Merata Suara @ Projek Dialog

In this age of political correctness and woke-ness, a six-months project which commissions five artworks to “represent marginalised voices”, sounds like an inadequate premise for an art exhibition. In Malaysia, however, the existing political hegemony and societal imbalance render such initiatives necessary, where voices of the underrepresented are drowned within a globalized and mainstream social media. The setup in “Merata Suara” successfully levels the presentation dynamic – none of the five individuals working with location partners (representatives from marginalized groups) identify themselves as a full-time artist, and the exhibition (including performance acts and community gatherings) takes place at Projek Dialog’s office in Ara Damansara. 

Snapshot of exhibition space, with Eleanor Goroh - Fabrication in the background [picture taken from Suzy Sulaiman's Facebook album Merata Suara: Changing places from office to art.]

To produce artwork via collaboration, each individual intercession becomes tenuous; After all, the exhibition title explicitly states its intent to “even out the voices”. Suzy Sulaiman emphasizes in her curator’s statement, “(i)n order to perpetuate a porous border; one needs to exercise an artistic strategy that is fair to both sides.” To mitigate the risk of a foisted presentation, Suzy mentions in a radio interview, that “…these art pieces were more of catalysts, of a conversation and inquisitions…” Eleanor Goroh’s ‘Fabrication’ greets the visitor into the upstairs shop lot, its combination of state anthems and cultural icons, leading me to further discover melodies utilised for nationalist propaganda. Artists grappled with cultural differences in their engagements; This struggle now transfers to the audience facing exhibited artworks.

Installation snapshots of Yana Rizal - Komuni[s]kasi 

Flipping through tabbed Form 3 and Form 5 Sejarah textbooks, then browsing handwritten anecdotes copied behind sheets of past year exam questions, it is revelatory to see what was taught about the Malayan Communist Party then. Despite its na├»ve presentation approach, Yana Rizal’s ‘Komuni[s]kasi’ unpacks a state-sanctioned historical misrepresentation across two makeshift classrooms. Recorded interviews with surviving guerrilla members (Jane Chin Leong, Kwei Ling, and Lean Thai), and documents from the National Archives, contribute to information overload. Counter-narratives are always interesting, but a sense of hopelessness persists when one posits this knowledge within the contemporary Malaysian political consciousness. How long does it take, for one to un-learn taught mistruths? Why is it so hard to acknowledge violence, as a prerequisite in nation-building?

Installation snapshots (taken while sitting on the ground) of Okui Lala: [l] Ingatan Welding (Welder’s Flash); [r] Perjalanan bersama Desi (A journey with Desi)

Okui Lala’s ‘Ingatan Welding (Welder’s Flash)’ projects from a television screen on a raised floor platform, while a video recording of three interviews with a Perodua Myvi driver loops on the wall. Shining a tiny torch on bound statements, I learn that the former’s actions is one ex-welder’s (Ayu) hand movements for protecting herself from sparks. A speechless recollection by an empowered individual, are juxtaposed against the lively chitchat about daily affairs in the latter work, where Desi the domestic worker speaks with the artist, Sofi the factory worker, and Nasrikah who runs an organization that “aims to network the Indonesian migrant worker community in Malaysia.” For one day, Okui offers interested persons the opportunity to experience her awkwardness in conversing with Desi, while driving around Ara Damansara. “(A)n artistic strategy that is fair to both sides”?

Installation snapshots of Poodien - Bulat Tanah Lengkang

In ‘Bulat Tanah Lengkang’, Poodien draws head portraits from behind, of womenfolk at Kampung Gebok, Mantin. His lines are clear, yet the vivid colours of the illustrated hair and skin, denote a sense of alienation. On a BFM program, the artist admits the realization of “an unequal artistic format” in his output. Hung at eye-level in a circle, the audience never gets to know these portrayed people. The social distance in this collaboration is affectingly presented, and complements the exhibits in a wonderful manner. Absence as a visual strategy, is further pronounced by the fact that I did not attend the silat-poetry performance ‘Silat-tru-rahim’, a collaboration initiated by Victoria Cheng with silat teacher Kak Ji (Norzihah Kasim) based in Gurun, Kedah. 

Snapshot of Silat-tru-rahim performance [picture taken from Rodney Anolin Simon's Facebook post dated 24th February 2018]

In an incidental allusion to the theme Belas at the ongoing KL Biennale, Projek Dialog’s founder Ahmad Fuad Rahmat writes, that “(c)aring stands out in it all (…) no way of avoiding at some level the work of caring that makes the core of our social being.” Representing the marginalized is an anxious effort, and this exhibition includes several artful approaches. Combining visual propaganda with women’s work, presenting historical documents with current evidence, letting one’s words and actions speak for themselves, and visually illustrating the inadequacies of such representation – each approach has its attractions, and limitations. Does showing them all together “even out the voices”? Probably not, but just giving the platform for a curious audience to understand a bit more about the other, brings one that bit closer to understanding the multicultural society we live in.

Exhibition snapshot of "Hari Serantau" event [picture taken from Okui Lala's Instagram page dated 26th February 2018]