Outsiders' look at Malay identity

Iran-born artist Steve Lawler’s In Love With The World (above) comprises more than 100 cut-out elements and provides a snapshot of the diversity of the publishing scene from the 1950s to the 1970s, while Vertical Submarine artists Justin Loke and Fiona Ko
Iran-born artist Steve Lawler’s In Love With The World (above) comprises more than 100 cut-out elements and provides a snapshot of the diversity of the publishing scene from the 1950s to the 1970s, while Vertical Submarine artists Justin Loke and Fiona Koh created an imagined office of Malaysian writer Zainal Abidin Ahmad. ST PHOTO: ARIFFIN JAMAR
Iran-born artist Steve Lawler’s In Love With The World comprises more than 100 cut-out elements and provides a snapshot of the diversity of the publishing scene from the 1950s to the 1970s, while Vertical Submarine artists Justin Loke and Fiona Koh
Iran-born artist Steve Lawler’s In Love With The World comprises more than 100 cut-out elements and provides a snapshot of the diversity of the publishing scene from the 1950s to the 1970s, while Vertical Submarine artists Justin Loke and Fiona Koh (both above) created an imagined office of Malaysian writer Zainal Abidin Ahmad.ST PHOTO: ARIFFIN JAMAR

Malay print exhibition showcases artefacts from the 1900s and non-Malay artists' takes on the history of the publishing scene

An exhibition on the Malay publishing and print industry in the Straits Settlements from the 1920s to 1960s may seem niche, but it reveals itself to be more relevant to Singaporeans than initially perceived.

Mounted by the Malay Heritage Centre in Kampong Glam, the exhibition is titled Mereka Utusan, which has the dual meaning of "The Creation Of News" or "They Are Messengers". The non-ticketed exhibition runs till June 25.

On display are more than 100 artefacts from the Malay printing scene, including important publications such as Jawi Peranakkan, the first Malay newspaper published from 1876 to 1895, and editorial cartoons and advertisements of the time.

The exhibition also draws attention to the importance of Kampong Glam as a Malay publishing centre in the early 20th century. Printers and publishers in the area included The Royal Press, which published Hiboran, an entertainment tome which also featured political, social and cultural editorials; and Qalam Press, which published religious magazine Qalam, among other titles.

  • VIEW IT /MEREKA UTUSAN: IMPRINTING MALAY MODERNITY

  • WHERE: Malay Heritage Centre, 85Sultan Gate

    WHEN: Till June 25

    ADMISSION: Free

    INFO: malayheritage.org.sg

But while it shows the development of Malay identity and modernity over the years, the inclusion of commissioned artworks by nonMalay artists Vertical Submarine and Mojoko suggests that the exhibition has a wider relevance.

Vertical Submarine's installation, Written With Erasure, creates an imagined office of Malaysian writer Zainal Abidin Ahmad, or Za'ba, who was an early champion of using romanised letters instead of Jawi in order for Malay writings to reach a wider audience.

Justin Loke, 37, from the visual arts collective, says he was inspired by an exhibition about Malay publishing which he saw at the National Library a few years ago. He had bought the exhibition catalogue, from which he learnt more about Za'ba's contributions.

Incidentally, that exhibition was a joint project involving the Malay Heritage Centre as well.

The title of Vertical Submarine's work references the philosophical term "sous rature" ("under erasure" in French), where words are crossed out because they are unsuitable or inadequate, but remain legible and important for understanding a certain concept.

"Even after you erase something, you can still see traces of it. It's the idea that nothing really disappears. Jawi is still important even though it was eventually romanised," says Loke.

He also saw a parallel development in the Chinese language, as there are simplified versions of the characters and it can also be written in romanised letters, or hanyu pinyin.

British artist Steve Lawler's work is a 5m wide by 2m tall mural titled In Love With The World.

It is done in his signature digital collage style, which he produces under the moniker Mojoko.

Consisting of more than 100 cutout elements drawn from the archives of the Malay Heritage Centre, the mural provides a snapshot of the diversity of the publishing scene from the 1950s to the 1970s.

