|With Aizat (left) and Sooshie during a 'sembang' session for her 'Kedai Runcit'|
Little shop of memories
By HARIATI AZIZAN
Nostalgia and heritage have a place in contemporary art, as a current exhibition shows.
TUCKED somewhere in the mind of most Malaysians – okay, maybe those of a certain age – is the little sundry shop or kedai runcit.
This is the place with the hidden treasures of your childhood, and the main source of many a family’s essentials.
It used to be the heartbeat of the kampung or taman, and played a big part in the rites of passage of most – the first paper doll, the first game card, first friend, first child, or first buku tiga lima (buku hutang or credit account).
This is what Shooshie Sulaiman, 38, hopes to trigger with the art situation/performance piece she has curated at the Penang State Art Gallery, titled Kedai Runcit No.12.
These emotions are what our individual history and identity are made of, says the National Young Curator Award 2009 winner. “I want to awaken these nostalgic memories that people have packed away in neat boxes and hidden out of their sight.”
The antiquated structure in the sombre space of the gallery is definitely a sight to behold. With its wooden shutters and signs in Jawi and Chinese, the installation is a relic that belongs in the history tomes and showy coffee table books. But at the gallery, it comes alive.
And like a real kedai runcit, the “store” is strewn with various sundry items you might need and want, including those that you may have long forgotten, like the sugar-top biscuits, the tikam-tikam game and the kukur kelapa (traditional coconut grater) There is even a Chopper bicycle! (Only to try, not to buy, unfortunately.)
Interspersed with these daily household wares are the artworks of five emerging Malaysian artists.
Home-grown (Penang) artist Hoo Kiew Hang sets up an altar for his religious-inspired, pop art sculptures. Izat Aris, 25, uses his drawings as labels and packaging to spice up some common retail wares, while painter Linda Nordin, also from Penang, digs up her collection of antiques and old trinkets.
Within this kedai runcit setup, the artists’ works are installed to align with the nitty gritty of the store, placed in jars, hanging plastic bags and old biscuit tins and on rickety metal shelves.
In the process, explains Shooshie, the young artists need to negotiate the layout of the store and the material culture of the retail goods to create a semblance of harmony between contemporary art and the ordinaryobjects.
Crucially, the display is not only for show – visitors are expected to do more than window-shop.
Of course, she has her own favourite kedai runcit etched in her memory. Interestingly, she is still a regular customer at the sundry shop, which has been in operation for 48 years in Ayer Panas, Setapak, Kuala Lumpur.
The installation is like an art fair in itself, she adds.
“I love the shop. It is an art phenomenon and I get so much joy from the high aesthetic value in the mashing of the daily activities with our heritage and culture and the individual history of the shop.”
To her, this is art in its natural form, whereby the aesthetic is derived honestly, without conceit.
“Look at the way fruit sellers arrange their ware, for example. They do it in a way that will attract buyers - the balance, composition and colour come naturally. It’s the same in a kedai runcit - the way things are arranged and displayed creates a genuine aesthetic. Combined with the survival spirit and daily necessities of the store owners, it creates arresting art,” she says.
The shop also highlights issues that are rife in the current local art scene: Can we put monetary value on art? How do we evaluate the critical value of art?
These are questions Shooshie wanted to throw at the younger artists involved in the exhibition.
“My question to them was, if they could do something without the purpose of ‘creating art’, would it still come out as visually interesting as art?”
Looking at Malaysia’s contemporary art scene, she says many young artists today are technically competent and theoretically apt, yet their works lack depth.
“Many do not draw from their experience or even emotions for their work. When they want to create, they simply Google to draw from the information available on the Internet and other people’s experiences,” she laments.
“If they want to talk about the taste of coffee, many would not think of drinking it to get the taste. They will go on the Net to read about how coffee tastes like.”
Contemporary art in the country is often an adaptation of outside values about art and global ideas, Shooshie adds. “We not only lack originality but are also confused about our identities.
“More importantly, young artists in the country are not aware of their responsibility towards our culture and society.”
This is what she hopes to spark in those involved in the Kedai Runcit project: to start thinking about who they are and what they want to create.
“An artist needs to be sensitive to the value of something and do due diligence when he creates any artwork. One’s process is the essence of one’s art.
“First, he needs to tap into his emotions. I find young people today are scared of their emotions. They need to understand that the bad memories along with the good feelings are what one is made of.”
Ultimately, Shooshie and her loose art collective, 12, aspires to promote and elevate contemporary art in the country.
“Previously, when you went to a contemporary art show, all you saw were paintings. These days, when you talk about contemporary art, people think of digital art and multimedia.” The group hopes to show the public, as well as the young artists involved in Kedai Runcit, that contemporary art is more than that.
She relates an “incident” after the exhibition opened early this month.
“A group of art students came over and said, ‘Kak, we are here to see the art show.’ When I told them, ‘This is the show’, they answered, ‘No we are here to see the paintings, you know the art you hang on the wall.’ I didn’t know what to say.”
Yet, at the same time, Shooshie is heartened by the response from the public.
“Many visitors wanted to share their nostalgic memories of kedai runcit. We invited the Sundry Shopkeepers Association to the exhibition and I think it left an indelible impression on them.
“One member even brought us some plates and asked if we could help sell them.
“Then there was a 17-year-old who was really excited about the kedai runcit. He had never seen one; the only kedai runcit he knows is from his mother’s and grandparents’ stories.”
The Kedai Runcit No. 12 was first installed at the Art Stage in Singapore, in January this year. The response was different as sundry stores as we know them no longer exist there, Shooshie says.
“Here in Penang (and perhaps all of Malaysia), the nostalgia holds more resonance as it is still a part of our daily lives and highlights the heritage and culture issues that we are grappling with.” And this, she believes, is what contemporary art should be about.