We work to pay our debts. So say the proletariat as they pump their pay cheques into credit card bills. In the essay for the Peasants And Proletariats exhibition, a quote from American anarchist Bob Black’s piece The Abolition Of Work, which defines work as “forced labour, that is, compulsory production”, rings true.
The edgy exhibition, showing now at Kuala Lumpur’s Xin Art Gallery, is a tribute to the working class. It features diverse works by the late Chuah Thean Teng, veteran artists Lai Loong Sung and Mansoor Ibrahim, plus activist artists like Poodien, the Pangrok Sulap collective and Rat Heist.
The show is a sampling of over 30 works coming from a multi-generational range (nine artists and one collective). Curator Tan Sei Hon, 40, reveals that the participants were chosen for who they were as artists, and not just for their skill at printmaking.
“This show is based on the Workers’ Day theme, most of the artists involved had done works relating to human rights or social issues,” he says.
Though woodcut works by Chuah date back to the 1930s and Lai’s are from the 1970s, many of the pieces on display were made specifically for this exhibition. In fact, acclaimed street artist Sheiko Reito worked with stencil for the first time to fit in with the printmaking theme. Hers is a series based on transgender sex workers at rest.
Asked during a recent interview about the ideological difference between the older prints that earnestly portrayed everyday workers compared to the politically charged modern prints by Rat Heist and Poodien, Tan elaborates:
“Rat Heist is not a conventional artist. He’s a mischief-maker. Instead of (art) galleries, his stencil work is commonly spotted in downtown Kuala Lumpur.”
In the case of Poodien, his themes surrounding the effects of alienation on workers do hit home through his art despite the artist’s street level printing methods.
Clearly, Peasants And Proletariats is an exhibition that reflects the evolution of traditional art leading up to its activist voice.
“Art has always served a purpose, mostly associated with those in power, only later becoming a tool for protest,” explains Tan.
While Chuah and Lai were established artists who laboured for decades to create commercial artwork and build a following, Rat Heist and Poodien have opted to work anonymously, sometimes printing their work on brown old paper and giving it away for nothing.
“Guys like Rat Heist and Poodien have been part of the underground for more 10 years, doing so-called ‘nutty’ stuff,” says Tan.
The Kuala Lumpur-based curator stressed that the nature of printmaking as a propaganda tool was the reason why it was the ideal medium for a Workers’ Day-themed exhibition.
“Print shows might not be popular among high-end collectors, who prefer one-off works. The prospect of making multiple copies (of art) available isn’t enticing to them. But the medium itself is a valid art form.
“We have some accomplished artists in this show who have contributed significantly affordable works. Printmaking gives an artist flexibility,” he adds.
Cetak Kolektif co-founder Samsudin Wahab, 30, who was part of the printmaking show Test Print in January in Kuala Lumpur, is also back in fine form with a linocut/stencil work called Waktu Makan (a mutation of man and food, perhaps?) at Peasants And Proletariats.
Elsewhere, Ade Putra Masri contributes works depicting the daily urban grind done with digital print on canvas.
“Like it or not, print has its appeal – for a particular type of artist and viewer. It’s the way that prints can be mass-produced as posters, or artists can spray stencils all over town, and then just disappear,” explains Tan.
Pangrok Sulap member Mohammad Bam, 24, also agrees that printmaking suits the proletariat theme.
“A woodcut can be copied any number of times, reflecting a mass production force like the wage-workers themselves,” says Bam.
“Plus woodcut is much cheaper when you’re based far out of town,” he adds candidly about being based in Ranau, Sabah, a mountainous district hometown situated at the foot of Mount Kinabalu.
The group’s other members Jerome Manjat and Rizo Leong also contributed to this show. Formed in 2010, the Pangrok Sulap collective has been recognised for its grassroots activism with 11 works shown at this exhibition.
In a line from the show’s catalogue, Tan writes, “By celebrating the worker, we also celebrate our own humanity which we sometimes forget exists under the weight of various job titles.”
At the end of the day, beyond the grind, we should push towards this ideal.
Peasants And Proletariats is showing at Xin Art Space, No. 2-1, Jalan Jelatek 1, Pusat Perniagaan Jelatek, Kuala Lumpur until June 15 (10am-6pm, Monday to Saturday). For more information, call 016-505 1311 or email email@example.com.