Five hundred years in the past, Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan launched into a historic journey to circumnavigate the globe.
Five ships with 270 crew members set sail on this perilous three-year expedition from Spain, amongst them an enslaved Malay sailor and interpreter named Enrique de Malacca, whom Magellan had acquired in the course of the Portuguese conquest of Malacca in 1511.
In the Skola Gambar Enrique de Malacca exhibition at Ilham Gallery in Kuala Lumpur, Ahmad Fuad Osman revisits this historic occasion via the attitude of an individual from the Malay Archipelago, by making a fictional memorial primarily based on historic proof, scholarly interviews and oral spiritual information.
This staging of the Enrique de Malacca Memorial Project, curated by Simon Soon in dialog with historian Felice Noelle Rodriguez, is the challenge’s fourth iteration.
Previous variations had been proven Ahmad Fuad’s mid-career solo exhibition on the National Art Gallery (2019-2020), the Sharjah Biennale (2019) and the Singapore Biennale (2016).
“Aside from a few eyewitness accounts, Enrique’s existence is known through two main records of the voyage written by Ferdinand Magellan and Antonio Pigafetta. Though enslaved, Enrique was acknowledged as an important interpreter and guide who would play a crucial role in helping the expedition reach the Spice islands of Maluku,” says Soon.
“In his last will, Magellan declared that Enrique should be made a ‘free man’ upon his death and according to historical records, Enrique was last sighted on Mactan Island, shortly after Magellan’s passing. No other records have been found that might give us an indication of what he did after this. Hearsay, legend and inferences came to shape how we choose to write Enrique’s fate,” he provides.
Drawing on the historic and presently unused Malay terminology for “museum”, Skola Gambar or “picture school” repurposes a neighborhood interpretive body to query the usual museological course of, its authority over interpretations of the previous, and the legitimisation of grand historic narratives.
“While a large part of the Enrique de Malacca project is informed by historical thinking, the creative dimension of Ahmad Fuad’s contemporary artwork takes off at the point where historical methods have reached their limits to understanding the past. The limited range of historical sources on Enrique de Malacca means that historians are constrained by what they are able to speculate.
“In the creative space, one is open to asking questions that might otherwise sound ridiculous, exploring connections that are absent, and speculating about possibilities that haven’t been ventured. When informed by historical thinking, artists exercise their artistic license through their artwork to enrich, broaden and enliven our historical imagination,” he says.
The artefacts on show possess various provenance – some historic, some tenuously linked, some reproduced, some functioning as stand-ins and a few which might be merely fabricated, speculative and fantastical.
As a lot as that is an invitation to ask “what if”, Soon notes that additionally it is an alternative to search out new views, uncover new voices and animate the teachings of historical past that stay related at the moment.
“There is nothing in our known historical record that provides us with an inkling as to what Enrique thought about the voyage. Yet this point of view of someone who originated from the Malay archipelago would have given our story about the beginning of globalisation a different flavour and colour.
“This is why there is so much fascination in the possibility of Enrique being the first person who circumnavigated the world. Whether his original home was in Sumatra or Melaka, the close distance that separates Enrique in Mactan island from his place of birth is magnified, appearing as a chasm in the history of globalisation.
“What if Enrique did make it back home? What are the implications if he were the first person to have circumnavigated the world? This chasm between veritable historical record and speculative conjecture, opens up new possibilities for us to revisit the history of globalisation,” says Soon.
Magellan himself didn’t truly full the total circle as he was killed on Mactan Island within the Philippines. Only one ship ultimately accomplished the journey, returning to Europe with 18 males on board.
“I like to think that Enrique gained his freedom from slavery by disappearing from historical records altogether. More than determining the right historical answer, the exhibition invites us to entertain all plausible outcomes and scenarios. In doing so, we might be more open to the perspectives from different subject-positions, and this could alter the very meaning we gain from a historical narrative.” he provides.
Skola Gambar Enrique de Malacca is split into 4 chapters – Creole, Picture, High Seas and Afterlife – with every chapter containing three sections that handle some of the necessary themes and points that the artist and curators explored over the course of their conversations.
“What we did in this instance is to draw out certain features that respond to the recent 500-year-anniversary celebrations of the Magellan-Elcano circumnavigation. To say the exhibition is text-heavy is an understatement. We have disregarded every contemporary museum best-practice convention on word-limit in wall texts there is in this show.
“Part of this includes an excellent range of learning materials and object lesson activities put together by Khat Mirzan and Rahel Joseph so that the exhibition fulfills the pedagogical function of being a ‘sekolah gambar’. In a sense, it is a show that takes visitors on a learning journey and demands the visitor’s willingness to engage not only intellectually but also playfully.”
Soon additionally notes that Enrique de Malacca shouldn’t be of titled origin, however an everyman whose fortunes modified in a single day when town he grew up in was razed to the bottom. As Panglima Awang, he might seem like the perfect Malay hero – the polymath, the warrior, the cosmopolitan explorer, the prodigal son.
“However, we need to remember that Enrique was a cultural go-between who necessarily moved between cultures. His enslavement had long historical roots in the Indian Ocean world during a time when great inequalities existed. Moreover, Enrique converted to Christianity. We do not even know his original name.
“In this sense, Enrique as a go-between has attributes that we recognise as important in today’s society – he was a cosmopolitan journeyman who translated across cultures. He challenged his fate in life, expanded the horizon of his mind through travel, and ultimately earned his freedom in the world. It is the story of modernity. We are heirs of Enrique,” he concludes.
Skola Gambar Enrique De Malacca is on at Level 3, Ilham Gallery in KL until May 15. Opening hours: 11am-7pm (Tuesday to Saturday), 11am-5pm (Sunday), closed on Mondays and public holidays. More information here.