“The Malaysian public sees contemporary art as an entertainment and commodity,” says Shooshie Sulaiman when asked to describe the cultural scene in her home country. “Shopping malls are the new art spaces,” she continues. “Art institutions are irrelevant.” Patrons act as “owners of our contemporary myth factory”.
It’s a bleak portrait. But perhaps a familiar one, even to those involved in art scenes to the east and west (and Far West, from where I am emailing her) of the Malay Peninsula. But it’s not a hopeless one. Particularly for Sulaiman, an artist whose openness to the experience of life often leads to work that allows positives to manifest themselves in apparent negatives. While by no means overexposed, her work as an artist has been recognised internationally in some of the largest of the ‘artworld’s’ group extravaganzas, such as Documenta 12 (2007) and last year’s Gwangju Biennale. A doer as much as a thinker, she has also established a series of independent art spaces in her hometown of Kuala Lumpur, and remains in active dialogue with artist groups around Southeast Asia on subjects of artistic and personal freedom.
“Making art is like drinking water when you are thirsty, or eating when you are hungry,” she says with characteristic straightforwardness. “It’s nonexclusive to me. It doesn’t matter what you call art.” Consequently her work operates in an expanded field (and media ranging from drawing and portraiture, to installation and architecture, via performance, archives, libraries and writing). Two site-specific installations – Kedai Runcit No. 12 (Sundry Shop No. 12, 2011) and Kedai Gambar Goldie No. 12 (Goldie Photo Shop No. 12, 2012) – took the form of, respectively, a traditional Malaysian general store (selling food and art objects) and a 1960s/70s-style photography studio (offering portraits against backdrops of a sunset over water or the Malaysian Houses of Parliament). Neither looks like a conventional artwork, both were exhibited at Art Stage Singapore, both offered a critique of the market environment in which they were placed but simultaneously grounded it in something of the history of the place in which the art fair was located (Singapore sits at the tip of the Malay Peninsula and was formerly a part of its northern neighbour), both articulated a sense of pleasure (offering local people local foodstuffs at local prices or the thrill of a fantasy photo) and both were made with a group of friends under the ‘12’ umbrella – the gallery space Sulaiman opened in 2007. Although Sulaiman describes being an artist as a “responsibility”, she doesn’t necessarily articulate that as a burden.
Her work isn’t just about finding a place for art in a contemporary world (that seeks to turn it into either an empty commodity or a propaganda tool), but also about understanding the place of people – not least herself – in that world. Multiethnic, postcolonial Malaysia, of course, has its fair share of complications, with any sense of nationhood having to compete with or incorporate the country’s different ethnic groupings (primarily people of Chinese, Indian or Malay origin). And it’s a politics that has played out in art either via a polite silence or, with Malay Muslims who make work about their identity, is often seen as necessarily pursuing racist or nationalist agendas (added to all this, Islam is established as the official religion – and the religion of all ethnic Malays – in Malaysia’s constitution, although almost 40 percent of the population practices other forms of religion). After the 1969 race riots in Kuala Lumpur, the artist explains, “freedom of individual expression was given up, in exchange for national security… our silence dilemma started”.
Sulaiman can claim to sit somewhat in the middle of this. She was born to a Chinese mother and a Malay father, both of whom she lost when she was relatively young – her mother when she was three, her father when she was twenty-two – a situation that led to her own ‘silence dilemma’ and a feeling that she needed to block a lot of memories of her parents because they were so inevitably connected to tragedy. She describes studying art (at ITM in Selangor, Malaysia) as being “a healing mechanism” rather than anything centred around notions of the production of objects, and although she does produce works that are shown in commercial galleries and art fairs (she has worked with Tomio Koyama Gallery in Singapore since 2012, a relationship that she feels has made her more aware of “being” an artist), that spirit remains ever present in her work. No more so than in an epic series titled Sulaiman itu Melayu (Sulaiman Was Malay, 2013).
‘Sulaiman refers to me, my father, but also to what it means to be Malay,’ the artist said in conversation with curator Melanie Pocock and artist Hasnul J. Saidon at the time. ‘It’s what I would describe as “inverted overlapping”, a process through which I explore seemingly opposite ideas within the same entity.’ The work itself comprises a series of drawings and writings; Sulaiman bought a home, a replica of her parents’ wooden house in Muar, Johor, featuring an inscription from the Quran recited when someone passes away; and Sulaiman is a rubber tapper (a collaboration with I Wayan Darmadi), for which four portraits of the artist’s father were carved into four rubber trees (one facing Mecca, the others facing east, south and north) planted by the artist’s father on his one-acre plantation in Segamat, Johor, the sap that bled from the trees collected and placed in moulds bearing a portrait of the elder Sulaiman within a border featuring the flowery motif of what she terms the Muqaddam, a small Quran, and the sheets then exhibited. The final component is a patchwork Malaysian flag made up of flags from various Malaysian political parties and suitably coloured fabrics donated by friends.
The suite of works is as complex as its subject matter (and I say this conscious of the fact that I am the product of a union between an ethnic Sri Lankan Tamil who was born in Kuala Lumpur and an Englishman of German-Jewish origin), nodding towards both personal and universal identity, evoking both tangible and intangible knowledge, the location of the self in relation to the past and the present, a respect for tradition (incorporating forms of animism) and the possibility of its adaptation and reconfiguration. “My work explores the possibilities of a Malay identity,” the artist says. “Not as something fixed! What I often argue for is an understanding of how nuanced, ambiguously complicated Malay identity is… a lifetime of debate might not also solve any position of self-identity, but will perhaps give chances to imaginary horizons.” Perhaps most importantly of all, the work, and Sulaiman’s art in general, explores how we relate to particular situations, and how that particular relation might be shared through art. “We are our consciousness,” Sulaiman says, “and art is related to a higher consciousness that gives more understanding in coping with the nature of reality.”
This past August, Sulaiman set up a MAIX (Malaysian Artist Intention Experiment), a new collective artist platform offering research, exhibition and discussion facilities in Kuala Lumpur. For January’s edition of Art Stage Singapore, she will continue such explorations by organising another artists’ initiative platform titled SEA (South East Asia/Social Engagement Artists) with Thai artist Arin Runjang and Indonesian Ucap, of collective Taring Padi, which will launch with a roundtable talk. Its goal, however, lies beyond the scope of any fair: to initiate a bigger and wider discussion about Southeast Asian art, culture and social engagement, and to try to initiate interest and understanding about the inside perspective of assimilation within what Sulaiman calls “the overlapping Kingdom”. “When I was in school, I was always proud to have a name that sounded Indian, and my face Chinese, and Malay by law,” she says of her own overlapping identity. “Human beings dislike stability or harmony, this doesn’t stir good knowledge, some say. Strangely, I miss harmony. Why not?”
In Hong Kong for Art Basel? Don't miss ArtReview's Editor Mark Rappolt, who will discuss socially engaged practices in South East Asia with Shooshie Sulaiman, Mohamad ‘Ucup' Yusuf and Bo Zheng, 6-7pm, Sunday 14 March.
This article was first published in the Spring 2015 issue of ArtReview Asia.