“The soul has no colour”: Fitri Jalil on racial identity and his upcoming exhibition

Engineer turned photographer Fitri Jalil explores his racial identity and invites us to reflect on our own. Through his works, he hopes to prompt us to see others beyond their skin colour, and beyond the idea and rules of any race and religion. In this interview, we take a deeper look into the works of Fitri Jalil and his exhibition ‘The Malay’, slated to run from 3rd to 28th December 2021 at Zontiga. 

Zontiga: What is the motivation behind this project?

Fitri Jalil: Back in 2014, I was sent to Algeria to work for 2 months. I celebrated Puasa and Hari Raya there, and I noticed the people there didn’t dress the same way as Malaysians do during the holidays. Usually during Hari Raya in Malaysia, women would wear the baju kurung or kebaya while the men would wear their Baju Melayu; but in Algeria, they wore their football club jersey, western blouse and dresses. 

When I asked my local friends about it, they said that they are proud to be like the French. Yes, they were once colonised by France, but to me, that doesn’t mean they are French. This made me look back and remember how Malaysia was colonised by the British, and how it eventually made some Malays want to lose their identity and try to be someone that they’re not. I used to have that tendency too, that’s why I felt that this was something I needed to document––the Malay identity. 

How did you develop this project and find the individuals who took part in it?

I initially wanted to present this project through writings; but in light with today’s generation, who are often used to being in a fast-paced environment and have less attention span, my friend suggested I use photographs as the medium to deliver my message. It was quite difficult to deliver my thoughts in visual form. 

I didn’t plan for this to be a portrait project. I started off by blindly photographing anything that represented the Malay culture. Then one day, when I went back to my hometown, I saw my father walk past me after coming home from prayers. I got him to sit somewhere he was comfortable with and took a shot. I then did the same with some of my friends: I asked them a few questions about the Malay identity and took their portrait. That’s how it became a portrait project.

After I got a few shots, I posted my work on Instagram in the hopes of reaching out to anyone who was interested in being a part of this project; more importantly anyone who was interested in participating in the discourse on the Malay identity. The questions I asked included: ‘What does it mean to be Malay?’, Is being a Malay considered racist?, ‘Malay or Malaysian, which one comes first?’ and Are you proud to be a Malay?’. I had a total of 60 images and responses. In the end I selected 20 that related the most to me.

‘The Malay’ was exhibited in Taipei and KL before this, how was the response? 

Honestly I was very nervous and hesitant to showcase this project because I am critiquing my own race and that can be quite controversial. But thankfully, I got really good feedback from people of all races.

The most memorable response I got was from this Malay uncle who saw the portrait of Sarah sitting with the dog she rescued when it was dying on the streets. He called me and asked why I chose to exhibit this particular portrait. I explained that my intention was not to encourage Malays to have dogs, but to get people to realise that everyone has a reason for what they do. And sometimes that reason is much more important than our prejudices and ‘rules’ such as how it’s deemed as sinful when a Malay is seen with or touches a dog.

Another memorable response was from a Chinese lady who approached me after she viewed my work. She said it made her think about what it means to be Chinese. She also learnt much more about the Malay identity, which was previously restricted to what the media portrays. 

How have you changed after carrying out and completing this project? 

After this project, I realised that I am unable to define myself as a Malay. I know very well that by my physical appearance, I am a Malay; but inside me, there’s no way to tell because these is no concrete definition or guidelines for being Malay. If I call myself a Malay, there will be people who oppose it because I don’t follow their definition of Malay. 

As opposed to the Malays in the 60s or 70s, today’s Malays grip really tightly onto the rules and regulations that were set many years ago; sometimes to the point where they end up readily judging and condemning others, which I believe is not what our religion teaches us. While these rules were set with good intentions, we shouldn’t let these rules limit ourselves from moving forward and fulfilling our potential to be good people. I hope people will come to realise that there are bigger and more important issues in Malaysia that need to be addressed, compared to whether Malays should or should not have dogs, or the recent case about the Timah whiskey.

Now, I am more open-minded and don’t judge a person as easily as I used to. Previously, when I see a Malay, Chinese, Indian or any other race, I would label and expect them to act based on the stereotypes I know about them; but now I begin to look inside. Now, I see that the soul has no colour––who we are is based on whether we do good or not. 

You have made some interesting decisions on the design of your book, tell us more about it.

I collaborated with my designer Jeffrey Lim to come up with this book, which was exhibited in the Malaysian Book Fair he curated in Taiwan in 2020.

I wanted the design of this book to be very minimal so as to not distract people from the serious message I hope to convey. We also researched the ways Malays used to measure things in the past, such as satu jengkal (a span) and satu kaki (a foot), which became the width and length of this book. 

The cover is an illustration of the last photograph: a sampin (part of the traditional baju melayu) draped on an empty chair. I intended for it to be in black and white, but I still felt it needed something eye-catching, so I added a splash of yellow as the colour is synonymous to the Malay.

What’s your next step? Any future plans that you can share with us.

I plan to develop more works, but right now I’m still doing my research. After this, I want to create works that are more political and of course, still related to the Malay identity. I hope that in the later future, I am able to produce a body of work related to global issues.  

Be sure to check out Fitri Jalil's exhibition 'The Malay' which runs from 3rd to 28th December 2021 at Zontiga.
To see more from Fitri Jalil, follow him on Instagram or go to his website.
The standard edition of his photo book can be found here too. 

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