On May 13, 1969, a violent race riot erupted in the streets of Kuala Lumpur (KL). The Star references a Time magazine report on May 23, 1969, which included the following graphic description:
“Malaysia’s proud experiment in constructing a multiracial society exploded in the streets of Kuala Lumpur last week. Malay mobs, wearing white headbands signifying an alliance with death, and brandishing swords and daggers, surged into Chinese areas in the capital, burning, looting and killing. In retaliation, Chinese, sometimes aided by Indians, armed themselves with pistols and shotguns and struck at Malay kampongs. Huge pillars of smoke rose skyward as houses, shops and autos burned.”
Fast forward 50 years later and a tall coffin draped with a Malaysian flag, bearing the title May 13, 1969, stands silently on a mirror, in the air-conditioned climes of the very-posh ILHAM Gallery in KL. It’s an artwork by acclaimed Malaysian artist Redza Piyadasa. The imagery here is direct–coffin, plus national flag, plus mirror equals the death of national ideals, an idea that is literally reflected and imposed on all viewers who peer into the work and find, startlingly, that it is their own faces which stare back at them.
The race riots that afflicted KL are well-known to most Singaporeans, as Singapore has too encountered its own incidents of racial turmoil. This fraught history has resulted in a particular fear of potential racial discontent, something which Singaporean authorities now monitor with rabid fierceness.
To scholars of art history, Redza Piyadasa’s artistic practice was also part of a larger movement. Art historian (and Singapore Biennale 2019 Artistic Director) Patrick Flores speaks in his essay Social Realism: The Turns of a Term in the Philippines of 1974, the year in which Piyadasa and fellow artist Sulaiman Esa organised an exhibition called Towards a Mystical Reality. It was a show which “laid out the basis for thinking about the kind of art that might originate outside of the West, animated by non-empirical or non-humanist ways of knowing.”
Flores explains that the show dovetailed with other contemporaneous movements in the Southeast Asian region such as Indonesia’s Gerakan Seni Rupa Baru movement and the formation of the Sinlapin heng pratheet Thay (Artists’ Front of Thailand) in Thailand.
Some commentators note that May 13, 1969 could have been one of the first pieces of installation art to emerge in Southeast Asia. Louis Ho observes that the first iteration of the work was “incinerated” by Piyadasa a year after it was exhibited, “as if in a gesture of mourning for his country.”
First exhibited in Malaysia in 1970, the piece now resides—in a reconstructed form—as part of the collection of the Singapore Art Museum (SAM). It is, therefore, a homecoming of sorts for the work, with its inclusion in SAM’s first-ever collaborative exhibition with Malaysia’s ILHAM Gallery, The Body Politic and the Body.
Nationalistic imagery abounds when one steps into this ILHAM exhibition. Yap Sau Bin’s 2004 work, The Grand Phantom Narrates greets visitors immediately at the entrance to the show. It was developed as a response to the resignation of Mahathir Mohamad as Prime Minister of Malaysia in 2003, and prompts consideration of how institutional power can shape individual subjectivity.
At first glance, the work bears indicia of the Singaporean, Malaysian and Indonesian flags—all of which contain the hues of red and white. Each colour symbolizes different national values depending on the context in which they are viewed. A standalone pillar bisects the framed colours, presenting a disconcertingly skewed viewing experience for the exhibition visitor. Some sources cite the red and white (and blue) on the Malaysian flag as being indicative of the country’s close association with the Commonwealth. In the Singaporean flag, however, the red stands for universal brotherhood and the equality of man, whereas the white symbolises purity and virtue.
And yet, many practical things tie Singaporeans and Malaysians together – familial ties and a common love of good food tend to top the list. Fights have been known to break out over the ownership and quality of certain kinds of cuisine—although if we’re perfectly honest, most Singaporeans will acknowledge Malaysian superiority in the arena of culinary deliciousness!
The Rise of Brand ‘SAM’ ?
Singaporean visitors to The Body Politic and the Body who are acquainted with the SAM collection might find the artworks in the show to be somewhat familiar. May 13, 1969 had previously been displayed in the National Gallery Singapore, and artist Chia Chuyia whose performance work opened The Body Politic and the Body, was a recent memorable fixture in the Singapore Biennale 2016.
