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As Singapore celebrates its bicentennial this year, the questions of who is ‘Malay’ and what defines ‘Malayness’ have taken on an increasing amount of significance. It was after all, Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles who first promoted the idea of a Malay race in order to define a diverse group of people, (each with their own language and customs, and residing throughout a wide  area that includes modern Indonesia and the Philippines), as a means to gain  control over a vast geographical region.

Pre-colonial mention of the term ‘Malay’ was not tied down to ethnicity or our modern understanding of a nation-state.

Early ideas about Malay identity

Anthony Reid for example, in his essay, Understanding Melayu (Malay) as a Source of Diverse Modern Identities observed that in seventh-century Chinese records, the term ‘Malayu’ was specific to a kingdom north of Srivijaya. Prior to that, Reid explains, Ptolemy, the second-century (CE) Egyptian geographer, used the term ‘Melayu Kulon’ (west Melayu, in Javanese) for places on the west coast of his Golden Khersonese a geographical area near the southern border of Burma. Shamsul A.B. in his work Colonial Knowledge and the Construction of Malay and Malayness: Exploring the Literary Component observed that past ideas of ‘Malayness’ as an identity, hinged on factors as varied as language, custom, culture, kingship, and religion.

In stark contrast, Raffles’ well- known first literary essay, which was sent to the Asiatic Society in Bengal from Penang in 1809, insisted on this particular vision for the Malays:

“I cannot but consider the Malayu nation as one people, speaking one language, though spread over so wide a space, and preserving their character and  customs, in all the maritime states lying between the Sulu Seas and the Southern Oceans.”

This idea of the “single origin-place” and racial profile of the Malays was informed by Enlightenment views that people should be scientifically classified. It was an idea that fit conveniently into  British colonial plans for economic domination. It created a need for colonial powers to “protect” Malay rulers and their people, as, according to Reid, “the ‘real Malay’ of colonial discourse was rural, loyal to his ruler, conservative and relaxed to the point of laziness.”

The invented idea of ‘Malay’ is a reality that remains unacknowledged. That it is still being redefined for ideological purpose in modern times (think Article 160 of the Malaysian Constitution and Singapore’s 2015 Presidential election), makes it a highly relevant topic today.

And what of the Malay body?

The Malay body, as the physical manifestation of its identity, fares no better in the realm of visual culture. Syed Hussein Alatas, in his seminal book The Myth of the Lazy Native, pointed out the  British obsession with studying the Malay body. Backed by Darwinism, physical traits they associated with the race, together with behavioral traits such as laziness, became markers that placed the brown Malay body at the bottom of a hierarchical order which was dominated by white Europeans.

Local art historical representation of the Malay body, as seen in works of first-generation Nanyang artists, often include unnecessary racial references such as ‘Malay Boy’ or ‘Malay Woman.’

Cheong Soo Pieng, Malay Boy with Bird, 1953, Oil on board, 91 x 61 cm

Attempts in the past by Malay artists to delve into their Malay identity as a subject, were often seen as such artists being reductive, insular and parochial. It is only in recent years that we have started to see a change.

Enter, MAT

For all these reasons, I personally regard Objectifs’ latest exhibition, MAT, as something quite pivotal. The exhibition sees three Malay artists entering a mainstream institutional space and filling it with brown, male bodies, on their own terms. MAT is the recipient of Objectifs’ Curator Open Call. Curated by artist-curator Zulkhairi Zulkiflee of Sikap, its curatorial framework is set around the premise of the Malay identity. In this exhibition, the artists: Zulkhairi Zulkiflee, Farizi Noorfauzi, and Norah Lea, collectively and individually, respond to the crisis that is Malay identity.

The exhibition title, MAT, is slang used to refer to Malay males of a specific age-group, mostly youths, and from lower socio-economic groups. The term carries with it negative connotations and is condescending in nature. Basically, the ‘Mat’ is an outcast both in society at large and also within the Malay community. The use of the term as an exhibition title highlights the artists as personae non gratae, each in their own ways, for e.g. as Malay males navigating Singaporean society, or as Malay artists dealing with overlooked or trivialized subjects.

The exhibition space opens with Farizi Noorfauzi’s No-Corner, a series of coloured photographs bearing images of Singapore’s first and oldest estate, Dakota Crescent, which has been slated for redevelopment. Emptied out of its occupants since early 2018, these photographs are devoid of human presence. Closer inspection of these photos reveals the presence of small sticker cut-outs of the artist. Dressed in black baju kurung and a songkok, both indicative of his Malay identity, the artist assumes various idle poses: squatting on the ground or lying on his side. There is one pasted sticker in every photo, occupying a corner of a void-deck wall, or the side of a concrete chess table, or the tiled wall of an iconic dove playground.

