Exhibitions as Expression of Power (updated)

Democracy and ‘the rule of law’ are popular phrases by people of the current government. For a Malaysians like me, this is a  welcomed change, after what felt like years of kleptocracy and poor leadership that brought about rife corruption. Democracy, despite being a familiar word, is not very understood by many Malaysians, as a result of purposeful exclusion by those who stood to benefit from a weak democratic system. I felt this Democracy festival happened at a crucial time as it reminds us about our incessant struggle to demand for good governance. While the festival brought together journalists, local leaders and activists from all over the region; it also provided an opportunity to learn from each other and connect with communities faced with the same issues.


The “Democracy in Action” exhibition were one of the festival highlights and I managed a visit a few days before it ended. Held at  Publika, Kuala Lumpur; this show was in conjunction of the Forces of Renewal in southeast Asia (Forsea) Democracy festival spearheaded by charismatic political activist and thinker Hishammudin Rais and supported by the Prime Minister’s office.


There were photographs of performance art, DIY banners and signages used during the Bersih rallies, caricatures and even an installation of Radio Bangsar Utama broadcasting station. The artworks in the exhibition are intended as a form of “documentation” commenting on “social issues around southeast Asia” and it presents the various ways and mediums in which the artist respond to the event and politics visually.  


My main motivation to the exhibition was to catch “Sabah Tanahairku” by Pangrok Sulap.

“Sabah Tanahairku” by Pangrok Sulap. (Photo credit: Suzy Sulaiman)

And there it stood, very handsomely behind the red wall at the entrance. The brute aesthetic of the artwork gave off a visual flavour that I’ve come to relate with the Malaysian punk rock scene. Read as “twins”,  the huge 8 foot-ish tapestry-like woodcut prints depicted two realities; the ideal and the real. On the ideal, it has the typical tourism narrative, everyone is smiling, holding hands in their traditional wear with the “Rukun Negara” (a pledge to the nation) in the middle, whereas the reality shows deforestation, corruption, flooding and suffering of the people-tied to a large bespectacled moustached man; the stereotype politician who accepts “dirty” money. This scene is carefully juxtaposed with the “Batu Bersurat”, scriptures written on stone that laid out local rules and regulations.


Then a memory resurfaced.

The first time this artwork was exhibited, ‘Sabah Tanahairku’ it made a huge impact among the local art scene; both good and bad. Because of the uncomfortable “censorship” it was subjected to, reputations were tarnished and friendships were scarred. Distrust and disappointment were rife and now, looking back, I can’t help but wonder if this was just a matter of bad timing. If Pangrok Sulap exhibited this, post GE13, could it of still had the same effect on the art scene?


Needless to say, this fiasco propelled the art collective Pangrok Sulap to stardom, as it lead to other countries and biennales to take interest in their works. I remembered Yee I-Lann said something like, ”Censorship in art, almost never works” or something to that effect.


Exhibition as a political tool


Then I started to question the role of an exhibition and how an exhibition can catapult an artist into the public’s eye. It’s a form of communicating to the public audience and as creators/organizers, we must be mindful about what we put out there.


It’s vital to know that an exhibition never carries a neutral story. It is almost always about someone’s story and as visitors, we must be aware of this fact. No matter how big or small the exhibition, organizing an exhibition requires resources. It will need many forms of commitment, either money, time or human resources and who decides what story is shown, is usually the person or organization who’s “paying”  for the show.


I experienced the same ideological dilemma when I curated “Merata Suara”. The question of “how can I present the voices of the margin when an exhibition is  grand narrative itself” gnawed at the back of my mind constantly throughout the project.


Shifting my gaze to the “Democracy in Action” exhibition, I took note that the FORSEA Democracy Festival is a Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) backed event. I understood this as the new government’s stand on democracy. on to lead about  presenting the “Malaysia Baru”, or the pakatan manifesto, to the urban upper middle class and the Pakatan Harapan government wants to be associated with democracy and reinforcing that idea.


And usually these things start small. I watched the Semenyih election campaign on national TV recently and found that no airtime was given to BN candidate, in terms of interviews or speaking on air, and I questioned this one-sided reporting by the newscasters. The PH candidate, on the other hand, was given airtime and was even endorsed by the DPM herself, Dr. Wan Azizah, after the officiated an event nearby. I noticed this disturbing pattern of muffling the voice of the ‘other’ reeks of BN regime tactics.


Providing a balance of ideologies


Surprisingly this behaviour of putting ‘the other’ on mute was also present in this exhibition. Although I was very delighted to see caricatures of Rosmah and Jho Low used during the Bersih rallies; the assertion of the ex-opposition voice was pretty obvious. I can’t help but wonder how a Barisan Nasional supporter would react to this exhibition because it seems that their political ideologies were not represented at all. And I can recall several colourful performance art by the UMNO regime such as beer bottle bashing, towel-clad Jamal and the Raja Bomoh teropong project.


From the streets to the art galleries


There were a substantial amount of artworks that came directly from street protests, in the forms of banners, caricatures for rallies and photojournalistic images of performance art. This provided for quick survey of the different mediums when activism crosses with art.

These artworks were never intended for the art gallery viewing. They were created with a street demonstration in mind. They needed to be able to move with the protestors, that carried bold and clear messages to the photographers and newscasters on the front-line.

Detail of artwork by Indonesian collective Taring Padi. (Photo Credit: Suzy Sulaiman)

Having these works removed from the context it was made for, presents an interesting challenge and definitely gives a different reading of them especially in an exhibition by a government that wants to claim it as their story.


There were also artworks that were art gallery ready. Works by artists like Ahmad Fuad Osman, Shaq Koyok and Pungrok Sulap were clearly meant to be inside a gallery space.  Exhibiting them together provides a challenging reading of space, perhaps this as a way to flatten the exclusivity of an artform. For example, how paintings and sculptures are perceived as products of the high art salons, juxtaposed with DIY (do-it-yourself) banners and comic by Zunar. For me, this presented a rather democratic reading of art forms.


The intention was to move away from aesthetic as a value marker, by placing value on the artwork’s ability to present a “constructive voice in society”, so here we can find caricature of Rosmah is on the same plane in terms of ‘value’ as a Fuad Osman’s installation from his recent “Primitive” solo exhibition.

Shaq Koyok’s Land Of Hopelessness (2015),  highlights the silent battles of Orang Asal communities with modern “development”. (Photo credit: Suzy Sulaiman)


An exhibition is a medium used as an expression of power. With all these social-political dynamics at the get-go, it’s challenging task to be fair and democratic in exhibition-making.

In the context of this exhibition,  a visual dialogue could be presented of the two sides, that would call for the audience or visitor to step in and decipher. What is missed in this exhibition is  the voice of the opposition, in this case, the Najib supporters also need to come into the picture. Malaysia Baru must allow a space for critical debate so that Malaysians can participate in the making of civic sphere.

Malaysians can benefit from a strong opposition voice because this provides a way of check and balance to the government of the day. With both sides present, armed with important issues of the rakyat, this would reinforce democracy in the country. This is when citizens need to be active and more critical because, just as Ambiga said,”..once the new government gets used to the power, its difficult to change.”

Even though we have all grown up with the word democracy, we’re still far away from experiencing the fruits of a working democratic country.  But if we continue to be critical of whatever enters our public space, like exhibitions, we’re on the road to restoring ourselves.

“A sea of change is not an individual affair, it is a collective, collaborative and complementary process.”

-Intan Rafiza Abu Bakar (curator)










Exhibitionary Complex by Tony Bennett



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