This May, we are pleased to announce the launch of an online exhibition – Being and Becoming: Of Femininities in the Malay World Through 50 Images. This exhibition is part of a research project, Being and Becoming Female in the Malay World: Interrogating and Curating the Photo-Archives of Early Singapore, supported by the National Heritage Board. The project is led by Associate Professor Maznah Mohamad of the Department of Malay Studies, NUS and the team consists of Dr Suriani Suratman, Dr Imran Tajudeen, also from the Department of Malay Studies, NUS and Associate Professor Dr Bahar Gürsel, from the Department of History of Middle East Technical University (METU), Ankara, Turkey.
The exhibition, hosted by ArtsEquator Ltd with web development by Tusitala, will be available for viewing online from 12 May 2022 and will feature collections of archival photographs, postcards and illustrations from the mid-1800s to the 1950s. Employing the three broad themes of Body, Space and Activity, these 50 primary images have been selected to raise questions, in the eyes of contemporary viewers, of received ideas on femininities, as they intersect with social class, place, race and empire in the Malay world.
Accompanying the online exhibition will be a series of seminars that will take a further dive into the themes explored in this exhibition. From discussing how women and femininities were represented, named, classified, eroticised, exoticised, commodified, and constructed as a racialised gender to re-reading colonial-era images, these seminars round off the full experience of journeying through Being and Becoming: Of Femininities in the Malay World Through 50 Images.
Official Launch and Seminar 1 & 2
Seminar 1: Constructing femininities and race: body-shopping and postcard capitalism presented by Dr Maznah Mohamad.
One of the most popular and lucrative means of photographic circulation during the early twentieth century was through the postcard. The postcard was also one of the earliest trans-regional commodities of communication through which short notes were dispatched globally. More significantly was the embellishment of images of peoples, landscapes and buildings on to these cards, feeding into the popular imagination of an imperialistic and colonised global order. This seminar explores the images of women etched in the collections of colonial postcards from the Malay and Indonesian world. It asks the following questions – how were women and femininities represented, named, classified, eroticised, exoticised, commodified, and constructed as a racialised gender? How would a reclamation of their authenticity, and dignity, be made possible through this revisitation of the postcard and its “body-shopping” of the subject?
Seminar 2: Pursuing the Woman in the White Dress: Photography and (Im)posed Female Images in the Malay World presented by Dr Bahar Gürsel
This seminar accentuates the magnitude of late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century studio photography in unveiling the representation of the female in the Malay world from the perspective of the white male coloniser. By emphasising the patriarchal nature of the colonial gaze, it brings forth the issue of the (im)posed (re)identification of the feminine self in the inhabited realm. It also questions how the probable “pre-given identities” of the colonised female were portrayed in various studio photographs, and probes —as Homi Bhabha denotes—whether the colonial subject (in)voluntarily “imitated” the white intruder via “mimicry” to become “a reformed, recognizable other.”
Date: Thursday, 12 May 2022
Time: 3pm – 5.15pm (GMT+8)
Venue: Online, Zoom
Open to Public, Free Admission
For more information and to register, visit https://bit.ly/beingandbecoming-1
Seminar 3 & 4
Seminar 3: Seeing beyond Empire: Heteroglossic readings of settings, subjects, and counter-othering in colonial-era photography by Dr Imran Tajudeen
How might we re-read colonial-era images in multivalent ways to account for the agency of the colonised? Examining images ranging from private studio portraits and school photographs to various staged portrayals and candid outdoor snapshots of Malay women in urban and rural contexts, this presentation investigates diverse and multiple readings to decentre colonial framing and explore other layers of visual information. The settings and subjects of images can be subjected to colonial (re)framing through their (re)labelling and recontextualisation, such as in the re-use of private studio portraits for multi-photo postcards. Yet conversely, a close reading of settings and subjects also enable multiple narratives to emerge beyond colonial expository contexts. The agency, motivations, and contexts behind colonial-era photography are also diverse, providing counterpoints with which to explore photography as the site for exchanges and encounters. For instance, indigenous/colonised women also employed photography for self-representation, while amateur and commercial photographers were not necessarily always producing images in the service of representing Empire.
Seminar 4: Assembling an imagined everyday life: Women’s work and place by Dr Suriani Suratman
In governing, colonial administrators comprehend new, unknown spaces of the colonies through their own forms of knowing and thinking. Photographs are important documentations of the governed spaces, in which the everyday life is imagined and assembled. Colonial ideas and ideology of colonized beings are thus succinctly captured through framed pictures on ways of doing. This presentation brings together photographs of women doing busy activities. The photographs explored in this presentation cover the range of everyday ways of working, by women, from the caring of children, to the preparation of meals, to the manufacture of wares and crafts. How do these representations of women tell us about the construction of colonial cultures? What do these representations unravel about women’s everyday lives? In assembling this set of photographs interpretive spaces and alternative narratives of the interactions between the colonizing and the colonized female can be critically discoursed.
Date: Thursday, 26 May 2022
Time: 3pm – 4.30pm (GMT+8)
Venue: Online, Zoom
Open to Public, Free Admission
For more information and to register, visit https://bit.ly/beingandbecoming-2
Being and Becoming: Of Femininities in the Malay World Through 50 Images engages with collections of archival photographs, postcards and illustrations from the mid-1800s to the 1950s. They feature people and places of the Malay world, encompassing the region of present-day Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia. In examining thousands of images held in collections all over the world, we select 50 iconic images to actively view them as living cultural products open to reinterpretation and methods of analysis. Employing the three broad themes of Body, Space and Activity, these 50 primary images have been selected to raise questions, in the eyes of contemporary viewers, of received ideas on femininities, as they intersect with social class, place, race and empire in the Malay world.
Date: 12 May 2022 – 31 Aug 2022
The exhibition will be made available for viewing from 12 May onwards at https://www.beingandbecomingmalayworld.com/
Image credits, clockwise: Boden-Kloss-National Archive Singapore, Farish Noor Collection, Malaysian Design Archive, Mational Museum of Singapore, Farish Noor Collection, Malaysian Design Archive.