by Eva McGovern-Basa

How does the relationship between citizen and nation change when hometowns are discarded for a life abroad? Does civic responsibility continue to be important for the migrant or expatriate Malaysian, or is this discarded for a better life away from the limitations of the country? Examining these questions and more, Phuan Thai Meng presents his latest show at OUR ArtProjects entitled Hey Malaysian, Something You [     ] Leave Behind!. A carefully selected group of hyperrealist paintings and installation weave together various visual and textual languages like newspapers and iconic documents such as the Malaysian identity card, to communicate the complexities of home and nationhood.

The follies of the Malaysian national narrative have been an enduring site of inquiry in Phuan’s practice. Often working from a ground up perspective, he stages subject matter related to the living conditions of ordinary Malaysians as well as the insincere posturing of manipulative politicians to create a scathing socio-political commentary on contemporary experience. However, in Hey Malaysian, Something You [     ] Leave Behind!, he begins his research from a different angle, to understand choices of migration. Selecting a group of Malaysians of different ages, genders and races, he returns to the interview process of his past works, to record personal histories and lived experiences that evolve into a unique creative interpretation of people and place.

This reimagining can be seen in a set of paintings depicting ‘The Native Daily’, a fictitious newspaper Phuan has created to reflect upon ideas of connection and disconnection. Daily highlights some of the negative aspects of the country that compel people to leave, through an image of a front-page article that at face value seems to celebrate the first class quality of Kuala Lumpur’s public transport system. But, a chuckling image of the artist, pointing his finger at the text behind him reveals that this is a tongue in cheek inversion of the negative complaints about KL’s infrastructure. The painting’s subtext is an inadvertent warning that lived experience is the best indicator of truth, and not media propaganda. Boundaries and Belonging is a blank design layout of the newspaper with only the masthead visible at the top and an image of the ocean at the bottom. The bottom right corner has also been folded over, as a device to suggest three-dimensional form. However, the message of the painting is far more than technical skill, but rather how we lose sight of what is happening in our own country over time and distance, creating a knowledge gap about current events.

Yet, Phuan is not trying to criticise those who live abroad, but rather examine the shifting nature of home and why people move from their hometowns to the city and finally to different countries. He attempts to visualise and literally map this movement in Re-claimed Land as well as hint at its reasons in the I See (C) Project, two installations that have time-based and interactive audience elements. In Re-claimed Land, Phuan highlights the fluidity of borders, in the literal sense, by creating specially designed containers, whose shape represents a combination of the countries where each interviewee has lived, is living now and would like to live in one day. Each container is filled with soil and planted with weeds signifying human resilience and survival. Installed on the gallery floor, these hybrid geographies share stories of mobility, and that home is not necessarily where you are born, but where you are able to create a life for yourself. The information of homes from the past, present and future, and the idea of choice is also recorded in reimagined versions of the iconic Malaysian identity card (IC) in the I See (C) Project. Viewers can also create their own ICs in the gallery, which is then added to this alternative census on migration. Although the IC is one of the most important documents in Malaysia, in this context, it does not represent proof of citizenship but rather the complex relationship between citizen and country. It also provokes a questioning of place, suggesting negative conditions that make people want to escape their birthplace.

These negative conditions are underscored in The People’s Voices, a wall-based installation of words that are hard to decipher and letters representing the ‘neglected and twisted voices’ of a rakyat ignored and manipulated by politicians. It is familiar approach by the artist, another warning against blind faith in the establishment and a call for self-agency; to use one’s own voice to communicate social needs and political concerns rather than relying on government officials. Because as Phuan has commented before: everyone thinks of changing the world, but no one thinks of changing oneself, so rather than leaving a sense of Malaysianess behind when living abroad, we must always stay connected to who we are and where we come from. This is our social responsibility to be carried with us wherever we are in the world.


Eva McGovern-Basa is an independent curator and writer based in Metro Manila. She writes widely on Southeast Asian art, with a recent focus on contemporary practice in the Philippines.