Rags to Riches: A Story of Kuala Lumpur @ RUANG by Think City

I am intrigued with photography as an art medium. I am also intrigued by art that invokes deep realisations. Some say photography is not art. Some say art only needs to be beautiful. Formal, casual, smart-casual. There is an exhibition in KL now which contextualises one’s photographs as modernist, and not pictorialist. Another KL exhibition explores the stories of migrant workers, as interpreted via individual art approaches. The Kuala Lumpur I know is unfriendly yet dignified, crumbling yet melancholic, dirty yet orderly, ada Bandaraya tapi penghuninya orang se-kampung. Quoting John Berger, “(a)ll photographs are there to remind us of what we forget. In this – as in other ways – they are the opposite of paintings. Paintings record what the painter remembers.” 

These beliefs, thoughts, and observations, come to a head on a second floor gallery of an old refurbished building near Masjid Jamek. The premise is simple – Kenny Loh displays a number of his photographs, accompanied with stories of individuals. Portraits of people introduce the audience to individuals who make a living in Kuala Lumpur, and have a personal story about migrating from, or to here. The images are culled from a larger project by Kenny named “Born in Malaysia”, which I first came across two year ago via a video shared on social media. The YouTube tagline introduces the project as, “(w)hat began as a trip down memory lane to his local barbershop, ended up as a 4-year journey documenting Malaysians from all walks of life”.

Older ones who have operated small businesses for decades, and those fortunate enough to be still running. Younger ones who bring fresh ideas to existing spaces. Dancers, social activists, and charity workers. Refugees who lead a difficult life, who once led a good life. The chosen pictures are ones where the individual concerned had posed. The surrounding environment – in a public space, or a private setting – provides contextual evidence of one’s daily life. Two journalist friends also share their photographs in the same format, and provide a good counterpoint to Kenny’s signature style. Jahabar Sadiq’s snapshot of Tung Sook and Tung sum is particularly endearing, whereas King Chai’s captures of Filipinos around Kota Raya is spontaneous, and come alive with narratives about entrepreneurship and financial freedom. 

These are real people, who interact with real people, in the city. Among recent projects which aim to celebrate Kuala Lumpur and its inhabitants, “Rags to Riches” stands out with its straightforward presentation. The elements photographed will eventually die; From here one gauges the life of the subject matter, be it a person, a trade, a passion, a shop, or a circumstance. As a KL-ite, the photographs are familiar, and no artistic intervention is required to mediate the time & space being depicted. Ambition and opportunities are evident in these paragraph-photograph pairings, and successfully restores one’s faith in the city. Time to go out and buy the “Born in Malaysia” photobook from the nearest bookstore…