Wednesday, November 22, 2006

New Stories from the Malay World

This is part of the draft paper presented at Asian Scholarship Foundation Alumni in Bali 19-20 November, 2006

3. The Performing Arts and Islam
Kelantan in Peninsula Malaysia has also been interrogated as the home for terrorist where there are many Islamic schools operating in “Pondok Style”. Actually this kind of Islamic schools have been there for a long time, probably for more than three hundred years. They teach Islam and Al Quran reading to children and teenagers. Most of the schools are supported by the State Islamic Council but many are supported by donations from rich individuals. When BBC brought the television crews to various schools in Kelantan, Chief Minister of Kelantan, Dato’ Nik Aziz, also known as ‘Tok Guru’ or great teacher, declared that “We are not the terrorist, we teach our children to live in a peaceful life without war and that’s the basic principals of Islam. He further expressed that ‘Those involved in the bombing of the World Trade Centre and Pentagon in America are criminals and they should not be labeled as Islam or Muslim. Islam is a religion of peace and compassion”!

The PAS government in Kelantan today is the very same government that banned Wayang Kulit in 1990 when they won the election. The PAS (Party Islam SeMalaysia/ Pan Islamic Party) government banned three performing arts of Wayang Kulit, Mak Yong and Manora. They believed that these performances have some un-Islamic components like “Puja” (adulation) and women exposing their “Aurat” (forbidden body parts for public exposure). Now, the PAS government is interested in developing tourism in the state but with the new concept of “Islamic Tourism”. In 2005, the state government declared Kelantan as the “Islamic State” and Kota Bharu as Islamic City. They invited all male Muslim pop artists to perform for the launch concert, rendering Nasyid songs (Arabic influenced beat originated from the Middle Eastern countries in 1950s) and pop songs with lyrics related to love for Allah. The audience was divided into three sections - all males, all females and family.

The state has also approved the all male theatre performances like “Tok Janggut” and “Tok Kenali” in 2004 and 2005. Tok Janggut is a story about the Muslim rebel during the British and Tok Kenali, a story about the religious leader in Kelantan. In 2004, the PAS government declared that Wayang Kulit is allowed to be performed in Kelantan if puppeteers agree to stage new story that has nothing to do with Hindu epics, Ramayana and Mahabhrata. Stories about Muslim leaders from like Sayyidina Omar, Othman or Ali are most encouraged. But until now no pupperteer has taken the challenge on the new Islamic story for Wayang.

In the contemporary arts scene, few new developments happened since September 11. I have develop a contemporary dance piece entitled “19142004” for ‘LALAK”, collection of ten contemporary dance works from five Malay choreographers, staged in Kuala Lumpur City Theatre in December 2005. The piece was inspired by the mass killings in South Thailand where the Thai Military had killed more than 1000 Muslim in 2005. As Malaysian, we do not seem to do much or able to do anything to remedy the situation. We could only cry every time we watch the people got killed on television and we are just a stone throw away, separated by a small river, Sungai Golok, cutting us away from our cousins. Pattani, Yala, Satun and Narathiwat, Kelantan, Kedah, Perlis, Trengganu and Pahang used to be one the old state of Pattani and Langkasuka, but divided into Thailand and Malaysia after the Bangkok Treaty in 1909. Kelantan was under emergency state for few years from 1910 to 1914, until the killing of Tok Janggut, leader of the rebel. This short piece was a dance theatre work combined contemporary movements with silat martial arts, set on stage with a table, a chair and a jug of red syrup with two side screens showing two different video works.

“Jerejak”, a one act play written and directed by Shahrul Fitri Musa is a fresh voice in Malaysian theatre. Jerejak is named after a small island in the north of Peninsula, near Penang Island, known for the Jail Island. This one act play tells the story about two girls in the jail, Jiha, a girl about to be released from the jail and Sada, a girl who keeps trying in escaping from the jail. Sada tries to include Jiha in her games and plays, playing different characters, from Hang Tuah and Hang Jebat to the court case of Saddam Hussein. Jiha, end up killing Sada and continues her death sentence in the same jail. The play catches the attention of the press, theater makers and young students from various local universities. The usage of physical body movement and streetwise girl’s language set a different tone in this Malay drama, staged in September 2006 at the Auditorium of National Museum.

