Urban sprawl

  • Arts
  • Saturday, 01 Feb 2014

Mahen Bala said viewers can fill in the gap with their own stories for his atmospheric Tokyo Story #16 photo.

Three roving photographers shed new light on life in the city in a group exhibition.

WE think we know them. Every nook and cranny. Nothing had passed our sight unnoticed. After all, we did grow up in these cities. We could, if we wanted to, name every street and corner with no margin of error.

But, can one truly know the city one grew up and resides in that well? Our cities are still a mystery to us and that itself makes life in the city exciting, a journey of surprising discoveries.

For instance, who knew there is a tudung seller in the back alleys of Chow Kit in Kuala Lumpur?

Well, Kuala Lumpur-born Azwan Mahzan knew about it. It came to him as a pleasant surprise, like a cool breeze on a hot summer’s day. Walking with his camera in the back streets of Kuala Lumpur, Azwan happened to stumble upon this scene and knew at once he had to capture the moment.

“I thought that it was interesting that this man decided to open up his shop here and was not bothered that there was a huge dumpster next to his store. He even used it to display the mannequin heads with the headscarves on. What was important for him was to earn a living, and I think that is how people in KL function,” recounted Azwan, who works in publishing and has been involved seriously in photography for the last 12 years.

Cool as a cucumber: Azwan Mahzan’s Jalan Petaling: Ice Man At Rest, which the photographer explained was a spur-of-the-moment shot that fell perfectly into place in terms of mood, composition and colour.

And, this is the prevalent theme in 69 Fine Art Gallery’s photography exhibition called Context in Kuala Lumpur.

Gallery founder Frenchman Patrice Vallete confessed that a photography exhibition is not the easiest art to promote in fine art, adding that Malaysian photographers are not given the recognition and representation due them. But the Context exhibition is a good start to expose this increasingly growing community.

Azwan joins Kuantan, Pahang-born documentary filmmaker Mahen Bala and Singaporean visual artist/photographer Alecia Neo in this most illuminating exhibition that endeavours to portray different perspectives of urban living and the context and relationship of ordinary people in their natural habitats.

This is nowhere more evident than in Neo’s works. Known for her explorations about people and their living space, Neo’s two-part series – Home Visits and Hiatus – features ordinary Singaporeans and Chicagoans in their respective homes.

Artistically intriguing and aesthetically astounding, there is a homely aura that emanates from the photos. Tenants Dandan And Longzhi, under the Home Visits series, for instance, depicts two women, possibly in their early 20s, standing in their shoebox-sized kitchen.

The refrigerator is less than five steps from the sink and right next to the sink is the washing machine and immediately above it, clothes drying from the clothing line. For many Singaporeans, this is home– a small apartment.

Home From Market (Azwan Mahzan)

“My work is often premeditated, and my subjects are hyper aware of being photographed. In Home Visits, I chose the most simple and neutral stance, portraying a very direct relationship between my subjects and I.

“I wanted to enter their homes because I’m also interested in their contexts. Their home environments and possessions are important clues to how these individuals deal with loneliness. And when the viewer confronts these images, they also become aware of the tangibility of objects, ownership and what it means to them,” explained Neo.

Azwan’s This Is KL series, on the other hand, is one that is replete with vibrant colours, picturesque scenes of KL’s back streets and most importantly, people captured spontaneously in these places. Nothing staged or premeditated here.

The photographer, who is also a rap artiste, quipped that many have enquired about his streetwise Jalan Petaling: Ice Man At Rest piece. He said people have wondered if he had painted the back wall green for the sake of the photograph.

At first glance, the photograph would look staged. An elderly ice vendor sits atop a reddish-orange ice container and behind him is a lime green wall. Interestingly, one would find a green and red motif on his T-shirt, something echoing the colours of the wall and the ice container.

But like many things in life, it was merely a coincidence.

Black and white is the theme of Mahen Bala’s photos of Tokyo. The people are not very much the focus in this series and neither are the buildings.

Everything was taken in motion, in the activity of it all.

Mahen Bala said viewers can fill in the gap with their own stories for his atmospheric Tokyo Story #16 photo.

“My series is about observations, little moments in my own process of understanding the city. When I visit a new city, there is always that adventure and the process of trying to figure out what exactly defines the city, what is the language of the city. My photographs capture these moments,” Mahen explained.

His Tokyo Series #16 photograph shows a crowd of people, holding umbrellas, moving in different directions. The blurred photo points to the water droplets on the camera lens. Mahen said he chose this particular photograph, captured during a typhoon warning, as there was more than one element (fear, anxiety, crowd rushing, rain, etc) in it.

“That allowed for storytelling. You can look at one thing and then move on to the next thing and you sort of fill in the gaps with your own story. I refrained from bombarding people with information,” added Mahen.

And that ultimately makes Context a very social affair, on top of an artistic one. One views a photograph with their own stories and ideas, which then forms their understanding of it.

“The most fun you can have with photography is to allow others looking at the pictures to inject their own stories,” asserted Azwan.

Context is on till Feb 15 at 69 Fine Art Gallery (22, Jalan Bruas, Damansara Heights, Kuala Lumpur). Visits are by appointment only. Contact Patrice Vallete (019 3012 569) or visit www.fineart69.com.

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Urban sprawl


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