It includes old magazine covers, advertorials and images of important figures such as actor P. Ramlee and politician David Marshall.

According to two of the exhibition's curators, Ms Nadirah Norruddin, 25, and Ms Suhaili Osman, 37, the Iran-born Lawler was reminded of the publications from his home country while going through the archives.

Says Lawler, 39: "Without going into too much detail, I am a great fan of mining the past in terms of visual material and vintage or nostalgic imagery. So this project was something close to my heart and a pleasure to work on."

Both artists acknowledged that they are outsiders to the Malay culture and wanted to treat it with respect.

For example, Loke said that Written With Erasure does not feature the collective's signature cheeky humour as it did not want to be "overly playful". However, there are little surprises in the form of hidden Jawi letters in the installation.

Says Lawler: "It's always a bit nerve-racking to create public artwork, as there is always the danger that you may offend some people as well as expose yourself to criticism."

However, he added that the exhibition team was very supportive and helped him select key elements for the composition of the work.

The curators say it was not a conscious decision to work with nonMalay artists.

Instead, they were chosen for their strengths.

For example, Lawler's "eclectic background" was a draw - he grew up in Hong Kong, has lived in Singapore since 2003 and has an advertising background - as was his ability to create "quite different, quite exciting" work.

They also liked how Vertical Submarine had created imagined spaces in their previous works in exhibitions held at the Singapore Art Museum. The works of the 13-year-old Singapore art collective also often deal with language.

Says Loke: "For non-Malays, our contact with the language is usually through the names of food and learning it from friends. Singlish and some Chinese dialects also incorporate some Malay words, such as Hokkien's "loti" for bread.

"So we are affiliated, we are not totally unrelated to this language and culture."

Adds Ms Suhaili: "It was good that the artists were excited about this project. It was really a shared experience."


Five artefacts on show

1 CHANDLER & PRICE 'NEW SERIES' PLATEN PRESS

This United States-made press is believed to be from the 1920s. During that time, there were only a few publishing houses in Singapore, including British-run ones.

This 20.3cm x 30.5cm printing press would have been used to print small documents such as invoices.

It was formerly kept at Fort Canning Park, which used to be where the British barracks were. It is on loan from the National Parks Board.

2 PEPSI-COLA TINPLATE

This tinplate shows an advertisement for Pepsi-Cola written in Jawi that might have been displayed in provision shops or restaurants. It is not known when it was used.

It features a Western pin-up model and the writing translates to "Drink A Cold Pepsi-Cola: A Beverage For Friendship". Curator Suhaili Osman says this is consistent with advertisements for food and beverages of the time, which often extolled lifestyle and health benefits.

These advertisements were "often plugged into a larger global and Western experience", reflecting the "crossroads where Singapore was located". It was a colonial centre and yet these advertorials were being presented "to an audience that was very much not familiar" with that culture, Ms Suhaili said.

3 JAWI LETTERPRESS PLATE

This rare 20th-century Jawi letterpress plate from Malacca's The Royal Press bears the message "Progress and strength can only be achieved through unity".

This message of "Bersatu", or "Unity", was "a very popular political slogan back then", says curator Nadirah Norruddin.

Zubir Said, the composer of Singapore's national anthem, also wrote a song titled Bersatu in 1957.

4 HIBORAN FEATURING CHE' ATIMAH HAMIDAN

Hiboran was an entertainment publication which also featured political, social and cultural editorials. It was published by The Royal Press.

This issue, published in October 1955, featured Che' Atimah Hamidan, a recent graduate from the University of Malaya, on the cover. This was a period of increasing advocacy for Malay and Muslim women's rights.

5 SPACE ISSUE OF MUTIARA

Malay literary digest Mutiara was published between 1948 and 1962 by The Royal Press and Harmy. This special issue from the 1960s featured stories about space exploration with a religious slant.

Ms Nadirah says that the proliferation of Malay articles covering space exploration from the 1950s ran parallel to the Sputnik age in the West. "This showed that the editors and publishers were very tuned in to what was happening in the world."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 27, 2016, with the headline 'Outsiders' look at Malay identity'. Print Edition | Subscribe