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Eyebrows arched, my friend and fellow intern at The Centre for Independent Journalism (CIJ), Francine Navarro, keeps her cool in one of Kuala Lumpur’s many Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf cafés. Standing in the British franchise and served by a Malay man, she’s used to this small talk. Francine is Filipino-Canadian, and apparently a study in “national” identity.
What exactly is a Canadian? This question has repeated through my mind several times throughout this trip, enough to rival the boisterous honks of Bukit Bintang traffic jams. More importantly, what is a Malaysian? The media promotion in this country consistently boasts a “1Malaysia” concept: whether you’re Malay, Chinese, or Indian, you are all Malaysian. Yet, there isn’t the same “cultural mosaic” feeling as in Canada, with political parties still divided along racial and religious lines.
As we’ve spent more time as urbanites in Kuala Lumpur, we’ve discovered that the Asian art scene explores these topics of cultural contention. Letting our art freak tendencies get the best of us, Francine and I discovered the acclaimed KL Lifestyle Art Space in trendy Bangsar. Their latest exhibition echoed what I’ve envisioned: the classic love story. East meets West, and sparks fly until cross-cultural jealousies compete for centre stage. Artist Ketna Patel’s explosive collection, “Rojak Asia!,” explores the Asian appropriation of a very American visual phenomenon – pop art.
Patel is a global citizen in every sense of the word. This nomad artist not only fuses popular culture with high culture, but also blurs the traditional Asian identity with icons of the Information Age. Born in Uganda and educated at an U.K. architecture school, Patel now resides in Singapore. As a British-Indian constantly on the move, her style reflects the dizzying effect of globalization and the alarming rate at which we all must adapt.
The solo exhibition features a connecting series of eye-catching acrylic panels. “I am a Goddess” boasts a brash colour scheme with a smiling Indian woman proclaiming, “I am a Goddess, and you are a loser. Any questions??!!” In this piece, Patel melds beauty ideals with South Asian idols. Another panel, “Taste me to believe,” blends Buddha with hints of consumerist nirvana like Coca-Cola signs and laundry adverts. A personal favourite, “Also Can!”, pulls an Andy Warhol and makes a street man look like Monroe. Lips pursed in pink desire with Aviators and a bow on his wrinkled brow, a speech bubble exclaims, “WARNING: I steal music off the Internet!”
The artist even ventures into the furniture factory with “Asian Grandfathers Tube Chair.” It’s a tongue-in-cheek piece that showcases a familial shift in ritual. Buddha’s inverted outline is plastered on the cushion, while sign-like font on the seat declares, “STOP: Asians ahead.” From revering gods to worshipping pop idols on the tube, Patel hints at a nostalgic longing for tradition and an irresistible attraction for the future. KL Lifestyle Art Space’s glass house environment served as the ideal exhibition locale. Harbouring some of Malaysia’s most notable artists, the gallery displays an interesting disparity between old and new styles.
As a hybrid tourist-local myself, I’ve been drawn to Asian art and popular culture for its emphasis on identity confusion. Walking in the Bangsar area, I’m confronted by cultural collision. A mosque stands in the distance, masked by a Chili’s sign. At the end of the exhibition, I’m awakened by the thought that I’m as much an intruder on traditional Asian culture as these corporations. In particular, “Cowboys and Indians” is one panel that echoes my unease. In between primitive Hindu warriors and well-equipped army men is the English title: “NO ENTRY FOR TOURISTS.” With a contrasting Mandarin subtitle, the piece hints at an overarching theme of displacement. Even though there are Western corporate landmarks around me, I feel like the new kid in school. There are Asian elements that I’m familiar with from multicultural Canada, but, like most residents of KL, I’m unsure of my current identity.
Patel reinvents the pop art genre, triggering both spiritual nostalgia and the present comfort of consumption. Can Asians be in two worlds at once? “Asia Pop!”, with its critique and indulgence, provides a temporary visual answer. We live in a world of mythmaking – and religion, art, and advertising are all equally addictive ingredients.
Even though the interns only have a couple more weeks left, this little art excursion has helped ground us in our work. We may just be tourists passing through only one small snapshot of Asia, but we’ve already been exposed to the anxieties surrounding the complex subjects of “race” and “culture.” As we spend our last month in the city, we’re tuned into every aspect of Malaysian media – how it reveals old tensions, opens up new discussions, and moves the country forward.
Western University student Emily Fister is spending the summer working as an intern at the Centre for Independent Journalism (CIJ) in Malaysia.