Vis­ual iden­tity

From de­mean­ing ice cream wrap­pers to the Malaysian ‘Un­cle Sam’, the Malaysia De­sign Ar­chive is open­ing peo­ple’s eyes to the im­por­tance of aes­thet­ics to na­tional val­ues

Southeast Asia Globe - - Contents - By Kate May­berry

An ar­chive in Kuala Lumpur is telling the his­tory of Malaysia through de­sign

THE la­bel stuck to the front of the card­board box reads “ICE CREAM”. In­side, there are no tubs of melt­ing vanilla or choco­late, but in­stead three thick binders hold­ing yel­low­ing sheets of pa­per pasted with vin­tage ice cream wrap­pers – the Jolly Lolly’s pri­mary coloured graph­ics, the stylised fe­line of the Tiger Lolly and a lus­ciously haired girl in tra­di­tional Malay dress on the Ro­hani Stick.

The de­pic­tion of an indige­nous man, clad in a loin cloth with buck teeth and wild hair, seems a rather odd way to mar­ket a pop­si­cle – the Jun­gle Boy – but these wrap­pers form the kind of col­lec­tion that thrills Ezrena Mar­wan, a graphic de­signer and lec­turer on vis­ual cul­ture who founded the Malaysia De­sign Ar­chive (MDA) in 2008.

“We can find sto­ries in our ev­ery­day things,” Ezrena says as she leafs through the pages of pack­ag­ing, con­sid­er­ing what she’s learned dur­ing the ar­chive’s al­most ten years in ex­is­tence. “We should al­ways look at the dif­fer­ent facets of each ob­ject. There are a lot of as­sump­tions when we look at a piece of work, and we rarely look at it through a lens of, say, gen­der or sex­u­al­ity. We don’t re­alise these are pow­er­ful arte­facts that do cre­ate mean­ing, and how that re­flects who we are and our re­la­tion­ships.”

Un­like the Na­tional Ar­chive, which houses gov­ern­ment pa­pers, pho­to­graphs and films – an of­fi­cial his­tory – MDA takes a more peo­ple-ori­ented ap­proach, with the goal of ed­u­cat­ing Malaysians about how de­sign has mir­rored and moulded their coun­try’s so­cial and po­lit­i­cal de­vel­op­ment. The ar­chive is di­vided into the four ma­jor eras of mod­ern Malaysian his­tory – colo­nial­ism, oc­cu­pa­tion, Emer­gency and, fi­nally, in­de­pen­dence.

“It was meant to in­ter­ro­gate the sym­bol­ism be­hind all the graph­ics that are around us and ask ques­tions about our own his­tory... It just grew and grew,” Ezrena told South­east Asia Globe dur­ing an in­ter­view at the Zhong­shan Build­ing, which dates from the 1950s and has been re­fur­bished as a hub for the arts in Kuala Lumpur. MDA moved there this year.

MDA’s new lo­ca­tion has in­tro­duced it to a broader sec­tion of Malaysian so­ci­ety, be­yond the coun­try’s de­sign and his­tory buffs. Across the hall­way is an art stu­dio; down­stairs, a law firm. A café has just opened on the floor above. MDA’s ris­ing pro­file has had a snow­balling ef­fect. The ar­chive is cat­a­logu­ing the col­lec­tion of re­gional art ex­pert Valen­tine Wil­lie and pre­par­ing for a spe­cial event to mark the 60th year of in­de­pen­dence by invit­ing Malaysians to tell the story of the coun­try through a sin­gle ob­ject.

On the wall be­hind the desk is one of Ezrena’s favourite pieces, a Malaysian ver­sion of Amer­ica’s Un­cle Sam or Bri­tain’s Lord Kitchener that she dis­cov­ered, for­got­ten, in the poster sec­tion of the Na­tional Ar­chive.

Rolled out by the Min­istry of In­for­ma­tion in 1951 as Com­mu­nist guer­ril­las fought the Bri­tish in what was known as the Emer­gency, it shows an eth­nic Malay man in tra­di­tional dress hold­ing a flag in one hand and point­ing his fin­ger to­ward the viewer, urg­ing them to join the coun­try’s po­lice force. The text is in Jawi, the Ara­bic script of the Malay lan­guage. When Malaya got its in­de­pen­dence, the flag be­came the em­blem of the new na­tion.

“To me, it sums up what vis­ual cul­ture is in Malaysia and how it in­ter­sects and un­earths so many lay­ers,” Ezrena says. “These are pow­er­ful sym­bols of what we are – the flag, the cos­tume and the Jawi text. It’s a male sym­bol of the na­tion state.”

The poster was a high­light of MDA’s first ex­hi­bi­tion, As We See It: His­tory Through Vis­ual De­sign, at the Na­tional Art Gallery in Kuala Lumpur. The show was staged as a guide to the coun­try’s vis­ual his­tory, from a book of “Malayan” nurs­ery rhymes pro­duced while the coun­try was a Bri­tish colony to posters that sought to de­fine the ideals of the mul­ti­cul­tural na­tion that emerged as an in­de­pen­dent state 60 years ago this month.

