Ur­ban sprawl

Three rov­ing pho­tog­ra­phers shed new light on life in the city in a group ex­hi­bi­tion.

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - ART - By DINESH KU­MAR MAGANATHAN star2@thes­tar.com.my

WE think we know them. Ev­ery nook and cranny. Noth­ing had passed our sight un­no­ticed. Af­ter all, we did grow up in th­ese cities. We could, if we wanted to, name ev­ery street and cor­ner with no mar­gin of er­ror.

But, can one truly know the city one grew up and re­sides in that well? Our cities are still a mys­tery to us and that it­self makes life in the city ex­cit­ing, a jour­ney of sur­pris­ing dis­cov­er­ies.

For in­stance, who knew there is a tudung seller in the back al­leys of Chow Kit in Kuala Lumpur?

Well, Kuala Lumpur-born Azwan Mahzan knew about it. It came to him as a pleas­ant sur­prise, like a cool breeze on a hot sum­mer’s day. Walk­ing with his cam­era in the back streets of Kuala Lumpur, Azwan hap­pened to stum­ble upon this scene and knew at once he had to cap­ture the mo­ment.

“I thought that it was in­ter­est­ing that this man de­cided to open up his shop here and was not both­ered that there was a huge dump­ster next to his store. He even used it to dis­play the man­nequin heads with the head­scarves on. What was im­por­tant for him was to earn a liv­ing, and I think that is how peo­ple in KL func­tion,” re­counted Azwan, who works in pub­lish­ing and has been in­volved se­ri­ously in photography for the last 12 years.

And, this is the preva­lent theme in 69 Fine Art Gallery’s photography ex­hi­bi­tion called Con­text in Kuala Lumpur.

Gallery founder French­man Pa­trice Val­lete con­fessed that a photography ex­hi­bi­tion is not the eas­i­est art to pro­mote in fine art, adding that Malaysian pho­tog­ra­phers are not given the recog­ni­tion and rep­re­sen­ta­tion due them. But the Con­text ex­hi­bi­tion is a good start to ex­pose this in­creas­ingly grow­ing com­mu­nity.

Azwan joins Kuan­tan, Pa­hang-

born doc­u­men­tary film­maker Ma­hen Bala and Sin­ga­porean vis­ual artist/pho­tog­ra­pher Ale­cia Neo in this most il­lu­mi­nat­ing ex­hi­bi­tion that en­deav­ours to por­tray dif­fer­ent per­spec­tives of ur­ban liv­ing and the con­text and re­la­tion­ship of or­di­nary peo­ple in their nat­u­ral habi­tats.

This is nowhere more ev­i­dent than in Neo’s works. Known for her ex­plo­rations about peo­ple and their liv­ing space, Neo’s two-part se­ries – Home Vis­its and Hia­tus – fea­tures or­di­nary Sin­ga­pore­ans and Chicagoans in their re­spec­tive homes.

Ar­tis­ti­cally in­trigu­ing and aes­thet­i­cally as­tound­ing, there is a homely aura that em­anates from the pho­tos.

Ten­ants Dan­dan And Longzhi, un­der the Home Vis­its se­ries, for in­stance, de­picts two women, pos­si­bly in their early 20s, stand­ing in their shoe­box-sized kitchen.

The re­frig­er­a­tor is less than five steps from the sink and right next to the sink is the wash­ing ma­chine and im­me­di­ately above it, clothes dry­ing from the cloth­ing line. For many Sin­ga­pore­ans, this is home– a small apart­ment.

“My work is of­ten pre­med­i­tated, and my sub­jects are hy­per aware of be­ing pho­tographed. In Home Vis­its, I chose the most sim­ple and neu­tral stance, por­tray­ing a very di­rect re­la­tion­ship be­tween my sub­jects and I.

“I wanted to en­ter their homes be­cause I’m also in­ter­ested in their con­texts. Their home en­vi­ron­ments and pos­ses­sions are im­por­tant clues to how th­ese in­di­vid­u­als deal with lone­li­ness. And when the viewer con­fronts th­ese im­ages, they also be­come aware of the tan­gi­bil­ity of ob­jects, own­er­ship and what it means to them,” ex­plained Neo.