“Tamu Dari Medan Perang”(Guest from the Fields of War), another Islamic play, was staged at Stor Teater, a small black theatre at Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka (National Language Council) in May 2006, considered to be a laboratory for more experimental work. This one act play was written and directed by the well-known Malay contemporary playwright from the 1970s, Dinsman. He had disappeared from the theatre scene for more than twenty years but back with new vision, writing Islamic play. Guest from the War is about a woman from the war who confronted a king of another country to stop the war in her country.

“Laut Lebih Indah Dari Bulan” (The Sea is More Beautiful Than the Moon) by Namron was also staged at Stor Teater, just a month before Jerejak. Namron is labeled as an alternative theatre playwright and director. A graduate of National Arts Academy, Namron is married to a young contemporary dance choreographer, Junainah M.Lojong. “Laut Lebih Indah Dari Bulan” is a monologue about a typical Malay love story among Malaysian working class but this monologue surprised the audience with hypocrisy in their married relationship, Muslim man and devoted husband. Laut, the husband was arrested for killing a young child after his sexual pleasure. Indah, the name of the wife, is left alone to deal with her shock. The monologue received good audience and good reviews.

It is interesting to see this co-incidence where the four new works performed this year are looking at Islam from different angles, one is looking at our concern towards the Muslim countries like Iraq, Lebanon, Palestine, Afghanistan in the Middle East, attitudes towards Saddam Hussein, typical Muslim man’s life and his hypocrisy and our sympathy towards the killings of our Muslim cousins across the river.

In the past, we may think that Zapin and Hadrah are probably the two type of performances that are related or connected with Islam. Zapin, known for its Arabic influenced dance form through out the Malay world, mainly performed by all males, while Hadrah, a mixture of percussion, harmony singing and minimal movement also performed by all male performers. These performances are also known in the Indonesia, especially in Sumatera where Malay cultural has its connection. Sumatera also housed othet types of Islamic performances of Saman and Endang from Aceh and Padang. Both are related to the Islamic zikir (calling of Allah and the Prophet’s name) performance with vigorous hand and body gestures while sitting down on the floor.

Pekan Baru, a town in South Sumatera is the historical place where the last Sultan of Melaka died. Many many performance arts could be found here like Zapin, Joget, Mak Yong and Bangsawan theatre. My research visit to Pekan Baru was to observe the first contemporary dance fair there but found few Malay groups presenting new moves of Zapin. Tom Ibnor, a well known Indonesian choreographer from South Sumateran had developed Zapin and Hadrah dance into contemporary works in the early 1990s. His recent work in Jakarta called “Ticket to Bosnia” dealt directly with the issue of Islamic refugees from Bosnia at that time. But many Malay choreographers in the 1990s dealt with dance patterns with Islamic feel, mainly about the beauty and rhythm like the rest of Islamic arts with the arabesque design and calligraphy.

4. The New Arts of Islam
Arahmaini, a globe –trotting Indonesian performance artist with Islamic background presented her new work on Islam entitled “Stitching the Wounds” at The Jim Thomson’s Art Centre in Bangkok. The exhibition started in June and ended in September 2006 together with designing and movement workshop with the children of Ban Krua community, a Muslim community known for their weaving skill since the early start of Jim Thomson silk weaving. The community has a long history of migration since Rama I and the beginning of Bangkok. Most of them are Cham and Malay from the South of Thailand. The Thais called the Malays from the South as “Jawi”, referring to the language that they speak. Jawi is actually the name for the scripture used by the Malays in the old days, taken from the Arabic alphabet. Now, the Muslim of Ban Krua and Thailand are referred to as Thai Muslim and very few of the Muslim in Bangkok speak “Jawi”.

