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

...This in-between room exposes the visitor to the artist’s method, and is the first of two significant spaces that bookend the main exhibits. Practical questions arise – for non-photographers, is this paraphernalia more interesting than the wonderful ‘beer bottles and bananas gateway’ hanging nearby? Is this room just a typical how-stuff-works section within a tourist destination? No, this heuristic set up allows the invested visitor a break – the Japanese kire – and a place to catch one’s breath after seeing a collection of great art. Inspecting film negatives with a magnifying glass hints at what comes next, where one is treated to untitled photograph prints laid across slanted tables. The exhibition space Going Bananas, and its presented contents, pivot the show’s excellent layout and its archival contents. Like the row of broken plastic chairs seen here, a simple yet visually attractive configuration, leads one to uncover the gold behind it.

’Ke pesta’ or 3 arrows (1987)

Six general categories are laid out “in this corridor-like space” themed Looking Out, which makes reference to Ismail Hashim’s favourite poem Ulysses by Alfred Tennyson. From the straight roads and pathways in Journey, to the roadside captures in Streets, the photography artist is always cognizant of the space surrounding his subjects. Horizon points tend to be high, reflecting light onto a man washing his motorbike, or onto dilapidated houses overshadowed by apartments. Context stimulates the imagination to create stories, its linear narrative built from intersecting subjects and matters via manufactured chance. Ismail’s works are usually commended for invoking a “collective memory”, but photographs of makeshift shacks and an abandoned barber chair, denote one who readily acknowledges modernisation in the urban environment. For those who have visited Daiso shops in huge malls, a ten-cent mini market is only nostalgic now.

Snapshot of desk prints in Looking Out: Streets

‘’Ke pesta’ or 3 arrows’ reminds one that Ismail was a former lecturer in graphic design. White-fill rigid shapes outline an imagined poster, each marker pointing its audience to their own destination. The largest arrow is for the public, the medium-sized arrow is for a section of the public, and the small arrow is for the private. This humorous picture is hung opposite a junction within the venue, the opening Looking In to more personal subjects, yet to continue on the same “trajectory” is no less intimate. Photographs of Ka’u posing with a Javanese cigarette are displayed alongside funny-man Dolah and schoolchildren in People. The care that went into hand-tinting ‘My students like a big family’, indicates “the artist’s faith in human relationships”, and showcases an aspect of his work not commonly discussed. Limiting his palette to the contrasting impossible colours – red, green, blue, yellow – are Ismail’s choices a visual, natural, or practical one?

My students like a big family

Snapshots of kopitiam chatter and resting blue-collar workers lead on nicely to the next section, Work. ‘Berdiri Atas Kaki Sendiri Atas Dua Roda’ celebrates industry by isolating the two-fold laborious acts of cycling and hauling oversized baggage. In this astonishing early work, Ismail demonstrates empowerment via arresting images. Hoping to voyeur into the artist’s mind, I enter Looking In and flip through newspaper clippings and a retrospective catalogue, sitting on a sofa from Ismail’s home. This second break allows for reflection, as the sub-themes here echo – and narrow down to the personal – of those found in the corridor outside. Each Journey begins from and ends at Home, the People there are Family & Friends, and observing happenings Around Home is the same with observing the Environment. ‘Show time crow time’ first shows a usual backyard scene, to be subsequently disrupted by one attention-seeking cockerel.

Berdiri Atas Kaki Sendiri Atas Dua Roda (1977)

Test prints of smiling kids and sleeping cats, imply an inhibition towards imposing grand themes onto domestic happenings. One exception is ‘I Can Sleep Through Even If The Bomb Explodes’, the monochrome version shown failing to ignite visual interest. Photographs devoid of human presence, however, enchants with its sense of intermediate space. “These poignant scenes are imbued with a sense of light and time of day (…) a strong human presence permeates through these silent spaces – it is in this absence that memory and longing are brought forth, and the desire for home in the past and present is imagined.” In ‘Belum serlah macam otak baru bangun tidur / Like a mind just awakened not so bright’, two interior scenes are distinguished only by a small time difference. Waking up at daybreak, plodding from bedroom to living room, family still sleeping – this pensive mood is encapsulated perfectly in this enthralling work...

Belum serlah macam otak baru bangun tidur / Like a mind just awakened not so bright (2010 / 2011)