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Recollections of long-lost memories

Recollections of Long Lost Memories, 2007, slide projection, dimensions variable, Ahmad Fuad Osman

MALAYSIAN artist Ahmad Fuad Osman’s Recollections of Long Lost Memories received the Juror’s Choice Award at the APBF Signature Art Prize in Singapore in early October 2008. This artwork consists of a slide projection of 71 images of historic photographs taken between 1860 and 2003.

This work, which was first seen at the Independence Project exhibition at Galeri Petronas in December 2007, is a particular favourite of mine. Fuad’s digital manipulation of our country’s historical images very cleverly and surreptitiously questions the official version of “history” being taught in schools today. The inclusion of a character from contemporary times — his long-haired hippie friend incongruously superimposed onto these iconic moments from our history — is the artist’s own irreverent attempt at retelling Malaysian history.

The assertion that history is merely a version of events recounted by those in power is nothing new. Social science students have been writing essays for years asserting that history is, at best, a point of view; at worst, it is cultural propaganda.

As with Fuad’s images, historical events are often retold, reinvented or re-tweaked to serve present-day political or cultural agendas. You need only read our history books or visit our national museums to witness how certain historical events are given short shrift in our national consciousness because they do not fit in well with our “official” national narrative. 

Recollections of Long Lost Memories, 2007, slide projection, dimensions variable, Ahmad Fuad Osman

Why study history?

So why then study history at all? Our beleaguered prime minister suggested earlier in October 2008 that history should be taught in primary schools because we “still need to know history, the sacrifice of the country’s leaders, as well as the country’s development”.

As someone who loved history in school, I agree with him although I would add the proviso that it should be taught well. Nothing kills an interest in history quicker than a teacher reducing the subject to a boring litany of dates.

I studied 16th and 17th century English and European history at school in the UK. Our history teacher would take us to museums and galleries where we would study the portraits and examine the letters of men and women who lived in those times. She made history exciting by showing us that history was not merely the study of facts but of the imagination, of humanity itself. 

Without imagination it is easy enough, with the power of hindsight, to condemn past generations for the mistakes they have made without having the self-awareness to recognise similar patterns of behaviour in contemporary times. We read about the Nazi regime in Germany in the 1930s in our history books and condemn those men and women who allowed Hitler to come into power.

But in the throes of economic despair, might we not also be swayed by charismatic politicians who play to the crowd? Might we not be influenced by their trumpeting the tune of racial superiority and the threat of the “other” — until we find it is too late to turn back? 

Collective memory

History is our collective memory: our stories. We have to remember what it was like to live during the Emergency, the trauma of the 1969 riots, what it felt like standing at Merdeka Square on 31 August 1957.

Which is why despite the dry tones of our history books, I find it impossible not to get a chill up my spine when I read about World War II. I get chills when I read about how the Japanese landed in Kota Baru, the sinking of the Prince of Wales and Repulse, and how Singapore fell to the Japanese.

It still amazes me to think that my father, uncle and aunt actually lived through those times. It still amazes me that their stories of running to air-raid shelters, seeing their father — my grandfather — taken for questioning by the Kempeitai are all real events which happened in our country just under seventy years ago.

It is crucially important that we remember our stories — all of our stories — so that the past is not forgotten or worse hijacked by those who have selective memories. By preserving our stories, we can contribute to a rewriting of our country’s history that is more inclusive and reflective of Malaysia’s pluralistic background.

Rahel Joseph has over 10 years’ art management experience in both performing and visual arts. She is currently employed at a leading contemporary art space in Kuala Lumpur.

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