curated by Flying Karpet Company
12 - 24 August 2011
By June Yap
Ekspress Rakyat, or ‘people’s express,’ is an exhibition showcasing the practices of six contemporary artists from Malaysia. The title is a play on the historic connection between Malaysia and Singapore, pointing to the journey made by the artworks from the island’s closest neighbour, a relationship that has recently been highlighted with the relocation of the Keretapi Tanah Melayu Berhad (KTMB) station from Tanjong Pagar, triggering a wave of nostalgic recollection by locals; and the receptivity of the Malaysian language, Bahasa Malaysia, in incorporating words from other languages, in this case, English, where ‘express’ is used here to suggest communication, articulation and revelation through the artworks. The inaugural exhibition project by the artist and curatorial collective, Flying Karpet Company, founded by Aswad Ameir, Saiful Razman and Shahrul Jamili, is an attempt to bring Malaysian art beyond its shores. The necessity of a collaborative venture, developed from within the artist community, draws attention to a common condition of art practice in Southeast Asia, where strategies to promote local art practice at an international level are confronted with trying to find a distinctive voice in the face of more powerful art market forces, and a lack of contextualisation of a region itself characterised by heterogeneity. In drawing together these artworks, the complication of representing these different practices under a national rubric is encountered, revealing the problem of the notion of national identity as being capable of expression in precise or straightforward terms. As an independent collective, this predicament is somewhat alleviated, in that the exhibition is less an attempt to delineate these practices as ‘Malaysian,’ than to actively contest the process of identification, and find connection with aesthetic expressions regardless of geography.
The KTMB station that is now gazetted as a national heritage site was built in 1932, and was originally operated by the Federated Malay States Railways during a time when Malaysia and Singapore were under British governance. Post-independence and post-separation of the two nations, the railway remained a symbolic and real link between the two countries, becoming a bit of an anomalous portal between 1998 when Singapore moved its immigration facilities to Woodlands, and this year, where it was possible for travellers to tread on Malaysian land without quite officially leaving Singapore. This porousness of national boundaries, that a constant policing by national institutions and tourism agencies attest to, is seen in the works by artists such as Aswad Ameir, whose influences include international popular culture and music that Malaysia, as much as Singapore, has absorbed over the years. Arguably, cultural-crossing allows for these practices to be read, in experimenting and exposing the tensions that emerge in articulating and locating life and expression, and it is in such negotiation of cultural temper that identity emerges. Likewise, Orkibal’s graffiti-inspired graphic characters may be read as insertions of global popular cultural representation into Malaysian life, portraying ordinary challenges as well as inspirations that are rooted in common culture and experience, an amalgamation that defies the ascription of exoticism and erases originary difference.
As the exhibition’s purpose suggests, identity is established by being elsewhere, by relocating and dislocating from one’s comfort zone. The surreal landscapes by Kojek, a.k.a. Ilham Fadhli, created in ambiguous and incongruous juxtaposition of figure, creature and landscape, set in somewhat dire tones, expresses the uncertainties of a changing environment, caught between its history and conditions, and its aspirations, where in stepping out, one wonders what one steps into. Here, the artist representing his community and as member of his nation, becomes a central figure aspiring to transcend limitations of history, geography and culture. Poodien’s practice that is influenced by his affiliation with non-government organisations (NGOs) and social activism taps into a more universal vein, going to the basic form of the self as object and subject, where the body and its activity marks the borders and the possibilities of exchange and expression, and becomes the site for the production of meaning. Offering new ways of looking, Shahrul Jamili Miskon’s practice utilises geometry and pattern formation to explore spiritual contemplation, less as a means to represent Islamic aesthetics and trace its historical roots, as to suggest the necessity of an ongoing productive reflection, in nation and in religion.
Yet in attempting to venture beyond the strictures of identity, of nation and culture as popularly expressed, boundaries that are often immaterial and symbolic social constructs, wherein does originary identity remain? In Saiful Razman’s paintings, belonging is signalled as much as it is read. Reducing national symbol into stripes, outlines and suggestive figures, his work deconstructs markers of identity producing a certain ambiguity that allows for readings to multiply. In a sense, it would seem then that identity, once acknowledged, is not so easily eviscerated, even if it transforms. The inevitability of performing identity from one’s historical and geographical experience, despite contestation, would suggest the inability of truly escaping even if one attempts to leave. In an earlier work, Face Value (2009), Shahrul presents a series of coins minted in the material of tin, a natural resource that is associated with Malaysia. With his own likeness printed on the surface, the coins allude to the production of an economy, such as the economy of art and of national identity for market and consumption, with the work’s inspiration derived from the government’s announcement that it would discontinue the production of 1-cent coins due to their disproportionate production cost to their actual economic value. In the same way economic value is assigned to currency, rather than intrinsic in itself, the value of assigned identity is seen as problematic, yet paradoxically through the works of these artists, it is in their challenging of the markers of identity, where identity finally takes form. Travelling from Malaysia to Singapore, it is a passage that is remarkably short, yet arguably far enough for one to be able to look back and reflect on the journey. In relocating these artworks from their native context, a reading of nation and identity becomes inevitable, even if necessarily with its complexities. It would seem true, as they say, that travel is a great way to find oneself.
June Yap is an independent curator and art historian based in Singapore
- Flying Karpet Company