By Lizzie Yeoh
Recently in Galeri Petronas, an exhibition of selected photographs of Malaysia was curated by renowned Malaysian photographer, Eric Peris. The exhibition, Through the Eyes of a Child, had unknowingly become one of the most notable exhibitions of year 2003, winning praises from distinguished individuals and leading newspapers in the country. There was even a suggestion to publish a book of this exhibition similar to the many photo-essay books on Malaysia available at the shelves. So what made this exhibition so praiseworthy? Obviously it’s the photographers involved – all seventy from a multitude of primary schools across Malaysia.
When asked about the origin of the exhibition, curator Eric Peris reflected on the energy and enthusiasm of a previous National Art Gallery project where he brought 30 children on a photography excursion trip to the Wetlands. The product of the excursion amazed him and he suggested the participation of New Straits Times (NST), Fujifilm and Galeri Petronas for another similar project but on a grander scale, incorporating children from around the nation with the help of his peers in photography: Alex Moh, Bob Teoh, SC Shekar, David Lok, Chan Kin Wah, Arthur Teng, Soraya Yusof Talismail, Syed Rashid and Yusoff Othman.
Between March 29 – June 21, 2003 the NST in collaboration with Galeri Petronas and Fujifilm organised a series of photography workshops for some 70 primary school children under its Newspaper In Education (NIE) programme. Rudimentary photography skills were explained to the students. With disposable cameras sponsored by Fujifilm, the children were given the freedom by their facilitators to capture whatever tickled their fancies at various locations across the country. By the end of the period, a panel of judges – H.L Lee, Zainol Abidin Ahmad Shariff (Zabas), Bob Teoh, Eric Peris and Ooi Kok Chuen – was assigned to select a collection of photographs for the exhibition at Galeri Petronas.
The exhibition was comprised of 107 photographs with captions provided by the children themselves. It was divided into nine sections – Landscapes, Buildings, Seascapes, People, Architecture, Boats, Studies, Gardens and General – with each section filled with images of various parts of the country. From the ultra-modern structures in Putrajaya to a lonely water buffalo in the padi fields of Kedah, the exhibition is a successful attempt to illustrate Malaysia through the eyes of its younger generation.
Free from any particular restrictions, these children have managed to capture images from a variety of perspectives that baffled even the best photographers. Curator Eric Peris pointed out a particular photograph of the famous Alor Setar arch which caught his eyes during the selection process. The photographer, Mohd Akmal Muzakkir Abdul Rahman, who titled his work Soaring Above captured an image from a perspective that showed the arc towering over a soaring Tower, built to commemorate the Kedah Sultanate in downtown Alor Setar. The viewpoint is as good as any professional photographer’s.
The inclusion of the children from Sabah and Sarawak in this exhibition further demonstrates the wholeness of the exhibition. What is better than viewing the other side of our nation than through the eyes of children who live there? One has to agree with art writer/critic Ooi Kok Chuen when he mentioned that it makes more sense to have our own children capture images of the country than to pay foreign professionals who had never experienced the Malaysian life to do it.
Nationalistic concerns aside, the project has clearly benefited the children involved. Having talked to several of the young photographers, I found out that they cannot wait until next year (provided that this will be an annual affair) to go image-gallivanting again. The workshops conducted were nothing like the everyday classroom lessons where the youngsters are subjected to the usual rules and regulations.
The intent was to foster artistic development, which according to curator Eric Peris and Director of Galeri Petronas Zainol Abidin Ahmad Shariff, should be kept away from any deliberate guidance. True enough, one sees in the work of Era Sri Wijaya Eddi Susanto entitled, Reflections, a beautifully captured reflection of the green foliage over a calm river in Seremban. The product of this project dictates the need for more of these efforts in nurturing the artistic creativity of our country’s younger generation. This exhibition proves that the hours of drawing or painting “Kampungku”, “Pesta Tanglung” or “Malam Hari Raya” in school should be done away with for a less stringent creative environment that commands less uniformity and more individuality.
Aside from nurturing the much needed talents in photography, it has opened many eyes. Those of the professionals’ who may have lost some of their artistic creativity to the trappings of modern technology and unwritten rules of engagement in professional photography. To the layperson, this exhibition served as a reminder of how one can often forget the simple pleasures and beauty in life. This exhibition may not be as interesting as an exhibition of photographs by Man Ray but taking into consideration its visual innocence, it should be as highly regarded as the former.
Lizzie Yeoh studied Art History at the State University of New York, Buffalo, before working as an Assistant Curator with Valentine Willie Fine Art, then moving on to Art Corridor, a Malaysian visual art magazine for two months.
First Published: 21.10.2003 on Kakiseni