My First Rodeo 2

The Koboi Project centres on the question of identity and its relationship to authenticity. I dress as a cowboy, both in performance situations and in my private life. Indeed, I am very comfortable with this eccentricity of mine, so much so that, in some ways, I feel that I am a cowboy, albeit an urban cowboy who has never ridden a horse and has very little to do with cows. As a vegetarian, I do not even eat them. In my daily life, you could say it is my style. When I perform in Southeast Asia it stands for my return from the West. But what happens to the authenticity of my persona when I venture into real cowboy country.

Recently, at the Cloverdale Rodeo, I gained some insight into the nature of my Koboi persona and even the nature of cowboy persona itself. At the heart of the rodeo is the image of the pesky, spunky cowboy prevailing over the ornery Bronco, kicking and bucking to get him off its back. In my observation at Cloverdale, however, there seemed to be a little bit of a disconnect. Indeed, the horses buck violently, and the Cowboys hang on valiantly and skillfully, but are the horses bucking to get the cowboys off or are they bucking for some other reason? There is, in this context, a debate about the use of spurs and the application of pressure around the horse’s belly with what is called a flank strap. Some say the strap brings pain that causes the bucking and others that it merely gives form to the buck.

The BC SPCA says that the flank strap “applies pressure on their sensitive underbelly, causing discomfort. The rider also uses … spurs, to cause discomfort which leads to more bucking. While bucking is a natural behaviour of these animals, in rodeo it is a behaviour rooted in discomfort, not in play.” In other words, it is not as it appears, that the horse is bucking to get the rider off, but as a response to the discomfort caused by the flank strap. The cowboy’s art of hanging on is incidental or secondary to the main action. Proponents of rodeo however, counter with the argument that the horse bucks because it is in its nature and breeding to do so, and that the “flank strap alters the bucking action of the horse by encouraging him to kick out straighter and higher with his hind legs, thus making himself harder to ride. The flank strap stacks the odds in favor of the horse. It cannot make him buck.” With regard to the spurs, they insist that they are required to be blunt and spinning and that they also put the odds in favor of the horse, as the forward position of the feet required to spur the horse in the shoulders makes it much harder for the cowboy to stay on.

Even within the proponents’ terms, it can not be denied that there is a sense that the bucking is being induced and conditioned independently of the horse’s impulse to get the rider off its back. The horse is just bucking independantly and the rider holds in an illusion of relationship. The question of cruelty aside, the rodeo cowboy’s ride is a performance, and not unlike my own Koboi performance, an artifice or fiction of sorts.

My First Rodeo

Having lived in Vancouver, so close to Western Canada’s cowboy country, and having been a cowboy of sorts myself, since 2013, it is of note that the Cloverdale Rodeo and County Fair 2023 is ‘my first rodeo’. Jane and I were given VIP tickets to the Stetson Suite by Dave from the Rockin Cowboy, where I have acquired much of my Western gear since the start of the Koboi Project. In fact, Dave had invited me before but I have always, evaded his kind invitation due to my concerns about animal welfare. You see, I am a vegetarian Cowboy. Yes, an oxymoron! This time, however, I accepted. After a decade of being the Koboi, I wanted to be able to use the expression – this aint my first rodeo, meaningfully! While I did feel concerned for the animals involved, not to mention the cowboys being bucked about, I can’t say I did not enjoy myself. Thanks Cowboy Dave!

The Koboi Returns 2023

In December 2019, I did a Koboi Performance for Percha Art Space in Lumut, in which I raised a new SUPERSTAR banner depicting a giant hoarding of Anwar Ibrahim. I performed a cleansing ritual on the Lumut waterfront and left for Vancouver soon after. I will return to Malaysia in August this year (2023).

Since my performance, and after a long struggle, Anwar Ibrahim has become the 10th Prime Minister of the nation and holds on to this seat by the skin of his teeth. Anwar incredible return to power, after a quarter-century perjuangan, is an exemplary Hero’s journey – a striking display determination, endurance and a sense of destiny. To mark my own much less momentus return, I am working towards another Koboi Performance the details of which will be announced shortly.

8 My Country

8 My Country, Dendang Koboi Gelap, 2016

With the coffin shaped sculpture, May 13, 1969 by Redza Piyadasa as a blurry backdrop, this image, titled 8 My Country, from the Dendang Koboi Gelap, 2016, raises the question of nation in contemporary Southeast Asian art. It marks the irony that one of the few art works that contemporaneously addressed our national tragedy, does not stand proudly and self-reflectively in the light of the Balai Seni Lukis Negara, Malaysia, but instead, presents itself nakedly to the gaze of others at the National Gallery of Singapore.

For those who are not familiar with South East Asian Art and Malaysian history -Essentially May 13th 1969 is an infamous day of racial rioting for Malaysia. Many people died. Reza Piyadasa is one of the few artists of that time who made contemporaneous artworks that have ‘survived’, which in the art world, means collected and written about, and in this particular case, commissioned and remade. This piece memorializes the tragedy and explores its meaning for the nation.

