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Gill, Simryn - 2002.14

Simryn Gill

A Small Town at the Turn of the Century #28 1999–2000
type C photograph 
91.4 x 91.4 cm
Purchased 2002

Portraiture is the artistic act of documenting the appearance of a person. Before the advent of photography, portraits of people in sculpture and painting were the only way to record the likeness of a sitter and to capture their essence. Royalty and rulers were often depicted surrounded by objects that reflected their wealth and power – often portrayed sitting on thrones in majestic rooms, gesturing towards maps, compasses and armament that hinted at their dominions.

Simryn Gill’s photographic series A Small Town at the Turn of the Century takes up the tradition of portraiture in a gently radical manner. Compositionally, each photograph is a classic portrait; the figure sits facing the artist and is surrounded by a mise en scène that reflects their daily life. The viewer can build a narrative around the figure in each image: an avid music fan poses in front of her CD and cassette-tape collection; a troubled man sits outside his large but empty warehouse; and a reluctant child curls up at her front door, waiting to be let in. Yet, while the viewer is able to construct an account of each figure, the faces of all are obscured. In an absurdist gesture, Gill replaces her subjects’ heads with tropical fruit. With the heads replaced by durians, rambutans and mangosteens, these portraits become humorous refusals of access.

A Small Town at the Turn of the Century captures the complexities of postcolonial and identity discourses at the end of the twentieth century. The new millennium ushered in the ‘Asian century’, with the region poised to become a dominant global influence. While Asia’s growing economic force has become increasingly influential, the region remains exotic in popular Western imaginings. Despite the publication of Edward Said’s foundational postcolonial text, Orientalism, in 1978, understandings of Asia remain, as Graham Huggan has noted, as ‘exotic spectacle’.[1] This mode of aesthetic perception reduces people, places and objects to little more than unfamiliar and slightly mysterious otherness. Gill playfully addresses the shortcomings of these imaginings by restricting the viewer’s access to the individuality of each sitter, reducing them to tropical fruit. Through this simple act of substitution, she comically exposes the futile limitations of such essentialist notions of Asia.

Portraits have often been created to capture important people at important times. Gill’s series was photographed in her hometown of Port Dickson, Malaysia, at the millennial moment. A Small Town at the Turn of the Century is a portrait of a community on the brink of change, with each photograph documenting a fleeting moment in time. While coverage of the new millennium was largely focused on cities, Gill’s poignant series captures the quietly compelling view of the transition to globalisation in a small coastal town. Through this series, she confers importance to the community of Port Dickson and acknowledges its place in a world of increasing networks of exchange.

Mikala Tai is a curator, writer and academic, and the director of 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art, Sydney.


[1] Graham Huggan, The Post-colonial Exotic: Marketing the Margins, Routledge, London, 2002, p.15.

From the series
Gill, Simryn - 2002.15
Simryn Gill

A Small Town at the Turn of the Century #10 1999–2000
type C photograph
91.4 x 91.4 cm
Purchased 2002

Gill, Simryn - 2002.16
Simryn Gill

A Small Town at the Turn of the Century #23 1999–2000
type C photograph
91.4 x 91.4 cm
Purchased 2002

Gill, Simryn - 2002.17
Simryn Gill

A Small Town at the Turn of the Century #13 1999–2000
type C photograph
91.4 x 91.4 cm
Purchased 2002

Gill, Simryn - 2002.18
Simryn Gill

A Small Town at the Turn of the Century #1 1999–2000
type C photograph
91.4 x 91.4 cm
Purchased 2002