Farizi Noorfauzi, No-Corner 2, Colour photograph, 2018 (Image courtesy of Objectifs)

A close-up of the stickers used in the work

This witty work challenges the infamous stereotype of the lazy native through its indirect reference to the phrase, ‘lepak one corner’. The term lepak (or ‘hang out’) connotes indolence, the supposed Malay trait that has been inserted into colonial historiography of the region by the British. In the work, Farizi pasted his sticker image of the ‘lazy’ Malay male on things and in locations where the latter could traditionally be expected to be found.

One thing that confronted me was how the sticker image returned the viewer’s gaze with a nonchalance that bordered on defiance, as though to challenge colonial and post-colonial proclamations of the stereotype.

In all three of Zulkhairi Zulkiflee’s untitled works, the artist turned to personal photographs of his father, taken during the 1970s and1980s, as his point of reference. In a series consisting of three photographs printed onto cake boxes, a group of working-class Malay men can be seen posing for the camera and gathering around an opened cake box which has been cut out of the photo.

Zulkhairi Zulkiflee, Untitled, Various media, 2018. The random and informal nature of the men’s poses and body language, sans t-shirts for some, suggests their familiarity with one another. Their long hair links them to the hippie subculture of the period.

Zulkhairi’s work recalls the PAP’s Anti Yellow Culture movement that was in effect from 1959 till the 1980s. The government, in its attempt to combat Western influences it considered decadent and anti-social, banned elements like drugs, rock & roll music and long hair on men. Concurrent to this was the Anti-Drug Abuse campaign. While the campaign targeted the nation as a whole, drug addiction during the 1970s and 1980s was labeled a ‘Malay problem’ involving the working class who were influenced by hippie lifestyles of the West as channeled through rock music. These brown bodies, marked with the trappings of hedonism, were looked upon as the pariahs of society.

The men in Zulkhairi’s work once focused only on the camera, but now their gaze shifts, and acknowledges the presence of the exhibition viewer. These brown bodies have essentially challenged their objectification and reclaimed their status as equals.

The  manifestation of the cake box from the photograph into the gallery space also serves to draw exhibition viewers into the work, as they too now became part of the men’s ‘celebration.’

The cake box which contained a cake in the shape of a marijuana leaf

Multidisciplinary transgender artist Norah Lea’s Past and Present Lives of _____ is a film work that is channeled onto three large screens. In this work, Norah explores not only her identity as a transgendered person within the Malay-Muslim community, but also the notion of womanhood through the enactment of past lives.

Norah assumed the roles of all the female characters in the work. She turned to historical documents and texts for references to the lives of women centuries ago in order to weave a narrative around the central figure of ‘Bumi’ who is based on a Hindu goddess (Bhūmi/Prithvi).

As Norah’s status as a transgendered Malay woman puts her at odds with the beliefs of her community, she has responded by consciously looking far into the past when the term ‘Malay’ was more heterogeneous and diverse, in order to contest the rigid conflation of Malay and Muslim identities which is prevalent in Singapore and Malaysia today.

Norah Lea, Past and Present Lives of _____, Multi-channel projection (8 mins 45 s), 2018

For me, Norah’s work engages on an emotional level rather than an intellectual one. It depicts immense emotions– fear, sorrow, and pain– as experienced by the women in the narrative. A deep sense of longing also seems to permeate the work, one that has to do with Bumi’s heavily pregnant body: an indication of her fertility which suggests the presence of a womb. This then reflexively points to the artist’s own (transgendered) body that is missing a womb, for hers is the brown male body through which the work’s cisgender female characters come to life.

In a country that shamelessly lauds colonialism for its success, there is often a resistance to address anything that has to do with cultural specificity or ethnic identity outside of the European or Chinese-majority experience. MAT takes this to task by bringing to the public consciousness a multiplicity of unseen, unspoken-of and unexplored identities which exist within the Malay identity.

Through the act of reclaiming and decolonizing this invented identity, MAT nudges us to explore our histories and prompts us to question the narratives and ‘realities’ that we have been presented with.

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MAT is showing at Objectifs till 15 September 2019.

Editorial note: An earlier version of this article referred to MAT as being possibly the first exhibition premised solely on the notion of Malay identity. Shows such as this one which pre-dated MAT, had a similar focus on Malay identity. We are sorry for the error. 

Editorial note 2: As a further update, we have been hearing from our readers about a show entitled Wahana which also addressed the question of Malay identity. Thank you all for your kind support and keep the feedback coming in! (Here’s a bonus link to a wonderful story written by Shirlene Noordin, on what it was like to hang out with Mat Rokers in the 1990s.)



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