What do you learn when you are in prison?
Dr K. Azril Ismail was not behind bars, at least not in terms of breaking the law, but for six months he walked its corridors and courtyards to photograph the graffiti of Pudu Jail in Kuala Lumpur.
It all started as a commission to record the jail’s structure in late 2002. While that was going on, Azril’s interest was piqued by the graffiti on the prison cell walls.
“I took interest in the graffiti that remained silent in the cells. At first, it was one image, then another image would catch my eye, and so forth. This pushed my time spent within the prison even longer than I anticipated, especially as I was working with film and natural light,” he explains.
Azril’s photography sessions required long exposures, and those long periods of sitting, waiting and watching, gave him a new-found appreciation for the prison wall art.
““I left the prison not only with lots of images to work with, but also went away with a different and meaningful form of empathy towards the inmates. The graffiti works were made not for others to appreciate, rather, they were made to justify themselves being there and to adorn the space with whatever was left of their identities and memories. Their ‘insignificant’ actions in collectively marking the walls started to take on a different form, and I believe that it is important to realise that these are honest, meaningful energies behind these markings,” he says.
Azril’s photographs were taken over a period of six months between August 2002 and February 2003. These images were developed and utilised in partial for specific purposes, but never as a whole until his doctorate research between 2011 and 2015.
“It was assembled in my studio in Britain during this research period, with limited people having access to the space. It had never been shown to the public as a whole. Once the research was done, these images were packed up in a box and kept aside till now,” he shares.
Azril holds a doctorate in philosophy from the University of Plymouth, for his visual photographic studies of Pudu Jail’s graffiti.
He has been a practitioner of the early arts of 19th century photographic processes since 2012; particularly on the daguerreotype and the wet plate Collodion process.
With Pudu Jail (1881-2010) demolished almost a decade ago, visitors to Azril's photography exhibition can now experience an aspect of the prison’s history that is seldom, if ever, thrust into the spotlight.
Azril's Experiencing Pudu Jail’s Graffiti exhibit at Badan Warisan Malaysia Gallery in Kuala Lumpur presents more than 500 graffiti images.
Azril underscores the importance of such documentation for heritage studies, and notes that this work carries various issues and cultural points which could generate further interest in looking at a niche sub-genre, particularly of prison cell art as a form of narrative.
“You will not get the whole story; neither the beginning, nor the end, of such a form of narrative. This is an accounted form of memory that lives innate within us. It helps shape the meaning of heritage, in which what had always been the remnant of it in a space that was once occupied, and now has traces of the past creeping in,” he says.
He hopes that the exhibition will help visitors to understand this hidden subculture in a different light.
“It is familiar insights and a dialogue of hopes, desires and identity remnants that one could deduce from the prison’s graffiti. And it is nowhere as vulgar as many would assume coming from the prison,” he concludes.
Purchased works will be Piezography prints, printed on Ilford Galerie Prestige Washi Torinoko paper.
Experiencing Pudu Jail’s Graffiti is on at Badan Warisan Malaysia Gallery, Jalan Stonor, Kuala Lumpur till Feb 28. There will be an artist talk on Jan 12, 11am. Open: Monday-Saturday (closed on Sunday and public holidays), 10am to 5.30pm. Free admission. FB: Badan Warisan Malaysia.