IT feels a little funny to be in a room with artists younger than me, listening to them talk about cultural practices older than all of them put together, and how the arrival of organised religion and logging changed their community forever.
And hearteningly, their reason for being so keenly aware of the situation is that they have been exploring their respective cultures to inspire their art.
There are four participating young contemporary artists featured in Manah: A Living Legacy, the first exhibition of the year for Galeri Petronas Suria KLCC. One of them is Shaq Koyok, a Temuan from Selangor. The remaining three are from Sarawak — Alena Murang (Kelabit), Kaleb Anyie Udau (Kenyah) and Kendy Mitot (Bidayuh).
When they were invited to take part, ‘Manah’ curator Dr Baharudin Arus requested that they work with non-traditional media as the rest of the exhibition was made up of artefacts and traditional items used by the indigenous people of Malaysia.
‘Manah’ was Baharudin’s second time curating an exhibition with Galeri Petronas. His own research into the Mah Meri culture gave him a deeper appreciation of what seemed like superstitions and backward practices to most members of modern society.
He said the art exhibition was to dispel the misconception that Orang Asli and Orang Asal cultures were backward or not on par with modern thinking.
“This is wrong. When we look at indigenous arts and cultures, in some parts, they are more advanced than us.”
Part of exhibition
Relating how they came to be part of this exhibition, Alena said Shaq attended a Petronas workshop and ended up telling Baharudin about their little collective of young indigenous artists.
Her own piece ‘The Storyteller’ is three-panel artwork of an old woman’s wrinkled face on the left and a young woman’s face on the right, rendered in arcylic, charcoal and chalk on canvas. This is technically quite traditional where art is concerned but it is accompanied by an audio of the songs and chants Alena recorded of her lessons with these Kelabit elders.
During an interview with journalists, Alena brought up a theme that echoed throughout their artwork and personal research — the traditions practised by the elders in their community have almost been wiped out by the arrival of religion, modern development, and the lack of interests from the subsequent generations.
The handful of elders who remember the old Kelabit songs are declining by the year, taking with them songs about distinctly non-religious practices such as love affairs, animal sacrifices and headhunting.
Alena went back to record and rework them slightly into something easier to feed to modern audiences.
“A lot of the songs were forgotten or not sung anymore. I went back to learn them to make them more contemporary and share them with everybody,” she said.
Tribute to Bidayuh ritual
Kendy Mitot’s installation — ‘Bilayar Simonggi I’eng D’e Piobuo’ or The Last Voyage of the Souls-Spirits — is a tribute to a Bidayuh ritual that is on the verge of extinction back in his hometown of Bau.
During his PhD research into Bidayuh rituals, he learned from the priests and priestesses that this year will be their last to perform the ceremony as they are old and tired.
“This is sad because we need to keep this culture,” Kendy said, adding that the priests and priestesses are between 70 and 90 years of age.
His ritual room had ships, woven from sago fronds, floating around an altar marked out in a circle with rice husks. Some of these ships contained a carved wooden figure. Others had strips of colourful cloths tied to them. One ship bore the St George’s Cross.
“When James Brooke first came to Sarawak, that was the first flag they used on his ship,” Kendy said.
He considered himself lucky for being passionate about his cultural history and studying art led him down this path.
“Today, most young people don’t know what is Gawai and adat. That’s because the modern society is more focused on social media and western culture,” he noted.
To Kenyah artist Kaleb Anyie Udau, the ‘Manah’ exhibition is a big deal to their collective. His salung or burial totem pole is titled Eternal Life or ‘Urip Suai’.
“The Kenyah think that life after death is longer than life on earth. The salung is only reserved for aristocracy, the highest ranking people, and all the motifs have meaning,” he explained.
In Sarawak, salung is no longer used. In fact, the practice of erecting totem poles has lostout to Christianity and Islam. For the Kenyah people, these are merely old tales.
More modern statement
Kaleb’s second art piece has a more modern statement. ‘NCR vs PI’ looks like a hornbill but on closer inspection, is built out of a metal part that resembles the bird’s body and a judge’s gavel and sound block, positioned to look like the bird’s head and beak. A long feather stands proudly on top of the head.
The artist said this symbolised the conflict between the indigenous people, claiming the land under NCR and the courts of law making their judgements on the matter.
The indigenous people of Peninsular Malaysia had very public tussles recently, resulting in the loss of their land, homes and way of life.
Shaq Koyok reflected on his Temuan heritage of weaving where the raw materials used are becoming scarce due to logging and restricted access to the jungle.
“In 2016, my village was encroached upon by logging activities in the jungle where we used to forage for food, plants and weaving materials. Everything has been logged,” he lamented.
What little jungle left was far away from the village and fenced up to keep the villagers out. If lucky, they could get permission to go in and forage. However, many Temuan families have given up fighting to keep their weaving culture and no longer decorate their homes or altars for prayers or ceremonies.
Foraging in the jungle is still a useful skill for someone accustomed to it even though he or she may be living in the city.
Shaq accumulated banners, billboards, posters, magazines and newspapers and his cleverly-named installation — ‘PerTEMUAN’ (Meeting) — married traditional Temuan weaving with modern media.
“I’m trying to say we can live with this traditional culture in a modern way by presenting both in the same piece of work. It’s my responsibility as an artist and a young indigenous person in the city to be an ambassador and voice for the people in the rural villages,” he said.
Perhaps creating modern art will be that indirect way for young artists such as Shaq, Kaleb, Kendy and Alena to talk about things that matter to the indigenous people of Malaysia.
In the indigenous vocabulary, there is no such thing as ‘seni’ or art, Baharudin pointed out at the end of the interview, drawing nods from the young artists.
“The work of the indigenous people is for things like healing, and it all has meaning but we look at it and call it art. To me, it’s not exotic or magical. When we use such words, they become marginalised and different. This exhibition wants to dispel that,” he said.
‘Manah: A Living Legacy’ is located at Galeri Petronas Suria KLCC. It will run until April 16.