Garlic Red Onion
Victoria Cattoni with Masnoramli Mahmud
Malaysia 2006
5 min 26sec

Collection, Universiti Sains Malaysia Museum & Art Gallery, Penang, Malaysia

Victoria Cattoni collaborated with fellow artist Masnoor Ramli Mahmud on this beguilingly layered short video as part of her Asialink residency in Kuala Lumpur. Garlic (bawang putih) and red onion (bawang merah) are staple ingredients in many culinary dishes in Southeast Asia and are essential to the fiery and pungent sambals that accompany many Malay dishes. On the surface this video celebrates the ritual attached to the preparation of these ingredients and the manner in which women collaborate in the preparation of them.

Garlic Red Onion (excerpt), video, full duration 5min 26sec

That is however, a surface reading of this video, for the myths of bawang putih and bawang merah lie at the heart of many gendered folk tales from the Malay world and indeed this video pays subtle and interesting homage to a classic Malay film of the 1950s, Bawang Putih, Bawang Merah. That film told a tale of wronged daughters in law, wicked step mothers and manipulated intentions in a manner that exposed with delicate nuance quite sophisticated readings of what would otherwise be binary representations of the classic good girl/bad girl dichotomies of classic cinema narrative. These two vegetables have played a role in Malay metaphoric understandings of female moral values and standards and are often used as symbols of the binary gendered analogy of racun dan penawar (poison and antidote).

Red is also symbolic of courage, while white has connotations of death. Can we read in the laborious preparation of these symbolically and metaphorically grafted vegetables a culinary hymn to female control over identity constructions? The video captures with sensitivity a moment of collaboration, of preparation and of transformation. The fusion of two simple vegetable products resonates with a further fusion of juxtaposed binaries and in the process we witness a subtle act of identity metamorphosis that speaks beyond the simply culinary act that we indeed are witnessing.  In Malaysia, food - its preparation as well as its consumption – is an important cultural marker in the construction of an array of complex and sometimes competing identities - ethnic, regional, religious and gendered. This work captures just one of those markers with a deft understanding of layered myth that speaks to the cultural legacies of the Malay world, and subtextually, to the rich heritage of early Malay cinema. 

Benjamin McKay, 2006, Kuala Lumpur
Lecturer in Film Studies, Monash University Malaysia, Kuala Lumpur
PhD Candidate, Charles Darwin University, Darwin


This work has been wrongly attributed to Masnoor Ramli Mahmud in the catalogue: ‘Matahati’, Petronas, Kuala Lumpur 2008, p. 23.  The caption should read: “Victoria Cattoni in collaboration with Masnoor Ramli Mahmud”.

The work has been presented in the following: 2006 Blind Dates & Foreign Affairs Asialink Arts Annual Forum, University of Melbourne, Australia; 2007 OK Video Festival Jakarta, Indonesia; 2007 Notthatbalai Art Festival 2007  Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia; 2008 Matahati: For Your Pleasure  Galeri Petronas, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia