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Life Through the Lens: On ILHAM Gallery’s Bayangnya itu Timbul Tenggelam

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Life Through the Lens - History Of Photography In Malaysia

It feels like a weird time to be visiting art galleries, but I hope that after you read this review, you will put on your mask, pack some hand sanitiser and brave the outside world for ILHAM Gallery’s latest exhibition, Bayangnya itu Timbul Tenggelam. It’s an absolute riot of a show that will give you a rare glimpse into the past through the evolution of Malaysia’s photography cultures: its eccentricities, characters, micro-economies, and the plain weirdness of a life that’s just about vanished.

ILHAM Gallery is the kind of gallery that is far more interested in looking at art through the lens of art history rather than art theory; whose aims are more hagiographic than subversive. Throughout the past half-decade, the gallery has leaned into its role as one of Malaysia’s foremost venues for public art, using it as a lens through which to examine all kinds of big themes and ideas in Malaysian history and culture. Most recently, its shows have included various retrospectives on Malaysian’s modern art period (GRUP 1957 – 1973), the borderlands of the Patani region (Patani Semasa), the Mahathir era (Era Mahathir) and an overview of the work of prolific local painter, Chia You Chian (Private Lives), among others. In many ways, Bayangnya fits squarely within ILHAM’s long tradition of acting as the public classroom for Malaysian Art History 101.

Installation view of Bayangnya itu Timbul Tenggelam.
Installation view of Bayangnya itu Timbul Tenggelam.

Their approach to art is partly the result of the gallery’s longstanding working relationship with art historian Simon Soon, whose fingerprints are all over Bayangnya. The show is built atop a backbone of personal, societal and commercial history, all of which come together to explore the meta-contexts of Malaysian photography in the late 20th century.

Bayangnya takes its name from a Munshi Abdullah quote: “bayangannya itu timbul tenggelam!” (“the shadows appear and disappear!”) – the writer exclaims upon his first encounter with a daguerrotype, one of the first forms of commercially available photography.

Munshi’s astonishment is the spiritual heart of the show, which features a dizzying array of visions, aesthetics and secret histories of pre-digital Malaysian life. The gallery’s contents are drawn from several personal collections (including that of Joe Kidd of Ricecooker Archives) and curated by K. Azril Ismail, Hoo Fan Chon, and Soon. There are the usual suspects — the late Sultan Ismail Nasiruddin Shah of Terengganu who is a staple of historiographical surveys of Malaysian photography — and lesser known names such as Yip Wai Kwong, the proprietor of a Penang photo studio, and the workers of the Duyong Art Gallery in Kuala Terengganu.

Self-portraits taken in photo studios in a bygone time.
Self-portraits taken in photo studios in a bygone time.

The wide-ranging sources of these photos makes walking into the gallery feel a little like opening dusty photo albums tucked away in your aunty’s closet: surprising, kind of weird, a window into a half-remembered world. I confess: my back instantly straightened when I walked past the tilted sepia-toned photos of long-dead ancestors hung high overhead. It is a scene I know well from my own life.

Bayangnya has the hallmark ambition of all ILHAM shows, weaving together several different thematic threads in order to tell the big picture story of Malaysians’ relationship to photography. Perhaps the most interesting thread is the one that explores the business of photography itself, an inescapable reality during a time when cameras were inaccessible to most people. A significant portion of the show is dedicated to the history, impact and relevance of the photo studio, and the communities drawn to them: from early pioneers in the European community and the Chinese photographers who would come to dominate the market, to the last generation of studio heirs of today, such as Kuala Lumpur’s Foto Pak Tai.

Adjacent to the photo studios were the many ancillary economies that sprung up alongside them. Celebrity headshots were produced and sold through these studios as an early form of fan merchandise, such as one particularly stunning portrait of the iconic singer Saloma which stops you in your tracks. Prostitutes were frequent patrons of photo studios, regularly taking glamour shots that would then be circulated by rickshaw drivers to potential customers. To take Bayangnya’s view on things, the camera was not just a medium for making art, but also a means to make a living.

Celebrities would regularly visit photo studios to take glamour shots to be sold to fans as an early form of merchandise.
Celebrities would regularly visit photo studios to take glamour shots to be sold to fans as an early form of merchandise.

Despite this slightly mercenary reality, the results that emerged from photos studios are by turns surprising, sexy and on more than one occasion, shockingly fun. There are selfies featuring flamboyant decorative frames, and kooky pictures of subjects clinging to soaring airplanes or famous landmarks.

