Artist-curator Zulkhairi Zulkiflee on 'MAT' and Malay identities in Singapore: "If you want to see these groups, you should go to the Geylang Bazaar"
Dressed in low-slung skinny jeans with a cap barely sitting atop his skull, he might even throw on some brown-tinted sunglasses to match his dyed hair when he heads out. In conversation, he talks abrasively in a hybrid of Singlish and his mother tongue. Funny thing is, every major ethnic group in Singapore has a special slang to refer to him: gangster in English, anjak for Indians, ah beng for Chinese, and mat for Malays.
Artist-curator Zulkhairi Zulkiflee tackles the nuances of such a potent and loaded vernacular term in his upcoming exhibition, titled 'MAT', at the Objectifs' Chapel Gallery in August. It looks at the varying identities within the Malay community through artworks ranging from photographic prints to video that have been created by Zulkhairi himself as well as multidisciplinary trans artist Norah Lea and emerging talent Farizi Noorfauzi.
Describe the vibe of a person you would call a mat.
Based on my own understanding, it's someone who is hyper-masculine and very pared down in terms of the way they dress. They have tattoos, and the clothes that they wear tend to be a bit outdated. With this exhibition, I want to move away from that image, as much as we acknowledge it as a sub-culture on its own.
You refer to mat as a sub-culture. Could you talk about the various subsections of the term such as matrep and mat-rocker?
I wouldn't say that I'm a specialist in these terms, but I do suspect that mat-rockers listen to rock music from bands such as Led Zeppelin. The matrep group look defiant, have tattoos, coloured hair, and might have had relations to certain secret societies in the past. The running inside joke is, if you want to see these groups, you should go to the Geylang Bazaar during Hari Raya, because it's where all these different social groups within the Malay community actually gather.
Let's go back to the beginnings of the exhibition. Why did you choose this term?
Norah, Farizi and I did a two-day experimental show, which was organised by Soba & Wine. We called that show 'Malais-a-trois', which was a play on the French term ménage à trois. The abbreviation happened to spell out as mat. We thought that it was a funny coincidence and we wanted to use the term in a subversive way. In the past, Malay artists, generally, didn't like to talk about their identity. If you spoke about the idea of Malayness or if your work is Malay-centric, you were pigeonholed as not being global or progressive. The local art landscape is totally changing now though, so people are very much open to exploring it.
Why didn't you include a cis woman in this show?
I approached this show by looking for artists who inspired me or that I could relate to within my own peer group. Unfortunately, right now, there isn't a Malay female artist who I felt had a strong body of work that I could relate to. Who knows, maybe in the future there could be a minah version of this show?
While I acknowledge that there is an absence of cis women artists in the line-up, I'm also aware that an exhibition has limitations of what it is able to represent. Our point here is to explore multiplicity, and I hope that this show is at least a starting point from which we can begin to be more diverse or inclusive in our considerations of identity.
Could you take us through a couple of the artworks that you've chosen for this exhibition?
The cutout images of my father and his friends celebrating a birthday party censors the cake, which was actually in the shape of a marijuana leaf. It shows that the hippie wave did penetrate into Singapore, and into these Malay working class groups that probably didn't understand the ideologies of the movement, but took it on and celebrated it. When we think about the representation of Malay people in historical documentation specifically, you'll tend to see images of Malay people dancing all the time. This was how my dad looked like in the past; there was no dancing.
For Farizi's 'No Corner' series, he printed stickers of himself and pasted it at places in Singapore that have undergone some sort of erasure. As urban redevelopment continues, this stereotypical image of him will also disappear. It's a simple gesture, but it's a witty take on the notion of lepak one corner.
This is the first time that you've touched on your Malay identity in a curatorial sense. Why did you make that decision?
It's difficult because it's very hard to find Malay artists that I can relate to within my own peer group. Norah just graduated and Farizi is 20 years old. I couldn't find anyone that I liked, respected, or am influenced by.
Do you feel that your work within the local art scene creates more opportunities to discuss and involve Malay identities in art?
Yes, hopefully. At the end of the day, as much as I want to do anything based on my own interests, it's important to be aware that whatever I do might also pave ways for other people in my community to do so. It's about creating and making space for other Malay identities.
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