Queer, Malay, Rooted
Based in Singapore, this Queer Malay artist is "a Buraq, a chimera" and a non-binary explorer.
Several impossible things dazzle us on a midweek morning, as we connect with Iskandar Ruhaizat, an artist of paradoxes who is tethered to tradition, yet harbors a keen affinity for experimentation. Based in Singapore, this Queer Malay artist is "a Buraq, a chimera" and a non-binary explorer. Iskandar’s prowess ranges across mixed media art, designing, writing and poetry. They are a powerful repository of ancient Malay wisdom, a work of art in themselves, and much more.
As we begin the conversation, Iskandar gives us a peek into their childhood. Thriving among a closely-knit community of employees from a racecourse, riding horses, and a commitment to chasing frogs, Iskandar was encouraged to probe into the workings of the world early in life by their family. However, there existed limits to that expansion of the imagination, as Iskandar reveals that “the inquiry stops when it comes to issues about queerness.”
With infinite capacity to wonder, inquiring minds never desist. Iskandar’s existing work stands as testimony of their passion to explore and question. Their installation, Kembali Ke Pangkal Jalan (Going Back to the Right Path) draws attention to the relation Queer Malays have to their indigenous culture and with Islam. With elements of rituals and poetry, this project includes a short film featuring a looped video of the artist performing the Wudhu, the ablution performed before prayer by Muslims. We hear two audios - a soothing Azaan, the call for prayer, and a recitation in an equally silvery voice by the artist, of five poems based on interviews with other Queer Malay Muslims. "I see myself as just a messenger for the poems, to bring their voice into that space.’’
Kembali Ke Pangkal Jalan is also rooted in Qur'anic knowledge. Using parables and narratives from the scripture, the poems wander into the mysterious negotiations that color a Queer childhood. "When they think of a person being Queer, they think of somebody living a life of 'sin'. I want to assert that you can be Queer and be knowledgeable about Islam, and be in touch with your Muslim identity."
"I want to assert that you can be Queer and be knowledgeable about Islam, and be in touch with your Muslim identity."
Iskandar’s work shines light on the variety of Muslim identities, hinting at the vibrant configurations of Islam practiced over the world. They express their disenchantment with the erasure of Malay culture to make way for a uniform notion of Islam - "Our version of Islam used to be syncretized with our Hindu-Buddhist roots. And now, we have lost most of our cultural heritage because of the Arabization of our culture and with the rise of Islamic conservatism." With photo-series like Main Puteri, the artist reclaims spiritual knowledge emerging from the northern Malay peninsula. “We used to see the non-binary, or the intersection between men and women, as the intermediary between the spirit realm and the human realm", Iskandar explains. The project reshuffles the fabric of faith, showing to us the glittering folds of embedded Queerness, regional history, and cultural heritage that make up unique versions of Islam.
“We used to see the non-binary, or the intersection between men and women, as the intermediary between the spirit realm and the human realm."
Our conversation touches on more projects tinted by the same idea. A photo from the visual series titled Zahir Batin, captures our attention. It features the artist's hennaed hand decorated by an ayat, a verse from the Qur’an. Patiently, Iskandar translates for us "Lakum deenukum wa liya deen [109:6]'' - "you have your way, and I have my way" which for them affirms the diversity of religious paths. Using henna is simply one of their many tributes to indigenous Malay culture.
The artist’s practice is enriched by Malay aesthetics, notably the floral, non-geometrical batik motifs. To offer an example, Iskandar gestures to their shirt, patterned with the delicate design. Playfully, they admit to their love for Malay lifestyles and habits, in particular a gentleness of disposition characteristic of the Malay community. We recognize immediately that Iskandar embraces their Malay roots through their whole being, with care and an open heart.
It is morning still, and we lose count of impossible things, wander into the softer, brighter realm of ancient and modern magic, where ghosts of indigenous wisdom float among us and Zoom calls enable further exploration. Amidst all that beauty, the artist shares their philosophy with us while contemplating the mudras or the hand gestures, their hands moving delicately in remembrance of their ancestors’ art - "I love the intricacies and the curvatures of those movements. I see it as beautiful because it seems that nothing goes in a straight line.’’
"Nothing goes in a straight line."
In times of rising conservatism in the region, Iskandar’s art is a reminder that the world is full of wonders and our histories are rich with wisdom. To preserve this treasure, it takes heart and courage to overcome hurdles and pave fresh paths. "I think that's how life is. There are blockages, you need to go over them and find different methods of going through a path."