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Keeping Up with the Abdullahs 2, 2012. Vincent Leong. Chromogenic print and plaque in artist's frame.

Keeping Up with the Abdullahs 2, 2012. Vincent Leong. Chromogenic print and plaque in artist’s frame.

Asia Society Hong Kong Center is now exhibiting No Country: Contemporary Art for South and Southeast Asia (until 16 Feb 2014) by the Guggenheim UBS MAP Global Art Initiative that includes works of art by artists from Vietnam, Thailand, Singapore, Indonesia, etc. To us in Hong Kong, some of these neighbouring countries are popular for weekend getaways, and that’s it. Thanks to the airline fight, I have visited Kuala Lumpur and Penang once, Sabah twice over the past three years. However, looking at the artwork by a Malaysian artist offers an understanding of the country which is absent in my leisure-seeking trips.

Keeping Up with the Abdullahs (2012) is a pair of portrait photographs by Malaysian artist Vincent Leong. Two families assembled are two minority ethnicities in Malaysia, Chinese and Indian. Leong employed a special technique in photographic printing which demonstrates a vintage tinge on the photographs through the clothes, brimless caps, head scarves and umbrellas of the characters. It is a parody of the 19th century’s Malay sultanate associated with nobility and authority. Comparing to sultans in the old days, Vincent Leong injected humour in modern setting like domestic utensils such as a broom, a mop or a ladle. No more “band of brothers”, but “modern family” of men and women, seniors and minors in traditional Malay attire posed in front of their village houses. To make it more explicit, brass plates engraving “Malaysians” in Chinese and Tamil written in Arabic Jawi script are framed along.

Malay rulers and nobilities with British colonial officers, 1897 (source: Wikipedia)

Malay rulers and nobilities with British colonial officers, 1897 (source: Wikipedia)

The title is a reminiscence of an idiom “keeping up with the Joneses” whereas the Jones is a symbol of a high-class family next door people should keep up with. In this work, the artist replaces the iconicised elite neighbor by “the Abdullahs”, a common name to represent Muslims, or Malays in the country. Ethnicity, if not religion, becomes the cause of cultural assimilation. Why should Chinese and Indian in Malaysia keep up with Malays?

Malaysia is well known as a multi-ethnic, multicultural, and multi-religious country. According to the 2010 Population and Housing Census of Malaysia, Bumiputra meaning people of Malay race and non-Malay indigenous peoples from Southeast Asia, dominates 67.4% of Malaysian citizens, leaving Chinese (24.6%) and Indians (7.3%) minority ethnic groups. The proportion has been a sensitive matter especially when the official use of the term Bumiputra to group together Malays and non-Malay ‘indigenous’ people, has the effect of ‘enlarging’ the Malay population. Repressive laws and policies, wealth disparity, media corporatisation and national education resulting in tensions and conflicts between ethnic groups can be traced in history and still be heard from time to time on the news.

By making Keeping Up with the Abdullahs, Leong has elevated the phenomenon observed in his country to a wide spectrum of audience, from the family members participating in the portraits, the art public in his region to international viewers particularly in New York where the Guggenheim Foundation is based. The “superficial”  heterogeneity and the underlying ethnic separation are now unveiled by a work of art while in the eyes of international viewers, the distant domestic issue is brought on the global table.

Are the Chinese and Indian family portraits a reality, a prediction or a fiction? Perhaps it would be meaningful to find it out on my next trip to Malaysia. (Malaysia Tourism, would you sponsor me in the name of cultural exchange?)

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References

Artist biography of Vincent Leong. (n.d.). Retrieved from
http://www.guggenheim.org/new-york/collections/collection-online/artists/bios/11631
Department of Statistics Malaysia, (2010). The 2010 Population and Housing Census of Malaysia. Retrieved fromhttp://www.statistics.gov.my/portal/index.php?option=com_content&id=1215
Lin, R. (19 May, 2013). ‘Vincent Leong’s commentary on cultural assimilation in Malaysia’. Retrieved from
www.thestar.com.my/story.aspx?file=%2f2013%2f5%2f19%2flifearts%2f13054691
Pak, J. (20 Feb, 2010). ‘Malaysia struggles for harmony as tensions bubble’. Retrieved fromhttp://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/programmes/from_our_own_correspondent/8524353.stm
Tan, C.B. (2012). Malaysia: Ethnicity, Nationalism, and Nation Building. In Lee, H.G. Suryadinata, L. (Ed.), Malaysian Chinese: Recent Developments and Prospects (pp. 1-25). Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies.

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