Thoughts on cultural representation: power and resistance

Thoughts on cultural representation: power and resistance

Jin-Theng Craven

Jin-Theng Craven

Trained in broadcasting, finance and international political economy, Jin is now a creative director and producer working independently in media and the visual arts. Early exposure to the interdisciplinary English and American Studies programme at University of East Anglia opened her eyes to the potency of soft power in shaping world relations.

We often associate power with direct physical power. But power also has to be understood in broader cultural and symbolic terms, including the power to represent someone or something in a certain way. How should we navigate a legacy of established systems of representations, towarda conscionable “reality”?

“The close-up is the opposite of a statistic” – John Berger (1)

As a filmmaker who also studied international relations, I am deeply interested in how we perceive our world through different vantage points – whether geographical, cultural or political, for instance. As an inveterate observer of people, I offer some thoughts here – from personal experience and study – about how carefully we should consider our preconceptions when we relate to other people, claim moral or political high ground, and imagine worlds based heavily on what Stuart Hall calls “racialised regime of representation” (2).

Science. Religion. Rationalism. Mysticism. Conventions. Cultural difference. Whatever the framing device, we have called many into service at various points of human history: we want to make sense of our purpose and place in the world, to understand who we are, to understand where we stand in relation to others. Lacking metaphorical cosmic wisdom, our human systems of representation become our self-constructed bible of “truths” to enlighten us. A flawed enterprise, I suggest.

Within the realm of media generally – especially modern media and the exponential rise of fake news – is a complex web of systems of representation. Modern media appear keen to facilitate our search for understanding complexities. This article is not a discussion about such systems, per se, but tracks intriguing historical links to examine the relationship between those who represent and those who are represented. The aim is to show how the process of representation has been, and still is, an exercise in power play – for political, economic and social advantage that exploits. With this in mind, this article explores how, in the name of equity, we can fruitfully engage with impulses as old as humankind: that is, our desire to connect with others while seeking benefit both through tribe and self. In particular, it is worth considering how we can manage the future agency of visual arts and media, for a sustainable future.


Power and representation

We often associate power with direct physical power. Scientific and rational intellect – in recent history they convey power, too. But power also has to be understood in broader cultural and symbolic terms, including the power to represent someone or something in a certain way.

Representation can be regarded as characterising people in a highly reductive and de-contextualised manner – not, I suggest, simply to make sense of complex human relations, but to create political advantage.

It can be further argued that this political advantage is desired because of an instinct to ‘manipulate to dominate’ at the full expense of another entity – for economic gain. Some call this power play the ‘zero sum game’. The zero-sum player’s goal is to gain all benefit available and leave absolutely none to the perceived opponent; this strategy contrasts starkly with a ‘win-win’ mentality that drives players in the field to seek solutions where everyone involved achieves their desires in one form or another.

Cultural representation is a concept cultivated by Stuart Hall. Hall is recognized as a major contributor to the cultural field, particularly in expanding its focus on cultural representations of race and ethnicity, as well as gender. In my work documenting the lives and work of people whom I find inspiring, and whose stories I believe the world should hear, I am acutely aware of my responsibility as a documentarian, the person with the power to represent another, and the ethics that come with representation. For example, in my film biographies on Chua Ek Kay and Ahmad Zakii Anwar – two eminent pioneering artists from Asia – I was confronted with the challenge of providing contextualised analyses of their characters and subsequent legacies, that had wider implications for how we regard ethnicity and the examined society. I weighed up my ethical duties in my own acts of cultural representation, against contemporary media trends to be reductive and sensationalist. I wanted to use that power with care.


The long shadow of empire

Veracity was not the ethical imperative that drove European imperialist ideology, however. When European empiredominated, Balfour and Cromer reduced humanity to cultural and racial essences (3). Today, post-colonial, such reductionary tendencies would fly in the face of movements toward diversity in the West: increasingly, marginalised social groups are being re-represented. Implemented with the right intent and context, this is a healthy development.

But empire can cast a very long shadow. For my discussion on how power-play persistently factors into acts of representation – and even re-representation – I draw connections between the motivations of European global colonialism (‘imperialism’), 21st century ‘post-colonial imperialism with a Malaysian twist’, and the ‘counter-cultural’ work of Malaysian artist Ahmad Zakii Anwar.


