Does the décor of our homes say anything about us? Our columnist explores how we construct our identities – and those of others. [First published in the Sunday Star on 10 February 2008]
A FEW years ago, the artist Simryn Gill, who grew up in Port Dickson, went up and down Peninsular Malaysia for eight weeks knocking on strangers’ doors and asking if she could photograph their living rooms.
This surprisingly successful tactic resulted in 258 images: square photographs 27.5cm by 27.5cm, showing furnished rooms without the people that belonged there, empty and poetic.
Displayed together on a curved white wall, they formed a hauntingly beautiful exhibition entitled Dalam, commissioned by and displayed at Galeri Petronas in Kuala Lumpur in 2001. (It has since travelled all over the world, including into the collections of the Tate Modern in London, which decided to buy a set of the photographs in 2006.)
Each of the 258 images, displayed without identifying information, made you wonder out loud, in our nosy Malaysian way: “Who lives here, ah?”
Were these mute photographs a challenge? Were you supposed to piece together the identity of the owners, merely by peering at the objects they had in their homes, by the physical evidence of their lives?
I remember reading an interview with the artist in which she said that Malaysian viewers of the exhibition always seemed to want to know, first and foremost, whether the people whose homes were pictured were Malay, Chinese, Indian, or lain-lain.
I was no exception.
At the time, it seemed just one part of the great guessing game, a way of doing detective work from a sociological angle. You could certainly try to deduce their ethnic group, whether based on the tangible presence of items with religious significance (altars, deities, crucifixes or Quranic inscriptions) or on some intangible aesthetic evaluation, half anthropology and half prejudice: “Only Malays buy furniture with gold upholstery. Only Indians have brown and orange curtains.”
And so I did this, like everyone else, and somehow found Chinese-ness in a 3-piece vinyl sofa suite, and other oh-so-clever conclusions.
Now, in retrospect, it strikes me as sad. Are we all so conditioned by the relentless racialist rhetoric of our country that not only are we incapable of seeing living Malaysians as anything other than their ethnic group, we can’t even see empty rooms without wanting to assign them a race?
You might argue that ethnicity and cultural heritage are often an important part of a person’s sense of identity, and that establishing ethnicity would therefore be a necessary step in trying to figure out who these mystery inhabitants were. But let’s be honest: isn’t the question that we always ask in Malaysia not “Who are you?” but “What are you?”
It’s heartbreaking how the human brain, in wanting to process data and classify it in order to understand the world, winds up understanding it even less through that very process of classification.
“Who are you?” is a valid question, a joyful question, a question with an answer as long as a person’s life.
“What are you?” is meant to be answered with a single, inconsequential word. It reduces and dismisses. It’s a communication-stopper. It’s a slap in the face disguised as a question.
Because even if I “knew” your race – let’s say that without asking you, my brilliant human brain had scrutinised your appearance, listened to your accent, and yes, assessed the décor of your living room, and made a classification – what would I know about you, really?
Nothing. Precisely nothing.
I wouldn’t know who made you smile, or laugh, or sing; I wouldn’t know what sacrifices you’d made to bring up your children; I wouldn’t know whether you had loved and lost, or never loved at all.
What are you proudest of? Are you generous, or mean, or neither? What is the greatest kindness you have ever received? What terrifies you in this world? Have you known hunger or thirst? When you close your eyes at night, what runs through your dreams?
These questions would remain unanswered.
But if we want to pull our society out of the dysfunctional muck into which it has slid, it is these very questions that we should be asking one another, so as to truly understand our fellow citizens, to build relationships based on genuine human regard, to accept and cherish – rather than just tolerate and make use of – our fellow Malaysians.
It might be argued that this is all just namby-pamby, touchy-feely, all-people-are-brothers stuff; after all, Malaysian classifications of race are made in order to guarantee political and economic rights – important, real world things that transcend these amorphous ideals of empathy and a personal connection.
But then shouldn’t it be all the more important that these real world distinctions stem from differences that have a basis in reality? Because as scientists tell us, and as we all know in the back of our minds, there is no such thing as race. It is a fiction. I’ll go further: it is a lie.
Kenneth Kidd, the renowned Professor of Genetics, Psychiatry and Ecology & Evolutionary Biology at Yale University, puts it bluntly: “It is impossible to define the boundaries of a race. Human races do not exist. No subset of humans differs genetically from the rest in a substantial, qualitative way? [Genetic] variation tends to be distributed in a continuous manner among populations so it is not possible to divide populations into distinct subgroups. Thus, race is a social construct, not a scientific, biologic classification of humans.”
We need to keep reminding ourselves that the idea of race is something we have made up, and is therefore something that we can discard and transcend.
Nothing is fixed, biologically – and everything is fluid, culturally. We can learn each other’s languages; we can adopt each other’s customs; and if we are so inclined, we can, with a short sentence, embrace a new religion or renounce an old one. We can, in short, change race – because there is no such thing as race.
Why then are we still, as a nation, metaphorically peering at photographs of the interiors of empty rooms, and asking who lives there, and finding ways to classify one another as different? Shouldn’t we be peering into the interiors of our own souls, and asking who lives there, and finding ways to realise, at long last, that we are all one and the same?
Copyright © Huzir Sulaiman 2008. All rights reserved.