The smell of durian was unmistakable and just wrong. Not that I mind the exotic odour of this wonderful tropical fruit, it’s just that I don’t remember passing it on the way into town. There was no doubt in my mind, I had taken a wrong turn! I pride myself on my sense of direction, which is visually based; I lodge advertising signs, shops, natural features etc. into my virtual GPS and this generally serves me well. But riding my push bike through the unforgiving cloud of durian, I realised that I can also follow my nose home.
My new abode for the next four weeks is Kuantan, the capital of the Pahang state in east Malaysia. I have been invited to the east coast artist in residence (ECAiR) group and will continue my residency projects here. This will be followed by a two week visit to the Jatiwangi Art Factory in West Java, to conduct a series of workshops.
After a long journey from Port Macquarie, I was happy to arrive in Kuantan and by the afternoon I needed to go out and stretch my back and legs properly. There is no better way to do this than on the back of a push bike. It’s about a 30 minute ride into the centre from my studio and the roads are very quiet, a nice change from the traffic chaos that I had experienced only a few weeks ago in Vietnam. My destination was the state mosque in the heart of the town; a beautiful mint-green and sky-blue coloured building. A visually perfect place to welcome me to my new home.
“I love you forever!”, how could I refuse such a generous offer. I smiled and continued to take photos of the young men and the two women who were preparing fishing nets and ropes for the next day’s fishing. It was hot and the stench of rotting fish left no doubt in my mind where I was. I had wandered into a large shed in the fishing village of Tanjung Api, a mere 40 minute bike ride from my studio. At this stage I am working on my own, that is I have no assistant or translator who can help me to explain why I wanted to take photos of the workers. I can manage a handful of Malay and together with the little English that the young man knew, we got on just fine. Besides an offer of unconditional love is always a good starting point to any kind of relationship.
I am still struggling a bit with having to get a good image in a short time. The lack of clear intention for the person that I am photographing, often means I have to work fast, take the photo, and then let them get back to whatever they were doing. This is one reason why I like to work with little equipment, it’s less intimidating and more relaxed. But it can be a challenge, especially when taking photos in difficult light situations. At the same time, I really enjoy working like this, it’s important for me to allow for ‘accidents’ in my work. The magic of photography lies in its ability to catch a glimpse of reality, but reality never stands still.
“The photograph is an undeniably powerful medium. Free from the constraints of language, and harnessing the unique qualities of a single moment frozen in time.” – Steve McCurry
When I got up this morning I was greeted by a snake and a dragon in the kitchen. Today marked my first week in Malaysia and by now these things don’t worry me anymore. I calmly reached for the knife and cut them up into small pieces! I love breakfast in the tropics and my new discovery has been the snake fruit, a native from Indonesia and Malaysia, a perfect match for the dragon fruit. I ended up leaving the breakfast table feeling rather heroic.
The first week of any residency is always challenging, as I feel my way into a new culture, neighbourhood and working environment. I share the residency space with a fellow artist from Mexico, Raúl Mirlo, and together we have made the space our home for the next few weeks.
First challenge is always material. As I don’t have fixed plans for my works, except the conceptual idea, the first few days are spent sourcing suitable materials for my sculptural works. I am pleased that after the first week two sculptures are taking shape and materials have been located. The basic structure of the sculptures will be used next weekend with local art students for a collaborative art making workshop. My other work is an ongoing photography project that explores local people at work, plus I am starting a new series of portraits. More to come!
Working in Malaysia so far has been an absolutely positive experience. I love the cultural mix of people in this country. Walking around in my new neighbourhood I am likely to meet a Malay, Chinese or Indian person. This is also reflected in the look of the streets; a Taoist altar in front of one house which is greeted by a Hindu statue next door and washed over by the sound of the muezzin. I find all of this very inspirational and I hope to somehow reflect this in my work.