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Migrant, Alien, Stranger … Friend?

It seems like, the world over, nations are closing in on themselves more and more – building walls, enforcing borders, keeping people out. With fears of terrorism, competition for jobs, space and resources and a growing sense of unease, in a dangerous world, about others who don’t look, speak, act or think like you, this is, perhaps, not surprising.

I was recently in Kuala Lumpur to meet some people and visit galleries and museums as part of my thesis research, which deals with how a couple of contemporary Malaysian artists have addressed race and ethnic identity in their artistic practice. Although I wasn’t looking specifically for exhibitions that deal with these issues, themes relating to race, cultural identity and migration seemed to recur in many of the works that I encountered.

The Islamic Arts Museum was just a short walk from my hotel and was my first stop. At the Chinese and Indian Galleries of the museum, the works on display speak of an earlier time, when great and ancient cultures came together in friendship, trade and cross-cultural exchange, each the richer for the encounter.

Trade brought Islam to China, spurring cultural exchanges between the Middle East, Central Asia and the Far East. Among the fascinating examples of cross-cultural exchange between the Muslim world and China at the museum was Chinese Islamic calligraphy. Calligraphy is an art that was, and is, much-revered by both the Islamic and Chinese cultures. In Chinese Islamic calligraphic scrolls, such as the ones below, Arabic script is transformed into calligrams,  taking the form of plants, vases, fruits, flowers or swords; each with a distinct meaning in Chinese culture. The words in Arabic script are usually expressions of devotion to Islam or selected verses from the Qur’an.

There are also some exquisite pieces of Chinese porcelain and ceramics, inscribed with Islamic calligraphy, at the museum. Some examples are shown below and include blue-and-white porcelain, Magic Square porcelain, believed to have talismanic and healing properties; Swatow porcelain, made for the Acehnese sultans in Northern Sumatra; and Canton Famille Rose porcelain.

The calligraphic scrolls and porcelain pieces, so classically Chinese, inscribed with the flowing script that is instantly recognisable as Islamic, speak eloquently of an openness to other cultures and religions, sorely needed in these present times.

The Chinese, Indian and Malay World galleries at the museum are given special emphasis and are of particular significance, given that the Malays, Chinese and Indians are the three main races that make up the multiracial melting pot that is modern-day Malaysia. Sadly, relations between the races have not always been as easy or peaceful as they were in ancient times.

These are stills from a video documentary about the late Sultan Ismail Nasiruddin Shah and his lifelong passion for photography, playing at a special exhibition of his works at the Islamic Arts Museum
“His Highness did not speak much about it with his grandmother or with other members of the royal family.”

“Kuala Lumpur Berkurung”, meaning, Kuala Lumpur confined, is a series of photographs taken by the late Sultan Ismail Nasiruddin Shah, former Sultan of Terengganu. The late Sultan was ruling monarch (Yang DiPertuan Agung) of Malaysia from 1965 – 1970 and signed the documents proclaiming a state of Emergency and imposing a curfew during the 13 May 1969 racial riots in Malaysia. During the curfew, the Sultan, exercising his royal privilege, took to the streets of Kuala Lumpur to shoot images of the deserted city, in this series of stark, desolate and powerful works.

The images tell a moving story. Bustling KL, normally teeming with human traffic – men, women and children of different races that make up this cultural melting-pot – sits silent and empty, a witness to the bloody acts of violence inflicted by fellow-Malaysians on one another, due to racial tension and conflict.

Excerpt from the late Sultan Ismail’s speech on his 62nd birthday, several weeks after the riots

How did Malaysian society become so divided along racial and ethnic lines and what factors led to the racial riots of 13 May 1969? The answers are complex and multifaceted and this blog post is hardly the appropriate place to discuss it. But, whether it is the racial riots in Malaysia, or the “Muslim ban” executive order issued by President Trump of the United States, or the apparent wave of opposition to immigration in various parts of the world, one common thread runs through them. At their root is a perception of difference, or “other”ness, between one human being and another – based on race, ethnicity or religion – and a belief that certain fixed characteristics, good or bad, define a particular race.

