‘May We…’ unveil it one day?
Review by Clarissa Lim Kye Lee
Kisah-Kisah Ibu by Shamin Sahrum,
Photo courtesy of May We...

“I have a Plan A, Plan B, Plan C, Plan D and Plan E.. I think,” Rebecca Yeoh mused over breakfast just before she began to set up her exhibition May We… at Tun Perak Co-op, an art space in KL city. Armed with her laptop, phone and a relatively high-end point and shoot camera, she waved goodbye as she set off to meet her artists. This was a few hours before the announcement of the latest Movement Control Order (MCO) in January, which, despite being anticipated, was still rather uncertain in terms of specifics. She had to move fast.

The reinstatement of MCO ended up aligning perfectly with the original exhibition opening date. Currently, no one is able to openly visit the exhibition physically, but the team has attempted to translate the experience through a digital ecology of discussions and workshops on Zoom, Instagram stories from the May We… official page, regular posts on Facebook and a to-be published exhibition catalogue.

I met Yeoh over a year ago at the Japan Foundation Curatorial Workshop led by director/ curator/researcher Mark Teh of Five Arts Centre and independent curator Iida Shihohko. Here, she was one of two participants chosen to realise their proposed projects.

Yeoh’s project examines the role of art in relationship to the May 13, 1969 conflict, indicating the fading memory: “I think it was very natural for me to be interested in it, from a young age even before learning about May 13th in school, my dad made it very clear that something happened. Once I realised that my peers didn't actually know what happened in 1969, it bothered me for a long period of time. I later on also realised that those younger than me had absolutely no idea. That bothered me even further.” With that catalyst, she wanted to curate an exhibition to unpack the difficult conversations surrounding the conflict for the younger generation today.

Along with co-curator Azzad Diah, she invited four artists to cultivate conversations around this intergenerational history. They traversed through the elusive past by firstly looking at four visual art pieces responding to the riots created during 19691 . The curatorial process involved meeting the artists every other Tuesday evening to learn about the riots. This process ranged from finding a translator to live translate a French documentary and footage of the riots, to speaking to historians and social scientists such as Dr. Por Heong Hong to learn about her collected oral history of the incident, and conducting exercises to open the conversation with their relatives who had firsthand memories of the riots. The process is layered, creating a complex woven set of research, narratives and stories from which the artists can draw. It questions the relationship between national historical narratives to the subjective, personal memories of a difficult past.

Looking through Singh's work to Sahrum's  Kisah-Kisah Ibu below 
Photo courtesy of May We...

The significance of the location also adds another layer to the curatorial endeavor. Tun Perak Co-op, a new creative space located on Jalan Tun Perak, originally named Jalan Mountbatten, is a site connected to the incidents that led to the riots in 1969. The artworks created collectively engages with space within the two shophouses.

As you enter, you encounter a white translucent mosquito net draped from a trap door over a used wheelchair with several uncanny objects encased in clear acrylic containers. ‘Kisah-kisah Ibu’ by Shamin Sahrum unveils the fragmented memories passed down of the incident from his relatives, encasing a Malaysian flag, a feather “keris” and a fragment of a wooden balustrade. Entering the net, visitors can look up to peek into Dhavinder Singh’s work titled ‘Salvation can happen here; it may require some salt’.

Only when you go up the stairs, do you enter a landscape of salt inhabiting the surface of the floor. At the centre, a clear acrylic box is a clear shot to the past, a view to Sahrum’s locked away pieces. Your feet leave imprints on the salt, a giant treading on thousands of collected memories. Salt is both a currency of the ancient world, but also an integral part of everyday rituals within our multicultural society.

At the other end of the room stand 13 pure white totems. Stacked on each are pages of a multilingual calendar inscribed with May 13 – 13 days of May 13. Arranged in the format of a Chinese traditional calendar, Ali Alasri and collaborators Yiky Chew and Bryan Chang’s work, ‘Belas Masa’, guides viewers through multilingual sources, news articles, documents and memories of the riots. One must read at least three languages in four scripts to understand the work completely, inviting visitors to ask each other questions to slowly unpack this piece of deep research.

Belas Masa in the background by Ali Alasri, Yiky Chew and Bryan Chang, with Salvation Can Happen Here It May Require Some Salt In The Foreground by Dhavinder Singh,
Photo courtesy of May We...

Moving from one shophouse to another, one enters a field of tripedal wooden struts, held up by one another and bound by jute. Five golden vessels hold dirty water with cloth hung to dry, “airing one’s dirty laundry”3 . The horizontal elements are bound at a height that forces one to bend in order to traverse the field, weaving left and right to simply enter and exit the installation. Titled ‘History Repositories – chances of freedom, serenity, and sanctuary’ by Paul Nickson Atia, the installation is activated by a feet-washing performance, embodying the narratives of forgotten domestic stories of those at home watching the riots unfold. The piece draws upon the relationship between society and water, weaving through spiritual practices and everyday cleansing. The body is asked to activate the space also flowing through the built elements.

The exhibition is inherently a sensory experience and to translate it online is a challenging task. Pieces such as ‘Belas Masa’ require interaction and time to slowly unpack the stories which lie in between the digital and physical, memory and recorded, and is an impossible task to directly post them online.

History Repository - chances of freedom, serenity and sanctuary by Paul Nickson Atia,
Photo courtesy of _May We...

Dhavindar Singh’s piece requests visitors to physically imprint on his installation with their feet, a direct transference of the physical body of the human stepping in time, and washing away.

The co-curators created a series of online conversations between artists, historians, and themselves to unpack the exhibition, concurrently introducing it through an online tour. It is shown with a home-made iPhone video juxtaposed with professional photography and video interviews with the artists interspersed. For the public, the exhibition is uploaded, slowly and carefully, visible through an unintentional click onto social media, a tiny crack into their universe.

On Instagram – the main social media platform for May We.., the curators released videos, reflections, snippets of interviews and photography of the works. Accompanied with graphic design by Valen Lim, who reinterpreted the metal folding shutter gates, layering the use of a local font called Kedai-kedai4  juxtaposed with a fragmented typeface5  for the main text, aligning with the vernacular of the elements of the exhibition. The signage adorned the closed shutters of Tun Perak Co-op, signalling to the downtown folk of what might have been. Yeoh hopes these efforts will encourage viewers to “try to be empathetic” and “find new conversations around the topic” to expand the discussion beyond the violence of the riots.

The latest Emergency was announced on Jan 13, 2021 – another significant “13” date. When asked if what’s currently happening echoes in the themes of the exhibition, Yeoh said: “I think what's interesting is that because right now we are in a state of emergency as well, understanding that it's a different sort of state of emergency, right? And also putting it into perspective, to be able to sit down and actually question the differences and encourage people to do the same.”

1 These pieces are May 13 1969 Ibrahim Hussein, 13.5.1969 by Syed Ahmad Jamal, 13 May 1969 by Redza Piyadasa and May 13 1969 by Yeoh Jin Leng.
2 Tamil, Malay, traditional and simplified Chinese
3 Quoted from the artist statement
Created by Huruf
5 Halvar Stencil Mittelschrift by TypeMates

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Clarissa Lim Kye Lee is a writer under the CENDANA - ASWARA Arts Writing Mentorship Programme 2020-2021

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