Arahmiani sees herself the same way as the Muslim minority in Thailand, having the issue of a mixed identity in her global travel. In her own words, she described her relation to Islam:

Arahmiani: In the last few years, particularly since the 11 September 2001 terrorist attack, I have had to come to terms with the idea that whether I like or not, I am perceived as someone belonging to a specific group of people with specific kind of cultural background. I have denoted more energy to examining and questioning my identity. Am I really like the people depicted by the international media? A woman with a heavy black veil? A woman who lacking the freedom to express herself? There seems to be a rupture between Islam’s image and the reality of Islam.

Arahmiani: There is fear and hysteria on the outside, and the reaction to that fear is violent and irrational. On the inside, there is a sense of polarization because since 911, Muslim see themselves as targeted victims. Thus, morality has become a sort of refuge, a way of asserting muslim identity and righteousness, perceived as necessary since we consider ourselves under attack.2

The concept of the project was to explore alternative images of Islam including researching the creation of images of Islam prevalent in the media since Iran’s Islamic Revolution, followed by those diffused in the aftermath of September 11, 2001, and many more images that probably inspire fear in the outside world. Even Arabic scripts have become “threatening” suggesting, suggesting terrorism and intolerance! Arabic names seem ominous these days; he or she is burdened with one possibly a suicide bomber.

Arahmiani: I have chosen two aspects of Islamic cultures that explore both conceptually and visually. The first is the Arabic alphabet, second is the special robe that Muslim women wear for praying, either in the mosque or at home. As symbols they have vastly different connotations, depending on whether one stands inside or outside Islam. I have created an installation piece consisting of ten sculpturally formed three-dimensional letters of Arabic alphabet executed as soft, stuffed cushions in different sizes and colours. The second piece is a huge colourful patchwork robe, suggesting the kind worn by women when they pray.

The children of Ban Krua, designed their own dress, chose their favourite colours, turned them into real dress that they wear during the opening of exhibition, dancing and singing their own songs and served the visitors biscuits in the shape of Arabic alphabets that they baked.

Iola Lenzi (2006) in context, content and meaning, quoted another Indonesian artist of mixed parentage of Javanese-Balinese based in Bandung. He began to focus on Muslim life and tackling his identity artistically in the years since sectarian tensions have flared in Indonesia in the wake of Suharto’s fall from power. His 2003 four minute loop single projection video Beach Time plays on the conceptual paradox of diametrically opposed perspectives and meanings according to where the audience stands culturally and religiously. The video, entitled “Beach Time” showed a fully clothed Muslim woman complete with head scarf, bathing at the beach. Viewer from a traditional Muslim society may find this image very familiar and very common to that society, but it would be shocking to the westerners. The difference in the visual impact is solely depending on the viewer’s perspectives.

In Malaysia, new approach to Islamic Arts is rather rare. In the past, few modern artists have explored the Islamic motives like the arabesque and calligraphy in the works - Sulaiman Esa, Khalil Ibrahim, Syed Ahmad Jamal and to certain extend, Yusuf Ghani. In an interview with a foreign press in United States in the 1980s, Yusuf Ghani was very serious about coming up with a national identity for Malaysian art:

Yusuf Ghani: It was a tough challenge to find the answer to my work in Malaysia. But Islamic and indigenous motifs were widely used in Malaysia. My "Protest" paintings created in America were obviously out of place. Therefore I decided to expand my work on cultural series. I felt that I could still communicate with people on how I feel about the world.

Yusuf’s art, though created in the realm of modern art, has been self-censored as a Muslim practicing in Malaysia. He himself does not see his work as Islamic art, but would agree to the idea of Muslim art. In the wake of Islam realization in the world, Yusuf and few other Muslim artists like Husin Hourmain, Shafee Ramli, Shuhaimi Fadzir, Amir Zainorin and Citi Yusouf were chosen to exhibit their works in Hague, Holland in 2007, presenting a different face of Islam.

