The Art of Creating for a Living

20 April 2018

In Seremban, Sembilan Arts Residency provides a nurturing space for emerging artists to create and exhibit their works.

In our modern world, we tend to take artists and creatives for granted – the ones who see with their eyes but create and document with their heart. With that, it has long been difficult for artists – be it music, literary, visual or performing – to pursue a sustainable career and livelihood.

An art career rarely comes with structures and guidelines to follow in order to claim a steady stream of income – so the hustle never stops, and often, it’s more than the search for monetary returns.

Art from past residency seasons lining the walls of the Hotel Sun Luk Yik. L-R: ‘Introverted Dreams’ by Anahita Ghazanfari & Syahbandi Samat, 2016 (Season 4), ‘Rotiman’ by Nicholas Choong & Jael Estrella, 2014 (Season 1). Each season features one collaborative artwork by the artists-in-residence. All artwork is for sale.

Speaking to the current (season 6) artists-in-residence at Sembilan Arts Residency in Seremban, Sofia Haron, 27 and Tomi Heri, 26 both talk about their art and how this residency has helped them fully immerse themselves in the craft. Housed at the now closed Sun Lun Yik hotel, the artists stay at the accommodation for three to six months, and work on their art at the studio downstairs. To mark the completion of the residency period, Sofia and Tomi’s artworks was showcased in a joint exhibition, Pancaroba, last April at Ken Gallery TTDI.  

Observation, Interpretation, Documentation
Both Sofia and Tomi have matching goals when it comes to their art: bringing their audience calmness and relaxation. But that’s where the similarities end.

Sofia's art in progress.

Using pastels and traditional acrylics, Sofia has a distinct femininity to her art, exploring the broad idea of introspection and dreams: “What I’m creating is based on mandalas, dream catchers and spirals. The theme is depression and how my art will bring a meditative calmness to my audience instead of despair,” she explains.

Fascinated by art since age three, Sofia went on to do a Degree in Fine Arts at Universiti Teknologi MARA, where she majored in painting and ceramic.

Tomi Heri and Sofia Harun, Sembilan Art Residency's current artists-in-residence (season 6).

“I’m an artist because I want to contribute and say something that will mean something to someone. I have a purpose.”

On the other hand, Tomi, a self-taught visual artist with a background in graphic design, derives a lot of his inspiration externally from life around him. “I like to go outside and directly engage,” he says. “I memang tak boleh seorang dalam studio. Saya suka travel [I can’t sit alone in a studio and create, I like to travel].”

Tomi’s art in progress

Tomi’s wanderlust is evident in his artworks. For the joint exhibition, his mixed-media works are inspired by his experiences working in different towns and cities. In fact, his most intricate and boundary-pushing piece is themed on Seremban, and makes use of stencils and wood cutouts he conceptualised digitally.

The many (money) paths of a career artist

The struggling artist stereotype has been romanticised, idealised and ostracised, but in reality, artists need all the help they can get. This could come in the form of individual grants from cultural agencies, such as CENDANA (Cultural Economy Development Agency), established mainly to provide monetary support to local talents and artists, and create a sustainable cultural economy.

Residencies like Sembilan Arts Residency, however, give the artist space, time and encouragement to create – one that would end in work that could be sold. It directly gives the artists’ a monetary exchange for their creations, on top of playing a significant role in their creative process and wellbeing.

Sofia’s art in progress

“Before this residency, I didn’t have a proper methodology to do the work [right], but now I’ve found a process for production and a step by step idea from conceptualisation to the final artwork,” says Tomi.

“This residency has gotten me to take this career seriously because I can see how much I can achieve given the time.”

Like other artists, both Tomi and Sofia have their “bread and butter” jobs doing commissioned works and producing installations, graphic design and layout works for clients. But this, they say, is just an additional avenue to make money.

“It’s just to get income, it’s not related to my art,” says Sofia. “This residency lets me focus on me and my art. I finally realised even if it’s [the artwork] simple, it’s important to me.”

Sembilan Arts Residency
This nurturing ecosystem that inspires and challenges Tomi and Sofia is thanks to the efforts of Sembilan Arts Residency’s founders. James Yip, Yeoh Xin Yi and Tan Lee Suan are passionate about providing artists looking to pivot or expand their creative career, an avenue for doing just that. Now in its sixth season, Sembilan has supported 12 artists since it opened in 2014.

“Setting up the residency was key to make sure that the artworks were accessible and affordable,” explains Yip. “We pledged to not take any commissions on their artwork sales – it’s all out of pocket.”

To contribute to supporting the artists’ creative process, the program also has resident mentor Rudi Hakimi, an art lecturer at Kolej MARA, who volunteers his time helping the artists-in-residence build their narrative and concepts.

James Yip, the co-founder of Sembilan Arts Residency.

Incidentally, Sembilan itself is also looking to pivot and expand – with lofty goals in becoming a multi-disciplinary residency. Yip recognises the additional value in getting other types of arts involved, to cut through the tunnel vision and silo communities of the visual arts. The dream is to make Sembilan a creative hub for artists of all kinds – performing arts, visual arts, photography, literary arts and more.

“Art is a documentation of history and we need the artists, storytellers and creatives to tell the story of Malaysia as it truly is,” says Yip.

Learn more about Sembilan Arts Residency at

By Mabel Ho
Photos by Wong Yok Teng

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