Malaysian photo journalists band together for pandemic exhibition

  • Arts
  • Tuesday, 16 Jun 2020

Two weeks is the shortest time frame that Kuala Lumpur-based gallery Fergana Art has had to organise an exhibition. As Malaysia eases into the recovery movement control order phase, it is one of the first few galleries nationwide to mobilise an on-site exhibition, with strict guidelines on public health and safety.

During these pandemic days, the bigger the challenge, the more resourceful some people have become in generating interest for art.

Physical exhibitions, arguably, have become tricky propositions to organise now. But, given that all the SOP requirements are met, they are an invaluable benefit to the community by offering impactful visual narrative environments as people start to get back to daily routine.

Fergana Art’s spontaneous collaboration with The Biddy’s, a collective of photojournalists, to present the photography exhibition Bridging The Distance: Making Us Stronger at the Publika Shopping Gallery in KL shows that art hasn’t completely disappeared from the public eye.

“As social and physical distancing are part of daily life, the need to ‘bridge the distance’ is important for the sake of national sanity. Going out now is an intense experience. That’s the reason why this show is being done in a public space, to give people a chance to stop, slow down and take a look at photographic art... such an act might even take some re-adjusting for some, ” says Jaafar Ismail, Fergana Art founder and curator.

Bridging The Distance: Making Us Stronger is a show about documenting ordinary people in extraordinary times. A total of 70 photographers from The Biddy’s collective have contributed 110 works chronicling national responses to the pandemic in Malaysia.

The 'Bridging The Distance: Making Us Stronger' exhibition is one of the first public art shows during the recovery movement control order phase. Photo: The Star/Sam Tham The 'Bridging The Distance: Making Us Stronger' exhibition is one of the first public art shows during the recovery movement control order phase. Photo: The Star/Sam Tham

The photojournalists, from a variety of Malaysian media, are also joined in this exhibition by a handful of doctors, frontliners and a food delivery rider.

“Photojournalists and (news) writers are logical and natural observers and recorders – being given full and unfettered access to news-based events. Their trade is news gathering.

“We plan to open this show series to others and we will consider an open call, ” says Jaafar, who is looking to expand this project over a two-year period, with a nationwide tour and book publication on the cards.

For this first show, the curatorial direction set by Fergana and The Biddy’s team offers themes of isolation, frontliners, community, empty cities, migrants and more.

“They say journalism is a first draft of history. The role of photography is vital during these times. During the lockdown, photographs gave us a view of the nation. Through photos, people can relate immediately to what they see in front of them, ” says Jaafar, who admits fine art might not be as direct as a photograph.

A visitor stops to take a selfie at the exhibition. Photo: The Star/Sam ThamA visitor stops to take a selfie at the exhibition. Photo: The Star/Sam Tham

“This is not a time to debate on art mediums. The time will come for paintings and installations about the pandemic. At Fergana now, we want a digital medium with lightness, reproducibility and flexibility.

“A photo can give you all that, and have a soulful connection. Some photos are heartbreaking, some tinged with humour and some truly inspiring.

"This modest show presents a three-month visual trail of pandemic-era Malaysia, capturing a full range of public emotions... this (pandemic) story is still unfolding, but from the works exhibited you can see Malaysians rising to the challenges, demonstrating the underlying strength and resilience of the people, ” he adds.

Bridging The Distance: Making Us Stronger will run at the Publika mall until June 30.

To collect material for the next show, Fergana and The Biddy’s will continue to document the nation during the pandemic through the world of photographs, essays, and videos.

“We started The Biddy’s community (in 2013) as an outlet to show that photojournalists have a lot more to offer than just daily news reporting. A photo is something that gives you a story, too, ” says Hasnoor Hussain, a photojournalist and spokeman for The Biddy’s.

“It’s not just about attending press conferences and photos of government ministers. During this lockdown, we have seen the good and bad of society, walked the late night empty streets and found the opportunity to tell so many Malaysian stories. The job is never done. We are glad to share our work in this exhibition, ” he adds.

In the coming months, The Biddy's collective, which have exhibited smaller shows in the past, also welcomes more photography work spanning the pandemic, politics, arts, culture, life and more from independent photographers based in Malaysia.

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