Pre-Photoshop era fun with photo-manipulation. Image credit: ILHAM Gallery.
Pre-Photoshop era fun with photo-manipulation. Image credit: ILHAM Gallery.

Spread out all along the gallery walls are the everyday outputs of these photo studios: family portraits, graduation pictures, celebrity mementos, seasonal greeting cards, wedding photos, shots of grinning babies and porcelain pugs. The colonial and bureaucratic functions of photography are given cursory inspection — note the many rows of important-looking men deadpanning for the camera. These particular photos come off as decidedly bland in contrast to the more domestic and personal examples.

Though photography was largely shunned by the Muslim community in the early days due to religious prohibitions, the photos on view reveal not just the multicultural participation in photo studio culture, but also our limited visions of what Malaysian society looks like.

Through the blurry figures rendered in light and shadow, it’s difficult to distinguish race. Costumes become unreliable narrators in the photo studio, where everything is in service of performance and image-making. Mistresses construct elaborate wedding photos in order to lay claim to their “husbands’” estates. In one special section, the performance of gender is rendered visible by Ava Leong, a trans performer and icon from the 60’s. To wit: queer folk have always used photography to perform the collapse of gender and the recreation of the self.

Ava Leong was a trans performer linked to the Penang Dondang Sayang Club and the “Glamour Girls” in George Town, Penang.
Ava Leong was a trans performer linked to the Penang Dondang Sayang Club and the “Glamour Girls” in George Town, Penang.

Photo studios, Bayangnya tells us, have been functionally central to communities’ ideas of self-presentation since the beginning. These photos reveal not just the faces of who these people were, but also the value systems within these communities. Peranakan women prized partaking in the ritual of photography over its actual outputs in order to court good luck. At one point in history, gold teeth were considered all the rage, so photographers made them gleam with paint – with unsettling results.

At times, the exhibition can simultaneously overwhelm and underwhelm. While it is admirable that it tried to connect so many communities, histories, cultures and contexts within the space of a single exhibition, the result is a bit of a hodgepodge. I found myself wishing that Bayangnya would omit the sections on the colonial gaze and commercial photography entirely. These sections felt incomplete, almost off-handed perhaps because they lacked more robust criticism of how photography can be abused. How pictures of Orang Asal are used to reinforce damaging stereotypes, or how photos ultimately become tools of consumerism.

Likewise, I felt that the reproduction of a photo studio, hidden in the back corner of the gallery, was slightly bizarre. How times have changed, that an analogue photo studio has been reproduced expressly to entice visitors to take photos with their smart phones in a bid for some social media impact.

A latent but undeniable sense of nostalgia permeates throughout the exhibition, for a world that is already fast disappearing. Why else this feeling of digging through old family photos but our penchant for romanticising the past. Perhaps that is what that photo studio set is for: to play at a time when the world seemed simpler, more fun, and definitely more stylish.

A reproduction of an old-fashioned photo studio.
A reproduction of an old-fashioned photo studio.

So, is Bayangnya mourning the death of analogue photography?

Maybe! In Mahen Bala’s short film “The Lost Photographs of Sultan Ismail”, the late photographer’s grandson Raja Ihsan Shah says, “Everything is digital these days, it’s more convenient.” Depending on how you hear it, his words either come off as a lamentation over the loss of analogue photography, or a heralding of a more democratic, photo-saturated social media age. Because no matter how you spin it, photography has definitely become more accessible. Our opportunities to explore our self-presentation and take really funny photos of ourselves have proliferated.

The Lost Photographs of Sultan Ismail: A short documentary from Mahen Bala on Vimeo.

But in its democratisation, we have also lost the need to consider the reasoning behind every picture we take. There is barely a beat between the shutter and the photograph. As photos proliferate, the space to appreciate them has shrunk.

Bayangnya indirectly asks us to question what we lose when we lose these forms of photography, more especially the photo studio space. What kinds of rituals do we allow to go extinct when we stop visiting photo studios? What kind of vision of the world are we now creating through the convenience of our phone screens? Does it matter that this world is passing?

These are the questions that preoccupy the three short films that underscore the entire exhibition, and it’s one that lingers long after you’ve wandered the gallery. Bayangnya certainly offers no easy answers – just a little lesson in the value of lingering over old photographs and honouring their short life, witnessing and remembering, before letting them go.

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Bayangnya itu Timbul Tenggelam: Photographic Cultures in Malaysia is on view at ILHAM Gallery from now until 31 December 2020.

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