There’s something fishy going on at Galeri Petronas in Kuala Lumpur, and artist Samsudin Wahab is in the middle of it. He sits on the bench with a mysterious figure that has its hands tightly clasped.
Both men gaze pensively into the distance, seemingly unperturbed by the presence of another figure with skin peeling off its back, peeking around the corner and watching their every move. “They used to startle me a bit, but they are my friends now,” shrugs Samsudin, also known as Buden.
It is easy for him to play it cool, of course. He knows them inside out because they took form under his very own hands. Fashioned out of wire mesh and fibreglass, these two figures are fully draped in dried salted fish and dried tamarind slices, ingredients that sound like they belong in the kitchen more than they do in an art gallery.
“I had bees and flies come to feast on them when I had them standing in my studio, especially the Orang Ikan Masin,” says Samsudin. “But that’s okay, it just adds another dimension to my work. This artwork is kind of experimental anyway, an assault on the senses because of its smell. It’s something that people will have a strong reaction to, regardless of whether they find the smell offensive or not.”
It seems that Alegori: Contemporary Art Expressions From Malay Manuscripts, presenting manuscripts and artefacts alongside contemporary installations by local and regional artists, is certainly not too fussed with convention.
And how can it be, when its aim is to explore Malay metaphorical thinking through ancient manuscripts and functional objects, as well as through the conceptual practices found in South-East Asian contemporary art?
It is only with a mind open to different perspectives and possibilities that history and heritage, and its interpretations, can serve as a useful resource for the present and future.
In Samsudin’s work, for instance, the dried tamarind slices speak volumes about the metaphorical associations of his work, bringing to mind idioms such as kurang asam, which is commonly used to express irritation and/or to denote an ill-mannered individual, and asam garam to refer to one’s life experiences.
Alegori offers 19 original Malay manuscripts for public viewing, including the canonical Hikayat Hang Tuah, Undang-Undang Laut Melaka, Ilmu Pelayaran and Petua Membuat Rumah, among others.
Hailed as masterpieces of ancient scholars, the knowledge found within these writings inspired the creation of many objects. Twenty of these artefacts, including a healing water container and matchlock gun, are part of the exhibition here.
Taking up most of the gallery space, however, are the contemporary installation artworks by Malaysian artists Samsudin, Fadzil Idris, Mohd Azlan Mohd Latib, Syafiq Ali’am, Andrialis Abdul Rahman, Nur Aniza Lazim and Intan Natasha Azim, and five other artists from neighbouring countries.
Andrialis, Nur Aniza and Intan Natasha’s Emansipasi Wanita Melayu (Ewam), a video projection and puppet installation, expounds on the lives of Malay historical heroines from the Sulalatus Salatin manuscript (The Malay Annals), an allegory to one’s internal strength, determination and intellectuality.
Fadzil’s Empayar, all rugged and roughly-hewn edges with delicate floral motifs carved into wood burnished in red and gold, is a formidable force of three. It is a throwback to the symbolism of centuries-old tradition and folklore, a tale of how past and present can fuse and mesh to create something new, yet strangely familiar.
“I believe you have to go back in time to find inspiration, but even though I am an avid traveller, I have come to realise that you don’t always need to travel far in search of ideas. There are many things close to home that can open up a whole new world, if only you look closely enough,” he says.
Fadzil, who is also a filmmaker, shares that he is struck by the customs, beliefs and cultural similarities the region and its people share, a fact often overlooked by a society currently divided more than ever by geographical and political boundaries.
It is such research for his films, delving into the breadth and depth of historical events, rituals and architecture, that he draws heavily upon for answers to his art practice.
In contrast to the grounded reality of Fadzil’s work, Syafiq’s The Great Story Of The Floating Empire and The Honorable Pirates are set in the realm of faraway floating lands and fantasy worlds. Focusing on the golden age of the Malacca Empire, he translates probabilities observed in historical facts through the concept of alternate history and science fiction truths.
In his retelling of history, there is plenty of room for myths, legends and imagination, all of which he believes have elements of truth in certifying the glorious traditions of old.
Works by Alwin Reamillo from the Philippines, Htein Lin from Myanmar, Nasirun from Indonesia, Nguyen Phuong Linh from Vietnam and Titarubi from Indonesia round up this segment.
Nasirun’s Between Worlds is all glass beakers and conical flasks stacked sky-high, resembling the architecture of Indonesia’s Borobudur. Inside each transparent enclosure is a colourful wayang kulit character, its fate sealed in the collision of a scientific experiment and the preservation of tradition, even as its literal Borobudur-esque image conjures up the tangible.
In the context of this work, object functions as a metaphorical language; the image of Borobodur serving as its literal component, while the science vs tradition additionally serves as a nod to syncretism in contemporary art, the future of tradition, and the alternative representation of Western art’s historical perspective.
Htein’s Monument To My Mother is about love for his mother, a declaration of appreciation for the many long hours she spent patching together discarded fabric scraps from local dressmakers to make into school bags and other necessities – not unlike how words are strung together to form coherent sentences that transcend literal meanings.
The beauty of this, as with the other works on display at the Alegori exhibition, is that its metaphorical expressions encourages the viewer to look beyond the superficial in the dissection of history and heritage, and how this relates to us in the present day.
A good example is Samsudin’s works. They stink – but really only literally.