Often, when extreme voices get louder and divisive forces pose a sinister threat to pluralism in Malaysia, it is the artists, poets, writers and philosophers of the nation who urgently remind us of who we really are.
Art, in so many ways, is the conscience of a nation.
In the Sama-Sama: Same-Same group exhibition, showing at the White Box, Publika in Kuala Lumpur till Sept 16, it is the turn of the artists to try and make sense of life in Malaysia Baharu.
Here's a space where the public can wander around a gallery, view an array of art and reflect on the mood of the nation.
This is no feelgood campaign showcase. The lack of sloganeering, arguably, makes for a refreshing change.
This Malaysia Day-inspired exhibition, curated by Fergana Art founder Jaafar Ismail, stays relatively grounded and sharply engaged with modern day issues.
Rather wisely, Sama-Sama also seeks to celebrate Malaysians who have contributed, in their own ways, towards nation building.
“I wanted to focus on the people of Malaysia, the ones who make up the country. With all that is going on, I wanted to show something more positive,” says Jaafar during a recent interview.
“Many Malaysia Day or Hari Merdeka exhibitions highlight things like flags and iconic buildings. I’m not interested in that ... well, with the exception of a couple of works here that relate to the monuments,” he adds.
Sama-Sama: Same-Same features 60 works (paintings and sculptures) by 41 artists and six photojournalists.
The young artists – mostly in their mid 20s and 30s – are mostly art gallery regulars or newcomers who have exhibited with the three participating galleries, namely Fergana Art, Artemis Art and Segaris Art Center.
With works from Khairul Azmir Shoib, Caryn Koh, Tan Nan See, Haslin Ismail, Adeline Alyssa Tan, Firdaus Ismail, Nizar Sulaiman, Rekha Menon, Syukur Rani, Sarah Radzi, Donald Abraham, BlankMalaysia and Syafiq Mohd Nor, this exhibit presents a balance of youthful energy and seasoned artistic observations.
The six photojournalists - Najjua Zulkefli, Hasnoor Hussain, Nazir Sufari, Afif Abd Halim, Seth Akmal and Irwan Majid - offer an anchor to this show, with their documentary style work.
Jaafar says the decision to include photographs was a reaction to the artworks that were submitted.
“Visual art is imagined reality. I used photojournalism as a counterpoint and to create some tension. It is more gritty and upfront, while the paintings tend to be either rosy or dystopian. Photographs show reality.
“I hope the photojournalism aspect of the exhibition, which shows the plight of the Orang Asli community, especially after the unfortunate deaths of the Bateq people (in Kuala Koh in Kelantan), will draw people back to reality.
“While the imagined world of the artists looks fine, the real world isn’t as pretty and beautiful, but it is still meaningful,” shares Jaafar, referring to the photo series such as The Vanishing Bateq Tribe and From Leper Colony To Refuge.
One notable artwork is Modern Monument by Fitriah Roslan.
In terms of subject matter, says Jaafar, there’s nothing new. The artist chose to highlight the National Monument. It can be deemed as a “cliche”.
“But what makes it different and interesting is the fact that within the outline of the National Monument, the artist painstakingly mapped out parts of the country like the Twin Towers or the National Zoo, using oil paint but making it look like they are beaded. It is something fresh,” he points out.
Across the gallery is a series of mini sculptures by Khairul Azmir Shoib, which are inspired by local folk tales.
These fantastical works, called Kisah Dongeng Rakyat Dan Seram Malaya, feature 10 sculptures, made of clay, acrylic and wire. Folk tale favourites such as Sang Kancil and the crocodile, the Penanggal and even Badang and the water monster look like they walked out of a dark fairy tale film by Guillermo del Toro.
On the subject of honouring our legendary artists, the work from Tan Nan See called Pago-Pago At Pompidou offers up several talking points. Most notably, the issue about safeguarding the legacies of our national icons.
It does look like Tan is referencing the Latiff Mohidin: Pago Pago (1960–1969) exhibit in Paris last year, which was organised by National Gallery Singapore and France’s Musee National d’Art Moderne – Centre Pompidou.
However, Jaafar feels something is still missing from the exhibition.
“One thing that’s lacking in the show is that there is no one work that is positively looking forward to the future. None of the artworks try to project Malaysia into the future, not really,” admits Jaafar.
The exhibition is part of the larger Hari Malaysia & Publika Art Show series, with support from the National Archives of Malaysia, happening now in Publika till Sept 16.
Sama-Sama: Same-Same is on at the White Box, MAP Publika, Level G2-01, Block A5, Jalan Dutamas in Kuala Lumpur till Sept 16. Opening hours: 11am-8pm. FB: Hari Malaysia & Publika Art Show.