Critics’ Picks

View of “Shooshie Sulaiman,” 2016.

View of “Shooshie Sulaiman,” 2016.


Shooshie Sulaiman

KADIST - Paris
19 bis - 21 rue des Trois Freres
June 11–July 31, 2016

Sift dirt, sniff roses, skip about polygons of dewy grass tiling an earthy floor in starry geometries: Malaysian artist Shooshie Sulaiman’s first solo exhibition in Europe unites gardening and drawing to explore the transmission of identity across time and space. In Married to a Malay in Paris (all works 2016), Sulaiman has grafted a ceremonial rose popular in Malaysia, the mawar, taken from a bush at her mother’s Johor grave, to a rose of a species native to France; the resulting hybrid now awaits full bloom. Meanwhile, clustering at hopscotch scale and forming Malay motifs such as the mangosteen, the greenery on the ground responds with ambivalent curiosity to Versailles’s god-complex parterre formalism. In the back room, a heap of soil teeming with grain-size human figures, and a suitcase of toy animals in grass, imaginatively model the patch of forest Sulaiman bought with collaborators outside of Kuala Lumpur for a “sustainable cultural ecosystem.”

A work of spiritual recycling, “Planting Drawings” presents pictures that seem freshly excavated from crated soil, each depicting a slightly different, brownish face that returns the viewer’s gaze—prototype portraits of Malaysia’s indigenous Semang people, made with pigment mixed from soil and crushed mawar plants. Recent DNA studies suggesting that the Semang migrated directly from Africa, becoming the earliest settlers in present-day Malaysia, ignited controversy in the country, where a longstanding racial policy upholds ethnic Malays as bumiputra—literally, “sons of the soil”—entitled to land and other privileges by the postcolonial recuperation of an original right. At the artist’s invitation, Kadist participants have buried other Semang portraits throughout Paris and beyond, where they too may be rediscovered as half-forgotten forebears who undertook surprising voyages. Whatever your own myth of origin—ancestors you knew or didn’t, homeland or baggage, diary or mulch—Sulaiman’s work proposes useful countermythologies.