Visualising a different map
Take a look at our country from a new perspective with Bibi Chew’s What If ... exhibition.
MOST of us can probably tell where Malaysia is on a map. But when was the last time any of us really took a look at the shape of our country? We might be familiar with the form of Malaysia’s general land mass, but what about the oulines and forms of the 13 states that make up the country?
Can we recognise them at a quick glance?
An exhibition by contemporary artist Bibi Chew called What If ... at the Shalini Ganendra Fine Art in Petaling Jaya encourages viewers to look at our country differently.
The show, which is an interactive mix of art, design and geography, also serves as platform to discuss issues such as nationalism, identity, culture and belonging.
“If you look at the maps of some other countries, they don’t have as many different states as Malaysia does.
“And the ones that do, how their states are divided are not very interesting. They are like straight, or diagonal cuts. But our country is very interesting,” says Chew, 48, speaking about her first solo exhibition early this week.
What If ... features 28 artworks and a site specific installation.
“When you cut up the states of the country, you notice they have very interesting, organic shapes! Their forms seem very alive and unique.”
Chew, who is also a lecturer at the Malaysian Institute of Art (MIA), started work on this long-awaited solo exhibition in late 2016.
Her Landed series (14 pieces) was produced in Nov 2016, while the intricate Where Have All The Rivers Gone? series (14 pieces) and the site-specific installation What’s Up, Map Down were both finished last month.
The KL-based artist’s previous works also form part of public collections at KL’s National Visual Arts Gallery (NVAG), Galeri Petronas, the Australian High Commission and the Singapore Ministry of Information and the Arts.
Back in 2000, Chew received the Major Award Recipient at the Young Contemporary Awards (presented NVAG). Since the mid1990s, Chew has shaped a career filled by thought-provoking art, which has been informed by her various residencies abroad and creative mindset.
At the moment, Chew’s Itu Malaysia – Biasa, O, Kaw Kaw, Kosong Cam & Kurang (2015) is
also showing at the Di Mana
Young? exhibition at NVAG.
But it’s the What If ... exhibition, which sparks healthy discussion of identity in these nationalist and post-nationalist times, that has been making heads turn in the art scene here.
As Chew’s first solo exhibition, it is definitely contains a strong body of works, which is no mean feat, considering her outstanding showing in Eternal Duties: Duoa ,a joint exhibition of the works with Sharmiza Abu Hassan in 2015.
What If ... is done in collaboration with the Barehands Vol. 1 Asian Artists Residency Project. It also marks the 20th anniversary of her return to Malaysia after leaving to pursue her studies at RMIT in Melbourne.
“I had been exploring issues of identity since being an art student in Australia. But it was such a different environment there. I was looking at my own identity from a distance. It was interesting, because I realised these things as an outsider, away from my country,” says Chew.
“I came back (to KL) in 1998. I was fearful that I had to re-adapt myself in my own home (country). But I’m glad I had that overseas experience. In many ways, I had a chance to look back in again. After so many years, I still see so many things in Malaysia that makes us so unique. What if I never left the country? Things would be different,” she adds.
Indeed, Chew’s exhibition invites us to rethink the nation’s landscape. Her Landed series depicts the outline of the states of Malaysia. Here, however, they are all drawn to the same scale, with reversed topographical details. Some states are very easy to identify. Others take a while for their names to register.
Perhaps, the most eye-catching display in the exhibition is What’s Up, Map Down, a site-specific interactive installation consisting of the Malaysian states, laser-cut from fibreboard and mounted on wheeled platforms. These states (which are drawn to actual scale!) can be moved around (in the gallery), and can interlock to form the shape of the Malaysia.
“What if we were able to move the states around? What if we could see things from a different direction? Usually, when you look at a map, you’re looking at a flat surface. Here, you look up,” says Chew with a laugh.
By looking at the states in this manner, the artist says, makes the viewer ponder on many questions.
“Why, exactly, did the borders of states get that way? Did the relative size of states have any impact on progress or culture?” she asks.
The last part of the exhibition Where Have All The Rivers Gone? is a series of artworks depicting the outline of the rivers of each Malaysian state, cut out on canvas. Chew reveals the work is a tribute to rivers, often the places where civilisation begins.
“When I searched for the significant rivers of each states, I discovered a lot of them formed such beautiful lines. They reminded me of our veins, our bloodlines. And I started to think, what if we could move the rivers up, and see what was inside them? And that was why I cut them out by hand.”
As this interview draws to a close, Chew pauses and gets philosophical about What If ..., her most ambitious project, which merges her passions in art and research.
“A lot of people forget just what we have. I hope to give them a different way of looking at our lands. Don’t break them, we should be together. Indivually, we are unique, but together, we are strong,” says Chew.
What If ... is on at the Shalini Ganendra Fine Art Gallery, No. 8, Lorong 16/7B, Section 16, Petaling Jaya in Selangor till July 17. The gallery is open Tuesdays to Saturdays, 11am-7pm. For more information, call 03-7932 4740 or visit www.shaliniganendra.com.
‘A lot of people forget what we have. I hope to give them a different way of looking at our lands. Don’t break them, we should be together. Individually, we are unique, but together, we are strong,’ says Chew, standing with her What’s Up, Map Down site-specific installation. — Photos: SAM THAM/The Star
Chew’s Landed 14 (acrylic ink on watercolour paper, 2016).