Even Wong Hoy Cheong’s Tapestry of Justice at ILHAM recalled Suzann Victor’s Bloodline of Peace, a work which was exhibited in SAM in 2015.
It is certainly testament to the strong identity that SAM has forged over the years, that one might step into The Body Politic and the Body and make immediate visual connections with previous exhibitions held in Singapore.
Nonetheless, I am reminded by June Yap, SAM’s Director of Curatorial, Programmes, and Publications that this is a show created “for a Malaysian audience.”
Yap is emphatic that the selection of works took place jointly and ILHAM Gallery Director Rahel Joseph chips in with a clear statement that (ILHAM) “was not interested in simply “importing a show from someone.” Rather the show “was about coming together and working together.”
Yap further explains that this was an “opportunity to bring (Malaysian) works back to Malaysia,” and that it was “important to have these conversations here (in Malaysia).”
Being Uniquely Malaysian
Bayu Utomo Radjikin’s Lang Kacang is one work that exemplifies this commitment to Malaysia-specific issues.
Lang Kacang is a screaming armless Iban tribal warrior whose upturned face hoicks sharply away from the exhibition viewer. His pain and shame are on public display, and yet also curiously private. The viewer is required to crane his or her neck or tiptoe in order to fully see the expression on the figure’s face. Made of fragments of industrial objects such as metal sheets, chains, and cement—Lang Kacang stands as a response to the “conditions of capitalist modernity” faced by Malaysia’s tribal communities.
Bayu Utomo Radjikin is clearly an important artist, with similar work having been featured in the Malaysian national institution, the Balai Seni Negara.
These sculptural warriors speak to the challenges experienced by the country’s indigenous population in the face of rapid urbanisation. Malaysian scholar Dr. Sarena Abdullah observes that only Lang Kacang’s expressive face is made of plaster of Paris, creating a disturbing material disconnect between the figure’s head and the machine parts which make up the rest of his body.
Wong Hoy Cheong’s Tapestry of Justice, 1998-2004, while physically reminiscent of Victor’s similarly-hung blanket, refers quite specifically to the Malaysian Reformasi movement.
At first glance, Wong’s blanket appears flimsy–it floats ethereally over the space, interspersed with fragile plant material. A closer look at the museum wall text reveals that the work began life in the late 1990s, both as a piece of art and a petition against the Malaysian Internal Security Act (ISA). Wong had first approached artists and friends to ask for their thumbprints in support of the repeal of the ISA. These prints were then photocopied and blended into a giant blanket held together with delicate leaves and petals from plants such as the hibiscus (Malaysia’s national flower), rose and beech:
Undoubtedly, The Body Politic and the Body has been framed and conceptualised with Malaysian issues at the fore.
And yet, as I stood in front of Piyadasa’s coffin, gazing down at my own reflection, I saw myself–not just in a literal sense but through a more visceral, emotional tug that emanated from somewhere deep in my gut.
Was it the delicious (and admittedly very superior) rendang from the media lunch that preceded this exhibition viewing? Or was it the dawning realisation of the commonalities between Malaysia and Singapore, and how the ties which bind us run far deeper than politically-driven narratives of the day?
I suppose I’ll never know the answer to that question (although I can highly recommend De.Wan 1958 by Chef Wan across the road from ILHAM Gallery)!
Food-related distractions aside, how different is the anguish of Bayu Utomo Radjikin’s Lang Kacang from the sense of longing in Singapore for the preservation of shared cultural and historical memories? Doesn’t Piyadasa’s lament on race relations and politics feel relevant in the context of contemporary pre-occupations in Singapore? Don’t Tapestry of Justice and Bloodline of Peace both speak to the quiet collective will of the people, and to how monumental things can emerge from shared sacrifice and solidarity?
The Body Politic and the Body may be an exhibition for a Malaysian audience, but it certainly hits close to home.
ILHAM x SAM Project: The Body Politic and the Body runs at ILHAM Gallery Kuala Lumpur, till 12 April 2020.