Teh Tarik With The Flag @ National Art Gallery

After its victory in Malaysia’s 14th General Election, the new government and its leaders have been accorded a honeymoon period by most rakyat based on goodwill, to establish better policies and administration. Such forgiving attitudes should extend to the Malaysian art enthusiast, who is swamped with images of new art made with literal references to harapan, and to colours of the national flag. Following on the 2018 Balai program featuring gallery partnerships, Wei-Ling Gallery revel in this opportune moment to present highly relatable works by artists it represents. The exhibition statement reads, “…to explore the symbolic power of the flag as a means to reflect on and extend the rich and complex story of the ‘Jalur Gemilang’ as a potent symbol and a marker of identity, unity, belief, and division.”

Exhibition snapshot

A sense of post-GE14 elation prevails upon entering Galeri 3B, as I look at Ivan Lam’s large, four-panel interpretation titled ‘The Death of a Nation / The Birth of a Nation’. Consisting of strips from its 16 state & territory flags, forms that shape the Malaysian flag is delineated and filled with charcoal, which composition also attempts to highlight the racial make-up of the country. In the confines of an institution recently bogged down by (self-)censorship events, one cannot help but dread another unwelcome incident. In Line Dalile’s succinct curatorial essay, she writes, “(d)oes the act of cutting apart the flag disrespect it as national symbol? Or does it remind the viewers that it is through our minds that we bring national symbols to life and into power?”

Hamidi Hadi – Hari Ini Dalam Sejarah, 9 Mei (2018)

More shabby flags are seen in creations by Fauzan Omar and Hamidi Hadi, although the latter’s ‘Hari ini Dalam Sejarah, 9 Mei’ evokes more patriotic fervour with a message that appeals to the contemporary Malaysian visitor. Cutting up the centre of stretched canvas, indicates a puncture in our hegemonic history. How much of that change is due to suara rakyat? Employing an out-of-the-box approach is Sean Lean, who breaks up the Jalur Gemilang into two paintings and a few railings, which set-up invites visitors to “colour in” the work by leaving cloth hangings. The artist effectively demarcates the wall space into symbolic areas of royal/ ruling/ working classes, which similar intent is evident in Cheng Yen Pheng’s ‘No Colour’. A scroll drawing of monochrome Malaysian-looking people, is joined by thread to another scroll featuring foreign-looking labourers – who is our people?

Snapshots of Cheng Yen Pheng – No Colour (2015)

For its first episode of “Everyone’s A Critic”, BFM radio presenters rightfully noted that the exhibition lacks representation from Sabahan or Sarawakian artists. This public perception is useful, as casual visitors are unlikely to find out, that neither space provider or organizing gallery can be at fault, if inclusiveness was not laid out initially in the exhibition concept. Discussed also are the uncertainty of when exhibits were made (I suspect only three were completed post-GE14), the relevance of Rajinder Singh’s images of Caucasian-looking people with saffron-coloured highlights, and the evocation of “home” in Sulaiman Esa’s large weaving ‘One God Many Paths’. (This piece) “…also fit in with the idea of the teh tarik, of different cultures, and of different people (…) coming together in a space, because the shape of it literalizes a Malaysian space…” Everyone’s a critic!

Sulaiman Esa – One God Many Paths (2018)

Another work that qualifies for a teh tarik analogy is ‘Jemputan’ by Anurendra Jegadeva. Vivid characters posing in traditional getup, present a straightforward picture about modern Malaysian livelihood, although it is unclear to me whether torn marks on the paper are intentional. Less cheery are the hanging ‘Transparent Flags’ by Chong Kim Chiew. Forms of historical Malay(si)an flags are etched on PVC film, which translucent qualities point to a deliberate inconspicuousness, in the Malaysian collective imagination. It is easy to make out the colonialists and the national flag, but who knew that we once had a flag with Belgian colours and a tiger at its centre? And that it was used as the flag of the Federated Malay States, and the Malayan Union? What about the Federation of Malaya flag with only 11 stripes? Was Singapore represented by the white or red stripe, before its expulsion?

Anurendra Jegadeva – Jemputan (2018) with close-up snapshots

The most potent and mesmerizing exhibit, belongs to Hayati Mokhtar’s 17-minutes long ‘No.55 Main Road’. Projected side-by-side on 3 monitors, the centre screen presents a static take of an old house’s interior, while flanking screens project tracking shots along the shophouse, and close-ups of nostalgic objects. Its artwork label provides a remarkably concise statement, but I recommend viewers to spend time meditating on these moving images. Blinding reflections from the two golden 福 ideograms on the wall. Mechanical fan whirring as time passes, interjected by sounds from heavy vehicles, passing by on the trunk road. Beautiful textures of wooden panels and wall outgrowth, with beautiful architectural forms in a decrepit space. The motorbike and the television set, once objects of necessity for a modernising society. Who is going to have teh tarik with ‘Uncle’ Chang?

Installation snapshot of Hayati Mokhtar – No.55 Main Road (2010)