What these 4 artworks tell us about the Malaysian identity

What these 4 artworks tell us about the Malaysian identity

In celebration of Merdeka, we explore what young local artists have to say about the Malaysian identity through their work.

by Cole Yap

1. In The Skin of the Tiger: Monument To What We Want (Tugu Kita) by Sharon Chin

Photos courtesy of Flatlined Photography

Inspired by GE-14, Sharon Chin commemorates a major shift in Malaysia’s history with a monumental artwork involving election flags and 100 volunteers in a performance piece and artwork titled In The Skin Of A Tiger: Monument To What We Want (Tugu Kita).

The artwork remarks on the power of institutions and the state as a backdrop to our daily lives. It is both a large patchwork banner made out of various election flags collected during the 13th and 14th general elections, and a participatory performance in which volunteers make hand-stitched marks on the flags, representing everyday Malaysians who in small ways collectively made big changes beyond the political parties that represent us.

Commissioned by the Singapore Biennale, the artwork will first be performed and presented at Balai Seni Negara in Kuala Lumpur before travelling to its final destination at the National Gallery Singapore for the Biennale in November 2019.

2. Sabah Tanah Air-ku by Pangrok Sulap

The controversy surrounding the large twin woodcut prints by the art collective Pangrok Sulap made huge waves as it hit headlines in early 2017, raising questions of subjectivity in art and censorship as it was removed from the Escape from the SEA exhibition at APW Bangsar.

Both pieces of the diptych are printmaking behemoths, individually standing at 8 x 12 feet and produced in the collective’s typical DIY spirit, conceived as a group and then made entirely by hand from carving to the final print.

Named after the official state anthem of Sabah, Sabah Tanah Air-Ku feels like a woeful love letter to their home state, illustrating the diversity of people amidst a landscape of social and environmental issues that cut across poverty, corruption, overdevelopment, and more specifically, floods, illegal logging, and Project IC.

Undoubtedly, the artwork’s legacy now stands not only as a reminder of these pertinent issues but also in the new discourse – created from its very public removal – on censorship and freedom of expression in Malaysia.

3. Jagat by Shanjhey Kumar Perumal

Image sourced from Jagat The Movie

Through the cinematic worldview of a bright but mischievous 12-year-old, Jagat follows the journey of Appoy as he learns to navigate his life and dreams in a rubber plantation.

A Tamil ghetto creolization of Malay “jahat” (bad), the film shows the more brutal aspects of Indian communities in the 1990s. The movie highlights their search for identity and survival on the brink of a dying plantation industry and the systemic trappings of rural life as a minority in Malaysia.

Released on December 2015, the independent film was a 10-year project in the making and had to contend with many challenges being a Tamil-language film that didn’t fit into commercial expectations of the time. It eventually won Best Malaysian Film at the 28th Malaysia Film Festival and premiered in Europe at the 10th Five Flavours Film Festival.

4. <HRÐİ_01_mïNd$W€Ép3R> by Sliz

In the post-election high of 2018, Malaysia: Rebirth was the theme of Publika’s annual art show featuring 80 artists paying tribute to our nation’s journey, lessons, and aspirations. Amidst the many hopeful depictions of new Malaysia, one artwork caught our eye as well as that of local art blogger Art KL-itique who called it “the exception and only outstanding work” of the exhibition.

<HRÐİ_01_mïNd$W€Ép3R> is a pixel-perfect replication of the classic Microsoft Minesweeper on painted wooden assemblage. No doubt inducing millennial nostalgia with the 90s reference – a nod to the high young voter turnout that year – the artwork leans heavy into symbolism, with numbers and icons charting the end of a 55-year long ‘game’ wherein a new start is just a button click away.

Deliberately referencing 55 years since the formation of Malaysia (with the inclusion of Sabah and Sarawak) in 1963 over the more widely celebrated independence of Malaya in 1957, the artwork is a statement that true unity can only exist once we embrace our diversity. Despite the deceased pixel emoji, it’s a positive message inviting the rakyat to learn from our past and affirm this new chapter with strategic ambition and optimism for the future.

In Sliz’s own words, “It took us 9 years [starting from 2008’s general elections] to have the courage to embrace our differences and harness our strength in diversity to fight back against a corrupt government, where we were made to believe in a deceptive ‘oneness’ that doesn’t exist. But by understanding and acknowledging the mistakes that detonated us, we can click on the sad face to turn it into a smiling one, and start over”.

Photos of Tugu Kita (including cover image) courtesy of Flatlined Photography

Cole Yap is a photographer, writer, and occasional ceramic artist with a background in fine art sculpture and an endless curiosity for all things creative across design, art, science, and business.