I liked negatives more than the camera as a child. I found the latter hard to use, especially the small viewfinder through which I was to compose an image. Negatives on the other hand was fun to look at - family faces staring blankly with unfamiliar expressions, leading to all sorts of imagined realities.
Shortly after we were sent to Singapore, my mother brought my sister and I to the Istana during the holidays. I took photos for the first time, all thirty six of them on a roll of film, with a compact camera. The week-long break was ending so it was near goodbye (again). We went to a shop along South Bridge Road to develop the photos. The lady at the counter opened the camera in front of us, before pulling the entire roll out. No image she said.
Wherein lie the images of our memories? Suppose we had (mis)placed them inside a photograph, would we ever get them back?
The indexicality of photos - their authoritative testimonies of what-has-happened - and their transparency* proved problematic in my attempt to come to terms with my absence from Indonesia, throughout the 28 years since I left my hometown of Solo city at the age of 9 due to ethnic tensions. The country’s archival press photos, specifically those images that perform national identity through the visual documentations of iconic politicians and historical milestones, often led me to imagine that I was (or could be) a part of this shared identity despite my physical disconnection from Tanah Air** while at the same time reminding me why I was never part of it.
In making negative drawings that reference political press photos, I wanted to address memories where the personal and political intertwined. I want to relook at these familiar yet disembodied images, reconstruct them in a new place of beginnings and infinitely defer their meanings. If optical memory was all that I could ever have of this history then let that be my entry point and process for re-narration.
I am betting this time, an image will appear.
*Kendall Walton used the term ‘transparent pictures’ to describe the photograph’s make-believe ability, its function as a lens through which the viewer sees something other than the photo itself.
**Tanah Air means homeland in Bahasa Indonesia.
2015-2016. Set of 8 drawings - graphite on paper; and acrylic sheets and blocks. Varying dimensions.
Seven is the number of days in a week, four the number of weeks I got to spend at home during the June school holidays. The last week was always the hardest, my siblings and I counting down the days, starting with seven, before we had to return to Singapore.
The installation is made up of twenty-eight peci* that were modified into pinhole cameras to produce a corresponding number of paper negative prints. The source images were press photos of Indonesia’s first president Sukarno delivering his speeches at various occasions. Sukarno spoke of the peci as an emblem for Indonesian national identity - an identity I wasn’t able to tangibly grasp while growing up overseas.
Twenty-eight pinhole cameras, made of black velvet, arrayed in four tiers of seven around a central brass ring, to recall (reclaim?) memories of an equal number of Hari Kemerdekaan** I celebrated, while being apart from Tanah Air***.
I bought the peci for the installation from my birthplace at Solo City, Indonesia. They are all of size nine instead of eleven, the latter was what I was looking for at first. “Javanese men wear size nine kopiah*” so said the seller. This was doubly confirmed later by the man in charge of shipping at the post office.
*peci or kopiah is the Indonesian equivalent of the Malay songkok or the Turkish fez hat. It comes in various designs and fabrics but the flat top made of black velvet is most commonly worn by Javanese men, including Indonesian Presidents ever since Sukarno popularised it.
**Hari Kemerdekaan means Independence Day in Bahasa Indonesia.
***Tanah Air means homeland in Bahasa Indonesia.
放下武器跟我走 (Lay down your weapon, follow me)
2016. Installation: 28 pecis, brass, chrome, foam, vintage camera tripod; and 28 peci pinhole negatives on Ilford paper in individual frames. Installation: 1.4 x 1.4 x 1.7m. Peci pinhole negatives: 23 x 32cm each