(3,747 words, 12-minute read)
Editor’s note: This is a transcript of a podcast recording which cannot be shared due to poor audio quality. It has been lightly edited for clarity.
ArtsEquator (AE): Hello everyone. Welcome to the ArtsEquator podcast. My name is Nabilah Said, I am the editor of ArtsEquator and this is my first time hosting our podcast. I’m very excited to have with me today three visual artists, Norah Lea, Farizi Noorfauzi and Zulkhairi Zulkiflee, who will be talking about an exhibition that will be opening on August 2nd at the Objectifs Chapel Gallery, titled MAT. Now before we go into that, I just wanted to give some short introductions to our guests today. Zulkhairi Zulkiflee (SIKAP) is the show’s curator. Zulkhairi is a visual artist, educator and exhibition-maker based in Singapore. His practice explores the notion of Malayness in response to knowledge production, the social agency and distinction/taste. Next, we have Norah Lea, an artist whose works investigate the performative aspects of our identities. Her work is rooted in self-portraiture, exploring themes such as gender, sexuality and ethnicity through photography, film, performance and spoken word. And we also Farizi Noorfauzi, a multi-disciplinary artist who works predominantly with media and performance art. He is interested in investigating the relevance of culture, specifically within the unique socio-cultural context of Singapore as an intersection of diasporic cultures. Hi everyone, welcome.
Zulkhairi Zulkiflee (ZZ), Norah Lea (NL) and Farizi Noorfauzi (FN): Hi (laughter).
AE: Maybe we can start with Zulkhairi, talking to us about this exhibition, interestingly, provocatively titled MAT. What is this exhibition about?
ZZ: Right, thanks Nabilah. MAT is actually a photography exhibition featuring three of us. And the term “mat” itself is a Malay vernacular [term], that maybe came from the… it’s a shorthand of Muhammad lah, which is a popular name, right? But then again “mat” could also mean a lot of other things depending on one’s interpretation lah and understanding. The works that you’re going to see are works that we can also put it as “lens-based” media works, because, for example, like Norah is showing a film – a video – and Farizi is showing videos and prints that basically document his performative works and for me specifically, I’m actually using found images.
AE: Maybe Farizi, it would be a good time to talk about… how exactly the work that you are bringing to this exhibition… how it relates to the term “mat” and what this title means to you and your practice.
FN: I guess for me my practice revolves around exploring my personal experiences and my background as a Malay-Muslim. And so, in my practice, I kind of question all of that, in investigating the relevance of culture and encouraging the exploration of identity detached from inherited and imposed identities. I think that kind of ties in into the intentions of MAT which is an ironic use of a general term describing Malay males and that is juxtaposed with our works, which are basically alternative explorations of the Malay identity. So that’s how my practice kind of ties in with the exhibition.
AE: And you’ll be showing…
FN: I’ll be showing videos, photographic prints as well as a performance for the opening night.
AE: And Norah?
NL: I do self portraits, and one reason why Zul approached me in the first place was because I did a portrait of myself as a Bugis person. So I was basically acknowledging my grandfather’s heritage and the diversity [of] gender identities that Bugis heritage acknowledges. So moving forward into MAT, I am showing a work called Past & Present Lives of ___. So it’s a three-channel video work. Basically, I am performing what I believe to be previous reincarnations of me in my past lives. I guess one interesting point is that I am performing roles of women through my transgender body. Outside of my work, you know, I am easily mistaken as a “mat” because on days where I don’t have makeup, you would definitely think I’m a “mat”. If I go to the nasi padang stall, the Auntie is going to say “Mat, nak makan apa?”. “What do you want to eat, mat?”, you know? So that’s how I’m involved in the show and I think for me it’s also another point of departure of what the “mat” could be as well.
AE: So what about you, Zul, because you’re an artist in this exhibition as well?
ZZ: Right. Well for me specifically, I think I see the term “mat” as a term that is often used by perhaps, middle-class Malays as a term to sort of create a distinction between a group of Malay people of a lower class standing. I think I am very compelled by the term, and perhaps, as a gesture of, you know, as a colonial gesture in some sense, I want to use this word [as a] point of departure to really unpack other facets of Malay identity. I think with three of our works, we are really looking into different facets of Malay identity or in some sense, I will put it as the excesses and remainders of identity beyond what we understand Malay identity is, which is very essentialised most of the time.
