Tun Razak Speech Series – Demonstration

Written by Zena Khan

Studying historical texts to understand the ways in which they affect perceptions and memories within society has long been a key concern in Zulkifli Yusoff’s career, as can be seen in works such as Pelayaran Munshi Abdullah and Wasiat 1975. His latest offering Demonstration is no exception to this rule. Zulkifli uses this large-scale mixed media work to remind his audience of the student demonstrations of 1974, and underscore the importance of understanding history to prevent it from repeating.

Beautifully detailed and bursting with insight, Demonstration draws its main inspiration from late prime minister Tun Abdul Razak’s 1974 speech in the wake of student demonstrations. University students from Institut Teknologi Mara, Universiti Malaya, Institut Teknologi Kebangsaan and Kolej Tunku Abdul Rahman banded together to demonstrate in what is sometimes referred to as the “Baling Incident of 1974”. The students contended inflation coupled with the drop in rubber prices heavily affected the rural masses, using Baling as an example due to the number of rubber estates and poor there. Images from the protests have been printed in black and white and encapsulated in colourful resin shapes. Spaced out across the grid-like borders of Demonstration, they act as strong visual reminders that communicate the heated atmosphere that permeated the incident. Sheathed in several brightly coloured shapes, the pictures immediately draw viewers in for a closer look. Zulkifli enforces the idea that Malaysians need to focus on what serves the nation’s interests best, using images of unrest to underscore the pitfalls of falling for the rhetoric of anti-nationalistic groups. At the time, Malaysia had strong influences of communism and pro-Western forces working to infiltrate society and the government, particularly due to events such as the Vietnam War. Much of the efforts of these vested interests were concentrated on students. Zulkifli relates this back to present times where there is a strong American interest in South East Asia again, as demonstrated by Barack Obama’s historical visit to Malaysia in April 2014. During his visit, the American president described Malaysia as a pivotal state in the American administrations attempts to gain strongholds in the region, which some see as a reaction to China’s rapid growth as a global force.

Along the lengths of the work are clear resin ovals, filled with typography. Zulkifli delved into Tun Razak’s speech, extracting excerpts, printing them on canvas and encasing them in these resin ovals. The transparent organic shapes filled with black text make a neat juxtaposition to the orderly black and white canvas strip collages and graphic composition of Demonstration. The artist seeks to magnify the late prime minister’s words with this process; highlighting ideas he feels have stayed relevant from 1974 till today. During the artist’s research into Tun Razak’s speeches, he noticed an unusual sense of frustration in the speech delivered soon after the demonstrations. Analysing the words and situation of the time, he realized this feeling stemmed from the actions of the colonialists, particularly with respect to their holding back of the Malay population in terms of education. The amount of work that was now necessary to overcome the handicaps of colonialism was overwhelming. Tun Razak understood education to be the key to conquering the effects of colonialisation and rebuilding society. At that time, Malaysia only had approximately twenty-thousand undergraduates students at the universities. This was a small number and required nurturing to produce future leaders in the fields of law, medicine, engineering, accountancy. Neo-colonialist forces however were at work redirecting students into political activities and demonstrations which only served their agenda to retard the growth of third-world societies. The country found itself in a complex situation. Tun Razak understood this strategy, and it was a point the late prime minister endeavored to communicate to Malaysian society.

Today, at a time where discussions of neo-imperialism are again paramount, Zulkifli turns to the past to understand the effects of colonialism and through research, he is able to draw parallels between the Baling Incident and the recent Bersih and opposition led demonstrations in the lead-up to the General Elections in 2013.

The many ideas and values contained in Demonstration are represented by the finesse of the works detailing. The tightly woven layers of canvas printed with black text are cut into slim strips then used to cover a three dimensional base. Resin forms punctuate the otherwise monochromatic tones, providing spots of bright colour and detail. Indeed, Demonstration follows on from Zulkifli’s 2013 work Wasiat 1975 both stylistically as well as conceptually, forming the basis of an exciting and relevant series on Tun Razak’s speeches. Known and respected as an artist who contends himself with political issues and the dissemination of information, Zulkifli manifests his views visually, spreading values of patriotism and social awareness with his thoroughly researched and highly resolved aesthetic.

Title: Demonstration

Artist: Zulkifli Yusoff

Size: 213 cm X 184 cm

Medium: Resin and Collaged Typographical Canvas Strips with Printing and Painting

Year: 2014

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