Azwan’s This Is KL se­ries, on the other hand, is one that is re­plete with vi­brant colours, pic­turesque scenes of KL’s back streets and most im­por­tantly, peo­ple cap­tured spon­ta­neously in th­ese places. Noth­ing staged or pre­med­i­tated here.

The pho­tog­ra­pher, who is also a rap artiste, quipped that many have en­quired about his street­wise Jalan Pe­tal­ing: Ice Man At Rest piece. He said peo­ple have won­dered if he had painted the back wall green for the sake of the pho­to­graph.

At first glance, the pho­to­graph would look staged. An el­derly ice ven­dor sits atop a red­dish-orange ice con­tainer and be­hind him is a lime green wall. In­ter­est­ingly, one would find a green and red mo­tif on his T-shirt, some­thing echo­ing the colours of the wall and the ice con­tainer.

But like many things in life, it was merely a co­in­ci­dence.

Black and white is the theme of Ma­hen Bala’s pho­tos of Tokyo. The peo­ple are not very much the fo­cus in this se­ries and nei­ther are the build­ings. Ev­ery­thing was taken in mo­tion, in the ac­tiv­ity of it all.

“My se­ries is about ob­ser­va­tions, lit­tle mo­ments in my own process of un­der­stand­ing the city. When I visit a new city, there is al­ways that ad­ven­ture and the process of try­ing to fig­ure out what ex­actly de­fines the city, what is the lan­guage of the city. My photographs cap­ture th­ese mo­ments,” Ma­hen ex­plained.

His Tokyo Se­ries #16 pho­to­graph shows a crowd of peo­ple, hold­ing um­brel­las, mov­ing in dif­fer­ent di­rec­tions. The blurred photo points to the wa­ter droplets on the cam­era lens. Ma­hen said he chose this par­tic­u­lar pho­to­graph, cap­tured dur­ing a typhoon warn­ing, as there was more than one el­e­ment (fear, anx­i­ety, crowd rush­ing, rain, etc) in it.

“That al­lowed for sto­ry­telling. You can look at one thing and then move on to the next thing and you sort of fill in the gaps with your own story. I re­frained from bom­bard­ing peo­ple with in­for­ma­tion,” added Ma­hen. And that ul­ti­mately makes Con­text a very so­cial af­fair, on top of an artis­tic one. One views a pho­to­graph with their own sto­ries and ideas, which then forms their un­der­stand­ing of it.

“The most fun you can have with photography is to al­low oth­ers look­ing at the pic­tures to in­ject their own sto­ries,” as­serted Azwan.

Con­text is on till Feb 15 at 69 Fine Art Gallery (22, Jalan Bruas, Da­mansara Heights, Kuala Lumpur). Vis­its are by ap­point­ment only. Con­tact Pa­trice Val­lete (019 3012 569) or visit www.fin­eart69.com.

Cool as a cu­cum­ber: azwan Mahzan’s JalanPe­tal­ing:IceMana­trest, which the pho­tog­ra­pher ex­plained was a spur-of-the-mo­ment shot that fell per­fectly into place in terms of mood, com­po­si­tion and colour.

Ma­hen bala said view­ers can fill in the gap with their own sto­ries for his at­mo­spheric Toky­oS­tory#16 photo.

Surveil­lanceS­tateOfMind (azwan Mahzan)

un­cleSan, which is part of ale­cia neo’s HomeVisits se­ries.

Toky­oS­tory#8 (Ma­hen bala)

Life in con­trast: a ma­jor part of ale­cia neo’s work is about re­flect­ing on how our iden­tity is em­bed­ded in our pos­ses­sions and homes. Her piece Tenants­dan­danandLongzhi (pic, left) cap­tures life in tiny Sin­ga­porean apart­ments, while TheHarpist (pic right) is a grand por­trait of a hall space in Chicago.

HomeFromMar­ket (azwan Mahzan)

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