[Art Affairs] UNPACK REPACK: Archiving and Staging Ismail Hashim (1940 – 2013)

Written by  Sarah Abu Bakar

Balai Seni Visual Negara

National Visual Arts Gallery

13 March – 31 May 2015


‘Unpack Repack: A Tribute to Ismail Hashim (1940 – 2013)’ was first exhibited at The Whiteaways Arcade, George Town, Penang from 23 June to 31 August 2014. Curated by one of Malaysia’s most prominent artists/curators Wong Hoy Cheong, the exhibition takes the audience through five rooms of Ismail Hashim’s creative preoccupations drawn mainly from the archives/estate he left behind. It features known works selected by friends and colleagues, recontextualisations and readings of Ismail Hashim’s collection of negatives, contact prints and test prints as well as personal documents, writings and photographic equipment and materials from his studio.

As the title suggests, this exhibition proposes to unpack and make transparent various trajectories of representation and presentation with the hope that the audience will come to their own understanding as they negotiate through the exhibition space, and encounter the interrelationships of the narratives.

One of the highlights of the exhibition includes Ismail Hashim’s last known project before he passed away. This work-in-progress, sparked off by an earlier work in 2009/2010, shows the artist engaging with a new series of time-lapse digital images of ants, possibly taking his photography practice towards a new direction in his attempt to embrace digital technology. The broader aim of this project is not only to curate a tribute exhibition from the estate of the late Ismail Hashim, but also to document and conserve his creative output, and to consolidate it into an archive for both public and educational purposes.

The show travels to the National Visual Arts Gallery Kuala Lumpur from 13 March to 31 May 2015 with the title ‘Unpack Repack: Archiving and Staging Ismail Hashim (1940 – 2013)’ displaying approximately 20,000 items from the vast archive consisting of photographs, negatives, slides, documents, books and objects are assembled “to unravel the thoughts and preoccupations of the artist; examines his works and archives from various trajectories, eliciting multiple narratives and readings”. The complexities of documentation and the staging of an artist’s archive is also revealed in this hybrid exhibition that probes the intersections of a posthumous career retrospective and that of an ongoing archiving and unpacking of the estate of the late Ismail Hashim.

A comprehensive exhibition presenting the life of Ismail Hashim as a photographer and a chronicler, a humanist and social observer of people and the environment, the show is a testament to “the complex and paradoxical world built with romance and ruthless scrutiny, framed by the indomitable passing of time, suffused with immense beauty and a hope for renewal but ruptured by the pathos of human inefficacy, frailty and mortality” that he had crafted through the years. In spite of all negativity, “he had an enduring faith in human courage and resilience, never losing his sense of irony and wit”. An “everyman’s photographer”, he was able “to call upon our collective memories to see and reconsider the familiar new eyes” as described in the curator’s statement.


The space is categorised in six sections, navigating the viewer through various processes starting with ‘Looking Out’ which displays six interconnected themes – ‘Journey’ consisting of “expansive views of the Malaysian land, sea and sky” revealing “the act of journeying and recording as the underlying momentum of much of the artist’s works”; ‘Streets’ which comprise of “portraits of the built environment – streets, sidewalks, stalls and shops – and how they are transformed through the ravages of time, weather and human activity”; ‘People’ and ‘Work’ capture “a cross-section of multi-ethnic Malaysia, showing people in leisure and work, in repose and movement”; and ‘Environment’ and ‘Human Rights’ which represent the artist assuming the role of a social commentator exposing “countless photographs of rubbish and the degradation of the environment” and designing “powerful images of consumer and human rights” for one of Malaysia’s oldest civil society organisations he founded named Aliran.

‘Looking In’ is “a space for pause and reflection” representing “meditations on personal and intimate spaces, on domestic activities, on communion and play” in three segments: ‘Home’ displays photographs of intimate domestic scenes “mostly devoid of people” but nonetheless “evoke human presence, memory or longing, be they in the form of a pair of shoes or a plate of food or a towel on a rack”; ‘Family and Friends’ represent “deeply felt scenes of kinship, intimacy and an abiding faith in relationships” witnessing “cats and kittens curled up in a forgetful sleep; scenes of young girls in prayer; families sleeping on floors and beds”; ‘Around Home’ shows “space lying in-between the home and the outside world, the private and the public.”

‘As the World Turns’ begins with “the artist’s birth certificate and ends with the last photographic outing on the day the artist died” consisting of “photographs, drawings, paintings and graphic works exhibited alongside vitrines displaying personal notes, documents, books and newspaper clippings drawn from the artist’s archive as well as public records.”

‘Going Bananas’ is a “title and idea used repeatedly by the artist for many of his works on the subject of “all things bananas” which segment contains “photographic tools and archives; and documentations of his methodologies and processes” and the recreation of the artist’s darkroom.

‘Yang ‘Tu Yang’ Ni’, titled after Ismail Hashim’s solo exhibition in 2008 which colloquially means “this and that” explores the “this and that” of being and of existence: “memory and absence, ephemerality and mortality, rationality and spirituality, humour and melancholia, truth and beauty” - uncovering the artist’s interest in “systems and structures, numerology and language” - overlapping the meanings and intentions of the works using grids and repetitive format to accentuate the “visual hilarity” when viewed as a whole.

In the final section ‘Living Archives’, viewers are exposed to over 2,000 items of photographs, negatives, slides, notes, documents, books and objects – archived, classified, digitised and documented since January 2014 and made accessible for viewing and online research – an ongoing project which has since documented about 14,000 items. This section also reveals the artist as a talented saxophonist through a video screening of Ismail Hashim improvising the instrument enthusiastically - displaying an intimate and unseen side of the artist. Set on loop, the artist’s voice and the saxophone melody is audible throughout the gallery space making it an intriguing background sound as though the artist is still with us.


UNPACK REPACK A Tribute to Ismail Hashim (1940 – 2013) , Fergana Art, Kuala Lumpur, 2014.

UNPACK REPACK Archiving & Staging Ismail Hashim (1940 – 2013) , Exhibition Guide National Visual Arts Gallery, Kuala Lumpur, 2015.

Image courtesy of Our Artprojects

Image courtesy of Fergana Art

Image courtesy of The Star Malaysia

Last modified on Saturday, 27 June 2015 10:05