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Making Mamak

A conversation with Clarissa Lim Kye Lee on collective ecologies of urban spaces in Malaysia.

Clarissa Lim Kye Lee is the emerging curator of 2022-2023 at the Canadian Centre for Architecture (CCA) in Montreal. Invited as part of a program for emerging curators, she takes this global institution into lessons she learned in corners of Hong Kong and Kuala Lumpur. She defines herself as a transnational subject, migrating between different places, working between languages and codes that she likes to easily and openly swing into and inside out from. Clarissa’s project, named “Making Mamak”, [1] is a cartographic exploration of various spaces - architectural and textual. The term “mamak” is derived from South Asia and Southeast Asia, where it is used to denote both indoor and open-air establishments serving Indian Muslim cuisine. In the context of Clarissa’s work, “mamak” takes on a broader meaning. It encapsulates not just culinary endeavors, but also represents creative collectives, art hubs, and cultural centers. These entities, under the umbrella term of “mamak”, share a common interest: the articulation and fostering of community.

LR: Collectivity has always been a mode of labor, at least for the production of space in the architectural Realm. I wonder what perspective you take towards collectivity itself as a concept?

Clarissa Lim Kye Lee: When I returned from Hong Kong to Malaysia, I hoped to continue my studies, to pursue a Master's in Visual Arts at University of Malasya, aiming to work in these fields professionally. Although the program was labeled as a Master of Visual Arts, it primarily focused on visual culture and art history. I transitioned from architecture to an art history framework; this shift allowed  me to analyze collective phenomena and bridge the gap between these two worlds. Coming from a research background in architecture, I embraced the new training in Southeast Asian art history - a field that remains largely unexplored yet which is currently gaining significant interest.

A key aspect of my exploration into art collectives involves examining labor within the Malaysian context. This investigation unveiled many layers, particularly the challenges faced within Malaysia’s art and architectural sectors. An essay by Michelle Antoinette titled “...and Malaysia?” addresses this topic early on. Antoinette´s work sparked inquiries into the practice of art in Malaysia, highlighting the emergence of art spaces with the support of the government. Amidst this backdrop of limited resources, creating public art spaces became crucial. The labor-intensive process of establishing and utilizing these spaces for exhibitions and performances significantly shapes artistic practices. However, this discussion does not directly delve into the architectural dimension of your inquiry.

LR: Your perspective seems particularly relevant given the current understanding of architecture. It’s not just seen as a tangible entity, but also as a process. Would it be accurate to say that you’re describing the exploration of spaces as social bodies in motion? 

CLKL: What you might refer to as social bodies I view as an ecology of networks and interactions, shaped by limitations and gaps in Malaysia’s social landscape. These constraints often confine gatherings to specific moments, especially post-COVID. Our research approach resembles a snowball effect, where inteviewing one group leads to the discovery of another, and is essential for mapping these collectives without recourse to a central database. While there are some NGO or government maps available, they are limited. In our workshops, we aim to analyze and expand upon these existing maps.

Returning to Malaysia marked a pivotal moment for me, as I transitioned into a cultural worker, integrating myself into established networks within the art scene. I actively engaged with diverse individuals, often bonding over meals - hence the title “Mamak”, referencing communal eating spaces. These gatherings typically took place around 9pm. Bars are costly in this Muslim-majority country, so instead, we frequented coffee shops, enjoying greasy food while brainstorming and collaborating on projects.


fig. 1


LR: Does social life typically begin at 9 pm?

CLKL: The climate speaks volumes here. In Southeast Asia, summer is perpetual - warm and humid with distinct wet and dry seasons, but is now influenced by climate change. As the sun sets around seven, people emerge, seeking relief from the day’s heat. Night culture thrives, characterized by street gatherings rather than the nightclub scenes of Berlin. Food trucks line the streets, akin to a year-long night market spread across various districts. Mamak eateries, often open 24/7, are bustling after the 9pm prayer, offering substantial meals beyond mere snacks.

The term “Papan” means timber or wood planks in Bahasa Melayu and Chinese, with “baban” referencing a group of eight planks, a lucky number in Chinese culture. Papanhaus is a domestic space, a terrace typology with expanded interiors and natural ventilation. My contact there is an interior designer. This is surprising as I once taught at the Malaysia Institute of Art where Pam, a member of Papan Haus, also teaches interior architecture.

