What conversations are happening on the margins right now? What do marginalised voices say? It seemed like the right questions to ask for this six-month project: there is interest in the subject matter, it is relevant, and it felt like a project that could address something of significance within the stipulated time.
Still, three days away from the Merata Suara’s exhibition opening in Petaling Jaya on Feb 10, there remains much to be done. But curator Suzy Sulaiman is the epitome of calmness; this is not unprecedented and not unexpected. Especially in a case like Merata Suara where the conversation never quite ends.
“The project started out with the idea of looking at what is happening on the margins, a space to represent marginalised voices. But it gradually evolved into a productive disorientation, like poking into another dimension and uncovering a whole new world where we started to question ourselves and the preconceived notions we have,” explains Suzy.
Merata Suara, presented by Projek Dialog with support from the High Commission of Canada (Canada Fund For Local Initiative), comprises four installations and a performance. This exhibition is the culmination of four months of field work and discussions, where five artists are paired up with five location partners in different places around Malaysia.
Projek Dialog, established in 2012, is a social development project that aims to promote healthy debate and understanding, within and among the diverse cultural, ethnic and religious groups in Malaysia. The Merata Suara show is being held at the Projek Dialog space in Petaling Jaya till March 4.
Multidisciplinary artist Poodien teams up with Lydia Botek, immersing himself into everyday life in Kampung Gebok, an Orang Asal Reserve at the edge of Mantin in Negri Sembilan. In response to this experience, he created Bulat Tanah Lengkang, an installation with 11 oil paintings arranged in a circular formation, where both the front and back of the canvas is visible.
Victoria Cheng, project manager and initiator at Projek Dialog, learns about the world of silat and, indirectly, the rules and nuances of social etiquette from Kak Ji in Gurun, Kedah. At Merata Suara, a silat performance accompanied by a poetry recitation serves as a representation of the kehalusan (softness) of Malay culture that she experienced.
Yana Rizal, an activist/cultural researcher, makes her debut as an artist with Komuni[s]kasi, an installation which juxtaposes the state’s official narrative on communism with personal narratives from the women who were forced into the jungle as political fugitives in the post-Merdeka communist-era. This is a counter-narrative of sorts, presented in a classroom set-up with textbooks, news archives, publication materials and memorabilia.
“Merata Suara has an activism skew, one told through a visual art language lens. It is experimental in the way of the process, in how advocacy takes on another form, in this case, through contemporary art,” elaborates Suzy.
“But more important than appreciating the works for their aesthetics is to use them as a conversation catalyst…to use art as a vehicle to start asking questions, to probe and to investigate.”
Apart from the exhibition, there are two public programmes – the lecture Malay Performing Arts And The Body Politic by Lawrence Ross (senior lecturer at the Academy of Malay Studies in Universiti Malaya) on Feb 28 (8pm) and the forum A World To Win: Conversations With History on March 3 (11am) at the Projek Dialog venue.Collaboration and other cooperative strategies have been central to this project.
Suzy emphasises the need to ensure that these borders are to be as porous as possible, to disassemble the central narrative and present a more dynamic and inclusive space.
“A temporary suspension of hierarchy had to be created. We had to cast out preconceived notions and assumptions to be able to see clearly what is in front of us.
“Sometimes we are so confined by our own terminology that we are unable to appreciate the true beauty around us,” she says.
After all, we are all in this together, making the best we can with life and our fears, hopes and dreams. Artist and cultural worker Okui Lala in her video collaborations with the Serantau Community, delves into the memories of a former welder and a domestic helper, whose daily preoccupations include driving and writing. Serantau, supported by Serikat Buruh Migran Indonesia, aims to network the Indonesian migrant community in Malaysia.
Then there is Eleanor Goroh, a Sabahan bead artist and indigenous rights advocate, who spearheads the Tamparuli Living Arts Centre, located some 42km from Kota Kinabalu.
Her Fabrication, a fabric scrolls and fabric beads installation, depicts our history of colonisation, the subsequent nationalisation under the formation of the Federation of Malaysia, and the struggle to preserve the indigenous cultural heritage in Sabah and Sarawak.
Have we been selectively silenced and divided for so long that we have forgotten how to see the common thread running through humanity?
“Merata Suara hopes to show just how similar we are to each other, that we have a lot of things in common with each other, despite coming from so-called different communities and backgrounds,” says Suzy.
And the conversations that never end? In Merata Suara, that is a good thing.