A tribute exhibition of the late Ismail Hashim’s works takes us into the photographer’s private world.
IT is a tricky thing to deal with posthumous tributes. It’s a delicate art in its own right, for one has to decide, masterfully and meticulously, what becomes keepsake and what gets left behind.
But what grants one the right to make such pivotal decisions? Who are we indeed to tamper with the legacy, history, privacy and personality of an individual gone?
When so much is at stake, should one even take on such a gargantuan task?
And that was the dilemma artist Wong Hoy Cheong and his team faced when they rummaged through the edifice that was essentially the late Ismail Hashim’s art studio in Sungai Nibong in Penang.
“I felt like a voyeur, like an intruder, looking through these things but I had to do it. Ismail was a very private man and I was tasked to invade this privacy,” shared Wong, a noted artist and curator.
Ismail, a renowned artist-photographer, aged 73, passed away last June in a motorbike accident in Penang, leaving behind a treasure trove of negatives, test prints, contact prints, cameras, books, writings, documents and other photography equipment.
The Penangite’s family then tasked Wong to look at his estate and works, and consolidate them.
“This exhibition is essentially a tribute to Ismail because he’s not an artist whose work has been seriously studied and given the kind of attention it deserves,” Wong opined.
“Of course, this project is larger than just the exhibition. We have to decide what we are going to do with his assets after this. We are trying to create a working model which people can improve on,” he added.
Thus, after six months of “excavating” and cataloguing nearly 18,000 items, the exhibition that has transpired is Unpack – Repack: A Tribute To Ismail Hashim (1940 – 2013). It opens tomorrow at the Whiteaways Arcade, George Town in Penang. And that’s the exciting bit about the exhibition, featuring over 600 items, including 100 items of photography equipment, 200 test prints, 30 finished works and 300 digital images. For the first time, Malaysians, especially art and photography enthusiasts, will have access into Ismail’s private world.
It was important for Wong, who is curating this exhibition, to tailor it into a journey of sorts.
Along the way, as the visitors travel from room to room, becoming voyeurs themselves, they can choose to be passive viewers or engage with the space and the items exhibited. They can, as the title suggests, unpack Ismail’s works and repack them, figuratively of course.
The journey begins in the first room called Tributes, which features works chosen by Ismail’s friends, students and colleagues.
“We asked them to each select a work as a tribute to him and write an essay around the work or around a shared moment,” said Wong.
One room even serves as a reconstruction of part of Ismail’s studio, giving visitors a rare insight into his artistic sanctuary with his cameras, enlargers and other photography equipment.
It is, however, in the subsequent rooms where one will slide into an adventurous ride. And with every adventure, there are challenges along the way. Most of the exhibits are from the archives, things no one else has seen until now, while a few have been loaned from private collectors and museums. This posed a great challenge to Wong and his team. How does one present works which the artist never intended for display?
“We had to think very carefully. Most of the works are from the archives, meaning they’re test prints or contact prints. So, the question is, how do we show this? Do we frame it up because the artist never decided to do that?
“As a team, we had to think through how to honour the assets and archives because the artist is not here for a dialogue. Can we actually decide for the artist and turn his test prints (nearly 2,600 recovered) to artworks on the wall? Do we have the rights to do that?
“The closest way the artist would have seen these works at that point in time before the finished work would be on a table.
“That’s the reason we have designed our own tables and the works will be displayed on them,” Wong explained.
One is spoilt for choice in this voyeuristic enterprise. The themes are as varied as life itself such as people, panorama, environment, student life, family and even a series on an army of ants carrying a dead cockroach.
The work entitled Post Boxes Along Bagan Serai- Taiping Road shows a collection of different types of post boxes found along this stretch. This is where Ismail’s genius becomes apparent. The man had an innate ability to make the ordinary look extraordinary.
One has no choice but to pause and marvel at the plethora of post boxes, which includes a motorbike helmet and a diesel canister.
They speak about the innovation man is capable of just by using everyday items.
And truly, that’s the crux of Ismail’s works. Finding the beauty and the magic in simple things. Unpack – Repack may be a tribute to a great artist who passed on earlier than he should’ve but it is by and large a testament to his vision and outlook of Malaysian life.
Perhaps, by viewing the world around us through Ismail’s lens, we, too, may discover something magnificent in the mundane.
Unpack – Repack: A Tribute To Ismail Hashim (1940 – 2013) is on at the Whiteaways Arcade, (Gallery 1 and 2) Beach Street, George Town, Penang from June 23 to Aug 31. Tuesday to Sunday. Opening times: 11am to 7pm. Free admission. The exhibition will then travel to the National Visual Arts Gallery, Kuala Lumpur in