Papan Haus is a collective of cultural workers encompassing diverse talents - photographers, sculptors, woodworkers - utilizing domestic spaces for gatherings. The house features a communal long table and an upstairs balcony overlooking the main space. The inaugural event, “Punk Rock Magic" in Malay, showcased a print collective connected to the broader arts ecosystem. Papanhaus hosts events, workshops, talks, and rents out space for financing, with two bedrooms primarily serving as gathering areas for the eight members who jointly own the property.


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LR: Should we discuss another collective? I can’t decide if we should start with the Ruang Tamu Ekosistem, or Pangrok Sulap.

CLKL: I believe they’re essentially the same. A collective of collectives, which is currently a trend. Actually, let me correct that. It’s quite prevalent in Indonesia, this post-Documenta 15 kind of moment.  Most of these collectives are public-facing, running programs that welcome anyone to come in and gather. You propose something on the spot and you can do it on the next day. I think the Ruang Tamu Ekosistem really holds to that tightly. They activate it a lot for university students as the third space where, for example, if they want to think about student movements or student protests, or if they want to find spaces where they can talk about politics in a comfortable space they do it in the Ruang Tamu Ekosistem. 

LR: It appears that Kapallorek operates on unique principles. It could be considered the first collective that intentionally structures its program as an art space.

CLKL: They were originally located in a different space , but they recently moved to a new location, which is conveniently close to another National University where they teach. I think one of the founders, who is a teacher, is also a new media artist. His brother is one of the pioneers shaping the landscape of New Media Arts within the Malaysian context. They primarily operate as a residency space and a venue for experimental new media art. Given that their contacts and the environment in their neighborhood are not necessarily super enriching, they are located in a new town that is right for education. They often engage with international young artists, or emerging artists from the university, inviting them to come in and do the first or last show. There are not many gallery spaces that nurture emerging artists. That being said, a lot of the programs are open; the gallery is free, and they also have a cafe on the ground floor for which they're finding a new strategy to think through in connection with the workshop. 

fig. 3


LR: The labor that is shared extends beyond monetary resources. This brings me to the genealogy of the toolkit. It is something that can be owned by everyone. If there are no standard ways of working or collaborating, but rather multiple approaches, I wonder if you could speak specifically about which tools and strategies are the most practical or pragmatic.

CLKL: I am considering developing a toolkit or manual - perhaps it could be referred to as an instruction booklet - specifically designed to analyze a collective’s relationship with their neighborhood. This resource would serve as a test to explore relationality and entanglement with the city, especially in contexts lacking material resources. From collectives, I’ve learned valuable lessons regarding sharing spaces. For example, allowing other groups to utilize unused spaces during designated times fosters community collaboration. One collective that was not present in this workshop, the Five Art Center, exemplifies this ethos. Reclaimed materials, particularly timber sourced from buildings affected by Malaysia’s humid tropical climate or rural-to-urban migration, surround me in the workshop space. These materials are repurposed with architectural ingenuity and distinct design languages, a practice I am documenting to articulate a useful tool for community engagement and for urban exploration.



Clarissa Lim Kye Lee is a cultural worker based in between Hong Kong and Kuala Lumpur via Penang. She is currently a Ph.D. candidate at the School of Architecture and received the Hong Kong Ph.D. Fellowship Scheme, as well as the CUHK Vice-Chancellor’s Ph.D. Scholarship. Working in the interstices of visual culture, arts, and architecture, her research reveals the urban influence of arts collectives in Malaysia. More information about her fellowship as an emerging curator can be found here.

The CCA's Emerging Curator Residency Program offers the opportunity to propose and curate a project at the CCA related to contemporary debates in architecture, urban issues, landscape design, and cultural and social dynamics while completing a residency at the CCA. The next call for applications for the 2025-2026 program will open in February 2025.



    [1] Previously entitled: The Precarity of Gathering.



    Cover, fig. 1, fig. 2, fig. 3: Photo by COEX @kilangbesi.



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