Sunday April 1, 2007
An era on the cusp, captured
By NEIL KHOR
Classic black and white images dating back to the late 1800s offer a glimpse of a time when global culture was just emerging.
IT was a time when horizons were expanding and worlds meeting, at times, colliding. It was a time when cultures were opening up and ideas were being exchanged. It was a time ... when people primped and prettied up to pose for photographs.
If you were Someone, you had your photo taken at the Lafayette Photographic Studio in London’s New Bond Street. In 1887, Queen Victoria gave the studio a royal warrant, acknowledging its importance in capturing the faces of those who owned and ran the Empire. In the five short years it had been in existence until then, its cameras had peered into the faces of London’s high society as well as Eastern potentates.
It is images of the latter that will make particularly fascinating viewing for Malaysians.
An exhibition of photos from the Lafayette image bank at London’s Victoria & Albert Museum, with an emphasis on those with an Asian connection, will open at the Islamic Arts Museum in Kuala Lumpur on Thursday. The exhibition is organised by the Islamic Arts Museum with support from HSBC Bank (Malaysia) Berhad.
The late 19th and early 20th centuries may have been oppressively “Victorian” for many – not only for British citizens but also the citizens of Britain’s colonies – but for the elite this was a time of openness and international understanding. The Lafayette Studio is a symbol of these times: it was a force that brought people from many parts of the world together for their mutual benefit. This force also led to an ultimately non-confrontational approach to independence, especially evident in Malaysia. One section of the exhibition will be dedicated to Merdeka, in all its photographic glory.
“Even where people appeared to have adopted European style, they still retained references to their own culture in their choice of jewellery, weapons, headdress, shoes or fabrics,” he explained.
Perak’s Sultan Idris (reigned from 1887 to 1916, main photo), for example, appears regal in military uniform. While the star and sash was part of his regalia as a British Knight of the Order of St Michael and St George (KCMG), the crescent moon on his headdress was there to represent his religion. Slightly hidden under the vest but unmistakable is the sampin (cloth around the waist) made of songket (cloth woven with gold and silver thread) – a traditional element that gives the uniform its Malay identity.
The exhibition is divided into four broad categories comprising images of sitters in traditional and Western costume and in uniform as well as those of a selection of interesting individuals closely connected with Asia. Together, these images catch an age on the cusp, one that was still clinging to prim protocol yet was beginning to feel the effects of social and economic upheavals that were eroding the strictures of rank and class.
Dr Amin Jaffer, the V&A’s curator and a Lafayette specialist, explained that the rigidity of protocol at these events extended to the type of shoes a native ruler was allowed to wear. “Dressing, decorations and headgear were markers of a person’s position in the imperial pantheon,” he said.
But by the late 1880s and early 1900s, it wasn’t just royalty with its insistence on protocol and “proper” dress that was walking through Lafayette’s doors. The images of aristocrats must also be juxtaposed with those outside the spectrum of power.
Changes in British society were accelerated by the Industrial Revolution in the early 19th century; by the 1920s, after World War I, the old class structure based upon aristocratic connections, landed gentry and military traditions was crumbling. A new elite, whose wealth did not come from landed property but from industry, was emerging. And they, too, wanted to have their portraits done.
Koo was the daughter of Oei Tiong Ham, the Peranakan Chinese sugar king of Java, and the wife of Wellington Koo, a diplomat and one time prime minister of China. By 1921, women like her were beginning to express their individuality through hairstyle and dressing. And Koo, a modern Asian woman with financial means, could sit at Lafayette, the imperial studio.
Yes, the times, they were a-changin’ and these portraits, along with their stories, have captured that change. It was a time when life was slower than now but beginning to speed up, when cultures were changing ... and nations beginning to find their identities and long for independence.
The ‘Neither East Nor West – The Lafayette Collection: Asia in the Age of Monochrome’ exhibition will be opened at the Islamic Arts Museum (Jalan Lembah Perdana, KL) by Foreign Minister Datuk Seri Syed Hamid Albar on Thursday and will thereafter continue until Sept 10.
The exhibition catalogue will be available for RM125. Museum hours are 10am to 6pm, seven days a week, including public holidays. Admission is RM12 (adults) and RM6 (students). For more information, call the museum at 03-2274 2020 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
The art of dressing upIN conjunction with the exhibition, Dr Amin Jaffer, the Victoria & Albert Museum’s senior curator of the Asian Department, will be delivering a public lecture entitled, Asia’s Taste for Luxury on April 7 at 10am at the Islamic Arts Museum, Kuala Lumpur.
The talk is based on his latest book on the costumes and jewellery of India’s maharajas. Dr Jaffer will look at interactions between East and West from the point of view of dress culture. Admission is free.