Nafas, an exhibition started with idea and concept developed by Pat Binder and Gerhard Haupt together with the Institute for Foreign Cultural Relations (ifa). Nafas started in Berlin with the exhibition of art works by Lida Abdul (Afghanistan/USA), Ebtisam Abdul Aziz (United Arab Emirates), Vyacheslav Akhunov (Uzbekistan), Mounir Fatmi (Morocco/France), Amal Kenawy (Egypt) Nur Hanim Mohamed Khairuddin (Malaysia), Waheeda Malullah (Bahrain), Anas Al-Shaikh (Bahrain), Suha Shoman (Jordan) started since 10 November 2006 to 7 January 2007. Nafas is now on display at the ifa Gallery in Stuttgart. The exhibition will travel to several other countries including Singapore in 2008.

Nafas is a metaphor for the focus and broad outline of the project. In Arabic, Farsi, Urdu, Malay, and Indonesian, nafas is understood essentially as breath or breathing. A variation of similar origins is the Turkish nefes. The word appears in many combinations and nuances, usually with quite positive connotations. Nafas can be used in the sense of a "second wind", i.e., being able to endure difficulties, or in the sense of a refreshing breeze that soothes torment. When someone carries out specific activities especially well, for example excellent cooking, it is said that he or she has nafas-talent: a particular way, a personal style. Sometimes nafas is associated with the meaning of "freedom", for example in Sufism, a mystical current of Islam. The root of the word is nafs, which means "self" or "soul" in Arabic and which is regarded as the dynamic power breathed into a person’s body at the beginning of life.

All too often, the expression used as a conceptual tie, "the Islamic world", arouses stereotypical ideas that fail to correspond in any way with the complex reality and stand in the way of a non-prejudiced encounter with art. The phrasing in the subtitle of Nafas may seem problematical for its suggestion of a unifying view of the countries and regions with Muslim majorities, which this project aims to counteract. For even though both the "West" and the "Islamic world" are extremely heterogeneous and anything but monolithic entities, the general perception is that there is a conflict between two antagonistic blocs or civilizations bearing these labels that goes back very far in history and is fueled again and again on both sides.

In connection with the Nafas project, we use the term "Islamic world" and "Muslim world" to address and contradict the terms as they are widely understood today. Commonly accepted ideas are confronted with artworks hard to fit into the usual clich├ęs and created by artists, Muslims or not, who locate their cultural home or essential sources of reference for artistic production in Islamic countries and regions. In this respect also, the Nafas project is conceptually linked to the online magazine "Contemporary Art from the Islamic World".

Nur Hanim Mohamed Khairuddin, the only Malaysian artist in the exhibition of "Nafas", presented her work from 2003 collection entitled “Serangga”. Hanim played with the definition of words like 'Serangga' which means insect, 'Serang' means attack, 'Rangga' means label/status and 'Rang' which means something like druming sounds. Her artist statement explained:

The ugly theatres of propaganda performed by Western media agencies enormously traumatise the followers of Islam. Islamic masses have been appended with unruly 'interpellations' indicative of a civilisational conflict and cultural ignorance: beard, turban, chador, burqa, harem, kalashnikov, jihad, mullah-primitive, dangerous, violent, enemies, beasts; orthodox, anti-feminism, sadistic, anti-modernism, terrorist, tyrant, militant. Being a Malay Muslim woman, I feel myself stuck in a dilemma. One part of me favours the modern world, sometimes "westoxifying" myself. The other side within me tries very hard to stick to the principles of Islam and my culture. My video is a personal answer towards contemporary radical political dialectics and social discourse unleashing uncertainties, dilemmas, predicaments, and dissatisfaction towards the absolute truth of the Islamic faiths. These dynamic and existential factors perturb the communities; thus generating a crisis of identity, feelings of isolation and alienation, social 'decentering', designification, deconstruction of meanings etc.

In the introduction of the video, a self-portrait slowly surfaces and gradually swarmed by 'insects' that finally compose an image of a burqa / purdah-clad feature. Music played by a collective underground band named 'Kakabara' is being performed throughout the video. A poem recited in Malay by emerging local poet Amirul Fakir entitled 'Akulah Perang' ('I am war') echoes in the background. At the very end, Hanim’s portrait re-emerges and recedes placidly. Hanim explained that our soul has to maintain all the strengths in order to 'live life long in peace with oneself through reconciliation of one's own identity in the globalization life.

