Sunday, March 26, 2017

Exploring Sarawak cultures to inspire art


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.

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