The Tatars in Poland

The Tatars were a Turkic-speaking nomadic tribe occupying northeast Mongolia and the area around Lake Baikal before being consolidated into Genghis Khan’s army in the early thirteenth century. Genghis Khan’s army united many Turkic as well as Mongol nomadic tribes and he mobilised this army to conquer a large part of Eurasia. Although his army was a fusion of two different language-speaking groups, the invaders in Europe became associated with ‘Tatar’ or ‘Tartar’. They were also identified with the Golden Horde, originally a Mongol Khanate founded by Batu Khan, a grandson of Genghis Khan.

An ongoing exhibition at the Islamic Arts Museum titled ‘The Tatars: Muslims in the Republic of Poland‘ explores the lives of the Tatars in Poland through photographs and drawings. The exhibition is located at the open space outside the main galleries and will run until 30 April 2017.

The Bohoniki Mosque, a wooden mosque dating to the 19th century

 

Kuala Lumpur – Masa Berlalu

by Bahiah Ismail

It is truly amazing to see how far the country has come since the days of Merdeka/ Independence, with Kuala Lumpur paving the way at the forefront of the transformation. In what is considered to be a relatively short period of just 60 years, continuous innovations and developments have changed much of this ever-lively city, yet the thriving local culture can still be found preserved in the many familiar nooks of the city in which they were first created.  All these are spectacularly captured through the many vibrant photos at the exhibition, cleverly composed to compare the KL of yesteryear with the KL of today.

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Sungai Gombak at the back of Sultan Abdul Samad building

In some of the showcased pieces, for example the photographs along Gombak River and of Jalan Tun Perak, the open skies in the background are replaced with more prominent physical elements of architecture and expanding public amenities, while horse-drawn or man-powered modes of transportation in the foreground are replaced with modern motorized vehicles, with home-made Proton and Perodua cars (both unabashedly mentioned here with a hint of national pride) cruising alongside their imported counterparts. Other pieces, such as shots of Petaling Street, show that some of the activities there have remained and have grown, indicating that they continue to be a strong element of the community. Another beautiful aspect to note is that many historical buildings have been preserved as focal points of the city, as clearly seen in some the photographs of the present.

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Central Market at Jalan Hang Kasturi started as a wet market

On the other hand, there are also pieces that bring some contrast to the above, such as the one of the Pudu Jail, captured in its previous entirety in an old sepia photograph and showcased against a current shot of its now solitary front gate, which was decidedly conserved from the demolition works making way for a new development there, resembling a still-dutiful guardsman defiantly standing at attention facing the oncoming busy traffic. The image is somewhat reminiscent of the Porta de Santiago of the A’ Famosa Fort in Melaka; perhaps, as the saying goes, just another example of history repeating itself: both gates are the only saved remnant of their respective infamously intimidating walled-structure of the past, although the major difference here being that the former was meant to keep people in whereas the latter to keep people out.

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Pudu Prison at Jalan Hang Tuah. Today, only the main gate and a small part of the exterior wall remains.

Lastly, just to mention so as not to be missed, is a wall-sized, intricately detailed, hand-drawn, pencil-sketched birds-eye-view of the streets of KL, quietly standing near the back of the exhibition. Do stop a while to “walk” through this map and discover the various social characters and cultural focal points which can be found in real life around KL.

From majestic old photographs capturing the grandeur and heritage of Malaysia’s history in black & white and hues of sepia, to the colourful and inviting snapshots portraying the unique melting pot of culture that has become the celebrated identity of Malaysia today, this temporary exhibition is definitely worth a catch while it’s here, to add a spice of flavour to the tour of the museum.

Map of Jalan Petaling, Jalan Sultan and adjacent streets, drawn by Gan Sze Hooi

Symbolism Behind the Screen

Muzium Negara has, in its collection, around 500 wayang kulit (shadow play) puppets and 200 of these are currently on display at an exhibition titled ‘Symbolism Behind the Screen’. There are also puppets on loan from Fusion Wayang Kulit that depict characters from comics and science fiction. Do take the time to visit the exhibition which runs until 28 February 2017 at Muzium Negara.

In a wayang kulit performance, the puppeteer (known as Tok Dalang) manipulates the puppets in a raised hut which has a white screen stretched across the front hiding him and the puppets from view of the audience.  A lamp behind the puppets casts shadows on the screen and this is the basis of the performance.