Ahmad Zakii Anwar is thesubject for a documentary film Edge of Obedience that I completed in 2017and which reveals his contemporary efforts to counter politicised representations of identity, through his taboo imagery. (You can stream the film here: watch Edge of Obedience)  

Writer and intellectual critic Edward W. Said suggests that the imperialist vision proposed by Arthur James Balfour just over a century ago justified British occupation of Egypt as a necessity, claiming British “knowledge” about the “Oriental” people (4). We now understand the term “Orientalism”, coined by Said, as “the kind of intellectual power” and a family of ideasthat the British used to explain the behaviour of Orientals. As Said put it, the imperialists “supplied Orientals with a mentality, a genealogy, an atmosphere; most important, they allowed Europeans to deal with and even to see Orientals as a phenomenon possessing regular characteristics.” 

In short, Balfour forwarded the concept that “Orientals” had an innate inability to self-govern, and represented this flaw as an immutable characteristic of the Oriental people. What Balfour rationalised as his superior race’s duty to govern Arabs and peoples of the East, writer Rudyard Kipling memorably phrased as the “White Man’s Burden” (5)Colonialist officer Lord Cromer in fact referredto Balfour’s “Orientals” less elegantly as “subject races”. Whatever the label, such imperialist ideology hadthe hallmarks of a political strategy employed by the Europeans to impose dominance, so as to deepen their imperialist economy. Crucially, imperialist practice hinged on a forcefully one-sided act of representation by the documenting authority (dominant culture) upon ‘the represented’ (weaker culture).

In an interview with Jonathan Crary and Phil Mariani in Wedge, 1985, reproduced in the book Power, Politics and Culture (6), Edward Said establishes a direct and dynamic link between (i) domination of a political, social and economic nature, and (ii) systems of representation that exist or are created. Said understands that the whole science of representation (for example, in anthropology) depends on the silence of the Other. That is, a dominant culture can represent another – weaker – culture, but not allow that weaker culture to have a say in how it actually wants to be represented. Said gives his own example: tutored in colonial schools Said became more conversant in English history than his own Arab history, of which he knew nothing by the time he was an adolescent. The corollary of that was a young Said conditioned to see himself as a less valuable economic agent than the English ruling class.


Thoughts on cultural representation: power and resistance.jpg
Cultural representation.

Another example of the political bias in historical representation: between 1810-1890, Orientalist artists, who were mainly French and English, populated their paintings with snake charmers, veiled women and courtesans who often resembled Westerners in Eastern dress. Such stereotypical representations are essentially male fantasy portrayals of an exotic ‘East’, a mythological geography created with little basis in actual experience. Conjure up the classic harem genre work. Erotic nudes and sexual narratives. What an outlet for pent-up…emotions. In the 19th century, such art was sold widely because there was enough demand from Western viewers who bought into the experience, and who could maintain moral facade-by-guile with the argument that, well, they were not, after all, lusting after real women. Yet, such Orientalist representations became entrenched as ‘real’ in mainstream consciousness. More sinisterly, then, is how conveniently such stereotyped representations had colonialist propaganda value for Europeans, who were keen to conquer Eastern countries through exploitative political and economic relationships, often using weight of moral argument conveyed through the lens of 19th century Christian morality: apparently the represented subjects were not just morally and sexually depraved, they were also uncivilised and needed oversight.

As John Berger points out in Understanding a Photograph, the selectively composed photograph is as much about what you leave out, as it is about what you choose to present inside the frame. The portrait, then, is a strongly calculated decision about what qualities, what character of the subject you want to highlight, versus a potential alternative narrative you decide to diminish or obscure. It is context redesigned. It is pictorial politics. It is a truth and untruth, simultaneously.


The case of Malaysia

Back to the present day from those of empire: across contemporary art fairs to journalism to Hollywood film stories, Western media coverage in the 21st century suggestthat a rebalance in cultural representation is indeed underway. But let’s not be blindsided. In a much overlooked part of the world, commentators are raising the alarm about a new – distinctly local – form of imperialism in a former British colony: Malaysia. Over the last 20 years, concern has grown about Malaysian leaders applying their own “regime of representation” to extend political power through Islamisation in the country. Farouk A. Peru, Malaysian editor of the book Critical Thinkers for Islamic Reform, has warned that Islam in Malaysia is on “a steady slide towards fundamentalism and even violence”, and that sharia law, whose authority has grown steadily in Malaysia, was developed within an expansionist, imperialist framework — “and usually against the letter and spirit of the Koran” (7). Eddin Khoo, an interviewee in my documentary Edge of Obedience, declares that Malaysia is having “The Great Muslim Debate” about the true tenets of Islam. What is happening here?