AE: The title MAT also comes from a show that you all were part of last year – Malais A Trois – if I am pronouncing it correctly. Can you tell us a little bit about that show and maybe what other resonances [are] carried through this show, if any?
ZZ: With that show, it was a two-day experimental show. Our friend from Sobandwine actually invited us to use their space and the show was called Malais A Trois. It came from the word “menage a trois” which is basically a relationship between three people in the same household. So it was a witty play on that term. Basically I really wanted to look at how [with] my practice specifically, if it were to be extended towards a curatorial way, how it could look like in an exhibition space. And I’ve been following Farizi’s and Norah’s work. So in that sense, I think that’s how things came about. If we look at this current show right now, MAT at Objectifs, there are some perhaps additions in terms of what we are trying to look into, [such as] looking at this idea of the decolonial.
AE: And the exhibition is longer as well.
ZZ: (laughs) Definitely, thank God.
AE: It is almost a month [long], consisting also of performances and talks and other things which we can talk about maybe a bit later. I think with this term “mat”, not that I’m trying to harp on it, but I think it’s also a provocative title, maybe also problematic, complex, challenging, but it also comes with opportunities, I think? Maybe we can talk a little bit about that, especially as three Malay people who are talking about “matness” and what it means, and maybe it comes with certain gender preconceptions.
ZZ: When we think about the word “mat” right, there is usually a pairing to the word. So maybe we can think of “mat rep”, “mat rocker”, “mat kental” and how this pretty much refers to specific group identities. For us, one way or another we have experienced a situation where some people call us “mat” and you know, maybe the term was used on us as a way to create some distinction or to put us in a certain place, or discount certain things that we do, for example. I think for me specifically, how this show came about was [looking] at how “mat” can be a subversive term and how we can actually explore that. But maybe Farizi would like to share more about what he thinks about the term “mat”.
FN: For me “mat” is a term that I think is a generalisation of Malay males because I feel like it is among the stereotypes that Malay people experience. [It is also] a given term for certain Malay males who may not also identify with the term. So it’s an imposed identity as well. And collectively we are all kind of compelled by the term, because that’s what we feel as well. We are trying to explore alternative sites of the Malay identity. And I think unintentionally, we also go through the same lived experiences or, you know, the implications of the term “mat”. What we’re trying to do with the exhibition and by titling it MAT is to redefine and in a sense reclaim the idea of what a “mat” is. By breaking the stereotypes of “mat”, we are trying to re-suggest new possibilities of what the term means so that it can be normalised and not just be an exaggerated stereotype.
AE: It’s quite funny that [with what all] three of you are saying, I obviously think about the parallels in the term “minah” and how also it’s been used on me, and sometimes you resist it and sometimes you feel like it others you but other times you kind of claim it as well. Sometimes it can be also empowering. So I wonder if you thought about that as well?
NL: I mean, it’s funny that you say that sometimes you would resist the term “minah”, but for me, I would love for someone to say “Eh minah” or “Look at this minah”. I mean the term “mat”, like you said, it’s very much gendered, right? So there’s this very strong implication that it is masculine. The way I see it and why I participated in this – MAT can also be seen as a framework, as a vessel. So I mean if “mat” is imposed identity, and “mat” is what is imposed on you based on your external then what other “mat-isms” or the pluralisms that can come about from just this vessel alone? And I think that’s what we all try to do. For example, Farizi with his performances of what he thinks a “mat” should [and] shouldn’t do, and with Zul looking at “mats” of a different era. Whereas for me, I’m not even looking at “mat”. For me like, ok lah, this is what you see, but I am presenting you a different narrative altogether. I think that’s how the three of us can offer – I wouldn’t say so much as redefine what a “mat” could be – but using MAT as a framework, as a beginning point and then see where we can go from there.
AE: Talking about “mats” of a different generation, Zul’s work, if I’m not wrong, are photographs of your father? What are you trying to convey or explore with that and what have you discovered through looking at photographs of your father?