Wong Hoy Cheong, study for The Definitive ABC of Ethnography, 1999

Malaysian artist Wong Hoy Cheong often engages with experiences of migration and issues relating to racial and cultural difference in his artworks, questioning assumptions and social constructions about “race”. The Definitive ABC of Ethnography is an artwork that takes the form of a handmade, leather-bound book.

To make this mock reference book, Wong pulped rare copies of anthropologist Margaret Mead’s book, The Coming of Age in Samoa, and writer V.S. Naipaul’s Faith Among the Believers. By pulping these books, deconstructing the original words and then reconstructing the words and meanings into a new nonsense work, Wong subverts their authority and challenges their underlying assumptions about race and racial difference.

(An exhibition of Wong’s paper-based works is on at OUR ArtProjects in Kuala Lumpur until 17th March 2017. If you’re in KL, do check it out. The gallery and its neighbors are part of an exciting new independent arts hub which has just opened and it is a really cool and interesting place to spend a few hours.)

Malaysia (and Singapore, which was once a part of it) is a country with a long history of migration. Many of our ancestors first came to this part of the world as part of a migrant labour force, brought in by the British to work in the tin mines, pepper, gambia, rubber and oil palm plantations that funded the great colonial enterprise. Today, many of us consider ourselves natives born and bred and view our ancestors’ modern-day counterparts, the migrant workers from Indonesia, the Philippines, Myanmar and Bangladesh, who build our apartment buildings, offices and factories, clean our homes and look after our children,  as “other” – strangers and aliens who are intrinsically different from us.

Afterwork, an exhibition about migration, labour, race, class an identity – currently on at Ilham Gallery in KL

Afterwork, at the Ilham Gallery in KL, seeks to articulate the experiences of the people who live in our midst and yet are often unseen, let alone known and understood, in an exhibition of works by 34 artists from the region and beyond. The works span diverse mediums and utilise various strategies, some hard-hitting and others more subtle, even humorous, coming together in a coherent whole that serves to humanise the nameless, faceless migrant worker.

Here are a couple of works that struck a chord with me personally.


For his video work If You Miss Home (2016),  Hong Kong artist Elvis Yip Kim Boon collected video footage of interviews of foreign domestic helpers made by an agency for viewing by potential employers. In the interviews, these domestic helpers answer questions to which they have already been given prepared answers. The work puts together footage of different domestic helpers answering the same question :”What would you do if you miss your children and family back home while you are in Hong Kong?” Each worker gave the same mechanical answer,  though worded slightly differently, “If I miss them I will just focus on my work and do all my work.”

If that doesn’t make you feel outraged, I don’t know what would. The work shines a  spotlight on how foreign domestic workers are commonly regarded – as commodities to be showcased in a manner that best enhances their employability – and as somehow different from you and I, in not feeling (or being allowed to admit feeling) the homesickness, longing and sadness that is the most natural human response to being away from children and family in a strange land.


97 Housemaids is such a small, subtle work you might miss it in a gallery where louder, larger pieces wave and shout for your attention. Daniela Ortiz presents a slideshow of Facebook photographs in a digital photo frame. At first glance they appear to be regular snapshots of typical domestic situations  – family holidays, dinners and birthday celebrations. In the background of each image, however, is a darker-skinned woman in a maid’s uniform, either ignored or half-cropped out of the frame. The work may be small in size but it speaks volumes about how such workers are regarded in the homes and with the families that they spend days, months and even years caring for.

Afterwork is showing at Ilham Gallery till mid-April 2017. It is a show worth catching, particularly in these troubled times when it is increasingly important for us to take the time to understand those whom we may perceive as different from ourselves, alien and strange, and to acknowledge and embrace our common humanity.

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