According to the Koran (5:92): “O believers, wine and arrow-shuffling, /idols [taswir] and divining-arrows are an abomination, /some of Satan’s work; then avoid it.” The word taswir can refer to any sort of image. In later centuries this word and related forms, derived from the root verb sawwara, were used to refer to painting in particular; but taswir could also refer to a sculpture and more particularly an idol, and it is all but certain that, in the context of the seventh century, the original Koranic prescription applied only to pagan idols and not to all and any forms of figurative representation by artists. (Irwin: 1997, 79)

It is important to acknowledge that the guidance provided by haddits did not run all one way. Some suggest a limited tolerance of figurative imagery. Thus, though the Prophet had destroyed all the images of gods in the pre-Islamic pagan shire of the Kaaba in Mecca, he allowed a painting of the Christian Virgin with the infant Jesus to remain; and, as the Prophet’s child bride Aisha was known to have played with them, dolls were allowed for girls and were held to foster maternal instincts. The copying of trees, plants, and buildings by artists was generally held to be permissible, although some religious authorities maintained that people and other living creatures should not be shown with shadows. (Irwin: 1997, 80)

Perhaps these are the very reason why many Muslim artists all over the world now differing their artworks to Islamic Arts. One could be that they were trained in western and modern style of art making with different philosophies. But with the new realization among the Muslim communities around the world, there is a need to differentiate the Islamic Arts and Muslim Arts. What is now is the new trend that more and more artists are referring themselves from Islamic arts, especially after September 11, 2001. Christie’s latest showing too have featured Muslim artists from the Middle East with fine figure paintings in Islamic themes and calling them Muslim arts.

5. The Pop Islam
My new writing in my weekly column in arts and entertainment section in a Malay tabloid newspaper, Kosmo, in Malaysia, talked about the new trend in producing new young singers with more Islamic outlook, singing songs about love for Allah in different style of singing Nasyid song. Nasyid singing became popular in the 1970s, where many all males and all females group became popular in Malaysia and Indonesia. Now, new names like Mawi and Too Phat singing tunes of ballad, rock and rap joining hands with the modern Nasyid groups that already popular like Raihan and Rabbani. Raihan, Rabbani and Mawi are already crossing over to Indonesia to find their market. At the same time, Rock groups like Radja and Gigi are already popular in Malaysia.

Pop Islam as I recently coined in Malaysia is becoming trendy term and at the same time I found out that a writer in Iran has start talking about Pop Islam too, but referring to the current practice of the President of Iran. Perhaps, we in Malaysia could refer to him as similar move taken by the Chief Minister of Kelantan, Dato’ Nik Aziz

Amir Zainorin, a Malaysian artist living in Copenhagen, studied at Copenhagen Media School, Denmark, University of Missouri, Kansas City and University of Central Arkansas, USA, did his apprenticeship with Malaysian pop artist, Ahmad Azhari. In 2001 he did a performance installation entitled 'Art, Politics and Power' at the National Art Gallery, Kuala Lumpur. The concept behind the installation was about the relationship between art, politic and power.

Amir: The arts can be seen as an arena where emotional incompatibilities, social conflicts, and questions of status between people collide more intensely than they would in ordinary communication. Under the influence of economic globalisation, the decisions made by the relevant forces would affect cultural matters worldwide. The flags are a symbol of conquest for example when mankind went to the moon or the Mount Everest, and this is derived from our desire to show power whether be it of conquering new physical territory or epistemological space. 99 names of God (named Allah in the Quran) printed on 99 flags are the characteristic of God, which is believed when practiced and embraced can lead to one spiritual power and closeness to God. The rest of the flags are paper cuttings taken from newspapers, magazines and the internet to remind us of the strong influence of the mass media that somehow control or shape our mind and leads the course of our everyday life.