The human mind continuously seeks self-expression: this is an enduring desire that has only strengthened in tandem with the evolution of technology as new forms of self-expression are invented. Visual mediums, in particular, catch on especially fast and the invention of photography has seen its meteoric rise towards occupying an integral part of everyday life in the 21st century.
Most of us would likely assume that fawning over celebrity Instagram Stories and be making duck faces in our selfies are relatively modern phenomena, gaining recognition as cultural cornerstones with the prevalence of youth culture in the modern global society. The Peranakan Museum, however, challenges us to rethink these assumptions with the debut of its first-ever photography exhibition — Amek Gambar: Peranakans and Photography.
A Peranakan transliteration of the phrase “taking pictures”, Amek Gambar covers more than 150 years of photography, spanning its emergence, adoption, and evolution in South East Asia through the historical lens of the Peranakan community. With over 2,500 photographs generously donated by a Peranakan couple Mr and Mrs Lee Kip Lee, Amek Gambar presents a true visual spectacle for visitors through its showcase of early photography in Europe, its rapid proliferation across Southeast Asia, and the vibrantly rich social history of the Peranakans as early adopters of the technology.
I was invited along to a sneak preview of Amek Gambar and was given a tour alongside other members of the media by the exhibition’s guest curator, Peter Lee.
The first section of the Amek Gambar photography exhibition broadly revolves around the early pioneer forms of photography that would be quite different from the average person’s expectations of modern photography. From the varied forms of early photography on display, it is clear that even in its nascent stage, photography was inherently an experimental visual medium that allowed for self-expression like never before.
One of the pioneer photography forms that really caught my attention was the daguerreotypes, which were the very first photographs ever invented by the Frenchman Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre in 1839. Created by fixing an image with light-sensitive chemicals onto a metal surface, each image was unique and could not be replicated.
Some of the earliest surviving images of Singapore and Asia were captured as daguerreotypes by Jules Itier in 1844, a mere five years after the invention of photography itself. The singular existence of the daguerreotypes – invulnerable to replication and imitation – give these images unparalleled importance. There is a sense of being “in the moment” that these early photographs convey, and such authenticity cannot be easily found in modern photography.
Jules Itier’s daguerreotype of Boat Quay and the Singapore River from Government Hill (Fort Canning), for instance, gives us a candid glimpse into the past and truly captures a moment of time that can never be recreated again. Being the earliest known image of Singapore’s cityscape also grants it a special place amongst the artefacts on display.
As the guest curator, Peter, shared with us further, it was expected that the daguerreotypes quickly became outdated in the wake of more instantaneous forms of photography that democratised photography for the masses and introduced colour – both metaphorically and literally – into the way, people were able to express themselves.
An interesting observation that Peter drew our attention to is how the photos subvert modern expectations. For instance, photos in the early days of colour generally withstood the ravages of time much better than those developed by Kodak; in say, the 1970s or 1980s, as it retains a high quality of colour and resists light degradation. This paradox is attributed to the high-quality chemicals used in the early days of colour photography as compared to the cheaper but inferior quality chemicals that commercialised mass production demanded. Of course, this is merely the first of many sly challenges to our assumptions about the past and present.
At the same time, the exhibition also brings to life the technological evolution of the camera itself, which contrasts the increasing simplicity of the camera’s user interfaces and design elegance with its decreasing physical size over the years. Visitors are able to see for themselves how bulky and limited in function the early cameras were, in comparison with the convenience and versatility of modern cameras. A section devoted to the inner workings of the camera further enhances the tactile experience for visitors to touch and feel the different mechanical parts of the camera.
Peranakan Identity & Self-Expression
The secondary focus of Amek Gambar is to draw attention to the representation of Peranakan identity through photography. As a hybrid community that existed in a crossroads between cultures, it is not surprising that the Peranakans came to be popular photography subjects for European photographers visiting the region during the early days of photography. Given the avant-garde milieu of the Peranakans, they were naturally amongst the first in the region to enthusiastically embrace and incorporate photography into their social and cultural lives.
The Peranakan identity on display is one of versatility and chameleon grace – the portrait of the Indonesian Chinese businessman Oei Tiong Ham, in particular, stands out with its depiction of the great philanthropist and business magnate at the early age of 21. As Peter pointed out, the photograph is a peculiar blend of elements drawing from various cultures: the Manchurian queue contrasts with the Western formal attire and cane, while the relaxed and nonchalant body posture departs from traditional poses that would have been favoured by older Peranakans. The photograph, then, is not a mere representation of his physical self – rather, it is a snapshot of his personality through the choices he made in portraying himself. This is seen throughout the rest of the photos in the exhibition, which gives greater insights into the inner lives of the subjects.
At this point, Peter noted that the choices were not necessarily political by nature; wearing Western attire did not mean the Peranakans actively sought to be seen as Westernised, it only meant that they dare to experiment with the aesthetic possibilities and sought to make a style of their own creation. People simply wore whatever they thought looked best, and I think this holds true for the age of millennials – even more so than ever.
Gender identity, for instance, is a modern concept that we typically wouldn’t expect to be explored by individuals in the 19th century. Yet, this studio photograph of a Baba dressed in a sarong kebaya turns that idea on its head. His Indies style batik sarong and the impeccably coiffed pompadour are reminiscent of modern drag queens. Although it could have been created as publicity material for a theatrical production (cross-dressing was a common theatre practice at that time), it could also just as easily have been a fun way for the Baba to explore the boundaries of his gender identity. For me, this photograph perfectly encapsulated the experimental daringness in which the Peranakans sought to assert their own identity.
What defines modernity and tradition becomes a blur in this photograph of a newly-wed Peranakan couple. While the wardrobe choices are indeed traditional, Peter divulged that the choice of the bedroom for the location is something entirely new and would never have happened in the past. The couple’s smiles and standing positions stand in contrast to the Portrait of a Peranakan Couple, where the older couple sit imposingly – with restrained faces – and is the kind of photograph that would have been reserved for posthumous posterity. The quintessential newly-wed Peranakan couple photograph has therefore interestingly, taken on different iterations over the years, in accordance with its shifting associations and intended usage.
The exhibition concludes with a contemporary art installation, we stop to watch the world go by. Collaboratively created by Sarah Choo Jing and Larry Kwa, the artwork combines the camera obscura – the basic mechanism of the camera, together with the theme of surveillance. Consisting of a video camera atop a mirrored dome, visitors step inside and are faced with an inverted image of the Peranakan Museum interior happenings. It frankly reminded me of a panopticon, but I felt that it encouraged a more reflective mood in visitors as they exit the exhibition.
The stories told through the photos of Amek Gambar weave into a larger narrative about Peranakan self-expression, the fluidity of identity, the blending of modernity and tradition, and the agency we exercise in choosing how we are to be immortalised by photography.
Relatability, in my opinion, is the strongest quality of the exhibition. The shared human experiences and sentiments captured in its photos shine on strongly to the present. Amek Gambar has thoroughly piqued my interest for the Peranakan experience that it so heartily challenged me to further rethink the rigidity of the past by casting such a fun light on it.
Towards the end of the exhibition tour, Peter said that “photography is Peranakan” – to this, I couldn’t agree more.
Amek Gambar: Peranakans and Photography run from 5 May 2018 to 3 February 2019 at the Peranakan Museum. For more information, check out the exhibition’s line-up of programmes here!
Photos courtesy of the Peranakan Museum and the National Museum of Singapore.