Galeri Petronas rolls out a unique exhibition inspired by some of the nation’s most iconic historical moments.
"This is a story of how we got here.”
These words greet visitors as they enter through an old shop-front that leads into Galeri Petronas’s MY Story: Transforming The Nation exhibition.
Walking in from the chrome shine of the KLCC mall, visitors are suddenly led back to the nation’s history through artefacts including a WWII-era Japanese bicycle, bullet casings floating on the ceiling, old biscuit tins used to store cash, and even a pavement table with bowls of beef noodles.
The exhibition’s art director Vicky Lee says the idea behind MY Story: Transforming The Nation was to use vintage elements that are instantly recognisable to Malaysians, like the bamboo blinds and folding iron gates at the front of Galeri Petronas. Such details lend this exhibition an air of nostalgia.
“I wanted an old school ambiance because here we are in this modern building – the Petronas Twin Towers – and so the juxtaposition really shows how much the country has progressed,” she shares.
The exhibition spans almost 80 years of Malaysian history covering the days of British Malaya, the horrors of WWII right to the evolution towards modern day Malaysia.
It is based on a book about the civil service called At The Forefront Of Nation Building: Perspectives From The Administrative And Diplomatic Department, which is a project by Pegawai Tadbir Diplomatik (PTD) Alumni or Alumni Association of the Administrative and Diplomatic Officers.
The exhibition’s curators Fiona Ghaus and Sheena Gurbakhash were given the task of transforming the book into something the “casual rakyat” could understand and even enjoy, while Lee in turn translated the curators’ idea into something more visually appealing at Galeri Petronas.
Throughout the gallery floor, visitors will find a showcase of works by some of Malaysia’s leading artists, against a backdrop of vintage photographs, documents, artefacts and installations.
The exhibition experience, to say the least, is interesting and informative. Ghaus explains that the book was based on interviews and anecdotes from PTD officers set against historical facts.
“We want to shine the spotlight on how the civil servants quietly helped to make the country what it is. Most people don’t know what these people did behind the scenes,” says Ghaus.
Gurbakhash adds that to generate public interest, every effort was made to make the exhibition an engaging one – complete with “atmospheric” areas – and do away with the idea of “don’t touch museums”.
Subjects like the Rukun Negara, Employees’ Provident Fund, Bank Negara and the New Economic Policy are represented by well-appointed exhibition space – and they do catch the visitor’s attention – while the WWII, the Malayan Emergency and the Konfrontasi years work as a reminder of the nation’s stormy beginnings.
“We want to bring history to life and make it tactile – let the people ‘flip’ through the historic documents, with the bullets from the wars hanging there above their heads,” says Gurbakhash.
Ghaus also points out that with a weighty subject like history, it is sometimes a matter of simplifying the exhibition.
“To show Kuala Lumpur’s progress, we first had in mind all these charts, graphs and statistics. But instead, we went with a photo of a traffic gridlock heading into town, with a single roti man on his bike heading in the opposite direction,” she says, pointing to a huge photo that dominates the wall on the Federal Territories’ development.
Gurbakhash explains that the exhibition marries art and history, to put the artwork taken from the collections of Galeri Petronas and the National Visual Arts Gallery into context.
Works from AB Ibrahim, Abdullah Ariff, Zulkifli Dahalan, Yong Mun Sen, Syed Ahmad Jamal, Ibrahim Hussein, Chuah Thean Teng, Sulaiman Esa, Redza Piyadasa, Zulkifli Dahalan, Ivan Lam and cartoonist Datuk Lat can be found on the walls.
“If you look at our history, you will get a sense of what brought us to that point when the artists chose to use a specific style or subject. As curators, we started with the history and got the narrative down; the art came afterwards,” says Gurbakhash.
Also showing at the same gallery is the Merdeka: A Work In Progress exhibition, featuring the works of local artists Samsudin Wahab and Haslin Ismail. Both artists have their work cut out given the fact that veteran artist Zulkifli Yusoff delivered a memorable series of art installations in last year’s Merdeka! A Work In Progress show.
Samsudin’s velvety, futuristic installation piece, titled Time Machine, seems a good conversation piece in this year’s nostalgia-based exhibition.
“You have to know your history before you move into the future. A time machine represents the opportunity to turn back the clock and appreciate the country as a work in progress,” clarifies Samsudin, before adding, “If I had a time machine, I won’t change history but I would like to see which parts of history and which rumours are true.”
The red Tardis-sized structure is made out of wood, stainless steel, convex mirrors, velvet, enamel paint, acrylic, exhaust fans, carpet, and electronic sensors.
Elsewhere, Haslin Ismail’s Tales Of Tomorrow: Astounding Stories is an intricate cardboard-based installation which resembles a “knowledge tree” growing in a bookshelf.
He preferred a medium that comes from nature, that could be recycled back into paper to again be drawn and written on or cut and sculpted into another story.
“Like the story of our country and people, past and future, it’s a never-ending story,” he said, in an email interview.
Back in the main gallery, Gurbakhash says the MY Story installation is the crux of the show. It is the final part of the exhibition. It is tastefully finished in white and wrapped up with barricade tape with the Rukun Negara principles. The installation’s header reads: “Each of us has our story, but all our stories are one. Kami rakyat Malaysia (We are Malaysians).”
“These words are the preamble of the Rukun Negara. These principles are a guide to how we write our, and the nation’s, story,” she states.
Fittingly the gallery ends with the interactive Malaysia 2050 wall.
“With MY Story, at the end, we want you to become part of the story. Write your ideas for Malaysia’s future, because how else do you call it ‘my story’ if you don’t take part in it?” says Ghaus.
> MY Story: Transforming The Nation and Merdeka: A Work In Progress exhibitions are on display at Galeri Petronas, Level 3, Suria KLCC, Jalan Ampang, Kuala Lumpur. The exhibitions run till Sept 16. Opening times are 10am to 8pm, Tuesday to Sunday. Browse: galeripetronas.com.my. Call 03 2051 7770 for more information.