Acclaimed Thai photographer, writer and social activist Manit Sriwanichpoom was probably in Malaysia at the right time and right place last May.
He was in Kuala Lumpur to launch a solo exhibition and was fortunate enough to witness – and document – the unforgettable scenes surrounding the 14th General Election.
One year on, Manit is back in KL to participate in a group exhibition, which looks back on Malaysia Baharu.
“I was lucky to be in KL during the elections on May 9 last year. It was not an ordinary one but a historic moment in which Malaysians showed the world how they removed Prime Minister Najib Razak through the ballots. It was exhilarating to see my Malaysian friends and guests arrive at the opening of my photo exhibition at A+ Works of Art on the night of May 10 with their forefingers stained with indelible ink, their proud souvenir from having exercised their rights the day before.
“Their spirit was so high with hope. They won because they were united. I was so happy for Malaysians. They’ve proved to the world that elections still work there. The same cannot be said for Thailand. Perhaps one fine day, free of hatred, vote-selling and lies, my homeland’s electoral system would work like the one in Malaysia. That is my hope,” says Manit, who is showing his Hope 09.05.2018 series in the Rasa Sayang exhibit at the A+ Works of Art gallery.
Apart from Manit, the Rasa Sayang show, with a group of 11 local artists, offers a broad range of voices, opinions and artistic expression of what it means to be where we are now, as Malaysians.
The exhibit also features seven poets and nine writers, giving Rasa Sayang a strong focus on reflection.
Exhibition curator Eric Goh describes the mood of the show as one of ambiguity and uncertainty.
The works raise questions that have been asked over and over again, but come short of being answered adequately. There are the obvious ones, like what has changed since the general election, or since independence?
But when it comes to building – or some would say, rebuilding – we need to look beyond that.
“What are some transnational connections and similarities that can be made between pivotal historical moments in Malaysia and other countries in Asia, and how do these other similar historical and political moments inform or help us to reconsider our own history?” says Goh.
“Since time immemorial, we have learnt to live, coexist and work to shape this country with migrants, foreigners, newcomers who eventually adopted Malaysia as their home. Why are we so obsessed with the question of who is the original inhabitant of the country when perhaps the more important question should be how can we learn from each other to build the nation? Malaysia is a country of immigrants and our multiculturalism is a testament to that,” he adds.
Before the elections, activities such as protest movements were fired up by hope and defiance.
In a post-GE14 Malaysia, are we, the nation, suffering from fatigue? Is the rakyat’s disillusionment justified?
Or does hope really die last?
“Is the nation suffering from fatigue? Perhaps, but I don’t think that people who are working in activism, education and the arts have stopped altogether and slowed down the pace of their work. I think there is a sense of urgency now as well to rethink how we can all shape the country for the better moving forward and to include and factor in the voices and concerns of people,” says Goh.
From poems, essays and exhibition talks, the discussions surrounding Rasa Sayang will also be compiled in a publication.
The artists and collectives featured in this exhibition are Azizan Paiman, Chang Yoong Chia, Intan Rafiza, Okui Lala, L!PAS, Liew Kung Yu, Pangrok Sulap, Phuan Thai Meng, Manit, Sharon Chin, Tan Zi Hao and Yee I-Lann.
Writers and poets include A. Samad Said, Ann Lee, Bernice Chauly, Serina Abdul Rahman and Vilashini Somiah.
It is a long list of names, but still, how does an exhibition take this oft-talked about topic – Pakatan Harapan’s historic election victory – and offer visitors something new?
“In the arts especially, there is this attitude maybe that for an artwork or exhibition to be significant it has to be political, and that it must speak about national issues. It can be incredibly tiring and limiting for artists and exhibitions to regurgitate certain themes to do with the nation over and over again, especially when not all of them are productive or offer new insights into the issues and problems of a country as complex as ours.
“But at the same time, if these themes still persist today perhaps they speak of a larger problem, which is that these concerns and anxieties that we have been harking at remain unresolved to this day,” says Goh.
Azizan’s KATAMAHALKITA I and II, uses the form of the Philippines’ Imelda Marcos and her beloved shoes as a conversation starter.
“Both country’s leaders have been ousted by ‘people power’ – in the Philippines through revolution, and in Malaysia through elections. These political stories should be documented for posterity and I hope it will encourage us to think critically about our history, as well as that of other countries and how it relates to us.
“I also hope that the new government will uphold integrity and transparency, be open to criticism and feedback from the rakyat, be good listeners and work hard for the people. My work is a parody so it looks funny, but the underlying issues are based on fact,” says Azizan of his cautionary tale.
Penang-based media artist Okui Lala’s As If, Home (2015) is given a timely revisit. The video performance work explores the idea of home through the process of building a house. In this video, Mostofa Kamal, a skilled construction worker from Bangladesh guides Okui Lala in building a model house together.
“Viewing this work again made me rethink about the idea of home with a wider community. Mostofa went back to Bangladesh nearly three years ago. I really hope he is doing well back home, like what he told me of his dream to beli rumah, beli tanah, kahwin, jaga bini (buy a house, buy land, get married),” says Okui Lala.
Indeed, many of the works in Rasa Sayang use humour and a humanist gaze to navigate stories and observations on the state of the country and its politics. Film, installation, painting, photography and performance come together in a colourful scrapbook of thoughts.
“One year is not enough to overturn the complications of a nation as young as Malaysia, but it is important to keep the Government in check and to remind ourselves that they are accountable to the people. A situation is humorous, I think, if we make the same mistakes over and over again and we don’t learn from it,” concludes Goh.
Rasa Sayang is on at A+ Works of Art, d6-G-8, d6 Trade Centre, 801 Jalan Sentul, KL till June 15. Opening hours: 12pm to 7pm, Tuesday to Saturday. Call 018-333 3399. FB: A+ Works of Art.