UNPACK-REPACK @ The Whiteaways Arcade, Penang (I – Unpacking)

Ismail Hashim once stated, “when we take pictures of the sunrise or the turbulent sea, for example, are we aware of the other occurrences between the sunrise and the sunset? Things will naturally occur.” After his untimely demise having fell off a motorbike one year ago, the photography artist is given a posthumous tribute in the form of a “hybrid exhibition”, curated by Wong Hoy Cheong. Granted permission by Ismail’s estate to unpack and examine in-progress works and left-behind items, Hoy Cheong‘s repackaged presentation is nothing short of excellent, given the practical constraints of a short time frame. The enclosed space is reconfigured into five rooms that start with a mini-retrospective of wall hangings, then a categorised collection of desk prints, before ending with a wistful tribute. In between are two sections of exhibits which reveal the strong hand of its prominent curator, whose astute set up goes a long way to highlight Ismail’s own genius.

Old Chairs – still serving (2002)

Supplementary notes and poetic quotes affirm the overarching humanist characteristics apparent in Ismail’s works. In the first room Tributes, the uninitiated is treated to a selection of the crème de la crème in Ismail’s oeuvre. “Every picture has a story”, but in Ismail’s case, the story does not just come from its picture, but also from its title. ‘We shall overcome’ snaps one schoolchild running in the rain, its title inducing the viewer into an uplifting mood. Puns and its hilarious potential occupies Ismail’s mind, evident in the absurd juxtaposition in ‘Lesen lembu (Cow or L-license)’. Semantic arrangements imbue deeper meanings into the sublime diptych ‘Bahagian Dapur: Siang Malam, Luar Dalam’. Two self-contained pictures depict both sides of a window and simply-arranged kitchen stuff, its perfect compositions secondary to the projection of binary opposites – light/dark, in/out, from/to – which underscores the cracks between our sense perception.

Bahagian Dapur: Siang Malam, Luar Dalam (1992)

Green tints appear also in ‘Kedai Gunting’, its swivelling Koken barber chair and strong contrasts capturing the viewer’s immediate attention. Less vivid and more compelling is ‘hand-crafted bed, rosary, heart-shaped stool, ashes from mosquito coils, plastic flowers…’ Its description recreates the author’s on-site fascination when photographing this scene within a government quarters, and restates the human involvement in the displayed objects, where beliefs and time’s passing manifest in rosary beads and burnt ashes. The peeling wall is a recurring subject matter – seen in the series “A Thing of Beauty” – where such imperfections form an essential component in Ismail’s pursuit of romantic idealism. By highlighting the mundane, he depicts the dynamic nature of life and empowers reality, as people with high self-awareness do.

hand-crafted bed, rosary, heart-shaped stool, ashes from mosquito coils, plastic flowers… (1987)

Self-aware folks also tend to siok sendiri, seen in the many snapshots of a friend’s animated facial expressions, arranged in a grid. Intentional or not, this arrangement eventually became “an anti-hierarchical form that flattens time and de-narrativises images”, contrary to what another describes as “a means of storytelling”. Looking at the collection of post boxes and bicycle seats, many which are beautifully tinted, a previous thought still rings true – “Ismail Hashim's assemblage depicts the essence of life – man-made objects utilised for man's livelihood, tempered by time (erosion of material) and fate (dents and ruptures). Innovation is utilitarian, nature is oppressive (…) repudiates existential exposition in favour of invigorating the human condition.” An insightful distraction in this room are the essays written by friends and family, which recollections remember the man as a committed artist.

Penunggu-Penunggu Surat Sepanjang Jalan Bagan Serai (Post Boxes Along Bagan Serai) – Taiping Road (1993)

‘Old Chairs – still serving’ moves away from the archival grid, to an assemblage of pictures with different sizes. This allows for imagined narratives beyond the source materials discerned, as one sees a chair placed in a room corner, or notices a rooster lingering behind a formica seat. While static degraded objects represent the consequence of human intervention, Ismail’s assemblages with lively subjects capture the immediate moments of human reaction. ‘Sayangkan Anak (Loving One’s Children)’ shows pictures taken at the 1998 Merdeka parade in Kuala Lumpur. “It’s a celebratory piece, one that embraces the joy and protective nature of parenthood (…) Parental love is a given. You love them from young, and guide them through this beautiful chaos we call life”, recounts the artist’s daughter Wanis Suwini. Its title also references the anak bangsa present at the event, which happened three weeks before Anwar Ibrahim’s arrest.

Sayangkan Anak (Loving One’s Children) (1998)

Other masterpieces by Ismail such as kopitiam scenes are absent from Tributes, but this mini-retrospective is still a highly satisfying walk-through. Many of these works are well-known to the Malaysian art enthusiast, and one can only imagine the euphoria the curatorial team felt when given access to the late artist’s studio. They went bananas. Equipment and materials utilised by Ismail are exhibited in the next room, along with a reconstructed workplace, which was arranged “…exactly the way he had left them before he died”. Going Bananas displays photographs of bananas, the colloquialism a metaphor of Ismail’s passion for art, also describing the enthusiasm felt within one’s curatorial research journey. The exhibition notes imply that the banana is a symbol (à la Jalaini Abu Hassan), an unlikely suggestion since trigger-happy photographers have an affinity with what is visually interesting. The artist probably just liked bananas...

beer bottles and bananas gateway (2005)