Zulkhairi Zulkiflee unpacks Malay identities in Singapore
By Ian Tee
In his book 'Disidentifications: Queers of Color and the Performance of Politics', José Esteban Muñoz theorised the survival strategies employed by minoritarian subjects in navigating the dominant culture. He elaborated on a third way to imagine identity which is neither an assimilation within one's culture nor a total resistance to the ideologies that define it.
In Muñoz's words, "disidentification for the minority subject is a mode of recycling or re-forming an object that has already been invested with powerful energy... instead, he acknowledged and incorporated their force and influence; transfigured, they inform his own strategies and tactics in powerful ways."
Singaporean artist-curator Zulkhairi Zulkiflee (Sikap) taps into the energy of a "mat" for the namesake exhibition at Objectifs, Centre for Photography and Film. The term "mat" is a vernacular expression often used as a shorthand for Malay men with the first name "Muhammad", and can carry a negative connotation of being delinquent or disobedient. For Farizi Noorfauzi, Norah Lea, and Zulkhari, it is a framework to address this tricky subject and unpack notions of Malayness horizontally along the lines of cultural politics, class affiliations and gender relations within multiracial Singapore society.
Farizi's work 'No Corner' confronts the "mat" imagery head on with stickers of himself sitting in different positions that suggest the "lepak one corner" stereotype which are pasted within a defunct residential area. For the uninitiated, the word "lepak" does not only mean to relax or chill out, but also implies an inherent laziness. As RICE media author Pan Jie pointed out in an article on the stereotype's dark history, this caricature of the chill Malay dude had its origins in Singapore's colonial past when the Malays were inadvertently branded as "lazy" for their refusal to be exploited by the British.
Looking beyond the work's self-deprecating humour, 'No Corner' folds in layers of meaning related not only to representation but also societal values projected onto what is perceived to be "unproductive" bodies and spaces. Just as the stickers are meant to disappear along with expired public housing estates, the work questions the possibility for resistance in the face of relentless development and "progress". The infiltration of Farizi's palm-sized stickers materialise a claim by the little guy who is at once vulnerable and flexible.
In his curatorial essay, Zulkhairi fronts the "rearticulation of authentic narratives" as a means of moving away from one hegemonic understanding into a sense of plurality. The mode of photography is also acknowledged as a contested field in which representation is visualised and circulated. 'Happy Birthday' draws upon personal photos belonging to Zulkhairi's father taken in the late 1970s to early 1980s. The image features a group of Malay men from a working class background who embodied the styles of hippie subculture. For the artist, these candid, point-and-shoot photos evidence a lived agency which ran against the state's heavy policing of anti-establishment tendencies.
One would also find short narrative passages scattered around the exhibition. They make up a collection of personal anecdotes ranging from an experience with racial profiling to unexpected moments of affirmation. It is also this process of subjectivisation that invokes intimacy, curiosity and relationality. Written partially in Malay, these are entry points for further conversations within and beyond the Malay community. Norah sums up the sentiment in this interview with Artsequator: "it’s one thing for other people to see us but we also need to be able to see ourselves."
Aptly, it is also Norah, a transgender artist using the genre of self portraiture, who offers the most unexpected images in 'MAT'. Titled 'Past & Present Lives of ___', the three-channel video installation shows Norah performing what she believes to be her previous reincarnations, based on descriptions of feminine figures in ethnographic texts such as Sejarah Melayu (the Malay Annals). She is interested in the concept of inherited trauma and the work is a way of uncovering the hidden histories of women in the Malay Archipelago.
However, what is a transgender Malay woman doing in a show called 'MAT'? As knowledged in Norah’s reflection in the catalogue’s afterword, the gendered implications of the show's title loom large, especially in light of this contradiction. Yet I argue that it is precisely this deviation from the expected image that brings the show closer to intersections that align these minoritarian experiences, whether they are cultural, socioeconomic or gendered. Norah's identification with womanhood and her experience living as a transgendered woman who passes off as a Malay male for safety are both equally valid, thus further complicating what it means to perform those identities. To that end, disidentification is powerful because it embraces these ambivalences. For the subject, it is a survival strategy for navigating difficult everyday situations which are often deemed less important in relation to larger struggles.
'MAT' is the recipient of Objectifs' inaugural Curator Open Call, an initiative that aims to encourage different ways of presenting lens-based work by giving emerging curators an opportunity to realise an exhibition with professional and financial support. Having seen the project's previous iteration 'Malais-a-trois (Mat)' at the studio space of Sobandwine in 2018, I can attest to the impact of this initiative in aiding significant developments to Zulkhairi's curatorial vision and artworks' presentation. It is also commendable that Objectifs chose a proposal dealing with the issue of race and representation in Singapore, a known "out-of-bound" topic which has been re-politicised in light of the recent brownface scandal.
The show does not only forward the discourse around lens-based works and its socio-political contexts, but is also a case study of how an institution might give voice to minor representation without pandering to tokenism. It is a gesture of grace, of what Zulkhairi calls "making space", a fundamental aspect of his practice. To quote his interview with Singapore Art Book Fair: "The act of making space can be seen as a move taken when you may not understand where someone is coming from or what they are talking about. You make space to understand instead of passing judgement."
True to this spirit, 'MAT' succeeds in bringing about conversations that explore the complexity of Malay identities in Singapore with sensitivity, inclusivity and care.
'MAT' is on view at Objectifs, Centre for Photography and Film, from 2 August to 1 September 2019. The exhibition catalogue can be downloaded here.
As part of the show's public programming, Dr Nazry Bahrawi is giving a guest talk 'Repel One Korner: Decolonising Mat and Art' on 17 August 2019, 2-3pm; which is followed by a guided tour by the artists on the same day at 3.30-4.30pm. There will also be a closing performance titled 'Bujang *apok' by Norah Lea and her collaborators on 1 September 2019, 4-5pm.