Photo credit: Cheryl J Hoffmann (R)

Capturing Malaysia Through Art

Cheryl Hoffmann, toting her camera, is a familiar figure in Kuala Lumpur. A photographer, writer and an exhibitor all rolled into one, the Canadian native from Hamilton has lived in Kuala Lumpur for the past 12 years.

“I travel to Canada and the US twice a year to be with family,” said Hoffmann, as she shows her self-portrait, dubbed ‘The Mother Goddess’. In the image she created, Hoffmann is seen holding items from her Kuala Lumpur apartment on her right hands, while her left hands hold corresponding items from her North American life. “As a whole, these objects reflect me in the middle of the two places that I call home. If this photo looks chaotic and difficult to define, then it is showing me as I really am,” she said matter-of-factly. Hoffmann looks happy in the visual, and that is important to her.

For Hoffmann, who first set foot in Malaysia in the early 1990s as the spouse of an American diplomat, the country has been a land of multiple stories and experiences. Hoffmann, who loves to be out and about, most of the time at night, has an eye for a Malaysia that is not promoted by Tourism Malaysia to the world. Instead, it is the Malaysia of daily grind, of families and communities as well as their efforts to maintain dignity and distinct traditions.

Photo credit: Cheryl J Hoffmann (R)
Photo credit: Cheryl J Hoffmann (R)

Hoffmann added, “In my explorations, the locals have shared their love for Malaysia with me. They have welcomed me into their lives, enlightened me on their beliefs and their stories. It is the mutual trust for which I am most grateful.”

With an education in historical geography, it has been ingrained into Hoffmann to be aware of the patterns of human connections to a place. As a photographer, Hoffmann sees every moment as a way to express an idea. “Although I am rarely without my camera, I don’t always use it. One has to learn to observe. Spending time without the lens of a camera is just as important as time spent behind it,” she explained.

Throughout the years of adventures and travels, Hoffmann has maintained an interest in cultural heritage, using photography to express the intangible values that hold communities together. As a ‘visual anthropologist’, Malaysia greatly inspires her, offering different cultural expressions and adaptations to place.  She is particularly attracted to spirit mediums, with whom she shares a fondness for bits of light in the dark.

“I love the ebb and flow of the year in Malaysia, where religious calendars exist side by side. Every year, we see the same patterns of spiritual celebrations and religious festivities, overlapping in a multicultural society, as the moon tells us what to do, when to do it. I am unsure of any other place better for a photographer than Malaysia, which offers endless opportunities,” she declared.

When Hoffmann shoots, she is always experimenting with different ways of presenting her images, as seen in one of her recent exhibitions, Gerak Geri, which was hosted at RUANG by Think City in Kuala Lumpur.

For Gerak Geri, Hoffmann printed her images on calligraphy rice paper. The experimental work allowed her to express her interpretation of ritual gestures in traditional Malaysian performing arts.

“Rice is a constant in Asia, and so are ritual ceremonies. I wanted to bring the ideas together onto a fragile medium to invite people to think about the strength of community and cultural values – intangible concepts made tangible through layer upon layer of artistic expression,” Hoffmann explained about the idea behind Gerak Geri.

Right after Gerak Geri, Hoffmann headed north to Penang, where she exhibited ‘Of This Place’ at the George Town Festival. Through images of ‘Datuk’ shrines and walking tours of the neighbourhood around the exhibit on Lebuh Chulia, Hoffmann prompted people to think about the historical geography of the place they call home. This exhibit was Hoffmann’s third contribution to the Festival, since 2013.

One of Hoffmann’s greatest joys living in Malaysia is connecting with people through their art, and from there, creating her own. She described, “I meet many locals who are searching for ways to define and express the essence of their beliefs and traditions. Malaysians express their relationship with God in culturally specific ways. I ask a lot of questions, but once people get over the shock of the fact that I genuinely care to understand their beliefs, they are happy to introduce me to their world view, and allow me to express that through my images.

“Often times, my photographs become a means for them to communicate their ideas to a wider community. The images are my personal visual interpretations of their visceral interpretations of traditions and those have been adapted and adopted and attuned over time and place. I love the complexities and trying to capture the essence of it all.”

As for the downside of being in the country? “My exercise regime can’t keep up with how good the food is here,” she laughed out loud.

Note: An edited version of this article [Capturing Malaysia through art] was published on 9th September 2017 in the now-defunct The Malay Mail.

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