A Space For The Other

The regular gallery visitor setting foot in Galeri Petronas today will be, first of all, roused into curiosity by the colour of its now jet black walls. It’s never been anything but white, made pearly by genteel lighting. Then again, it’s never quite had a show like “The Independence Project”, now six weeks into saying “Yes!” to always having a healthy opposition to all things official and mainstream, right smack in the middle of the very “establishment” Petronas Twin Towers and Suria KLCC.

Why have I written this review so late, you may ask? Aside from website operational constraints, I knew I wouldn’t be able to do the show and its producing team justice if I had shot out a Tembak a day after the exhibition’s 13th December 2007 launch – one of the few I’ve found myself attending, unconvinced of the show’s aim to begin with.

At the root of my bias, I detected fresh-wound outrage on behalf of my fellow artists (and our traditional bedfellows in the legal community) at the audacity of a government-linked gallery’s claim to providing space for independent expression. As justified and probably common as my outrage was, anger has no space in a review and is never the answer. And so, I came back to look at the works when I felt I had a clearer mind.

You see, when I first set eyes on “The Independence Project”, it was just four days after the Human Rights Day fiasco at The Bar Council. If you hadn’t already heard about this shocker, it was a Sunday of art events and public forums promoting human rights that had to be cut short when Kuala Lumpur city council enforcement officers apparently took down the “Festival of Rights” event posters from within the Bar Council’s premises and ended up marching off the festival chairman to the lock-up.

Like several other artists – both from the visual and performing genres – who attended the “Independence Project” launch by the Prime Minister’s daughter Nori Abdullah, I approached the gallery feeling guarded about the value of art where notions and practice of freedom of expression were concerned, especially in Malaysia.

I knew the works would mostly be by artists who prefer to operate outside mainstream views in both Malaysia, and Australia. Galeri Petronas’ teaming up with Melbourne’s Gertrude Contemporary Art Spaces (Gertrude) was sign of that. I knew that the works were specifically selected for how these reflect the meaning of “independence”. And then, there was that phrase used in the poster notes: “As independence art practice cannot exist without independent art spaces, …”.

“Couldn’t be more timely,” I thought, my concerns (and hushed exchanges with artists) about the Human Rights Day fiasco blurring out the diplomatic significance of the show; it was another feather in the cap for the Australian High Commission Kuala Lumpur’s celebration of 50 years of bilateral ties through arts and cultural events.

With curatorial notes referring to “independence” in both the physical and sociological contexts, the exhibition begs the question: So, just how much free space has the Malaysian arts community got now?

Notwithstanding how press freedom rankings (a gauge of freedom enjoyed in a country) in Australia have plummeted – from 12th in 2002 (inaugural ranking) to 50th in 2003 and at 35th spot by 2006, according to Reporters Without Borders, the show’s diplomatic coupling begs another question: When are our artists going to be given more free space to create works? After all, the same index shows Malaysia to be at the 92nd spot as of 2006 (we were at No.110 in 2002).

In these respects, the exhibition – inasmuch as it is funded by the government­-linked corporation Petronas – is a much needed one. Indeed, the show brought to arts lovers here – through floor talks and forums throughout December 2007 and January 2008 – the well-known curator, critic, publisher and (Gertrude) gallery manager Alexie Glass with Gertrude program manager Jacqueline Doughty and assistant curator Emily Cormack. In tow, were several participating artists and art workers, all of whom have proven their mettle in pushing boundaries in their chosen genres and questioned public acceptance of damaging status quo.

There is important work here and a significant curatorial (team) effort to make whatever difference possible in ensuring the under-voiced in both countries have spaces which are well-funded and supported.

Entering the gallery, one first sees three fine art photography works depicting Aussies from various backgrounds, with the Australian flag wrapped around their faces. Entitled “Untitled” and by the group Boatpeople, the works are described as being “a premonition” of Sydney’s 2005 Cronulla race riots. With the flag being used by Boatpeople as a symbol of a brand of Aussie nationalism which nurtures fear of “the other”, the Aussies in the photos symbolise how Sydney’s multicultural identity is being threatened by this concept of nationalism.

