Malaysian artists exhibit their '555' journals in Covid memory project


Jakarta-based Malaysian artist Gladys Teo-Simpson’s 555 notebook excerpt seen at the 'Project 555' exhibit at Ilham Gallery in KL. Photo: Ilham Gallery/Malaysia Design Archive

Life changed for many people during the pandemic and lockdowns of the past two years. Meetings moved online, school-going children spent all their time at home and baking supplies ran out at the supermarket.

Amid face masks, sanitisers and the never-ending slew of bad news, we found ways to cope, to channel pent-up energy and frustrations in new and creative ways.

It might seem like a bad dream when we recall those lockdown days now.

Projek 555 – Small Observations Of An On-going Pandemic, a collaboration between Ilham Gallery and Malaysia Design Archive, is a reminder of what people had to endure during the pandemic’s dark days.

It is an exhibition that features everyday observations and reflections in the form of mini visual diaries.

'Projek 555 - Small Observations Of An On-going' Pandemic' at Ilham Gallery presents everyday observations during the lockdowns in the form of visual diaries. Photo: Kenta Chai 'Projek 555 - Small Observations Of An On-going' Pandemic' at Ilham Gallery presents everyday observations during the lockdowns in the form of visual diaries. Photo: Kenta Chai

In 2020 and 2021, Malaysia Design Archive issued an open invitation where for a month, anyone who wanted to participate in the project would receive a 555 notebook by mail to journal in.

The 555 notebooks are a remake by ana tomy (a bespoke stationery company) of the familiar pastel-coloured tiny notebooks that sat as common fixtures in sundry shops.

A shared experience

When the notebooks were returned, the contents and expression styles were varied. Some notebooks held space for raw emotions, some were filled with silences, while others were littered with fragments of mundanity and significance, according to Ilham Gallery director Rahel Joseph.

But unsurprisingly, similar themes were also apparent.

“There were stories of family members falling ill, stories about queuing for the vaccine and the sense of isolation many people felt. There was also food, family, rituals, artmaking, illness, God, inner thoughts and the natural world. I was particularly struck by the journals of young people – it really brought home the fact that so many of them had to struggle through online education, being apart from friends, the uncertainty of exams and finding jobs. It was really poignant reading them considering these are supposed to be the most exciting years of your life,” says Joseph.

“There were some really honest journals dealing with mental health issues and uncertainty about the future. There was one journal with a drawing of the person’s mother with Covid-19 on her way to hospital, which was very moving and compelling. There was also a lot of humour and many entries about food including a few recipes I might just try!” she adds.

Singer-songwriter Amrita Soon's journal entries seen at the exhibition. Photo: Ilham Gallery/Malaysia Design ArchiveSinger-songwriter Amrita Soon's journal entries seen at the exhibition. Photo: Ilham Gallery/Malaysia Design Archive

Joseph shares that journals are powerful because it is a day to day record of how people coped during lockdown.

“All of us went through a very surreal experience, not just in this country but all around the world. The fact that the whole world was in lockdown and people were stuck at home, for months on end, is something quite extraordinary. Now that we are coming out of it, people have reverted back to their old life and shopping malls and restaurants are busier than ever. But I think in many ways, we are still struggling with the effects of the pandemic, not just with regard to the economy but also on a psychological level. We haven’t completely grasped the impact of the pandemic,” she notes.

Fear and confusion

At Ilham Gallery, there are 66 notebooks on display at Projek 555, from 66 people whose ages ranged from teens to their 60s.

Joseph notes that unlike reports or government statistics, these journals really paint a picture of what it was like living through the pandemic. It helps us understand the state of mind of what it felt like during that time and how much fear and confusion there was.

“We have already started to forget – these journals recounting personal experiences of what it really felt like is very important,” she says.

No doubt, this project and exhibition of 555 books is valuable because not only do they present compelling narratives from ordinary people living through something extraordinary, it is also a documentation of the pandemic.

This is a space for contemplation, shared intimacy and collective memory-making.

Illustrator Thineswari G’s artwork reminds us of the long days at home during lockdown. Photo: Ilham Gallery/Malaysia Design ArchiveIllustrator Thineswari G’s artwork reminds us of the long days at home during lockdown. Photo: Ilham Gallery/Malaysia Design Archive

“I think journals/diaries are always very intriguing because they are a way of accessing someone’s intimate thoughts. There’s an honesty there and also an immediacy to it. Unlike essays or other forms, a journal that keeps a daily record feels more candid and authentic, there is a lack of mediation there. It serves as a valuable window for looking into the past.

“They are interesting on both a personal and historical level as they basically contain the lived experience – a daily record of what went on while people were living through a particular period of time. It feels more democratic because these journals are often written by ordinary people. Unlike the usual official records, these journals are first person accounts of living through the pandemic. This collection of 555 books is important archival material for us to look back and understand it,” says Joseph.

Projek 555 - Small Observations Of An On-Going Pandemic is on at Ilham Gallery, Level 3, Menara Ilham in Kuala Lumpur till Dec 11. Free admission. More info here.

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