Good graphic design is good storytelling. As We See It: History Through Visual Design, an art exhibition, now in Kuala Lumpur, is part historical lesson, part eye candy.

Through WWII propaganda posters, Emergency-era pamphlets, vintage book and magazine designs, nationalistic leaflets and hand-painted movie posters, this exhibition puts the spotlight on Malaysian graphic design through the years.

“It’s the country’s 60th Merdeka soon, and this exhibition aims to create a space for reflection and dialogue on where we have come from, towards where we would like to go, collectively, in all of our diversity,” says Ezrena Marwan, the show’s curator.

As We See It is presented by the Malaysia Design Archive (MDA), an independent project aimed at mapping the development of graphic design and visual culture in Malaysia. Fellow curators include Jac SM Kee and Simon Soon, with exhibition design by Our ArtProjects.

As We See It, despite its modest size as an exhibition, attempts to piece together the evolution of Malaysian visual language.

History

A large hand-painted movie poster of the 1992 Hong Kong film Mr Vampire, on display at the As We See It exhibition.

The exhibition features four sections, each devoted to a significant period in our country’s historical timeline: Colonialism (British Malaya), the Japanese Occupation, the Emergency and Independence. Not to forget the typography, photography and illustration of each era.

In the gallery, there is a flea market spread of everyday objects like matchboxes, medicine labels right to pop culture relics and vintage adverts.

For book designs, Haji’s Book Of Malayan Nursery Rhymes by Englishman A.W. Hamilton, first published in 1939, is worth an investigation. It is a bilingual book, featuring Malay translations of 100 popular English nursery rhymes. It also features multi-racial characters and such stock images – though stereotypical – contributed to later visions of Malaya as a land of many races.

Elsewhere, you find a room dedicated to propaganda posters and woodcuts during the Japanese occupation. The art during this period – a time when British icons and symbols were destroyed – featured clean strong lines, motifs of the “Rising Sun” and military-themed influences, among others.

Malaysia, a vintage poster design from 1963, courtesy of the National Archives of Malaysia.

“The public can have a sense of what some of the elements seen as important in different periods were, and how these were communicated to different sections of the Malaysian public,” adds Ezrena, who is the founder of MDA.

The exhibition, mostly, soaks up the atmosphere of the times. After Merdeka, graphic design became more diverse and experimental, reflecting the formation of national identity. The formation of Malaysia in 1963 led to more robust efforts to bridge the divide between race and languages.

“The story of graphic design in Malaysia is still unravelling, and through the process of unravelling and exploration, we are able to find out more about who we are, in all our complexities,” says Ezrena.

As We See It: Malaysia’s History Through Graphic Design is on at the National Visual Arts Gallery in KL till June 30. For more information​, visit www.malaysiadesignarchive.org.

Various design artefacts on display at the ‘As We See It’ exhibition. Photo: The Star/Shaari CheMat