Yee I-Lann (Images courtesy of Galeri Petronas)
One was the diversity of textures, colours, and looks of each and every one of the 78 prominent Malaysian artists whom artist-photographer Soraya captured through 15 years of photography.
The other was their names, nearly 80 of them. Names which I will list out because they form a complex and beautiful tapestry of who Malaysians are.
Ahmad Fuad Osman
Bayu Utomo Radjikin. Zahim Albakri. Abu Bakar Omar. Azean Irdawaty. Shahrizan Ahmad. Suhaimi Zain (Pak Ngah). Yusof Mohamad. Raja Shahriman Raja Aziddin. Ashley Alymann. Ahmad Fuad Osman.
Amron Omar. Azah Aziz. Farah Sulaiman. Faridah Merican. Fauziah Latiff. Indi Nadarajah. Jenny Chin. Mad Anuar Ismail. Norina Yahya. Sharmiza Abu Hassan.
Pak Dollah Baju Merah
shooshiesulaiman. Thor Kah Hoong. Yee I-Lann. Arif Awaluddin. Ramli Hassan. Awang Omar (Che Ahmad). Pak Dollah Baju Merah. Eric Peris. Farouk Hussain. Hamir Soib @ Mohamed. Juhari Said.
Nasir Bilal Khan. Ramli Ibrahim. Yusof Ghani. A Samad Said. Aziz Satta. S Shamsuddin (Sudin). Ahmad Shukri Mohamed. Ahmad Zakii Anwar. Alan Ng. Andy Petersen. Anthony Lau.
Awang Damit Ahmad. Bernard Chandran. Chan Kin Wah. Cheong Lai Tong. Chin Kon Yit. Chuah Siew Teng. Farid Ali aka Mr Gambus. Ilse Noor. Ismail Hashim. Jose Thomas. John Thomas.
Khadijah Ibrahim. Kow Leong Kiang. Liew Kung Yu. Mac Chew. Marion D’Cruz. Noordin Hassan. P Kesauan. Ramlan Abdullah. SM Salim. Sek San. Shahril Ibrahim. Sharmini Ramalingam. Sheila Majid. Siti Nurhaliza.
Yeoh Jin Leng
Syed Ahmad Jamal. Syed Thajudeen. Syed Zainal Rashid. Fatimah Abu Bakar. Sharifah Aleya. Sharifah Amani. Sharifah Alesyah. Sharifah Aryana. Umi Baizurah Mahir Ismail. Yasmin Ahmad. Tan Yew Leong. Yeoh Jin Leng.
These are the names of creative Malaysian practitioners comprising artists, writers, musicians, dancers, performers, and singers whom Soraya wanted to celebrate through her photography.
“They are all Malaysians,” she tells me in an e-mail. “I don’t see the artists as Indian, Chinese, Malay, Sarawakian…”
Most of them are friends of Soraya’s and her husband. They are people whose work Soraya likes, more so because they are artists who “give back” to society by helping others. “I am very proud of them. This is my way to celebrate them,” she adds on the choice of artists she portrayed.
Curated by TK Sabapathy, the Imaging Selfs exhibition is really worth visiting because it is “the most extensive, sustained undertaking on the topic”, and unprecedented within Southeast Asia.
But more than that, it made me feel safe. Strange as that sounds, walking into a photo exhibition filled with diverse faces and names of Malaysians made me feel like I had finally discovered home in the confusing political bustle of our public spaces.
It’s as if in looking at the portraits, I saw images of other Malaysian selves. Here was acknowledgement that Malaysia was home to different strains of cultures. And that it was because we have so much difference to draw on internally and externally, that we are so talented, creative, resilient and eminent.
In one portrait of Marion D’Cruz, the dancer-choreographer is captured in an enigmatic stance of the Balinese topeng tua dance. It’s one of her favourite dances, she says. Although there are very few mask dances in Malaysia, traces of the Balinese dance can be found in the basic hand vocabulary of dances throughout the Nusantara, including in Indonesia, Malaysia, Cambodia, and Thailand.
But equally important for me, Imaging Selfs captures not just portraits of artists. It also re-creates Malaysia anew where no ethnic identity, culture, religion, ancestry, or gender is superior to or more sacrosanct than another. And where Malaysians are celebrated, not for wild, astronomical, Malaysia Boleh-type feats, or because of some notion of entitled privilege. In Imaging Selfs, Malaysians are celebrated for the work each and every one of them steadily built up over the years within their own sphere of expertise, some with more sacrifice than others.
Ahmad Zakii Anwar
I asked Soraya what she saw in all the portraits she took over 15 years. “We all have one common ground — our passion to articulate ourselves through our selected medium of expression.” It made her feel good, she exclaims.
What I saw were Malaysian faces. And when I read out their names, what I heard were Malaysian names. And that made me feel like I could belong to Malaysia. That this was a country worth claiming. Because it was capable of embracing and including diversity and difference. No matter how artificial our Tourism Malaysia ads. No matter how trite the definitions by politicians intent on race-based privileges.
And somehow, that made me feel safe. As if, for too long, I had been feeling unsafe in my own country.
Jacqueline Ann Surin was recently told she didn’t sound Malaysian. Her Malaysian friends have been told they don’t look Malaysian. She is thrilled that looking, sounding and being Malaysian is more unpredictable than Tourism Malaysia ads.