Photographing the Keramat / The Sufi and the Bearded Man
Presentation on the opening of the exhibition, 8 April 2011, NUS Museum
It was the 10th of January last year when I first visited the keramat of Siti Maryam. I was invited by the NUS Museum to take part in this project as a photographer, to document the space before it would be exhumed and demolished. We decided to go there in the morning so that I would able to get the morning light, optimum for photo-taking. Walking into the road leading towards Stadium Link, I found the keramat nicely nestled between tall trees, the old P.A. building, as well as buses parked along the road. It was a secret perfectly hidden from those who were not part of it. It was a beautiful structure of greens and yellow, found on the cascading curtains that enveloped the keramat. It was a peaceful and tranquil space, looked after by the caretaker known as Wak Ali Janggut. Looking around the space and its surroundings, I was aware of the traces of people inhabiting, visiting it. There were chairs propped against trees, for devotees who would later sit around after visiting the keramat. A rolled up mattress with a pillow against one side of the structure, a huge bin to burn swept up leaves that would litter the space, the yellows of the cloths that covered tombstones of the graves and offerings of bright flowers that lay on the grave of Siti Maryam herself.
In April that same year, the structure of the keramat was demolished and the graves, exhumed. Walking into the space, all that was evident was the tentage erected on the keramat space, with drilling going on within. The land was stripped bare. Objects from the keramat was transferred out into boxes and onto trolleys by Pak Ali and his friends, to be taken home or discarded. Those deemed “unnecessary” objects like the wooden pillars, cloth covering the tombstones, and shards of the well-known “bleeding tree” were found discarded in the bin. Teren and Mustafa, our curator literally went into the bin to salvage and save these relics, which you will today find in the gallery. We did not however, find the tombstones.
A month or so later, a fresh carpet of grass was laid onto the bare soil where the structure of the keramat used to lay on. Artificial ground. Soon, even the P.A. building was demolished and stripped to the ground. Pak Ali and fellow devotees had moved to sit under the tree overlooking the space where the keramat used to be. As months went by, Pak Ali was told to clear out from the space, to clear all the things that he kept under the shade of the tree, his daily necessities, a small table, a few chairs for those who would still visit the space. Soon, a signboard was stuck into the ground and the keramat space became known as ‘State Land’. If you go there today, you will see fragments of space that once was, traces of things whose function might puzzle you. A mirror etched in a tree. A 5-trunked tree wrapped in yellow cloth. A random arrangements of plants planted on the site where the keramat used to be, Offerings of flowers on a certain spot, where Siti Maryam was buried. And you will also find a man, a bearded man who can be found sweeping a space most dear to him.
I felt that it was necessary to describe the way I saw the space not only because it now only resides within photos or memory, but to also illuminate the very methodical way through which it was reduced or swallowed into non-existence both visually and physically, literally erased from site and sight.
The keramat was then moved into the space of the museum, embedded within the photos, stories and objects that you see today. During the process of choosing photographs to be pasted onto the walls of the gallery space, I was told to think like an artist and see the photos as pieces of art rather than ethnographic images, each of which, I believe, transforms the meaning and usage of the photographs I had shot. Certain photos were not used in the gallery space as it was too obvious. Subtlety and aesthetics was key.
I would like to actually speak specifically about one main photo that is featured in the gallery and that is the photo of a woman, her hands held in prayer. The story behind the photo is a very interesting one. That framed photo used to hang in the middle of the keramat space. It was Pak Ali’s way of symbolizing the saint, Siti Maryam. It is however, not and yet is, because in Pak Ali’s eyes, he sees it as a representation of her, and because of that, we have to see it as such as well.
The photographs, miracle stories, and objects that today lay in the gallery space of “The Sufi and the Bearded Man” exist as visual elements that function to build or rebuild in our minds an idea of how the keramat used to look like, how it functioned, how it was demolished and how it was and is still sustained in the context of today. It functions to provide you with an imagination of how the space looked like, one that is now relegated to the realm of personal and communal memory, one that would be lost had we not documented it, had Pak Ali and his friends not shared with us. What is left is then the question of how you, as an audience, coming from a diverse background would see it. While is it easier to see and reflect from an inward perspective, one has to remember not to fall in the trap of merely classifying and categorizing the life-world of the keramat as presented in the gallery space. Dichotomies of what is ‘proper’ or ‘weird’, ‘clean’ or ‘polluted’, ‘formal’ or ‘informal’, while serve as legitimate ways of thinking or analysing, ought not to be rendered as your sole method of seeing the space. Instead, it is necessary to perhaps see through the eyes of the people whose beliefs and worldview have build the space of the keramat,
When talking about the issue of heritage, we are faced with representations of what we are told is heritage, by those who select what they deem to be necessary or not to the making of Singapore’s heritage. If we continuously see keramats and other communally-built spaces being torn down to make way for new urban developments, does that then define our heritage? One based on the erasing of selected visual presences that do not suit our modern skyline? I hope that when you see the exhibition later today, you remember that while we have been lucky to have captured traces of the keramat through the photos, stories, and objects, that it is nonetheless gone. But I also hope that you realize the importance in the need to tell this story.