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Nur Hanim Mohamed Khairuddin

About her video animation Se(Rang)ga, an expedition in search of a Malay identity.
By Kean Wong | May 2006

The eyes have it.
What you see is what you get.
Another two cliched phrases for the digital age. And just what the doctor ordered to fix what ails us in the early 21st century.
What you see is what you get, sometimes, in Nur Hanim's Se(Rang)ga.
Yet the sonic undertow will trip up your busy, colour-saturated vista, when momentary and momentous war chants of poet Amirul Fakir pierce through the spectacle, and Kakabara's electric grunge pin down the sound.
Nur Hanim's theatre of video dissonance and sonic disturbances may initially seem ornamentalised or contrived when viewed from a post-modern, post-ironic, post-almost-everything jaded 'western' viewing platform.

But if we attempt to reach out past Se(Rang)ga's immediate scenery, where her face gets deluged by the swarm of those eye-tiles and an emerging visual swirl/whirl of George Bush and his apparent doppelganger Osama bin Laden offering their carnival of terror (sic), we see her struggle to discern some sort of authentic Malay identity amidst the Pamela Andersons, the pop tarts and confections, the hijab/tudung personae, and the defiant purveyors of death and destruction.

It's an expedition in search of a Malay identity that's replete with contested understandings of modern Islam, that for some Muslim feminists and modernisers in Malaysia actually means plugging the dykes and shoring up the barricades against the Arabisation of South-east Asia's historically 'liberal' Muslim faith. Sidestep: it's a cliche and it's true, that Islam came to the region via Arab, Indian and Chinese traders, not through war and conquest. The faith and the salvation revealed by the Prophet was accomodated to local customs, negotiated and transacted without blood and territory (unlike say the Western colonisation of the region, starting with the Spice Islands), where until today there are Muslim communities in Sumatra and peninsular Malaysia built up by material wealth inherited through matrilineal ties.

But in Malaysia's straightened circumstances, nearly a decade after the economic crash following the boom-boom 1990s, the doctor - or rather, Dr Mahathir Mohamad - has exited the national stage, retiring after two decades in power as prime minister in which he brusquely reshaped the notion of 'Malaysia'. Perhaps more importantly, Dr M - as he's usually known, with no ironic reference to any James Bond villain - has fundamentally redrawn the meanings and in some ways caricaturised what it means to be 'Malay' or 'Melayu'.

In the Malaysian context, there has been a critical contest driven by the state's quest for economic modernity and the riches promised by globalisation, which has been resisted by secular populists and denounced by a globalised Islamic fraternity dominated in Malaysia by the opposition Islamist party PAS. And the outrage against a monetised Malay culture has fuelled polemical diatribes from many in the fractured intelligentsia, some of whom have drawn exclusively from wells bored to store particular Islamist teachings. There has been the recent irony of young Malay cultural activists such as Faisal Tehrani lambasting new Malaysian films attempting to stitch together more inclusive communal realities different to state-sanctioned images of polarised ethnic groups.

New Malay-language cinema pitched at the mixed up urban reality that is Malaysia today is colliding with a nostalgia for simpler, more sedate times where religious faith was not held hostage by investment booms moving off to China and India. For Nur Hanim to intervene with her own globalised vision of past grievances and present tensions, what you see isn't all there is to see. Images can be toxic, she suggests, and "the ugly theatres of propaganda ... enormously traumatise the followers of Islam".

Moreover, when Se(Rang)ga is viewed from a Malaysian lookout where the durian can be discerned from the jungle, it's much more than just party politics, of Dr M's successor Abdullah Badawi retailoring the retail level of Malay(sian) politics. Or of his government's seemingly mild-mannered methods of sanctioning images and notions of 'bangsa Malaysia', otherwise known by bemused Malaysians from all ethnic and religious backgrounds as the 'Malaysian race'.

As Nur Hanim explains, she finds herself "stuck in a dilemma". "One part of me favours the modern world, sometimes 'westoxifying' myself. The other side within me tries very hard to stick to the principles of Islam and my culture," she says. She shares a broader Malaysian sentiment of waryness about globalisation and a related American Eurocentric definition of its trailing culture. What appears contradictory according to this legacy of the rational Enlightenment is just dismissed by already aggrieved Muslims in poorer parts of the globe as appaling hypocrisy.

While Nur Hanim's work predates the Danish cartoons controversy, it speaks to the disingenuity of those so-called Western defenders of free speech. The cartoons were the music video replay that has already been on high rotation since the outrages of September 11, all the kinetic frenzy of flapping robes, turbans, beards, AK47s and bombs (or the Bomb). While acknowledging Malaysia's prickly and paradoxical embrace of the modern, of the juggernaut of capital-raising investment markets, the naked individualism of MTV's diaspora and the soaring skyscrapers of downtown Kuala Lumpur, Nur Hanim also scrutinises a "crisis of identity", alienation and 'social decentering' experienced by her immediate Malay community.

One way to plot out new trajectories in her map of new Malay - and maybe Malaysian - identity is her putative salon up in the northern city of Ipoh. The former tin-mining capital of the world, Ipoh today arguably reflects the diminished dreams of a thriving multiracial past, that was also a key site in the contest between communism and capital for a post-colonial Malaysia. At this centre for young artists, who work in mediums from painting and sculpture to electronic music and doom-laden guitar bandss, Nur Hanim has been nurturing new seedlings for a more inclusive cultural movement, one that overlooks and swerves away from the ethnicised and racialised divisions promoted by Malaysia's party politics and policies.

So what you end up seeing need not be all you see, and keeping a wary distance from the metropolis is one way to taste the changing world. It also provides a peripheral vantage point, just as we're all being shuffled off one viewing platform for others in the globalised jungle canopy. As Nur Hanim puts it, 'serangga' means insect in the Malay language. 'Serang' means attack, and 'rangga' means label or status. There are now new ways of seeing and as John Berger once suggested, spectating isn't an option when we're all at war. In one way or another.


Kean Wong

Journalist and broadcaster from Malaysia and Australia. Writes among others about Islamic modernity, popular culture and the media.

Se(Rang)ga. 2003


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