ZZ: Well with my previous work, I used an image that can be considered an official image because you can find those images in the National Archives of Singapore. So currently with these images that I’ve used as material in my work, it’s a repository of about 60 images of my father. And it’s pretty much is a personal material and I find it’s very important to also share these images in the visual arts just so that it can provide an alternative understanding of how Malay people are not only seen in one way. I think that what Norah mentioned earlier about “mat” of a different generation, I think during that period of time in the ’70s and ’80s we had this term called the “mat rocker” which is pretty much a group of people who are very into music of that time but somehow in the ’90s, the “rocker” term became something else, maybe some of us would understand as “matrep”. So, you know basically it’s a social lag or it’s also a Malay vernacular term lah. In that sense, I think conveniently, the work that I’m doing right now has a lot of relevance to the curatorial premise of this current show. Nevertheless, with my work I just want to show an alternative side of how Malay people were like and maybe perhaps could be in the coming time.
AE: What made you apply for this open call that Objectifs put out?
ZZ: Firstly I think it’s a great initiative on the part of Objectifs because I don’t recall [seeing] such opportunities [previously], and I thought it would be a waste if I [didn’t apply for it]. And more than ever, I think the fact that me and Norah and Farizi already have a certain sense of synergy, right? I thought it’d be a great professional exercise to really put it out there and see what are the responses. I think we are very grateful to have been selected by the Objectifs team to do this inaugural show under the Curator Open Call.
AE: And this [show] is part of a curatorial group called Sikap?
ZZ: With Sikap it’s something that I founded, and I call it a project group, but I think with a lot collectives and what we really understand from the term “collective”, there must be some form of fixed membership. So with Sikap, it’s actually a group where people can come into it and maybe work or collaborate. But there is no fixed membership per se. So in this instance, for this show, me, Farizi and Norah are working together. Before this Sikap has also organised other shows as well, and with that different artists worked with me and we worked together to create shows.
AE: And “sikap” meaning…
ZZ: “Sikap” if you translate it into English, is “attitude”. It’s pretty much inspired by this exhibition maker called Harald Szeemann and he created a show called When Attitude Becomes Form. So it’s a very radical way of curating. I was very compelled by the word “attitude”, so I call it Sikap.
AE: Maybe we can talk about the performative aspect of Malay identity and whether this was a conscious part of this exhibition. The idea of identity making or image making as well and how performance feeds into that.
FN: For me performance is important in my practice because I have been looking at Malay-Muslim traditions and rituals. I think by nature they are very performative routines and so as I am investigating or exploring into bringing this to the forefront of my practice, I think naturally performance just became a part of my practice. I have a tendency to reimagine these traditions and rituals and so performance is for me the best or the most appropriate medium that I saw in addressing these questions.
AE: Could you give an example of the rituals that you look at?
FN: I have to have a work called Let’s Swim and basically it’s a video of me on the beach where there are three cloths that are meant to represent the dominant religious groups in Singapore and what I do is I put on the cloths according to how I would imagine the cloth is being worn in that specific religion, and I routinely walk into the ocean and submerge the cloths. Yeah, and performance was relevant in that work because for the… there was an orange cloth meant to represent the Buddhist culture and the way that I put on the cloths – I went to do some research on how cloth was worn in the Buddhist culture itself. I mean, I was in no way attempting to assimilate fully, but it was an attempt to reference religious rituals in that aspect.
AE: Norah would you like to weigh in? Image making is a big part of your practice right?
NL: For my work, Past & Present Lives of ___, I was look specifically at a lot of ethnographic texts such as the Sejarah Melayu (the Malay Annals), even Malay Magic, and I was looking at Barbara Watson Andaya’s book, The Flaming Womb. During the six months of research, I would highlight every single time I came across a mention of a feminine figure and then I would also highlight mentions of trans/queer characters. So male bodies that perform femininity. And in terms of lighting for my work, I was really influenced by… I was watching a lot of P. Ramlee films to learn how they would light, as well as how they would dramatise the facial expressions. With a lot of the texts that I was looking at, they were very pre-modern, before colonialism, all the way up until early colonialism. I was specifically looking at how women were being portrayed and I was very interested in the idea of inherited trauma and you know, because I choose to identify as a woman, I am also inheriting a history that previously I might not have been aware about. This is my way of looking at it and learning and I’m not saying that I am re-performing the trauma but rather this is looking at trying to learn how is it that I can perform something that other woman when they see it, they will immediately know like “Hey, I felt this way before”. So that was something that I focused on a lot in terms of how performance could translate into my visual artmaking.