Economically independent today, multi-cultural Malaysia – as a sovereign political concept and entity – is a 20th century outcome of the colonial adventures of the British Empire. To quickly recapitulate, the Portuguese were the first European colonial powers to establish themselves on the Malay Peninsula and Southeast Asia; they captured Malacca in 1511. The Dutch followed in 1641but the British ultimately secured their hegemony across the territory that is now Malaysia, after initially establishing key bases in the region and sealing an agreement with the Dutch via the Anglo-Dutch Treaty of 1824 that defined boundaries between British Malaya and the Netherlands East indies (which became Indonesia). The final flow of foreigners came in the form of Chinese and Indian migrant workers to meet the needs of the colonial economy created by the British.

During World War II, Japanese invasion ended British domination, while Japanese occupation of Peninsular Malaya, North Borneo and Sarawak (all British Crown Colonies) from 1942 to 1945 unleashed nationalism. In Malaysia, Malay nationalists lobbied heavily for Malay interests. Negotiations led to what finally became the independent, multi-racial Federation of Malaya on 31 August 1957 (later Peninsular Malaysia in 1963). The British were forced to surrender their plans for a ‘Malayan Union’ to house the eleven Malayan states as a single British crown colony. Malay sultans’ power and Malays’ primacy were restored. However, when working on my documentary film, Edge of Obedience, examining the life and work of the Malaysian painter Ahmad Zakii Anwar, I came to learn that to this day, modern Malaysia continues to fiercely debate what represents its national identity and economic purpose. The constitutionally enshrined ideal of an equitable multi-racial enterprise is not the reality in practice.

Malaysia’s dominant political party United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) was formed in 1946 and has governed Malaysia since, suffering a defeat only in 2019’s general elections with political alliance Pakatan Harapan now in power. UMNO has therefore shaped Malaysia’s politico-cultural landscapes profoundly from Malaysian independence to the present day. UMNO was founded on the principles of prioritising Islam and the needs of the Malay community. Race riots in 1969 led to the imposition of emergency rule; in 2019 restrictions on political and civil liberties remain. Malaysia’s National Culture Policy was introduced in 1970 in response to the 1969 riots, and defines the heart of the country’s identity as being indigenous Malay and Islamic. Malay Muslims make up roughly two-thirds of the population, and the policy largely ignores the other diverse cultural and ethnic groups within the nation: the Chinese Evangelical Christians in East Malaysia; the Indian community; the non-Muslim Dayak peoples of Borneo; and the multiple native tribes and mixed racial groups. Sabah and Sarawak indigenous peoples were always “Lain-lain” (“Others”) on Malaysia’s government forms, until 2015, 58 years after national independence. 

To boost Malay citizens’ economic prospects, Malaysia also has a long-standing race-based preferential policy that benefits Malays. Despite his pledge to overturn this policy after his successful political comeback in 2017, Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad now refuses to ratify a United Nations treaty against racial discrimination. Pundits suggest he has succumbed to intense pressure from his Malay constituency and so Malaysia will not adopt the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD).

Under UMNO’s watch, the official iteration of Malay identity has itself transposed over the last two decades: all Malays are now deemed automatically Muslim, even if in reality some Malaysian Malays do – or wish to – make quite different personal religious choices. Malaysia is the only country in the world which automatically assumes that all Malays are also Muslim. A similarly motivated and more recent development would be the Israeli parliament’s highly symbolic passing of its controversial Basic Law in 2018, that defines Israel first and foremost as a Jewish nation state.

UMNO’s long-standing political dominance allows it to focus on its Malay-Muslim majority for its concept of Malaysian identity. The politics of representation are in full play today as it was in days of Europe and its empires. Ironically, this time the Malaysian leadership’s system of representation is strategically skewed to prioritise Malay citizens’ rights against the rights of the country’s non-Malay communities. However, not everyone accepts the state’s blanket idea of ethno-religious nationalism. Farouk Peru argues that Malays should be exposed to various interpretations of Islam consistent with a modern world, claiming that while freedom of religion is guaranteed in Malaysia’s constitution, “it is forcibly being taken away from Malay Muslims by sharia law” which he branded an “anachronistic throwback” (7). Clearly there are representations of both Islam (religion), Malays (ethnic group) and Muslims (religious adherents) that are being heavily contested. Grassroots voices are agitating against official narratives.

