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Bayangnya itu Timbul Tenggelam: Photographic cultures in Malaysia
Published:  Jul 22, 2020 2:52 AM
Updated: 3:04 AM

ILHAM Gallery presents Bayangnya itu Timbul Tenggelam - Photographic cultures in Malaysia from 21 July - 31 December 2020. Bayangnya itu Timbul Tenggelam, that which appears and recedes from view, is a survey of the cultures that developed around photography and its relationship to Malaysia. The exhibition invites us to discover the different values and meanings that people have invested in the photographic image through the years, in an attempt to explore an alternative understanding of the complex modern history of photography. The exhibition will draw from several private collections and will feature over 1,400 photographs and artefacts from the 1920s – 1970s. Bayangnya itu Timbul Tenggalam is curated by K. Azril Ismail, Hoo Fan Chon, and Simon Soon. 

In the autobiography of Munshi Abdullah, a scribe who came to be known as the father of modern Malay literature, he recounts the time he was first shown a photographic image of Singapore in 1841, printed on a sheet of silver-plated copper. The photograph appeared to him as if the township was floating above a piece of copper plate. Photography, or the formula for creating durable images that mirror our physical reality, was then a new discovery. The Munshi marvelled at the degree of accuracy (lengkap genap) in the reproduction and ventured to exclaim, "...without deviation even by so much as the breadth of a hair?" ("tiada berselisih sebesar rambut jua pun seperti yang ada itu dengan eloknya'?'

Describing the technical process with an exceptional degree of accuracy, Munshi Abdullah also remarked on a salient feature found in the daguerreotype, the first type of widely-available photographic process. On a prepared copper plate, the shadowy patches stand out while the high lights appear indented, leading the Munshi to exclaim, 'bayangnya itu timbul tenggelam'.

While newer cameras and chemical processes would soon displace the daguerreotype, this phrase 'bayangnya itu timbul tenggelam' encapsulates the sense of wonderment that continues in our encounters with the photographic image, even in our image-saturated contemporary life.

The exhibition does not aim to offer a 'history of photography in the conventional sense. Instead of tracing the evolution of camera technology or presenting a chronology of artistic movements, the exhibition instead highlights how photographs gained new dimensions and meanings through the different ways they were used, collected, and displayed.

At the turn of the 20th century, the European community's monopoly on the photo studio business was increasingly being challenged by the proliferation of Chinese and Japanese photo studios. These new photo studio owners creatively renegotiated the conventions of the photo studio, offering portraiture services that allowed individuals, families and friends to commemorate significant life moments and project social

respectability. At the same time, the studio photographers also ventured beyond the studio, producing postcards of idyllic locales, recording social gatherings, and documenting an active urban culture. Many of these early photographs were also masterfully hand-tinted, conveying not only vivid colours but also a quality of uniqueness that we often associate with painting.

The commercial nature of the photo studio meant that over the course of the 20th century, photo studios had to also adapt to the fickle demands of the market - a market that reflected the multiracial population in the country. Photographs were also pressed into the service of new graphic representations of modern life, which often appeared in print publications.

Each community and subsequent generation, with their own understanding and ideas regarding photography, would often have to negotiate with the conventions and limitations of the photo studio. This resulted in interesting pockets of cultural practice. By focusing on the photographic cultures that have emerged in Malaysia, the exhibition also hopes to bring into public conversation the ways in which these local interpretive frames and ways of seeing, contributed to a larger global conversation about the staying power of the photographic image.

Some examples in the exhibition include the experimentation with collage techniques to produce a new form of royal genealogical records in early 20th century Malay printed publications, the playful coexistence of multilingual terminologies used in the advertisements of photo studios, as well as an oral history interview with a photo studio proprietor who offers us a glimpse into how modern society found specific use and meaning in photography.

Although photography is a portmanteau made up of two words of Greek origin that translates to 'drawing with light', the exhibition Bayangnya itu Timbul Tenggelam draws out a 'shadow' history. This version of history is forefronted by local players who have shaped cultures that sequentially contributed to the reframing of photography. In turn, the exhibition also prompts us to think about how these values and meanings have helped shape our sense of place and the idea of the nation.

Exhibition details

Bayangnya itu Timbul Tenggelam: Photographic Cultures in Malaysia Level 5, ILHAM Gallery No 8, Jalan Binjai 50450 Kuala Lumpur www.ilhamgallery.com

Opening hours Tuesday - Saturday, 11.00am - 7.00pm Sunday, 11.00am - 5.00pm Closed on Mondays and Public Holidays Admission is FREE

For further information, please contact [email protected] 

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