AE: What about the role of photography as a medium in this exhibition?
ZZ: I think photography is a very powerful medium, and I think it is so powerful to a point that sometimes we may internalise certain ideas of different racial groups, etc, to a point where it becomes like a trope. I think it seems like a logical way, with the three of us and how we deal a lot with visuals, specifically photography, or if you would like to call it lens-based media. I think it’s a great way to also undo and reveal certain excesses of identity that often we have not been able to showcase, you know. It is also a very communicable, a very quick way to communicate certain ideas and I think [it just] makes sense.
AE: Can you tell us more about the programmes in this exhibition?
ZZ: We have a guest talk by Dr. Nazry Bahrawi. He is going to be introducing ideas on the decolonial, like what does the decolonial entail and this has become a word that most of us have heard. Personally for me I think it is a great term to allow people to collectivise and understand works that try to go beyond Euro-centric ideals. So I think this is one programme we have that people should come and register for.
AE: It’s called Repel One Corner?
ZZ: Yes(laughs), it is a play on the word “matrep”, like “rep” in “Repel”.
AE: Oh really? But also “relak (relax) one corner” right?
ZZ: Yah. And it’s also a great way to sustain conversations beyond the exhibition because you know with exhibition sometimes, it’s very important to sustain a conversation and let the dialogue continue even beyond the visual works. Of course, [there is] the performance by Farizi, the opening performance. And the closing performance by Norah. For more details, you can go to the Objectifs website.
AE: Maybe we can close this episode with any remarks about the exhibition, or something you might want people to know going into it.
FN: I would start with the question of – do we think it is important to address this idea of the “mat” and how it is problematic as a term of generalising Malay people. I think it’s important because “mat” is very meaningful to me because ever since we did Malais A Trois last September, I mean, personally I’d hadn’t known Zul or Norah before the show. But when Zul approached me, I think when we did it and even though it was only for two days, which is a very short span of time, I became very emotionally attached to the show because I felt like we created an important space that we could talk about identities detached from maybe imposed or inherited identities. As Objectifs has generously enabled a more expansive version of the show, I think it’s important because ideas like “mat” or generalisation or stereotypification – it’s important to address the idea that culture is not a promise of homogeneity. With this space we are encouraging a platform or a space for people to really explore their own identities maybe detached from race, culture and the like.
NL: Come with an open mind and with an open heart, but also know that it’s not the be-all, end-all exhibition. When was the last time or when was the first time we heard of a lens-based exhibition that actually talks about Malayness specifically. For me, I think this is a milestone, a beginning point and I hope this will help us engage in inter-conversations as well intra- because I feel like, it’s one thing for other people to see us but we also need to be able to see ourselves. And maybe Zul can also talk about entry points. I think there are a lot of entry points in this show. There’s something for everybody, I feel.
ZZ: To echo Farizi and Norah, I think the exhibition is attempting to clear space. It depends on how you want to understand it – clear space, make space. You know, how the term can offer various entry points. So in this sense, you know, it’s not just about Malay identity specifically, but it’s something that can be connected to maybe like, you know, gender issues. It can also be looked from the angle of group affiliations or certain class issues, you know? Like what Norah mentioned, this shouldn’t be the show that ends everything. We hope more will come about, more iterations of this show can come about. And hopefully the conversation can be sustained.
AE: Thank you so much. This exhibition MAT will be running from 2nd August to 1st September at Objectifs Chapel Gallery. It sounds really exciting. Thank you so much for talking to us about it and I think with that, we will close off this session. Thank you and goodbye.
MAT, curated by Zulkhairi Zulkiflee (Sikap), is currently on at Objectifs Chapel Gallery till 1 Sept 2019.
Nabilah Said is the editor of ArtsEquator.