Unveiling The Unseen (1937 – 1971) @ Islamic Arts Museum Malaysia

Pictorialist or Modernist? An irreverent argument, as what we see is contemporary history. Raja Ihsan Shah unpacks and exhibits more material from the archives containing Sultan Ismail Nasiruddin Shah’s photographic negatives and slides. On display are 58 well-composed pictures of Terengganu and other places around the world, many of which look like it was taken from an upstairs hotel room. Wall statements clarify photographic techniques utilized, including four hand-coloured photographs attributed to the zokinkage technique. One curious example titled ‘Broken gate and bicycle, Singapore’ depicts the subject matter with a blue sky background, yet Raja Ihsan revealed in a talk that the cloud was actually painted on, and not part of the original black & white photo. 

Port Swettenham, Klang, Selangor (1957)

Images with local context are invariably more interesting to the local visitor, such as the beautiful reflections in ‘Morning. Taiping Lake Garden, Perak’, and people at work in sunny ‘Port Swettenham, Klang, Selangor’. Ships and coastal areas are evidently close to the Sultan’s heart, some brilliant examples include one stunning capture of coconut ‘Trees. Marang, Terengganu’, a high-contrast portrait of ‘Fisherman with paddle and net’, one junk surrounded by modern ships in Penang Harbour, and a sailboat named kemajuan. The two latter works present signs of modernisation, a theme also featured brilliantly via four photographs on a single display wall, which juxtapose pictures of fishermen on a beach with a land excavation, mending nets with the ‘Sungai Besi Airfield’. 

Junk, Penang Harbour (1952)

It appears to be a conscious curatorial decision to show a wide range of photographs, and the presentation – which includes a video of Raja Ihsan trawling through rooms of archival materials – is simple and attractive. However, it is not stated anywhere who came up with the titles of the photographs, and the exact year when prints were developed. Unseen too is the inherent privilege of these vantage points. The Sultan had access to good cameras, as one imagines a number of the exhibits were taken on official visits. He is sometimes flanked by officials, whether the subject matter is a crowd of people (Sungai Tong, Terengganu), or empty streets (‘The Weld during the curfew of 14th May 1969’).  If it takes a king to record history for contemporary interpretations, so be it, whatever form that may take.

The Weld during the curfew of 14th May 1969