After following various accounts on the Cronulla riots from KL and listening to official and non-official talk on the value of multiculturalism in Australia while on work trips there, Boatpeople’s works and rationale bring a sprig of decidedly alternative info – a must in getting to the whole picture if any improvement is to be made at all.

Immediately afterwards, one is met with a huge acrylic-on-canvas work (2007) bearing the words – among a montage of patterns, free lines, monotone and contrasting colour – “The first shall be the last and the last shall be the first.” In the black and white side frames of the painting, only visible at an angle, are the words “We grew here, you flew here”. The latter statement is borrowed from a racist slogan spotted by newsmen and witnesses on clothing worn by White (Western European-descent) Aussies at Cronulla beach, where the violence was later seen to be reflective of long-time disagreements between them and citizens of Middle Eastern descent.

At first glance during the launch when I hadn’t yet read the exhibition notes (which I sometime like skipping in order to experience a spontaneous response to the works), I had mistaken this painting to be Malaysian, a reference to the simmering-below-the-surface debate about Bumiputera rights: who fits in this category, why and what this means for nation building here. Only after poring through the show’s notes did I realise the work was Australian and bearing the added significance of being by an aboriginal artist Richard Bell.

His rationale explains how his work represents the dilemma of identifying aboriginal art according to “Western” understanding and how this can kill creativity for an artist who chooses to make art by appropriating visual languages from various aboriginal communities. He also exposes the double standards in allowing artists practising Western-based art to appropriate without having to be “disqualified” from state support.

Having only been exposed to, on a working visit, how the Aussie government is trying to recognise – though not in the way agreed upon by all – aboriginal art beyond its use in tourism promotion, I found Bell’s views to be different from the ones presented to visitors whether to Australia in general or to (sections of) museums or art galleries for this genre. Bell’s viewpoint is therefore a valuable voice to stimulate a balance to the official word on things.

Alongside his painting, Bell’s viewpoint can take on a new meaning here where it has relevance to issues of identity, migration and an imposition of new (sometimes fly-in) value systems on old peoples. With works like his, this exhibition also serves to bring up issues deemed too “sensitive” to be discussed here, even through the medium of art.

Another work which tries to tackle issues of (religious) identity in melting pot nations is (Aussie) Zehra Ahmad’s video projection installation work “Permission to Narrate” (2007) which features graffiti of the title in Arabic done by Malaysian group Sembur With Style. With a life-sized projection of a man in ethnic attire breakdancing to beatbox accompaniment, Zehra’s work aims to overturn how Islam is talked about as being different and hostile to Western “civilisation”. She has chosen dance as a medium within a medium because she sees it to be “organic to every culture” and “an expression of the right to exist”.

It is an attractive premise to build upon, especially in a country where Islam can offer empowerment as well as shackles to both its Muslim and non-Muslim peoples. However, there is the artist’s cautious statement in which she does not claim to speak on behalf of (all?) Muslims.

Others may prefer this cautious approach but it had an immediate waning effect on my initial anticipation. Maybe it is because I’ve been exposed to too much tip­toeing when writing on anything to do with Islam in the mainstream print media (sometimes too much of a gauge of all that is “sensitive”) that is perceived as coming from a non-Muslim, and non-Malay viewpoint. And thus, I hunger for discourses on Islam and identity issues especially by Muslims practising contemporary art – a great genre for pushing boundaries.

To be fair to Zehra, she develops her caution into a way of channelling viewers’ attentions to the power of knowledge and how this power is manipulated by aims to do with ideology, nationality and internationalism. She goes on to state that she does not offer the alternative narrative but instead wishes to show that it is important to allow spaces for other voices.

