Koboi Balik Kampung (2013)

Koboi Balik Kampung, Readymade Rockmount Western Shirt, 2013. Permanent Collection of the National Visual Art Gallery, Kuala Lumpur. (The image above is from an installation and performance at the National Visual Art Gallery in 2018).

The Koboi Balik Kampung (2013) Readymade from the permanent collection of the National Visual Art Gallery in KL is currently on display at the gallery. This item was a residual artifact from a performance at the Aliran Semasa symposium held at the gallery in 2013. This performance marked my Malaysian homecoming after ten years away in Western Canada.

I appeared at the event wearing a brand-new Rockmount Western shirt with tags intact. As the symposium began, my mother the late Sathiavathy Deva Rajah was invited on stage, to give me a traditional Indian/ Hindu blessing by placing chanthanam (sandalwood paste) and kunggumum (red turmeric powder) on my forehead. Then, facing the audience, I remove the shirt, draped it on a pre-installed hanger at the back of the stage and my mother consecrated it with the same chanthanam and kunggumum. The shirt was left hanging for the duration of the symposium and then presented to the gallery.

A version of the Performance was repeated in an intervention when the item was on show for the first time as a selection from the collection of the National Visual Art Gallery in 2018. My Mother and I were stopped from renewing the markings on the shirt by a curator and a conservator from the gallery. We debated notions of completion of an art work, ownership of an artwork, the artist’s rights to modify an artwork, the extensive conservational bureaucracy that encompases a work of art in a National collection and the effects of all of these on the state of an art work (is it active or is it inert, alive or dead!). Mother and I proceed with the portion of our ritual that did not interfere with what is now the property of the gallery. The image above was captured by my daughter Durga Rajah during this performance.

Telinga Keling (1999)

Telinga Keling, Silver Halide Print, Niranjan Rajah, 1999. Permanent Collection of the National Visual Art Gallery, Kuala Lumpur

Telinga Keling (1999) is in the collection of the National Visual Art Gallery in KL. It is currently on display again in a selection from the collection. ‘Keling’ is a today taken as a derogatory term for ‘Indian’ although, from its etymology, it is clear that this was not always so. The items obscuring my ears in the image are Malay sweets which are colloquially referred to as ‘Telinga Keling’ (Indian Ears). More formally and publicly, given our multi-racial Malaysian society, these cakes are referred to as called ‘penyaram’ or ‘denderam’. Ironically, this Telinga Keling sweet is quite likely to be of Indian origin. My mother used to make something that tastes exactly the same that we call it ‘athirasam’

The idea of the piece is that I can engage the Malay viewers regarding this juncture of ‘sweetness’ and ‘derision’ while excluding the others, who would likely be unfamiliar with its colloquial name. Of course, there’ll be some Indians who know, particularly those from Kelantan where the sweet is prevalent, but empirically speaking, during the opening of its inaugural exhibition in Kuala Lumpur, the Indians had no idea and kept asking, ‘Why did you insult yourself in this work? ’, The Malays, however, smiled and nodded in acknowledgement.

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