Vincent Leong’s (b.1978) work comments on Malaysia’s complicated history and diverse composition. Over the centuries, original Malays have mingled with immigrants from Arabia, India, China, Thailand, Indonesia, and Europe, mixing their cultures into a collaged national identity. While outsiders may perceive a tolerant multicultural society, ethnic loyalties remain strong and there are undeniable tensions that still contradict the idea of a unified Malaysian identity. The ethnic and cultural differences within Malaysia have created both cultural richness and conflict and remain a sensitive topic that threatens to surface in political, religious, and economic disagreement.
While at first glance Leong’s set of photographs Keeping Up with the Abdullahs appears to be from an earlier era, it was produced in 2012, and digitally “aged” to suggest a historical origin. The shots mimic turn-of-the-twentieth-century photographic portraits of the Malay royal family that typically included traditional dress and conspicuous parasols. Leong, however, substitutes Chinese and Indian families for Malay royalty. To those born in Malaysia, the symbolism here is clear, and the artist’s statement on otherness and discrimination will resonate.
Leong ponders: “Am I Chinese? But I’ve never been to China and I don’t know how to speak Chinese. Or am I Malaysian? Oh no, I’m Christian and Indian.” But his cynicism is mixed with optimism for the future: “I think there’s hope. If there isn’t, I wouldn’t have spent all this time, money, and energy making these works.”
Leong emphasizes the Malaysian predicament by titling his work Keeping Up with the Abdullahs, a playful twist on the well-known idiom "keeping up with the Joneses." The final flourish of the artist’s political and cultural critique is a small plaque on the frames of photograph that pegs the figures depicted as conclusively “Malaysian” in the languages of Chinese and Tamil, the caption written in an all-embracing Arabic Jawi-script.
These biting political commentaries present the artist’s perspectives on contemporary Malaysia through a mixture of nostalgia and humor that also comments on Leong’s understanding of himself and his culture. “I used to think that this was a really boring subject,” he admits, “but you cannot escape it. At the end of the day, all your ideas come from your own personal identity.”
Show: Keeping Up with the Abdullahs 1 & 2
- Look carefully at Vincent Leong’s Keeping Up with the Abdullahs 1 & 2. Although he has created these works using digital technology, what characteristics suggest that they might be from a significantly earlier period? How has the artist achieved the feel of an aged, historical photograph? What clues has he included to that let us know that these are actually contemporary works?
- Do these photographs remind you of any you have seen? What is familiar about them? Where have you seen similar images?
- Leong’s work references a historical photograph of the First Durbar (Conference of Rulers) held in Malaya (now Malaysia) in 1897. The council was assembled under the British colonial regime and was comprised of Malay rulers and governors whose main responsibility was to elect the king. Compare Leong’s work with the vintage photo. What similarities do you see? What differences? How does seeing this historical photograph change your reading of Leong’s work?
- The Malays are predominantly Muslim, and the name Abdullah
(meaning “God’s servant”) is one of the most common names in
the Islamic world. It is also the family name of influential Malaysians
including a recent Prime Minister, Abdullah Ahmad Badawi.
Leong uses the name Abdullah to signify social, economic, and
Even before the reality television show Keeping Up with the Kardashians, the phrase “keeping up with the Joneses” referred to using one’s neighbors’ material possessions as a benchmark for social status. To fail to “keep up with the Joneses” is to reveal one’s socioeconomic or cultural inadequacy.” While this phrase was coined years ago, it’s probably more relevant now than ever. Have a classroom discussion focusing on the pressures that your students perceive to “keep up.”
- Create a class portrait. Research online the way class photos are
typically composed. What characteristics do they have in common?
Ask the class to collaborate on creating a unique class portrait.
Brainstorm a list of attributes that you would like to project, then
devise a strategy aimed at producing that result.
– What type of clothing will be worn?
– What poses and relationships will be depicted?
– What setting and lighting will you choose?
– What angle or point of view best reflects your collective vision?
– What additional props will you add?
Once the photo is taken it can be further altered and customized using digital programs such as Photoshop or Instagram.
- In the 1970s, the Malaysian government implemented policies that were designed to favor bumiputras, the native people of Malaysia, by creating educational and occupational opportunities and defusing inter-ethnic tension. While these policies have succeeded in creating a significant urban Malay middle class, some analysts have noted a backlash of resentment from excluded groups, in particular the sizeable Chinese and Indian Malaysian minorities. As of 2009, bumiputra laws still stand, but many Malaysians argue that they are unfair and racist. In your classroom, debate this issue as it applies to both Malaysia and to affirmative action rulings in the United States. Is favoring one group of citizens within a nation ever justified and if so, under what circumstances?