Okui Lala and the art of translation

Okui Lala and the art of translation

The artist's latest work sheds light on how language has helped shape the diversity of Malaysian communities.

By Lienne Loy

Chew Win Chen, or better known as Okui Lala, is an artist that explores themes of belonging, identity and the concept of ‘home’ through the acts of dialogue and performance. Her interest in people and the development of cultures within communities was sparked by a project she undertook with her mother, Sewing & Sew Eng (2014).

The piece consists of a conversation of what factors and attitudes would define ‘a good Malaysian woman’. This dialogue happened simultaneously with each of them using their own sewing machines to sew into a single piece of cloth.

Sewing & Sew Eng, 2014. Image courtesy of Chew Win Win.

The collaboration led to Okui learning about her roots and understanding what external influences made up her identity as a Malaysian and more specifically, a Penangite. Her projects thereafter would follow a similar thread and eventually extend outward to incorporate the experiences of her community members, those within her social circles and others. While she still calls Penang home, Okui is currently living and working in Kuala Lumpur.

Let’s Eat and Drink Tea! (2015), included Steven Nyi Nyi, who migrated from Myanmar to Penang and has lived there for 20 years. The video explored the history of the Burmese community within George Town, Penang, through the making of the Burmese tea salad, lahpet thoke. The instructions were translated from Burmese into different languages which highlighted the struggles of correctly translating even the simplest of tasks.

Video still from Let’s Eat and Drink Tea!, 2015

Using storytelling and its ability to orally transfer culture, her work has evolved to document the way in which speech and language has evolved throughout Malaysia, especially for the Chinese diaspora within the nation.

Okui’s video work, that is currently shown at the Singapore Biennale 2019, features her most recent project National Language Class: Our Language Proficiency. The Biennale, entitled Every Step in the Right Direction, opened in November 2019 with a slew of exhibitions taking place across the country.

The piece is the continuation of her earlier video work My Language Proficiency (2017) where Okui had used herself as a case study on how meaning and nuance can change through translation. Her video work offers a more introspective way into addressing world problems by using ourselves as entry points; as a way to access the roots of larger systemic issues from a more individualistic perspective.

National Language Class: Our Language Proficiency at the Asian Civilisations Museum, Singapore

The video opens across a row of three screens that connect in synchrony to show the setting of a classroom, with a blackboard in the background, it brings about nostalgia of public schools dotted around the country. Six individuals sit behind wooden desks and as they turn to look to the left, you too follow to find Okui.

She breaks the silence by introducing herself. She starts to speak in Mandarin to answer the questions written on the blackboard, she is obviously comfortable with it having learned the language in school, but quickly switches to Hokkien to translate, ‘Hello everyone, I am Chew Win Chen, I was born in 1991.’

As she speaks with ease, you are reminded of Okui’s background and experience of growing up in Penang, where Hokkien is a widely spoken dialect. The opening is reminiscent of your first day of school, filled with awkward tension and eager onlooking eyes.

Video still from National Language Class: Our Language Proficiency, 2019

The rest of the group proceeds to imitate Okui, first with a personal introduction and then followed by its translation in a dialect that differs with each person. To the unfamiliar ear, the first lines of Mandarin contrast the subsequent dialect and create a cacophony of sounds and tones. However, to a Malaysian who practices multiple languages and dialects on a daily basis, the distinctions between them are obvious. The round of introductions end with a final translation in Malay, our country’s declared national language, which emphasises the group’s unifying factor as Malaysians.

National Language Class: Our Language Proficiency’s script analysed the proficiencies of each individual’s ability to speak and read in both their mother tongue and Malay. It did this by delving into prompts that increased in difficulty as the video developed. As the narrative progressed from personal anecdotes to suggestions to the government, their language competencies and struggles were clearly revealed.

Okui’s video work requires a sense of humour, mostly due to the fact that without all the translations, the video would have been a third of its length. As I stayed committed through this 44-minute journey, I resonated with the frustrations and discomfort of language barriers. The incapacity to comprehend the details of what was being said and Okui’s intentional lag before each English subtitle created tension that allowed for sympathy to transpire.

The video presents an opportunity to assess the development of language within Malaysia and diminishing dialects of the Chinese diaspora within Southeast Asia. It attempts to address the issues of Malaysia’s identity itself as a multicultural, multilingual country, of which has been its focal point, especially within tourism and politics. ‘We should allow for the mixture [of languages] and if we’re proud of it, then we should figure out a way for them to coexist,’ Okui remarks.

Cast and crew of National Language Class: Our Language Proficiency at the shooting venue at SJK (C) Sum Min. Image courtesy of Thum Chia Chieh.

Okui doesn’t claim to be an anthropologist or sociologist. She confirms her role as an artist with the ability to offer a micro-perspective of the nation at large.

Perhaps what Okui’s works leave us with is the reminder that our nation consists of a colourful mix of cultures and traditions and that over time this has evolved to be the dignifying quality of our country. As we continue to progress, it becomes more important that we sustain our diversity. How we might do that may lie in our ability and responsibility to question and contemplate change on an individual level.

Cover photo shows a video still of National Language Class: Our Language Proficiency, 2019. The video installation was commissioned for the Singapore Biennale which runs from 22 Nov 2019 to 22 Mar 2020.

Lienne Loy is a curator currently facilitating exhibitions within Kuala Lumpur, focusing on young and emerging artists from the Southeast Asian region.