“In any era – colo­nial, the oc­cu­pa­tion or post-in­de­pen­dence, there’s a power to de­sign,” said Zachary Ong, a graphic de­signer and for­mer pres­i­dent of wREGA, the Graphic De­sign As­so­ci­a­tion of Malaysia, who in­vited MDA to stage the ex­hi­bi­tion as part of a big­ger project that is in­tended to in­ves­ti­gate the past, present and fu­ture of de­sign in Malaysia.

“[The ex­hi­bi­tion] was some­thing that we needed to do,” he says. “Baby Boomers were part of the tran­si­tion [to in­de­pen­dence], but Gen­er­a­tion Y was not. There’s a men­tal gap. The ar­chive res­onates with us be­cause it’s like a miss­ing piece of the puz­zle. MDA has gath­ered an im­mense cache of arte­facts that tell the story of how graphic de­sign was used back then and shows de­sign­ers that our role is more than just com­mer­cial; that it has a cer­tain in­tan­gi­ble power to in­flu­ence and to prop­a­gate a cer­tain mes­sage at a cer­tain time.”

Ezrena notes a ten­dency to look at Malaysia’s de­sign his­tory with a rather dewy-eyed nos­tal­gia, us­ing colo­nial posters for aes­thet­ics with­out con­sid­er­ing their mean­ing or con­text, or fail­ing to think about how de­sign was used by the in­de­pen­dence gov­ern­ment to shape the new na­tion’s iden­tity. She hopes MDA will start to fos­ter that sort of crit­i­cal think­ing about the past, and is step­ping up pub­lic en­gage­ment ef­forts through mem­ber­ships and events.

Art his­to­rian and cu­ra­tor Si­mon Soon came on board last year – the third mem­ber of the team is fem­i­nist ac­tivist Jac sm Kee – and has been in­stru­men­tal in or­gan­is­ing the ar­chive’s cal­en­dar of talks, which have cov­ered top­ics from In­done­sian graphic de­sign to artis­tic re­sponses to street protests in Malaysia.

“We share the same in­ter­ests in the in­ter­sec­tion be­tween art and pol­i­tics,” said Soon, who is an ex­pert in South­east Asian art and an aca­demic at the Univer­sity of Malaya’s Cul­tural Cen­tre. “Some­one like Ezrena has taken an ex­panded view – or def­i­ni­tion – of what de­sign is and this has crys­tallised into our fo­cus on vis­ual cul­ture in gen­eral. It’s not just about graphic de­sign his­tory, but also things like pho­tog­ra­phy, ur­ban spa­ces, ar­chi­tec­ture… things that have a vis­ual di­men­sion.”

Soon said the MDA team is mo­ti­vated by a de­sire to bet­ter un­der­stand a world


that is con­stantly be­com­ing more vis­ual. “Our in­ter­faces are less text-based, so how do we gain some form of lit­er­acy over the ex­pe­ri­ences we en­counter ev­ery day? It’s not just an ar­chive in the sense of record­ing things. It’s also to in­ter­pret it, which is why we do so many pub­lic pro­grammes.”

The phys­i­cal ar­chive takes up a num­ber of metal racks in a light-filled cor­ner of one of the rooms. Each box is iden­ti­fied, for now, with a pink post-it note. Old pho­to­graphs and sign­boards are propped up against the walls, with books, old tins and other para­pher­na­lia of the past laid out on the shelves among the boxes.

Some of the signs and photos are from the es­tate of T.J. Kho, a mod­ernist ar­chi­tect who de­signed the Ho­tel Malaya, once one of Kuala Lumpur’s top ho­tels. His fam­ily de­cided MDA was the ap­pro­pri­ate place for their late fa­ther’s old blue­prints, pho­to­graphs and de­sign per­spec­tives.

It was a sim­i­lar story with the ice cream pa­pers. Put to­gether by an ice cream ty­coon in the north­ern town of But­ter­worth – the wrap­pers are from his own com­pany’s brands as well as ri­vals – the date is recorded at the top of each sheet of pa­per, pro­vid­ing an in­sight into the in­dus­try as it evolved over time. When the ty­coon’s daugh­ter found the col­lec­tion, she could have thrown it away, but in­stead de­cided to give it to the ar­chive.

MDA has re­cently taken pos­ses­sion of a pro­fes­sional stand­ing scan­ner and a digital cam­era, which will en­able the team to scan arte­facts, in­clud­ing 3D ob­jects, more care­fully, and add the new ma­te­rial to the repos­i­tory. Soon, the Ro­hani Stick and all the other ice cream wrap­pers will be on­line for all to see: ap­par­ently or­di­nary things that tell a story of a time and place, the many lay­ers that to­gether cre­ate a coun­try’s vis­ual cul­ture.

A poster from 1951 urg­ing Malayans to join the coun­try’s

po­lice force in the midst of the Emer­gency (top); framed pho­to­graphs from the es­tate of T.J. Kho, a famed mod­ernist

ar­chi­tect in Malaysia

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