Ahmad Zakii Anwar may well be Malaysia’s best-known artist. He is also controversial. Born into a traditional Muslim family in 1950s Malaya, he is a Malay painter who from the 1990s onward became famous for his photo-realistic animal pictures, still life paintings and expressive portraits, which offer a timeless reinterpretation of modern Asian society. Zakii says his works are semi-autobiographical, referring to his own journey exploring identity and beliefs. His art continues to defy convention in an increasingly radical Islamic world. Amidst local controversy over his images, he persisted with his paintings of naked male bodies that are both provocative and fascinating, especially in the context of Malaysia, a society that still regards nakedness and even being different as taboo. But in stark contrast to European empires’ lusty Orientalist depictions, Zakii’s nudes are representations of his Sufi philosophy: metaphysical musings visually represented through the physical form of human body, and grounded in Sufism, the most liberal end of Islam’s wide theological spectrum. Ahmad Zakii Anwar’s nudes are stripped of Eastern, Western or other culturally symbolic clothing; each lone body is cryptically posed and often in ambiguous settings. The paintings instead invite viewers to offer their own interpretations of what the works mean. The artist is cleverly holding up a mirror to the viewer, understanding that each viewer brings his or her own cultural, moral and intellectual compasses to bear upon the nude. His work confronts various other sensitive subjects through imagery of pig trotters, shamans, transgenders and portraits of people of different races. As I developed my documentary Edge of Obedience on artist Ahmad Zakii Anwar, I came to understand how his exploration of identity through visual representation is fraught with prescriptive social, political and religious red lines. But the controversial painter is adamant: “Rebellion is not a career. You rebel because you want to change something.” Resistance (8).

Positive cultural re-representation is underway in the West nowbut over in today’s Malaysia the issue of representation remains contentious, complex and unresolved. Some Malaysians seek an inclusive identity; others prefer an exclusive one. Malaysia in the late 20th century emerged steadily from the shadow of colonial representation as “subject races” to present itself as an independent and inclusive republic where constitutional democracy prevailed and being Malay was still distinct from being Muslim. Putting aside Malaysian ‘non-Malay identities’which are seeming afterthoughts in mainstream discourse about ‘national identity’, the leadership is now re-representing to its local constituency an updated cultural identity that conflates ‘Muslim’ with ‘Malay’ with no recourse for the represented. Not all Malays subscribe to this prescriptive representation. There is, therefore, within parts of the Malaysian / Malay / Muslim community itself, resistance to the re-representation. How then should a filmmaker (re)present Ahmad Zakii Anwar the man, who is officially both ‘Malay’ and ‘Muslim’, and his work which, in the eyes of Islamic fundamentalists, is “haram” and “un-Islamic”? His realist work cannot be de-contextualised from his environment.

Author John Berger says: “The close-up is the opposite of the statistic” (9)There is a value implication in this statement: the statistic is a tool of bureaucracy and political strategy that deliberately disregards human nuances and context; the close-up suggests an effort to understand and empathise – by seeking detail in character, there is a desire to discern what makes the subject human, and to find ways to relate. Whether we accept or reject what we see is a choiceyour political beliefs are your choice. Will you seek to see another human being as a unique individual, or as a generalised, composited or even caricatured character?


Concluding thoughts

In the 21st century, how equipped are we collectively to handle this next phase of political and cultural relations, to avoid falling into a vicious circle of equally exclusive practice with a different face? Do we fully understand how representation works and the tools we need to unpack the systems of representation around us?

Edward Said in 1978 regarded “Orientalism” as a set of attitudes within European imperialism. For him, “Orientalism” was essentially an idea, a creation, with no corresponding reality, and was a device to control, manipulate and dominate the non-Western world. Almost 30 years later, Ed Husain, a former radical Islamist from Britain who now champions liberal Muslims, made this point in his significant book The Islamist: “We make the mistake of seeing the world in physical entities,” he says. “With ISIS it has always been about ideas. It’s not so much a caliphate, it’s an expansionist fascist mindset.” Husain is appalled at the way unelected and unaccountable Islamist groups are portrayed by the media as representative.

Whatever your political, social and religious affiliations, the point is that such statements reveal much about the dubious nature of placing too much faith in our human and often imaginary systems of representation – these days increasingly built on 10-second media feeds – which we either impose on others, which others impose upon us, or which we are manipulated into believing as truth. Such simplistic structures can sometimes serve as useful starting guides for understanding our relations in the world, but ultimately, we need to approach our systems of cultural representation with critical yet open minds. We can also challenge ourselves: do systems of representation always need to be zero-sum games? The individual human being demands recognition as a much more nuanced, expansive and reflective soul. There is something to be said for knowing others by understanding ourselves first. Intimately and unflinchingly. To be aware how our individual psyches construct “reality” or “realities”. The lens through which we perceive others is built from the psychological essence within, after alland that essence is mutable.

“Let’s make room for voices yet to be heard, for stories yet to be told.”

