Every month, we feature an artwork from the Penang State Art Gallery’s permanent collection.
By Eryn Cheng
At first glance, Ismail Hashim’s photograph of a run-down barbershop may seem to be just that, a photograph of a barbershop. However, something about the picture invites our eye to explore it repeatedly. Gradually, pieces of the narrative emerge from the slightly turned swivel barber chair, the familiar table fan, the window of greenery and the mirrored reflection on the interior.
Although it’s frequently mentioned that Ismail Hashim’s photographs look unstaged, it does not mean that he had not put great care into the composition of each image. The deliberate exclusion of human figures allows us to link the objects in the picture, especially the barber chair, as substitutes for the subject. Someone, perhaps the photographer, had sat in that chair and was groomed by the barber, as evidenced by the hair on the footrest. Ismail Hashim’s ability to bridge this moment from the past to the present is a testament to his ingenuity in capturing and elevating mundane moments into something more.
Ismail Hashim makes use of an internal and external light source to highlight parts of the image. The result is a soft, nostalgic quality that puts the image into sentimental territory rather than a straightforward documentation of reality. By choosing to hand-tint the greenery outside the window and in the mirror’s reflection, Ismail Hashim draws a thread between man and nature and visually links the interior space to the exterior.
Ismail Hashim was born in Penang in 1940 and initially trained as a teacher and taught art at the Federation School for the Deaf in Penang. He later completed his Fine Art degree at Universiti Sains Malaysia and his Masters at Washington State University, USA in 1979. He was described as someone who always went around with a camera or two and this is evidenced by his extensive body of work. Ismail Hashim tragically passed away in a road accident in 2013 and his works were celebrated posthumously in the exhibition Unpack – Repack: A Tribute To Ismail Hashim (1940 – 2013) at Penang and Kuala Lumpur in 2015.
For extra reading, dive into Wong Hoy Cheong’s essay published in conjunction with Ismail Hashim’s retrospective.
Eryn Cheng is an artist who works with drawing, painting, and cut-outs on paper and wood to create surreal compositions on womanhood, life and the unknown.