Mar 2017 - Gerak Geri at Ruang by Think City

What a fascinating meeting, this exhibition of Cheryl Hoffmann’s photographs of Malaysian traditional rituals. How to give a flavor of this discussion of art and culture, presented jointly by Cheryl and her colleagues Pauline Fan and Han Fei, from Pusaka, an NGO supporting the preservation of Malaysian traditional performing arts? What was it about? 

“It’s all about the movement”, explained Cheryl. The exhibition opened with the image of “TokPuteri”, the medium who leads ritual performances in Kelantan.  His invocation: “I ask you sweetly and coax you” inviting us to draw near and experience rituals of dance and story telling passed down by Masters through generations.  The term ‘gerak geri’ is difficult to translate - ‘gestures with meaning’ was the nearest I could get. But the pictures were worth a thousand words. It’s about movement - hands, feet, eyes, bodies, swirling, stretching, beckoning and showing. Gestures of ritual and tradition, gestures of narrative, conversation, community and healing, gestures inviting us to open our minds to big ideas.


The exhibition itself was anything but static; Cheryl told us how she had shifted the display boards around three times in the first week of the show. She designed the exhibition so we saw more than one image at any time, but never all and so we would look at photographs more than once, in different combinations and from different positions, so we would explore. For me it underlined the nature of perception itself, the realization that whatever we see and interpret is always partial, always from a particular perspective, always in a particular context. The exhibition space itself, restored by Think City, became part of the story, as we stood in the corner of the room looking back at the images, and outwards towards a cityscape which itself embodies tradition, modernity, and history, and the processes of destruction, renovation and restoration.


The exhibition was also about space, physical space, and how these collective rituals expressing identity and culture are materialized in places created by words and gestures. The stories of how, where and when these rituals are performed are in themselves threads of Malaysian culture and history. And yes, of politics too: we heard about a ban on these performances in some States, as “un-Islamic”, and how this is overcome.

The exhibition invited response: to the pictures themselves, to the quotes from academics and practitioners, to the Artist’s own statement, to a poem written in response to an image. Unlike some exhibitions, this one didn’t explain, didn’t tell us what to see. The photographs are printed in black and white, focusing our attention on their movement and energy. Posing a huge technical challenge to the (brave!) printer, the images were printed on rice paper: the fragility of the medium reflecting both the fragility, and the strength, of tradition. (As an aside, I was delighted with the detail that they were attached to the boards with toothpaste…)


Last but not least (and our talented, modest MCG member Cheryl may not thank me for saying this), it’s about the Artist herself. About her fascination with what’s going on around her, with images and multiple meanings, about her deep respect for and connection with the people she encounters, about her acceptance and embracing of ambiguity. She is often asked by bystanders when she is witnessing performers in spiritual trance: “Do you believe?” And her wise, profound answer, which moved me greatly: “I believe in belief”.


Thank you to everyone involved in creating this meeting.  Thank you as well to the Pusaka team members who joined us to share their understanding of traditional performing arts in Malaysia and for their contribution to the conversation prompted by this photography exhibition.


Written by Anne Means

Pictures by Michelle Pease