My photo above, which is a simple art gallery selfie type shot, carries within it the possibility of a critique of both Malaysian and Singaporean institutional attitudes –
1. Why has the Malaysian institution of record not bothered to collect this important work of national self-reflection and, in not doing so, missed the opportunity to interrogate and explore its meanings? May 13, 1969 is a work that should stand proudly in the National Gallery in Malaysia.
2. While National Gallery of Singapore is entitled to collect any work it finds interesting and should be commended for recognizing and preserving this important work, I can’t help but ask – what happens to the reading of May 13, 1969, when this this racially and politically provocative work is presented to the gaze of global others, outside of its meaningful context, far from its original function of affording self-reflection?

May 13, 1969 was remade in 2006, the original having been destroyed by the artist in a performative act.

Dendang Koboi Gelap, 2016 is the 4th series of the expansive Koboi Project.

Murugan and Rajinikanth 2

Installing an antique terracotta icon at the Singapore Art Museum, Singapore Biennale 2016. 

The terracotta pictured above, was installed at the Singapore Art Museum as a part of my work for the Singapore Biennale 2016/17. This icon represents the Puranic myth in which Lord Ganesha wins a miraculous mango in a competition with his brother Lord Murugan by recognizing that his parents Lord Shiva and Mother Parvathy were not just a part of his universe but that in fact they were the whole of it. In my work, this terracotta opens up a highly liminal space between sacred icon, museum artifact and contemporary art work.

In this, the 2nd of a series of posts at the nexus of ‘Murugan’ and ‘Rajinikanth’ I share a very particular version of the Mango of Enlightenment (Nyana Pazham) myth, which is mine by matrilineal descent …. Once, as Lord Shiva, Mother Parvathy and their children Ganesha and Muruga were enjoying a moment of family bliss in their heavenly abode, the Sage Narada paid them a visit. Holding a mango in his hand, Naradha said, “Lord this mango is sweeter than amirtham (divine elixir) it is for you, but it must be not be divided.” Shiva decided to offer it to just one of his sons by way of a challenge, “The mango goes to the one who is the first to circumnavigate the world.”​​​

Knowing that he that must win this challenge, the sprightly Murugan bestrode his glorious peacock and set off around the world. Contemplating his own ponderous gait and his most modest vehicle, the mouse, Ganesha posed his father and mother a question, “Ammai, Appan, is it not true that parents are, for a child, the world?” “Yes”, his glowing parents replied in unison. Ganesha continued, “Is it not also true that the whole universe (Prakriti) is but a manifestation of your Lordly selves (Shiva/Shakti)?” “Well, yes of course!” – the only possible reply! Ganesha slowly circumambulated Shiva and Parvathy, his father and mother, his world – the world, and sure enough, he won the mango.

When Murugan came flying back, expecting to win, he saw Ganesha with the prize. Stunned and feeling cheated, he became enraged. He pierced his brothers generous belly with his Vel (this part of the story seems to be a particularity of my grandmother’s version) and abandoned his Heavenly abode. Discarding all his celestial accoutrements, he journeyed South, to stand alone on Mount Palani in a meager loin cloth.​​ To this day, he stands there and is hailed as Palani Aandi (Mendicant of Palani), a form of the Lord that is dear to the hearts of the Shivites of South India and the diaspora.

Murugan and Rajinikanth

Kiasu Cowboys Performance, Koboi Project, Singapore Art Museum 2017

In the midst of the Political storm caused in Tamil Nadu by the Periyarist Karuppar Koottam facebook chanel’s recent denigration of Lord Murugan and his Kanda Sashti Kavasam, Superstar Rajinikanth came out form his political hibernation to acknowledge the sitting AIADMK state government, itself Periyarist in inception, for the swift crackdown on the alleged provocation. Two protagonists of the disturbance were arrested and charged with ‘giving provocation intent to cause riot’, ‘promoting enmity between different groups’ and ‘deliberate and malicious acts intended to outrage religious feelings’ under the Indian Penal Code.

Writing on this matter based on my valid, if limited, locus standi, as a Jaffna born Tamil, I must note that while I am enamored of the ethos and charisma of Dravidian politics, I have never appreciated its central praxis of narrow communal scapegoating as a means to mass mobilization. While admiring their pioneering deconstruction of religion and myth as means to power and as forms of social control, I have always rejected their blank atheism as a window onto the truth of human existence. Without developing this sensitive, explosive even, subject further, I would like to take the opportunity of its topicality to index my own engagement with this nexus of Muruga and Thalaiva! In 2016/17, I presented an installation and performance at the Singapore Biennale which itself became the basis for 5th photographic series of the Koboi Project titled Kiasu Cowboys. Central to this work are the acknowledgement of Lord Murugan, via an antique terra cotta icon of the ‘mango myth’ and a large photographic print of a cinema hoarding of Superstar Rajinikanth.

