Race, we are given to believe, is a sensitive topic, a subject to be dealt with, with kid-gloves. The story of the delicate incidents of racial riots from Singapore’s 1964 past has been told and retold, as a bulwark against possible future conflict, although more as a bogeyman, with its crux generally left untouched — that of strategies for the negotiation of difference. It is clear that ethnic difference is a potent subject, as it has been the basis for hasty profiling and the rationale for violence; but it is also this same identity politics that binds communities — invigorating struggling nationalisms in the spirit of Franz Fanon, or alternatively, triggering a crippling colonial imperative, or equally incapacitating postcolonial compunction, à la Rudyard Kipling’s poem, The White Man’s Burden. The series of works presented in Khairuddin Hori’s Us and Them and You, titled after the Pink Floyd song of 1973 from their Dark Side of the Moon album, with the addition of ‘you’ (appearing to point to its public), however is less about race per se, as it is about the more general notion of difference, but a difference that is connected to the dynamics of identity production by and within a community.
Described as a series of photographs of ‘real-life characters from the Singaporean Malay-Muslim community’, according to the artist, here, ‘us’ refers to a sense of fraternity and shared identification with a majoritarian characterisation of what the self is to correspond to within the community, and where ‘them’ then refers less approvingly to those who deviate from this standard and are seen as ‘outsiders’ of the dominant identity. The coupling of ‘Malay’ and ‘Muslim’ secures both race and religion into one, and for most part within Singapore the two are conflated, seen to be interchangeable and referring to the same, with policies supporting and effecting the relationship between the two. Within the broader context of local census however, the Malay-Muslim community is in a minority, and thus Khairuddin’s interest in difference within the community may be read not only as a reflexive gesture against easy but narrow preconceptions of minorities within the minority, but an occasion for discussion and negotiation.
The characters depicted in Khairuddin’s series are real, in the sense that they are as they are portrayed in his images, their representations of themselves unaltered by the artist, other than their being selected by him. They too are members of the Malay-Muslim community, but who may not appear to conform to the relatively conservative identity and representation that is in favour. Superficially, their appearances as tattooed, pierced, heavily made-up, bearing dreadlocks or just baring themselves, may seem transgressive, but no more so than such style and fashion accoutrements, in any extreme would be within a broader contemporary social context — such as committed goth, punk and rastafarian lifestyles and appearances undertaken within communities of other ethnicity — may startle. However there arguably is a particular expectation, that is due to the coupling of race and religion, and that causes these images to appear more fraught. They represent what is usually not encountered, if for no other reason than a reduced probability as a minority, and assembled together, their presence cannot be overlooked. Yet, it would be naive and disingenuous to imagine that presenting their portraits would evince some transformative change in their status within the community. Moreover for the individuals portrayed this is who they are in their lives, and their families, friends and those in their personal spheres would already be aware and familiar with their expressions of themselves, so any disquiet would only come from a non-personal public, and even then, would it be an unanimous response?
The series of images is part of the artist’s project to document a variety of personalities from the Malay-Muslim community, and the selection presented in this exhibition are in fact of individuals who are from the more public sphere of culture, entertainment and the arts. They are performers — model and fire player; and producers — creative director, event and concert manager, DJs, record producer, tour guide, make-up artist, tattoo artist and fashion designer (with Khairuddin himself also as a curator at the Singapore Art Museum). To assume that the Malay-Muslim community is a through and through homogenous one would be somewhat unsophisticated, and the differences that these individuals draw attention to, complicate the Malay-Muslim identity, even if it is of an interruption by professional pursuit. Furthermore, these aspirations perhaps are not so different from that of more nationally recognised figures, such as Najip Ali or Anita Sarawak, and in fact one of the individuals was previously from the popular 80s and 90s Malay children’s television series Mat Yoyo (or Aski Mat Yoyo). But more precisely, the singling out of their difference from within the community points to a negotiation not merely of appearances, but of culture, race, religion and globalised market economy, an encounter that they are evidence of, rather than cause. Their representation in the gallery space thus symbolise the various contestations and contradictions within and faced by the community, society and world they are essentially a part of.
Khairuddin’s portrayal of these figures in front-facing and larger-than-life form is intended to produce a sense of confrontation with its public, a strategy that has been used in his earlier works as well, such as Badang (2005) and K & A (2006), both produced in collaboration with artist Ahmad Abu Bakar. It is in a way inevitable that these figures appear as role-models of some sort by their presence, and by their ability to realise their chosen professions, but because they are of a minority, they also suggest further consideration of the navigation of the Malay-Muslim trope, that the artist is familiar for, in a more nuanced fashion than merely that of appearances. More importantly, and in the same vein of seeing beyond superficial impressions, Khairuddin’s work represents not merely issues of being Malay-Muslim, but also of race, religion and society at large for other ethnic communities locally. The question isn’t then of whether one stands as ‘us’ or ‘them’, but that there is the possibility of another position that would not quietly acquiesce to the simple binary, and one that here is made possible with the addition of ‘you’.
June Yap is an independent curator and art historian based in Singapore.