The constant change in what is deemed “good” and “evil”, and human behaviour as revealed through recent tragedy, conflict, and crisis are the subject matters of Mark Hilton’s double-sided lightboxes. Created in a decorative style of Persian court paintings, these lightboxes try to recreate how something so soul-depriving as gang rape can seem justified to minds bred with fear and a resulting hatred of anything – gender, race, religion, language, clothing and attitude – different.

Malaysians who had followed the news about culturally-motivated violent gang rapes of White Australian girls as young as 14 by up to 14 Sydney Lebanese men in 2000 will come away unsettled by Hilton’s works which ornament and thus confront one’s perception of these terrible crimes. While we may not have had such hate crimes in recent history, we’ve all heard local politician’s statements which blame rape on women dressed “immodestly” – an idea that only promotes intolerance of things different and chastises the individual’s choice of something as basic as what to wear.

Hilton’s use of art to make sense of such human behaviour also reminds us of how our own art produce – Lloyd Fernando’s 1976 novel and 1998 play “Scorpion Orchid”, and Lim Chuang Yik’s and Teng Ky-Gan’s “Tunku – The Musical” (2007) – depicted how Malaysians used rape to express racial hatred most recently during the May 1969 race riots, and the uncomfortable reactions these works evoked from the larger community outside our small arts circle.

The convenient clichéd representation of cultural difference is swiped at by Tim Silver in his photography and lightbox work “The Tuvaluan Project”. Tuvalu, he notes, is a Pacific nine-island nation just two metres above sea level at her highest point, making Tuvaluans the most vulnerable to global warming. Yet, through travelogue and found footage of “Italian cannibal cycle” films, Silver confronts us with our ingrained fears of these islanders that we’d only too easily see as “the other”.

Nice irreverent work but from reactions by a few down-the-line government staff who happened to be peering at Silver’s work at the gallery at the same time as me, the artist’s point may be lost on people less used to the double meanings of contemporary art and, more importantly, the self-questionings the genre demands from viewers.

The Malaysian camp had on offer Roslisham Ismail’s (a.k.a. Ise) “DEB” collage on the wall (2007) largely made out of small sticker bill loan shark advertisements and other means to quick money. The work hints at the failure of the Dasar Ekonomi Baru (New Economic Policy) 1971 and its reincarnations to provide enough help to lower-income Malaysians, leading in part to the dominance of loan sharks.

As did some of the Aussie works resonate with viewers here, would this work resonate with Australians, not an insignificant number of whom are of Malaysian background? One has to wait until the exhibition travels to Victoria in May 2008 for an answer to the question. Another of Ise’s works, “The Est” (2007), which showed in “Selamat Datang ke Malaysia” hosted at Sydney’s Gallery 4a last July was credited by Sydney-based art writer Gina Fairley (who spent the 2005/06 Rimbun Dahan residency year here) as having effectively used “the 50th anniversary bravado to question Malaysia’s unrealistic pretensions that mask the real issues of “grassroots Malaysia”.”.

A Malaysian work that seems more able to strike a chord Down Under as well might be Liew Kung Yu’s 2007 photo-construction “Cemerlang, Gemilang and Terbilang” which, similar to his series of works in an earlier exhibition “Bebas Lah Malaysia” at The Annexe, aims to reveal the story behind the story of modern Malaysia. Only, in this work, he bases his design on the pohon beringin (known universally as the Tree of Life) and the wayang kulit Kelantan puppet of the Ramayana demon Maharaja Wana (Ravana). Both these very powerful images are ingeniously blended in a subtle play of light and shadow that is sure to pique visitors at the 2008 Victoria showing, and thus likely to channel their interest to hidden narratives of the Malaysian “success story”.

” … history”, writes painter Ahmad Fuad Osman, “is not a first hand experience but merely a vague remembrance of the past that is built upon a collection of “false memories”, and because of this, especially the younger generation … take their country for granted…. are more attracted to what is hip and happening around the world.”