The Discoveries 6

This is a view of the Afonso de Albuquerque park a from the Presidential Palace, no less! This image is from a book on the Belem Palace by Jose Antonio Saraiva that was presented to me by … well the Palace! … Oh all right! by a kind lady at the Palace bookshop with whom I had had a great conversation about the Koboi Project. It really made my day, and more than made up for being turfed out of the Park and banned from performing there by the Palace guards! In fact, this perspective shows how much the park is an integral part of landscape architecture of the palace grounds. And also how much my flag and megaphone would have been in the awareness of the security personnel, the staff and maybe even the occupants of the palace over the last year. I got away with performing right there by the monument a few times in July 1998 and in June this year before I was told that I had to seek official permission through my embassy as I was within the security perimeter of the palace.

Image: from Belem Palace by Jose Antonio Saraiva

Last Action, Last Hour

20190630_202116862004934-e1562041190381.jpgPlease visit Koboi Project series  – Kaza Nunteng Porta.

We completed the last street intervention of Koboi Project in Belem at the Monument to the Discoveries on Sunday 30th June at 9pm. It was a glorious evening as the sun went down on Prince Henry the Navigator and his discoverers, on SUPERSTAR Rajinikanth and on the Koboi Project! Special thanks to Jane Frankish and Pedro Silva.

the Neoliberal Economy Stupid

4 Tunai itu RajaIn the run-up to Malaysia’s 14th General Elections, 2018, Machiavellian maestro Mahathir Mohamad deployed the slogan Cash is King! to devastating effect against then incumbent Prime Minister Najib Razak, imbricating him in a narrative of shameless corruption. While the matter of Najib’s corruption is yet to be heard in law, it has been decided in public opinion, as Mahathir has now, at 92 years of age, returned as the oldest serving Prime Minister in the world. Mahathir’s meme imprinted in popular Malaysian consciousness the sense (regardless of veracity) that Najib’s corruption was qualitatively worse that anything that had transpired before, much of which had happened under Mahathir’s own watch.

The question of corruption is also currently under the spotlight in Canada by way the ongoing SNC Lavalin affair, in which it is alleged that the Prime Minister’s Office’s (PMO) put pressure upon the Attorney General of Canada to act in the interest of the said corporation in a criminal matter. (Please see my previous post for a Key to the SNC Lavalin Affair) The question at hand is whether this pressure was exerted on the  Attorney General, in an improper manner, vis-a-vis the ‘Rule of Law.’ The stakes, for the time being, appear to be ‘merely’ political.  Whether or not this pressure broke federal obstruction-of-justice laws is not as yet in question. It appears, however, that the Royal Canadian Mounted Police has been urged to begin criminal investigations by five former Federal and Provincial Attorney’s General. Equally it appears that, it could be argued that in terms of the rules and values of our system there is no illegality, not even a scandal, just another Wilson-Raybould storm in another Trudeau teacup. This seems to be what seasoned commentator Bsuggests in her article, “Look Away. There’s no scandal here with SNC-Lavalin”  … just business as usual in accord with the norms of Canadian governance.

The point is that corruption is not confined to its legal definition. It arises within and operates through legitimate transactions of all kinds. In writing about bribery, law and morality, John Thomas Noonan has said that “the common good of any society consists not only in its material possessions but in its shared ideals. When these ideals are betrayed, … the common good, … suffers injury.” I suggest, with reference to Marx and Hugo, that it is the unbridled annexation of common material possessions as private property that constitutes the betrayal of the shared ideals and injures the common good. This is the corruption that is enshrined in the laws that uphold neoliberalism. Indeed, regardless of illegality, the effect of the unmitigated monetization of common possessions is degrading to our humanity.

The legality or propriety of a particular exertion of pressure or proffering of inducement, critical though it is in terms of the workings of a given society, is trivial in the face of the bending of governance, the making of laws included, to the will of a powerful section of actors. What good is the adherence to the Rule of Law, if the laws, whose rule is upheld, engender a stilted and degenerate social order …  Here in Canada and throughout the world, this seems to be the default operating mode of the neoliberal political economy – wherein, by fair means or foul, the monetization of common possessions reigns over the common good … but there are exceptions  …  There are indeed, some striking instances of resistance to the all enticing ‘Cash.’ … In 2015 Malaysian Oil and Gas giant PETRONAS offered the tiny Lax Kw’alaams community $1.15 billion in exchange for their support for the building of an LNG terminal on Lelu Island in the Skeena watershed, but the community categorically declined the offer. They refused to convert the common possessions into ‘Cash,’ showing British Columbians and Malaysians alike, that there are, indeed, alternative values and alternative ways.

The image above, titled  7 Cash is King!, is a visualization for a photograph that will be a part of the Berhijrah (Migration) Series of my Koboi Project. This image is being developed as a remix of Mahathir’s political slogan, Zig Zag’s powerful political cartoon and my own apolitical ‘black hat’ Cowboy.







Diamond Jubilee, Lisbon

The second Koboi Performance went well today (8th July) in Belem, Lisbon. Among the highlights is meeting Amir Kabani and his family at  the site of the Discoveries Monument. Amir gracefully and effficiently facillated the paperwork involved in enabling me to participate as Faculty at the International Art Gallery of the Diamond Jubliee celebration of the global Ismaili community. Thank you Amir and the team at the International Art Gallery.