Works of photographer Ismail Hashim on show at National Visual Arts Gallery

Ismail Hashims Tidur Begitu Nyenyak Bom Meletup Pun Tak Dengar. (1984) - National Visual Arts Gallery

Labour of love retrospective brings into sharp focus the late photographer Ismail Hashim’s works and his enduring legacy.

WAS the cockroach in the right place at the right time, or was the photographer?

Lying dead on its back on the ground, ants scurried around it and then with a heave-ho, carried it over hill and dale, unceremoniously marching the dead cockroach past a calendar on the wall.

This incident, captured in painstaking, step-by-step detail in a series of photographs by the late Ismail Hashim, is now on display at the National Visual Arts Gallery in Kuala Lumpur, alongside more than 1,000 other works and items belonging to the prolific artist and academician – including photographic equipment, photographs, test prints, scrapbooks, slides, newspaper clippings and hand-copied lines from Emily Dickinson’s poetry.

Unpack-Repack: Archiving & Staging Ismail Hashim (1940-2013) (on until May 31; call 03-4026 7000/4990 or visit for details), presented in collaboration with Fergana Art, follows last year’s smaller run at Whiteaways Arcade in Penang – then presented as a tribute to Ismail.

The show’s curator Wong Hoy Cheong and team have added new content and ideas since then, presenting Unpack-Repack in this second round in Kuala Lumpur, not as a tribute exhibition, but more as an archival and curatorial project.

'Dolah, The Funny One', a hand-tinted B&W gelatin Silver hand-print from 1976.

Unpack-Repack is, on one hand, a retrospective of the late artist and his work, but also serves as an ongoing unpacking and archiving of his estate, that Wong is convinced will, and should, go on indefinitely.

“There is no end to archiving,” he says in reference to the ongoing documentation and archiving of some 20,000 items under their care. “Archiving is always open to new narratives, fresh narratives. The moment you try to close it, you are denying new narratives from being formed. New things are always being discovered,” he explains.

Not three months ago, half a dozen boxes were only just discovered in a small back room in Ismail’s house. The team has unpacked only one box so far, and its contents – comprising photographs, books and newspaper clippings, among other things – are grouped together and presented as such in the exhibition. “We invite the audience to draw their own understanding from these items from the same box. Why were these items packed together? What kind of narrative is here?” Wong asks.

This exhibition, which takes up a space that is about four times larger than the one in Penang, takes the viewer through different themed spaces, looking at several aspects of Ismail’s life – from the photographs he took of people at work, family pets, and the sights and sounds around him, to his graphic design works and witty captioning of images.

Each space reveals different, but interconnected, aspects of the late artist’s life and his perspective of the world around him.

Excerpts from voice recordings of interviews with him are also included.

The final photographs Ismail took, retrieved from his camera after his untimely death in a motorcycle accident in 2013, are presented in the exhibition as well.

Ismail Hashim (1940-2013) , a thinker, a teacher, an everyman’s photographer. Filepic

There is even a room filled only with images of bananas, aptly named Going Bananas. Here, a section of Ismail’s darkroom is reconstructed, providing a glimpse into the space he worked in, where he put the finishing touches to the images he created and crafted of life and everything revolving around it.

Born in 1940, just before the second world war broke out, Ismail grew up in Penang and was introduced to art first by his father and then his teachers at Francis Light School and Penang Free School.

In his 20s, after a stint at the Teachers’ Training College and the Federation School for the Deaf in Penang, he went on to the University of Manchester to become a qualified teacher for the deaf and gained a certificate in Art Teaching from the Specialist Teachers’ Training Institute in Kuala Lumpur.

Ismail then spent the next few years teaching art at the Federation School for the Deaf, an experience that he once said he considered one of the most meaningful of his career.

He obtained a Masters in Fine Arts specialising in graphic Design from the Washington State University, which he put to good use when he returned home – in lecturing and winning numerous logo competitions.

A founding member of Aliran, Ismail designed its logo and a number of its magazine covers.

Wong comments that Ismail is an everyman’s photographer and chronicler, one who did not go anywhere without at least a camera – or sometimes two.

A reconstruction of a section of the late Ismail’s darkroom on display at the exhibition 'Unpack-Repack'.

“He calls up a collective memory through his works. He makes you see things in a fresh way because of the way he notices things and the way he captures them,” he adds, fondly recalling the affinity and respect they had for each other.

In an earlier interview, Wong had shared that he felt somewhat like a voyeur visiting Ismail’s house and sorting through his belongings after his passing.

Now, he concedes that it was indeed an eye-opening experience that provided him with an opportunity to learn more about the man.

It has been almost a year and a half of sifting through all things Ismail, and the journey is not over yet.

“I have Ismail coming out my ears! We all do,” says Wong. “But I’m learning a lot about what archiving constitutes and how to make sense of the material that we have. It is the first time I am working on a project like this, it has never been done in the visual arts in this manner before in Malaysia.”

Wong and team are attempting to create a model to serve as a how-to guide in archiving an artist’s estate for future reference.

Unpack-Repack is quite a comprehensive exhibition; we have retrieved and explored a great part of Ismail’s work. But far from giving answers, we aim to provide a space for the viewer to form his or her own ideas and narratives instead,” Wong concludes.

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