It’s one of the first things you see when you step into the Patani Semasa exhibition at ILHAM Gallery. Past the reception desk and the expansive timeline on the wall — an imposing draped white sheet, nearly as tall as the ceiling. Seemingly blank, as you get closer you see white paint scribbles that — as you get closer still — reveal themselves to be words. A poem, in fact. Rendered in three scripts: Malay, Jawi, and Thai.
The first two times I visited Patani Semasa, I gave Zakariya Amataya’s I See Myself a wide berth. The material blankness of the work made it deflective, my attention glanced off it like light off polished metal, bouncing me forwards into the gallery towards more absorbing, more colourful, more seemingly engaging works. My third and final time I made a personal appointment to specifically and deliberately encounter just the work alone, to force myself to look at it directly in its blank face.
As I read the words, my mind floods with images of kiamat / judgement day. People enmeshed in chaos, confusion, and denial. Mazes and cages and traps. Red dust and mud the colour of shit, the kind you bury bodies with. At the full stops I am back in the air-conditioned, clean, spacious confines of the gallery, facing a swath of pristine white fabric five times as tall as me. The white-painted words risk no intrusion to this surface. I walk around to the back of it, to see if I can find some way, however crude, into this work. There’s a stiffness to the fabric, even in its gentle drape, that makes it even more deflective to me. Underneath the tent of it, the neat seams show me how it’s been patched together from multiple white strips. The fluorescent lights overhead shines through, and I shield my eyes. It’s still just cloth.
Zakariya’s poem does not capture me, in Malay or in English (and unfortunately I cannot read Thai). The words seem to describe stereotypes of people who deserve the kiamat that’s coming to them. Those that trap themselves in cycles of oppression by nurturing suspicion and paranoia and fear, obscuring truths in the service of hollowed out ideas of belonging, sharpening ethnicity and religion into swords. These are the very people I see in the news from all over the world, in comment sections, giving press conferences — my attention glazes over again, shuts itself off. These stereotypes already take up too much of my time when I am outside of this gallery. Once upon a time, the poem may have made me angry, but now I am just bored, antsy, wanting to escape from it like before.
I try again. I read the words. I do as it says and ask myself, “Who am I?” I know the characteristics of the ‘headless people’ that repel me can also be present inside myself, inside the ‘I’ of this poem, inside Zakariya for all I know. The literal vastness of this work makes space for everything you can project onto it. It’s a mirror for you to see yourself in, but I feel it doesn’t give me anything back. The words obscure, the whiteness obscures, the size of it obscures.
The ungenerous part of me thinks, maybe Zakariya was on to something with the last line of his poem. The practical part of me chimes in and asks, wouldn’t an eight meter tall piece of blank white fabric with nothing on it infuriate you more? Would it have been any better of an entry point?
What sticks with me most after my third encounter with I See Myself is my personal English translation of the Malay line from the third stanza. Langit luas sebagai benteng / sky wide as a wall. Finally, a crack, a way through and in. White and blank as an overcast sky, impenetrable as a horizon too far away from the mess of humanity, as a border wall, a prison wall, the walls of a home too small and empty, too full of death. It reminds me that if the white of this work suffocates me, I can leave. The gallery’s doors are just behind me. Where can the headless people of the poem go, where can the ‘I’ of the poem go, where can Patani’s moments of despair immortalized in this exhibition go?
There’s a relief in finally feeling like I am ‘inside’ the work, the impasse between me and this work broken at last. But the smallness of the entrypoint winks me out of that space as soon as I am inside. One line of a four stanza poem painted three times on eight meters of fabric. There’s a relief in that too, that I get to walk away. That I can walk towards a sky that’s just a sky, a sky more than a sky, a sky that’s never a wall. ◈
This piece was written as the final assignment for the ILHAM Gallery Art Writing Workshop with Weng Choy Lee (May – July 2018). I parked my notes from all four sessions of the workshop in this Twitter thread.