Charcoal drawings, found objects, artworks made of political flags – some might say that artist Minstrel Kuik’s (b. 1976, Malaysia) practice is as varied and unusual as her name.
Although her works have been exhibited internationally, her practice has always been informed by political and cultural issues in her homeland, Malaysia. Educated at the National Taiwan Normal University and the École Nationale Supérieure de la Photographie d’Arles in France, Minstrel is arguably, one of the few female Malaysian artists, (alongside Nirmala Dutt and Sharon Chin), who has actively and pointedly engaged with Malaysian politics. I (EG) speak to her (MK) as she prepares for an upcoming solo exhibition with Richard Koh Fine Art:
EG: You work with different media but more so with photography. What is it about photography that interests you?
MK: It was a pure accident. When I was still an art student in Paris, it so happened that my painting classroom was also used for photography classes at my school. Eventually, I signed up for the (photography) class and the teacher, Jean Toppazzini was very different from the others in that school. We spent a lot of time discussing and sharing our works. Being a critical mentor, the teacher seldom held back with his opinions.
Students were very scared of him, but we were drawn to his charisma, reasoning and knowledge. Eventually, I graduated with a major in photography although I had originally enrolled in that school to do painting, after my fine art studies in Taiwan.
EG: It’s clear that your teacher played a huge role in your interests in photography.
MK: Yes. He talked a lot about social movements, about his era from the generation of the May 1968 civil unrest in France, which was organised by students and factory workers. He had studied in Hamburg, with Joseph Beuys and other artists as visiting professors in the 70s. He helped us to clarify our ideas by questioning our motivation and intention.
EG: You recently completed a residency with The Cross Art Projects in Sydney, in January this year. What were you researching and what was the outcome of the residency?
MK: It was a short residency that lasted for three weeks. I was there actually to produce a show rather than to do research. What really inspired me are the conversations we had with curators, artists, gallerists and art spaces about the social and political movements that underpin the arts. Equally important, is how the Australians manifest their nationalism, as well as the debates around colonizers, aborigines and the new migrants that share the land.
The curator Jasmin Stephens spent many years in activism before changing her path to work in the arts. The founder of the Cross Art Projects, Jo Holder is very involved in arts and feminist movements, and she is also an expert in aboriginal art. Through them, I was exposed to aboriginal conditions and was very lucky to experience Australia Day on January 26th from a very different perspective. There is a lot of debate on the meaning of the commemoration, whether or not to preserve it or to study other possibilities by introducing another meaningful date in the history of Australia.
MK: Jasmin Stephens the curator, insisted that we had to follow her to a concert organised for and by the aborigines. It showed a different way for Australians to commemorate (the day). Or else, I think most of the people just will get drunk in the bars!
EG: Your residency was mostly centred on art activism.
MK: I am not an activist per se but I value highly the autonomy of art and the independent thinking of the individual, and I believe Jasmin and Cross Art Projects saw that too. It’s important to look at Australia’s current political, cultural and historical situation and to compare them with the Malaysian colonial past and its current racial policies. They are not the same condition but such comparison helps me to understand the anxiety of a people triggered by the fear of extinction.
EG: So, tell us about what you are working on at the moment.
MK: What I am doing at the moment is what I have started a few years ago, or even earlier. It is no secret now that I constantly revisit my old works, and the conversation with time is a key element in my logic of things. At the moment, I am thinking and working within a time zone between the themes of Merdeka Days from 1970 until now, and another timeline, which is marked by the more recent general elections in Malaysia.
EG: The recent general election result has clearly expanded the timeline of your enquiry. What are your thoughts on the recent election? In turn, has it affected your approach towards any of your works?
MK: The outcome of the recent election has given all of us another possibility to participate in the communal life of the nation, and to reflect upon our responsibilities towards the common good. It is not the “what ifs” that can cause deviations in the interpretation of history, but rather, actions and realities which make the fabric of history.
Meanwhile, old problems and ideologies have resurfaced three months after the glorious win as racial and religious issues continue to mask the class struggle in our society. The recent general election has made our daily life less unbearable, with a light of hope. But the hope needs to last so that we will have the necessary time to ease our fear of living together. My art and I will continue to live in and outside of the national cocoon.
EG: Your new body of work, Concerning the Political Space in Art, is a continuation of what you have done in the past, working with flags and election paraphernalia. Tell us more.
MK: The use of flags is very common in art history. In Malaysia, we have examples (by artists) such as Sharon Chin and Shooshie Sulaiman. Ibrahim Hussein made a piece in response to the May 13th incident with black paint on the national flag.
For my two consecutive solo exhibitions in 2015- 2016, I decided to revisit the traumatic experience that Malaysian voters like myself had gone through during the 13th General Election in 2013. To get over it, I examined the paraphernalia collected by my graphic design students, trying to understand the logic behind the representative system that runs the democracy in our modern society. At the same time, it was clear to me that I did not want to be distant, bitter, cynical, or sarcastic.
I sought help from my body by trying to recall certain gestures that were linked to tasks in my experience. Folding, sewing and ironing are some of the gestures linked to the daily chores normally allocated to the females in the family.
Since I had been a girl scout, I knew how to fold flags.
I decided to fold the flags of different political parties in Malaysia into modular triangles. Exposed under different coloured lightbulbs, the original colours of these flags are changed and disrupted. That was how I started. Apart from this, I also selected a series of photographs to be printed on fabric. The photographs were taken with the help of my partner Kwai Fei, who recorded the working process while I was ironing the flags on the floor. At the back of each print, I have sewn a different fabric as an indicator of the Malaysian daily context, for e.g. a man’s shirt, baju kurung, sofa cover, children’s pyjamas, etc.
EG: The need to carve out an important space for the arts is still an ongoing struggle in Malaysia, given that the new government is still caught in the cycle of putting economic progress forward as its utmost priority. Before the election, there was a call for the oppositional alliance Pakatan Harapan to reinstate a Ministry of Culture, Arts and Heritage. The new government has failed to respond to that, and the arts are still subsumed under the Ministry of Tourism, Arts and Culture. Could the works in Concerning the Political Space in Art be read as a statement on the short-sightedness of the new government?
MK: The risk of developing arts and culture under (the head of) tourism is that the former will gradually lose their subjectivity and spontaneity, only to become a tool for performance and entertainment. It is to confuse the persona with the true self. Also, the general idea of progress is materialistic in nature. We have been told that the economy is the priority, then and now. Art and culture will come later. Can’t we think about progress differently? Can’t we be spiritually advanced? The works in Concerning the Political Space in Art are neither a comment nor a critique on the old or new governments. They are (part of) the homework that I give to myself i.e. on how to preserve a space; to think of complex things, and not to be intimidated by them.
(All images: Courtesy of the artist and Richard Koh Fine Art)
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.