PETRONAS Art Gallery in KL: ALEGORI, Contemporary Art Expressions From Malay Manuscripts | Exhibitio

Definition of allegory: a story that can be interpreted to reveal a hidden meaning, typically a moral or political one.

Galeri Petronas describes the exhibition as an opportunity to "explore and examine our (Malay) cultural aesthetics from visual experiences, and connections with these contemporary art expressions stemming from the Malay classical manuscripts.

Walking into the gallery, I was first greeted by Htein Lin’s textile installation. However I struggled to fit “Monument To My Mother” into the exhibition.

How could a Myanmar-origin artist with Buddhist faith, contribute to this exhibition?

The school bag Htein’s mother made for him in his younger days, dangles in the middle of a large tent. It hangs as testimonial, ultimately acknowledging that the seeding idea came from his mother’s creativity to overcome financial limitation.

Photo Credit: Allie Hill

His attempt to redeem his childhood embarrassment, by honouring his mother in this colourful, larger-than-life quilt, to hold a greater transient space, struck a chord in me. Haven’t we all at some point been embarrassed of our mothers as a child?

He acknowledges that feeling and amplifies it in this piece. But while the work itself is a powerful tribute to his mother, I felt the tent lost its warmth and coziness as it got adapted into a culture he was never a part off.

How did Htein’s attempt to recover his past be labelled as an artistic product inspired by the classical Malay manuscripts?

Photo Credit: Nil Aligned

Across the tent, Samsudin Wahab’s Orang Ikan Masin and Orang Asam Keping has a casual body language as they linger in the exhibition. With an insight into the community’s culinary preference and relating with its literary significance (Malay idiom “kurang asam”), Samsudin’s work claim their rightful space compared to Htein’s.

Concurrently, this multi-disciplinary artist is also exhibiting in A+ Works Gallery in Sentul, where he’s built a 3m tall, 80kgs installation made from mud.

Though I was surprised that the dried fish sculpture was odourless, Samsudin seems to be familiar at using texture and smell to jolt gallery viewer’s attention.

Photo credit: A+ Works Gallery FB

Transporting me to a whole new world, my favourite work in the show was Syafiq Ali'am’s The Great Story Of The Floating Empire & The Honorable Pirates.

Offering an alternate history with this installation whilst reminding me of Pirates of The Caribbean, his background in making props for the film industry evidently backs the strong visual storytelling technique.

His sculptures would float you into a mythical realm – you can’t escape the realistic tiny details of bat-winged ships, old shacks with broken window panes and the barren earth.

Photo Credit: Lakshmi Sekhar, Options

In an interview with Time Out, Syafiq explains, “They’re alternative perspectives of what happened during the invasion of our country. I used to work in museums in Perak and did a lot of research.

During that time, I came across books that not many know about and I learnt about a different side to the stories. This installation is basically how I imagine the past to be, an alternate history."

I wish the gallery allowed us visitors to get a closer look at his majestic pieces, cordoning off all the individual floating pieces with a border too far away for us to visually dive into that magical world.

Photo Credit: Allie Hill

Nasirun’s ‘Between Worlds’ (wayang kulit miniature puppets in glass bottles) created a radiant aura in both his aesthetics and allegory.

The structure as a whole reminded me of The Great Egyptian Pyramids, bricks replacing individual clinical test tubes containing wayang kulit puppets – lit from the bottom, instead of traditionally being lit from the back.

Photo credit: Singapore Biennale 2013

Photo Credit: Lakshmi Sekhar, Options

But Titarubi’s “Tears from the Sky” sculpture had a regal stake in this exhibition. While I thought the demeanor of the sculpture obviously looked masculine, my friend thought otherwise.

“Is that a foetus?” we questioned each other, while moving closer.

Yes, in fact 12,000 individual beads with tiny red individual fetuses collectively form the hooded figure.

Photo Credit: Allie Hill

Being a feminist myself, Titarubi's work appealed to me the most. Her gender-fluid concept in creating this sculpture added a much needed conversation around our male-dominated art scene.

I would suggest Wulan Dirgantoro’s article, Herstory in Art to understand further about Titarubi’s contribution in claiming a stake as a women in Indonesia.

Rest of the exhibition didn't thrill me as much. I’m sceptical about the claim of all 19 original Malay manuscripts that was shown, as some were left open to the public to touch and flip the remaining (empty) pages.

If I may critic any further, I surely wished the descriptive text accompanying the works were written and edited better. I read five in Malay and the rest in English, and honestly they both left me confused. The text lacked relevance to the theme, while being able to explain the artists’ justification of their work.

It is important – and correct – to continue probing original Malay manuscripts as part of our nation’s history and identity. But stating that these manuscripts could arguably be the foundation of Malay identity and then proceeding to take short-cuts by decontextualizing the exhibited works, does the opposite of strengthening one’s culture. I wish they didn't take the easy way out but rather, invested into commissioning new pieces. As the Malay proverb goes, "alang-alang menyeluk pekasam, biarlah sampai ke pangkal lengan”.

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