Who Are We?

“Identities: Who we are”, at the National Art Gallery, is an exhibition that hones the tough-to-pin-down Malaysian identity into various facets, definitions, and cultural quirks.

Beginning with the “Colonial, Migrant, History, and Women” sections of prints, paintings and drawings, the show moves into the realm of photographic representations from the Dato’ Loke Wan Tho collection of 14 selected prints (out of 500) and Yee I-Lann’s installation of Malaysians “frozen in time” – a collection of photos taken in the 80s at Pakard Studio, Melaka.

There are also thought-provoking film shorts that revolve around Malaysian identities, curated by Amir Muhammad, as well as Kenneth Chan’s video installation on the Malaysian Identity Card.

Interactive living rooms, the yellow corridor of rulers, election posters, self-portraits by various Malaysian artists, as well as “portraits in words” add vital matter to the swamp of questions that abound.

Finally, the exhibition, with the aid of Simryn Gill’s photographic project, ends with the fruitiest of questions: ‘What kind of Malaysian are you?’ ‘What flavours, smells, and textures would you bear?’ And most pertinently: ‘How long, and what, does it take to be regarded, accepted, and defined as Malaysian, and by whose authority?’

Curator and gallery owner Valentine Willie talks to Michelle Woo of Kakiseni.com about “Identities: Who we are”, an exhibition that provokes more questions than answers.

K: So, how did you come up with the entire concept for Identity?

VW: Well, firstly, it was supposed to be a portrait show from the National Art Gallery collection. So, I went down and had a look at it, but there wasn’t really enough. So, I had to think of something more. Then we expanded it to beyond portrait, to look at identity, the issue of identity. You know how pictures, or where pictures fit into our lives. So, it became this. Much broader themes. So, rather than just portraits, we’re looking at issues of identities, looking at use of photographs, images…

K: And what made you decide to put the quotes on those walls there?

VW: Well, it’s a form of portraits also. It’s what we call ‘portraits in words’, so I commissioned a curator to do that. It’s Salleh ben Joned, he used to be an English professor at Universiti Malaya. He’d done a lot of reading and he actually took quotes out of books, colonial books to contemporary, to now. Actually, there’s much more. It’s going to be in the catalogue, the whole listing. This is just a selection of excerpts, and it has to be bilingual – Malay and English. This actually took up more space than we thought. He also wrote a long essay on it as well. It’s all in the catalogue (RM20).

(Background music from the video wafts over…)

VW: And we have also the short film festival. There are 20 films, short films, curated by Amir Muhammad. They’re not feature films, they’re shorts that deal with Malaysian identity, being Malaysian.

K: There was one in particular that struck me. It was called “Transit Years”.

VW: Oh, okay, yes, yes, yes, yes…

K: Was there a reason behind its inclusion? Because this exhibition makes itself out to be one that examines a Malaysian identity, the search for a Malaysian soul, and asking questions about that… and yet, you have a documentary like “Transit Years” (about a Vietnamese refugee camp in Malaysia).

VW: What was your conclusion?

K: Well, I felt that the Vietnamese came here as refugees and that we should also look at them as Malaysians, but we didn’t treat them like Malaysians…

VW: No, we didn’t. We are a country of migrants. And yet when other migrants come, they are refugees, they are foreign. (But), we’re all foreign. But that’s the nature of us, I mean, that’s the nature of this exhibition, that you want to pose those questions. It’s not a show to give you answers. It’s a show to pose and re-pose those questions.

K: Now, what was the socio-political message behind the election posters?

VW: The election posters was how even the faces themselves, how pictures play a role in politics. If you have a nice picture, that makes a difference. If you look at the Mahathir pictures here, depending on which language, which constituency he’s doing, his costume is different. In the Malay section, you will find he’ll have a songkok. In the Chinese one, there’ll be no songkok.

K: And he looks more Chinese there.

VW: Well yes, I don’t know what they do with it. It’s certainly something there that we have been oblivious to. But I think whoever does it is quite clever in the sense they know exactly which constituency you’re going for. Like “Undilah… ” will always have a songkok, because it’s going for a Malay constituency, obviously.

And like this, obviously he’s got such a great face – which is true – and, you know, there are people who might just vote for him because he’s a nice face. So, the idea of ennobling, the idea of how superficial things can be…

(Incidentally, the synopsis of the exhibition points out: “In a country where 30% of the electorate are illiterate and only 50% have access to television, a good, kindly portrait of the election candidate can make all the difference. Politically parties print thousands of these posters. Thousands upon thousands that carpet the entire constituency for the election. Talk about littering”.)

