysia is disconnected from the rest of the world, and nothing is really happening there yet. This is why I had to create Blank Canvas, in order to share my passion with my country. I’m no longer collecting solely for myself; I feel a sense of purpose and responsibility.

View of Kwong Yee Leong’s home, Penang.

‘Blank Canvas is an experimental not-for-profit space. It seeks to create a greater awareness and appreciation of both local and international contemporary art. It encourages international contemporary art practitioners to discover and engage with the richly multicultural historic city of Penang and its region. We have an exhibition space and a residency program. In 2022, our first artist-in-residence was Trevor Yeung, who will represent Hong Kong at the Venice Biennial in 2024. We have also exhibited Heman ChongRyan Gander, Tino Sehgal, Shooshie SulaimanDanh Vo, and Haegue Yang. Our next exhibition will be curated by Christina Li, who was our curator-in-residence in 2023. For me, Blank Canvas is another facet of collecting.’

Installation view of Heman Chong, The Library of Unread Books at Blank Canvas, Penang, 2023. Courtesy of Kwong Yee Leong and Blank Canvas.
Installation view of Heman Chong, The Library of Unread Books at Black Canvas, Penang, 2023. Courtesy of Kwong Yee Leong and Blank Canvas.

Florence Derieux is an art historian and curator. Published courtesy of ArtBasel.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.