Fuad’s views have been translated into his signature Realism-styled paintings and a newer use of slide projections that partner his produce at the recent 13th Rimbun Dahan Malaysia Australia Artist Residency exhibition. His works in the Rimbun Dahan show, as well as this exhibition were, according to Galeri Petronas head curator Anurendra Jegadeva, inspired by the gallery’s mid-2007 exhibition of historical photojournalism works selected by art writer Eddin Khoo, historian Prof Emeritus Khoo Kay Kim, art historian Zainol Abidin Shariff and NSTP e-Media columnist Zainul Ariffin Mohammed Isa.

Entitled “Recollections of long lost memories” (2007), Fuad’s slide projection of paintings are akin to photo images of Malaysia’s biggest moments that – as with any nation’s history – could seem weird to your average baseball-capped youth. Now, if only more of these youths – milling about in the mall below as well as in the tens at the nearest UiTM fine art department – would step into even a gallery-­in-a-mall!

Another strong work is Yee I-Lann’s life-size photographic print “Kerbau” (2007). Instead of the Petronas Twin Towers that everyone seems to know us for, she chooses the water buffalo (kerbau) – associated with modern day idyllic notions of the kampung – to symbolise Malaysia’s place in the globalised world.

Accompanying I-Lann’s print is her characteristic use of text and her own writings. In this case, she matches her work to her account of having first become aware of the phasing out of this traditional icon of the kampung; she had been driving in search of the common water buffalo in Terengganu recently but found that the animal had been widely replaced by the cow and tractor.

In one fell swoop, as they say, I-Lann restores this once valuable beast of burden to its rightful throne and shows even Malaysians that their identities lie in more than just the shiny, new and immense.

The oft sidelined story of the artist in Malaysia will be an important part of this touring show, thanks to Vincent Leong’s installation with soft toys, “Shut Up! You’re not real” (2007). Art making here, finds (London) Goldsmiths College­-trained Vincent, is often overwhelmed by a conservative society’s emphasises on the “practical” and “serious” such as getting a “real” job and starting a family, to the point it becomes a luxury to be an artist and to play.

At the same time, Vincent’s work pokes fun at official viewpoints on matters Malaysian by projecting on the soft toys images of moving lips of newsreaders on public and corporate-owned television channels. An excellent dig.

Where Vincent’s works grumble, Yap Sau Bin’s interactive installation (with Google Earth virtual globe software) of a map of KL’s art venues and events simply throws at you the number of arts initiatives that seem to reflect how the arts may be encroaching into the inner perimeter or the urban Malaysian consciousness.

An ongoing work since 2005, “Mapping KL Art Space” also presents an alternative way of documenting art, with the use of new technologies. This also points to the local art scene’s willingness to embrace these tools.

The artwork extolling “the other” as well as most likely to hit a familiar spot both here and Down Under would be Sharon Chin’s “How to talk to Strangers – A Strategy” (2007). An installation-with-video project, it calls upon participants to sit facing each other, say nary a word but instead listen to each other’s heartbeats through a stethoscope.

The videos show Sharon sitting in total silence by a busy pavement in a Sydney commercial area with two chairs and stethoscopes, a table and a sandwich board with explanation notes. Recording the reaction of passers-by is a video cameraman. Watching the video for about 15 minutes, I observed few Sydneysiders who stopped to take part in Sharon’s artwork and a decent number who stopped to read the notes. Many, unfortunately, walked right past.

At the launch of this exhibition, Sharon was still in Sydney completing her Australian High Commission Visual Arts Residency 2007 (which saw her based at Artspace) from October to December last year. Thus, her performance art role was taken over by Kakiseni writer Zedeck Siew.

But, as the artist rationalises, “The important thing is that everyone listens.”

Her statement encapsulates the whole point of an exhibition such as this, and the curatorial efforts, art making, media attention, government support and inter­community dialogue it spawns.

And, yes, this begs the question: “Do we (want to) listen to “the other”?”

First Published: 29.01.2008 on Kakiseni

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