(Diverting to the bare spaces on the election poster wall…)

VW: We have a few missing posters that have yet to come in. We have had lots of problems. These didn’t want to give us at all.

K: Who?

VW: PAS (Nik Aziz and Fadzil Noor) and KeAdilan (Wan Azizah) didn’t want to give it to us, because they thought this was the government and… it took a lot of convincing, and even the PRM one (only of Dr Syed Husin) … DAP, of course, gave us everything (of Lim Kit Siang through the years).

K: Yes, of course.

VW: Of course, Barisan (Nasional) was no problem, but we couldn’t get MCA, we couldn’t get MIC. They were thinking: ‘Why do you want election posters for?’

K: Did DAP only give you Kit Siang’s posters?

VW: Yes, but that’s very Kit Siang, very DAP…

K: Were there any objections by the gallery in terms of putting up election pictures?

VW: No, … no. We had pretty much a free hand. But also, I know what limits I can take… I mean, I wouldn’t put Anwar’s photos, for instance, that would be pushing it.

Moving to the yellow corridor exhibit – the one with our rulers – of 12 Agungs and four Prime Ministers…

VW: Kings and Queens, we had a bit of problems with. We had to get a lot of the photographs reprinted. We still can’t get pictures of the new King and Queen. The official portraits do not come out until in two weeks’ time (which would, at publication time, be about now).

K: The fact that there’re so many portraits of Mahathir, under so many Kings, it’s er… oh, you’d rather not comment on that…

VW: Yes, you draw your conclusions.

K: It’s a fact.

VW: There’s no lie on these walls. Everything on these walls is there, is real. And when you see the I.C., too (Kenneth Chan’s video installation on the Malaysian Identity Card), the I.C. itself is quite powerful. This is why I wanted to have this corridor… It’s really what defines us also. I mean, when you go into any government office, this is what you see (indicating pictures of former and current rulers), in every government office. And I think, like you said, there are three Prime Ministers here (under seven Kings and Queens), and only one on that side (under five Kings and Queens), this speaks of something…

You know, we were so bad. We couldn’t remember which Prime Minister goes under which. This is how bad we all are…

K: And was it your idea to have this corridor?

VW: Yes… I like the idea of the King, because we all grew up with it and we take it for granted already. And yet, this symbolises so much. When you go into a government office, you see these portraits… and they symbolise the state. And yet you get so irritated when you wait for hours at these government offices, and you’re staring at these photos.

(Walking through the final lap of the contemporary section.)

VW: This is a girl called Hamidah, her face. These are all her faces, but she superimposes them with somebody else’s eyes and mouth. So, this is Anwar…

K: Anwar’s black eye!

VW: Anwar’s famous eye. Er, this is her as a woman, this is her as man. Very strange… ‘Today, I want to be somebody’… Hamidah Abdul Rahman. She’s died already. She used to work for me…

This is… I don’t know who the artist is. I found this piece of work downstairs (an assembly of photocopied I.D.s on a backdrop of cardboard boxes) … I thought this was perfect for us. So many of us work in factories, and we have a photocopy of our I.C…

Turning to Simryn Gill’s colour photographs of fruit-headed friends (bearing real, tropical fruit) from Port Dickson

VW: This is fabulous. This is one of my favourite series.

K: Was this commissioned as well?

VW: No, Simryn Gill had done this already. She made 40 of these photographs. I picked 12. I like it to end here, because this is a question like ‘Are you Malaysian? Are you local? What kind of Malaysian are you?’ kind of thing.

It asks a question about, er, you know how we go to the market and we look at fruits. We say: ‘That’s a local fruit, and that’s imported’. Now, these are all local fruits. It not a question about being local, but what kind of Malaysian are you. She has taken that question one step further, with a sense of humour. It’s still a question, it’s always a question… not whether we’re local, but how local are we?

With all these fruits like durian, and rambutan, we think they’re local, but actually they come from Indonesia, and other countries. And yet, we don’t think of them as foreign anymore. So that’s the whole question she poses.

How we become localised. I think it’s a valid question to ask. What kind of fruit are you? What kind of Malaysian are you? Are you a durian head? Are you a watermelon head? Are you a petai head?

K: Yes, it’s also a subtle reference to what you have said, about how long does it take for you to be regarded as ‘local’?

VW: Yes, and this is all the questions that you will raise, and I’d like it to end this way. Because like I said, it’s not an exhibition to provide answers, it’s really looking at the questions.


First Published: 22.05.2002 on Kakiseni

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