So proclaims film streaming media giant Netflix US in its 2019 marketing (video). Historically, systems of representation are exercised by dominant social groups for political advantage. We now see a greater awareness about how such tools of representation work, and there has been a movement toward re-representations across the board of social minorities who want the right to say what is authentic about themselves, and reclaim lost power in how societies and economies are run. From movements such as International Women’s Day to creative resistance by artists across the globe, we see more facilitators of that cause.

Compared to the centuries-old system of representations that came before, which were Europe-dominant, globally we are still in the early days of this next phase of cultural transition: as understanding about systems of representations filter through, previously power-poor players desire a re-balance of power as social communities, as economic agents and as nation-states. The results of such a rebalance remain unclear – not least whethere is a prospect of pushback from those who do not want to see their political advantages slip away. What are the longer-term agendas of groups pushing for re-representation? Will we return to a ‘zero-sum game’ or advance to a ‘win-win’ scenario? These are questions yet to be answered.

The reality today is that from grass roots activism to worldwide action, we are entering an exciting period of history where the world expects balance. Balance drives a better working world: human economy is more sustainable. These are benefits of approaching “representation” as a ‘win-win’ strategy instead of the ‘zero-sum’ option. The corporate world is a macrocosm or sub-set of the universal world of human relations. It is a specialised arena for competing agendas, wants and outlook. It certainly competes on the art of representation: branding, marketing and corporate ambassador training. It also harnesses the media of the day to further its goals. We can learn from this arena about how we should best relate to one another in an informed age, that is through fair negotiation rather than war, and apply such principles to the field of economics and international relations. As Harvard negotiation expert Roger Fisher proposes:

“Peace is not a piece of paper, but a way of dealing with conflict when it arises.”

How do we achieve the ‘win-win’ scenario, going forward? Integrating age-appropriate media and other audiovisual literacy programmes into primary school curricula, for instance, will help youngsters understand media manipulation early on in many fields of study. This will help create thoughtful resistance against the deluge of images and sounds that are constructed for ill gain. On the other hand, media-literate learners will understand how to appreciate good craft in the spectrum of creative work that can, hopefully, in turn yield benefits to society.

In the final analysis, like it or not, systems of representations are a form of human language – with moving parts. Representations are a basic currency forhuman communication and connection. I doubt we shall ever fully escape from the politics of representation, but we can mitigate negative outcomes by equipping ourselves with discernment and principles that favour inclusive rather than divisive communities. So being able to deconstruct one system and rebuild it as another is a future skill worth investing in, but we should act quickly. Fundamental to inclusivity is a shared vision. Yet technology and the media are undermining the way we connect socially, challenging our ability to collaborate, while values change quickly with passing trends and inconsistent narratives. Unanchored, we struggle to know who we really are, which is leaving the door open for the most intimate of manipulations.


Jin-Theng Craven



  1. John Berger, “Recognition”, Understanding a Photograph, ed. Geoff Dyer, Penguin Books, 2013
  2. Stuart Hall, “The Spectacle of the ‘Other’: Contesting a Racialised Regime of Representation”, Cultural Representations and Signifying Practices, Culture, Media and Identities Series, 1st Edition, Sage Publications in assoc with The Open University (ed. Stuart Hall), 2003
  3. Edward W. Said, “In The Shadow of the West”, Power, Politics and Culture: Interviews with Edward W. Said, ed. Gauri Viswanathan, Bloomsbury Publishing, 2005
  4. Edward W. Said, “Orientalism”, Penguin Books, 2003
  5. Rudyard Kipling (1865–1936). “The White Man’s Burden”, 1899
  6. “Power, Politics and Culture: Interviews with Edward W. Said”, ed. Gauri Viswanathan, Bloomsbury Publishing, 2005
  7. Quoting from report by Rowan Callick, “Islam in Malaysia ‘sliding towards fundamentalism and violence’, expert says”, The Weekend Australian (online), 2014. Further reading: Edip Yuksel, Arnold Yasin Mol and Farouk A Peru (ed.), “Critical Thinkers for Islamic Reform”, Brainbow Press, 2009
  8. Howarth, C. “Representations, identity and resistance in communication”. In: Hook, Derek and Franks, Bradley and Bauer, Martin W., (eds.) The social psychology of communication. Palgrave Macmillan, 2011.
  9. John Berger, “Recognition”, Understanding a Photograph, ed. Geoff Dyer, Penguin Books, 2013
Received: 11.02.19, Ready: 20.03.19, Editors: Federico Germani, Robert Ganley. 

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