An old man lies on a street corner, desperately curled up for warmth. A group of workers break their backs lifting loads of oil palm fruit, all in exchange for a paltry sum of payment. Two men cut the neck of a chicken for food, while a young girl looks on the distance, uncertain about her future in a culture that is alien to her.
These are scenes from the lives of migrants – we see them everywhere, on our streets, in our workplaces, in our restaurants. They do the thankless jobs that everyone shuns, and a lot of our local businesses could not thrive without their contributions.
And yet, due to prejudices and the actions of a few bad apples, they are often shunned and misunderstood.
The plight of foreign migrants, these stories so often unheard, are the focus of In-between, an art exhibition by Gan Chin Lee which is showing now at the Richard Koh Fine Art Space in Kuala Lumpur until Dec 3. The exhibition is billed as a personal response to the universal identity crisis experienced by migrants worldwide, but framed within the context of the Malaysian urban environment and beyond.
“We employ a lot of migrants in this country to help us. But a lot of them are considered to be an invisible group. People interact with them every day but they don’t ‘see’ them, they don’t bother with their concerns,” says Gan in a recent interview at the gallery.
“I wanted to create awareness about them through my paintings, to tell a story of survival and desperation,” he adds.
According to Gan, 38, he was inspired to create this body of work after being involved in Wawasan 2020, a group art show in 2012 which explored themes of development and migrant issues.
Spurred, Gan took to the streets, interviewing migrant workers in over 20 places, including factories in Sungai Buloh and a wholesaler’s market in Selayang. He collected the stories of the people living “in-between”, some of them trapped between an old home they cannot return to, and a new home they were unfamiliar with.
He spoke to people from Bangladesh, Myanmar, Nepal and other countries. Some of them were economic migrants, some of them refugees.
“I opened up to them first. I told them I was an artist, interested to know about them. And they were quite willing to share their stories,” says Gan. “There were quite some stories that touched me. Some of the Rohingya people … I didn’t know much about what they went through before this, and the ethnic conflict in their country. A lot of them went through a very long journey to come here. Some of their relatives died along the way.”
For a better grasp on the subject matter, Gan has read up on the rise in radical Buddhist nationalism in Myanmar that has fanned prejudices against the long-persecuted Rohingya Muslim minority there. However, In-between isn’t a sharply political show, by any stretch.
Instead, it brings into focus an artist’s understanding of migrants – and refugees – seen as individuals. Through this exhibition, Gan has tried to look into the realities of the identity crisis faced by them here.
Gan honed his painterly craft at the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing and the One Academy of Communication Design, Selangor, where he currently also works as an art lecturer. In-between is his first solo show since 2011’s Soliloquy in Kuala Lumpur.
He has been exceptionally busy this year, with his work featured in six group shows, including the recently opened Eyeball Massage, Fingers Exercise group exhibition in Penang.
The migrant themes in In-between are a follow-through from shows like Malaysian Art, A New Perspective and I Am Ten at Richard Koh Fine Art.
However, he has moved on from multi-panel paintings, like Between Here And There, which showed his style in amplifying a perspective.
In person, Gan comes across as passionate and well-read, a man who chooses every word carefully before he speaks. He mentions that he is influenced by the post-colonialist theories of Indian-born writer and thinker Homi K. Bhabha. Each of his works in In-between are divided into two: a large section drawn and coloured in a more realistic manner, and an accompanying piece presented in a more raw “work-in-progress” style.
“The bigger part represents reality, or the things I’ve found from our surrounding world. The other part I consider a correlation, another image I have in my head to react to it. I want people who look at my work to have a link in between these two images,” says Gan.
In his work No Place For Diaspora, for instance, one side depicts an old bearded Rohingya man sleeping on the street, while the other features dozens of migrants huddled together in cramped quarters. Is a migrant’s journey merely trading one form of discomfort for another?
Self And The Other II showcases a group of migrants hard at work in an oil palm estate, next to another group of people at a putu piring stall.
“These migrants are doing things to support their families back home. I find myself thinking, they are also part of the backbone of our country’s economy as well,” says Gan.
Reunion Island, which was first seen at the I Am Ten show, returns to remind the masses of how the simple coffeeshop landscape has changed.
“Without migrant workers, there might be no more coffeeshops – who will man the food stalls and serve us?” says Gan.
One of the most striking images, however, comes from the work Phantom Existence. A group of migrants stand in the foreground, their pale facial features a metaphor of their “ghostly” existence here.
Yet in the background, a group of locals eagerly take photos of them with their smartphones, or point accusing fingers at a nearby bus, which it is implied the migrants travelled on. Political banners loom in the sky, a reference to the “phantom voters” rumours of the last election, perhaps?
As a whole, the In-between exhibition forces us to confront our perceptions and reactions to a group of people who live on the fringes of society here. As an artist choosing to take to the streets and to study the different social classes, Gan has made the most of his documentation.
“Different artists have their own goals and beliefs. For me, expressing my views through social realism is the best way for me to understand my country better,” says Gan as he sums up his current exhibition.
Gan Chin Lee’s In-between is showing at the Richard Koh Fine Art Space in Bangsar, Kuala Lumpur until Dec 3. For more info call 03-2095 3300 or visit www.rkfineart.com.