There's food on the walls of Balai Seni Maybank, and it smiles at you. The Rojak Project, an initiative by social enterprise TRP Creatives, has 49 digital portraits made from local food by workshop participants here. The food spans diverse styles, tastes, cuisines - as diverse as the faces they form.
This series is part of the MerdekaMalaysiaMillennial exhibition at the art gallery at Menara Maybank in Kuala Lumpur, where the spotlight is on millennials and what they have to say.
In conjunction with Merdeka Day and the Malaysia Day celebrations, 11 artists and collectives under the age of 40 have come together to present works that reflect their thoughts, hopes and dreams.
“Their voices are critical as millennials represent the future. It is therefore important to have some sort of insight into their personality, taste and proclivities,” says curator Tan Sei Hon.
Sceptics are hard to please, though. How often do we hear an elder complaining about “those young people” who can never seem to live up to expectations of the generation before them?
“Every generation is fairly and unfairly judged according to the standards of the previous generation or generations. The millennials are no different. But after three generations of maintaining the same predictable outlook, one would or should hope for different narratives to emerge if we are concerned about the direction the country will take in the future. If not, it shows we have not really moved forward or, at least, meaningfully towards a direction that reflects the ideals a successive generation would have,” adds Tan.
Although, MerdekaMalaysiaMillennial is by no means preachy – in fact, it offers very few overused symbols of “unity” in its artworks – it manages to address hard-hitting topics like social disparities, artificial intelligence and its implications, feminism and the effects of post-colonialism among the young generation of the country.
Alvin Lau’s Hierarchical Progression has a pigeon and a rooster perched on different levels, while in another photograph, where a ladder reaches to the sky, he has chosen to title it Gets You Closer To Nowhere.
“I set out to create a series of images that embody the spirit of hard work that we as individuals strive to pave on a daily basis. The idea was to explore the concept of hard work and its subtleties,” Lau says in his artist statement.
R+, a research arm of GDP Architects, has seven artworks depicting the country’s history in stamps. It effortlessly juxtaposes architectural elements and the nostalgia of stamp-collecting, against the instant gratification of social media updates.
At the other end of the gallery, Sharina Shahrin’s visually striking series titled Wanita is surely a standout in this show.
“Through the use of local textile and batik, the images of women shown here represent the shift from the rejection and neglect of Malaysia’s cultural identity to the adoption and acclamation of it. These images seek to encapsulate a modern narrative of Malaysian women ... one that contests the Western ideals of beauty constructed in our post-colonial history,” she says.
Almost all the artists in MerdekaMalaysiaMillennial are designers, illustrators and photographers, a departure from the visual artists gathering that we are perhaps more used to.
To Tan, it is interesting to see what this group of millennials can come up with, using all the tools at their disposal, which also happens to be their everyday.
“The technology for creativity and self- expression are readily available at one’s fingertips these days; the younger generation are the recipients and the active users of such tools. Art can be fun and accessible, yet still allow the individual to express something personal, hopeful and unique on topics that can sometimes be heavy,” he points out.
Tan comments that it is high time we have more exhibitions by designers, photographers and architects as they form the broader part of the local creative commercial industry.
“These people are its foundation and driving force, yet, not many opportunities are given to them to showcase their talent. I hope more millennials will come out and share their creativity and artistry on subjects that matter to them. Being exposed to their work will broaden our definition of art and will also encourage others to explore these areas for art-making,” he says.
Accompanying the exhibition are short pieces by writer Sharyn Shufiyan, author of the recently released book Tapestry: Weaving Through Malaysia’s Social And Cultural Complexities.
“We may not be able to connect with our past, but we can create the future. And as we grapple to find a unique Malaysian identity, perhaps we should find refuge and comfort in that there is more than one identity, given that we are a society of mixed ancestry and many histories. There is nothing wrong with being a pendatang,” Sharyn writes.
MerdekaMalaysiaMillennial is on at Balai Seni Maybank, Menara Maybank, Jalan Tun Perak in Kuala Lumpur till Sept 21. Opening hours: 10am to 5pm (Monday to Friday) and 11am to 4pm (Saturday). Closed on public holidays. Free admission.