The wayang kulit is considered a microcosm of the universe while the Tok Dalang, manipulating the puppets, is taken as symbolising God. Dalang means ‘priest’ in Sanskrit; the Tok Dalang was also trained in magic rituals and many dalang functioned as bomoh or practitioners of Malay magic. In fact, in days gone by, the Wayang Kulit was not just a performance art but was also used in spirit exorcism ceremonies. In the wayang kulit universe, the sun is represented by the lamp while banana trunks, used as a resting place for the puppets, represent the earth. Humans perceive the universe through the screen.

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Behind the screen. The diorama shows the Tok Dalang in the process of placing the puppets on the banana trunks. The ‘good’ puppets will be placed on the trunk on this right while the ‘evil’ puppets will be placed on his left.
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Example of a ‘pohon beringin’

Perhaps the most important prop is the pohon beringin (tree of life) which represents all life in the universe. This tree, seen both at the start and end of the story, symbolises the start of the universe and the end of the world. The tree is divided into three parts: the top represents the sky and includes motifs of birds, the middle represents earth and includes animals, while the bottom represents the supernatural world.

 

A touch-screen kiosk at the exhibition provides substantial information on the symbolism behind the rituals conducted before, during, and after a performance. For example, a feast is held during the ‘theatre opening ceremony’ in order to ensure the performance goes well. During this time, the musical instruments are blessed so that they will succeed in attracting and holding the attention of spectators. An offering  consisting of 25 items placed on a large tray is also made.

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Pak Dogol, a Kelantan Wayang Kulit character that bears similarities with the Javanese Semar. This character is portrayed with a shaved head and a prominent high-bridged nose. His only clothing is a pair of long trousers which does not cover his distended stomach, thus revealing a protruding navel. He carries a parang golok.

Apart from the conventional wayang kulit characters, i.e. Sita Dewi, Sri Rama, Hanuman, and Ravana, the exhibition also displays a host of other puppets including demonic and animal characters as well as the Punakawan (e.g. Semar) that provide comic relief. Wayang Kulit’s foray into science fiction started with the the production of the ‘Peperangan Bintang’ performance inspired by the Star Wars movies. Its success spurred a new line of puppets including Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, and Flash. These are also on display.

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A selection of puppets from the Wayang Kulit Gedek, one of the five wayang kulit types showcased at the exhibition. From left to right: Puteri Suni, Atung, Pak Tam, and a Hulubalang (palace guard)

 

ASEAN Songket Exhibition

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Wall hanging. From the private collection of Yayasan Tuanku Nur Zahirah

The on-going exhibition at Muzium Negara, titled “Songket: The Queen of Fabrics – 1Family 1Heritage”, showcases songket pieces from around ASEAN countries. Do try to catch this very interesting exhibition before it ends on 31st December 2016.

Songket is brocade and its designs are usually inspired by nature where the weavers turn into art their impressions of the environment, as well as of the flora and fauna around them. However, the songket pieces on display also include some unique expressions such as the piece below which describes the contents of Noah’s ark.

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Songket Lampung from South Sumatra illustrating Noah’s ark and its contents

Other interesting pieces include a shoulder cloth whose pattern is taken from the Durga stone statue at Singasari and a songket piece which combines Minangkabau and Bugis patterns.

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Short sarong cloth with geometric patterns from Laos

The cotton material weaved by the Rungus community in Kudat, Sabah incorporate designs found on Dongson drums (bronze drums that originated in Northern Vietnam). To date, remains of only one Dongson drum have been unearthed in Sabah and, hence, the designs on the Rungus material provides an important means of elucidating the designs on these drum.

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Babaal, a back strapped loom used by the Rungus community in Sabah to weave cotton yarns
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A ‘kek’ (a type of loom) used by Malay weavers

Apart from songket pieces (sarong, samping, selendang, and tengkolok), there are also a number of looms on display showcasing production techniques.

 

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A loom for cotton threads used by the Cham community in Chao Doc, Vietnam to weave jihdalah (tassels and belts) as well as siaip (scarves)

Exhibition : One Malaysia, One Story

20160810_114635There is an on-going exhibition at Muzium Negara in conjunction with National Day 2016 titled One Malaysia, One Story. It showcases the history of the country from Emergency to Independence and includes the formation of the Malayan Union, formation of the Federation of Malaya, the elections of 1955, the formation of Malaysia, and the confrontation with Indonesia. A large part of the story is told via old photographs and this is the charm of the exhibition. Many of these photos are from the National Archives’ collection. Do head down to Muzium Negara – the exhibition runs until 30 September at Gallery 2, Department of Museums building.

Some photos at the exhibition:

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Campaigning for the 1955 elections
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Casting votes

 

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Ballot boxes being carried to the counting stations

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Tunku Abdul Rahman at Dato’ Sir Tan Cheng Lock’s house before leaving for Padang Bandar Hilir, Malacca

 

Evolution of Weapons – An Exhibition

223_modWith close to 10,000 exhibits on display, it would be hard not to find a piece to hold your interest in the on-going exhibition at Muzium Negara. Aptly titled ‘Evolution of Weapons’, the exhibition showcases a wide range of  weapons used by humans from prehistoric times through to modern times.

Primitive stone axes and adzes give way to spears, blowpipes, and throwing weapons. Malay weapons including the keris, golok, tumbuk lada, and sundang mingle with Viking helmets and axes. On display also are small but sharp hair accessories used by Malay women to pin their hair into buns. Accessories, such as the semar, are beautifully carved but the sharp pins double as weapons that could be used for self-defence. These small weapons contrast with European and Japanese swords whose purpose were never covert.

Weapons used for traditional healing, magic ceremonies, cultural performances, and religious ceremonies are either on display or explained through the display boards. The keris, especially, stands out as a versatile weapon used not only as a conventional weapon but also in traditional healing, magic ceremonies and cultural performances such as the silat and wayang kulit. There is a wide selection of keris on display including keris from Majapahit, Sulawesi, Bali, Riau-Lingga and Lombok, Bugis keris, and the Surakata Kraton Kris.

Collection of Keris

163A large collection of beautifully designed shields complement the equally beautiful body armours bringing to mind a bygone era eclipsed by present day weapons that emphasise function and form. Modern day weapons on display include tanks, machine guns, pistols and rifles.

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The bulk of the exhibits are from Muzium Negara’s stores thus affording an opportunity to view a rarely seen collection. Exhibits also come from other museums in the country such as the Army Museum as well as from outside the country including from Korea, the United States and the La Galiga Museum in South Sulawesi. Do get down to Muzium Negara but remember to allocate sufficient time to give the (close to) 10,000 pieces justice.

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Hubback Exhibition

Brig. Gen. Arthur Benison Hubback came to Malaya as the chief draughtsman with the Selangor Public Works department. He eventually became the chief architect and during his stay in Malaya, he designed 25 buildings; with Bangunan Sultan Abdul Samad being the first. An exhibition showcasing these 25 buildings is on-going at The Textile Museum and the exhibition will last till 30 June 2014.

The design concept for Malayan buildings of that time was laid down by the state engineer, C.E Spooner who shied away from classical European architecture for Malaya. Instead, Spooner introduced an eclectic style that had originated in British India; a style which combined various architectural traditions including Gothic, Hindu as well as Indian Muslim. Buildings in Malaysia incorporate more of the Mughal elements.

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Ipoh Railway Station (image taken from: http://www.photomalaysia.com)

This eclectic style can also be described as neo-saracenic and the display boards at the exhibition describe the Ipoh Railway station as such. The style has the classical European design which includes domes, arches and gable designs. In addition, it also has non-European features such as Mughal chatri spires.

The Textile Museum was previously the FMS Railways Central Offices and this red-brick building with white plaster bands was built to include both cupolas and chatris. The chatri towers on the old KL Railway Station (previously FMS Survey Office) are said to resemble the chatris on the roof of the Taj Mahal. The Malay College in Kuala Kangsar is a little different as it is more of a Greco-Roman design.

The only thing common between the 25 Hubback buildings is that the buildings include elements from different architectural styles. Other buildings that A.B. Hubback designed include Carcosa Seri Negara, Masjid Jamek, Royal Selangor Club, Hospital Bahagia Ulu Kinta and the Ubudiah Mosque.

Below is the logo for the Hubback exhibition. The organisers have cleverly shaped the alphabets in his name using the structure of the buildings he designed. Try to figure out which alphabet comes from which building.

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