Shaq Koyok fights through art to see the change he wants for indigenous peoples here.
IF the eyes are the window to the soul, then what’s apparent in the peepers of the young boy depicted in Witness is turmoil – an emotion fraught by the need to see what’s before him and at the same time, plagued by guilt for not being able to stop the unravelling crime.
The said portrait is the handiwork of young indigenous artist Shaq Koyok (real name Shahar Koyok), a painter with a keen eye for his surroundings, particularly the natural world. The 28-year-old’s artwork is also very much driven by his sense and passion for activism, having borne witness to illegal logging and indiscriminate burning of the forest.
But growing up in Kampung Pulau Kempas, Banting, Selangor, all Shaq cared about was articulating his thoughts, which seemed a struggle to verbalise.
“I used art to express myself when words failed me. It seemed to be the only way I could tell people what was on my mind,” said the masters student in Fine Arts, who is currently studying at UiTM, Shah Alam, Selangor, during a recent interview.
Artistic expression came easy to him, and after having his first taste of it at the age of five in school, Shaq was soon taking part in competitions, encouraged by his teachers.
By the time he reached 15, he was representing his school SMK Teluk Datok in Banting, with a significant moment arriving with his participation in a poster art competition, where his slogan of choice was “Jimatkan Air” (Save Water), a theme just as relevant today as it was then.
But poster art and landscape paintings made way for a growing fascination with portraits, an interest sparked by an older brother. “My brother encouraged me to give it a shot, and I was soon doing portraits of classmates, and eventually, even my headmistress got in on the act,” he said with a laugh.
It’s Shaq’s ability to capture emotion that truly sets him apart from the rest of the pack, like in Witness. He points out that etching life-like emotions on his subject’s faces isn’t easy at all. “I outline the basic figure and then insert my own emotion and soul, like I did for Witness, which was from how I was traumatised seeing the jungles being burnt and logged. The expressions you see are from my own emotions.”
He lives in the modern dwelling of the city now, even if he is only based in Seremban, Negeri Sembilan, but it’s his heritage as a member of the orang asli Temuan community which gives him an insight on what happens in the jungles, miles away from prying eyes.
Growing up with the Temuan community taught him to understand his roots, and how man and the natural world can live as one, without sacrificing Mother Nature’s grand work. “The Temuan people live between the coast and the jungle ... we basically live around the mangrove swamps. So, my love for nature and culture comes from here,” he said of his indigenous people, who originate from Selangor, Malacca and Negeri Sembilan.
Shaq’s primary inspiration for his artwork is his people. “I really want to raise awareness on the struggles of the orang asli – most people seem to know too little about us. Hopefully, my art will inspire people to write more about my community,” shared the amiable artist.
He opines that orang asli issues haven’t been given attention because the community is too small, thus ridding it of a strong voice for change. Politics should be held accountable, he reckons, but he’s optimistic that progress will come, given what he’s seen happening around the world.
He might hail from a small community in Malaysia, but Shaq’s travels have given him a more global perspective. His artwork has been exhibited in Sydney, Australia; London, England and Miami, the United States. And unsurprisingly, given the nature of his unique work, his paintings have been branded a breath of fresh air by the art communities there. “They like it because it’s not something they’ve seen very often and they feel it’s very expressive,” said the son of a farmer and homemaker mom.
Naturally, the artwork of Australia’s aborigines draws some similarities, but that comparison is more in the subject matter than in style. “The aborigines create very thought-provoking artwork ... their history is way harsher than that of the Temuan’s,” said Shaq, who has his solo show – Shaq Koyok: Contemporary Indigenous Art Exhibition – on now in Penang. Shaq is inspired by how Australia’s natives have succeeded in affecting a change through their art and looks to take a leaf from that page for his own work.
When it comes to references he’s grown up with though, he looks to a legend who lived on his own terms. “(Vincent) Van Gogh did everything that was true to his beliefs ... he just painted what he wanted and created modern art in the process.”
Shaq has recently also taken his art away from the canvas and easel, and put it into children’s books. A phobia which afflicted him as a six-year-old is now chronicled in Tujal and the Wind. “I used to be afraid of the wind when I was a kid, and I remember running to my grandfather’s house for shelter whenever the wind would rustle through the trees and howl,” he said almost sheepishly, recalling his childhood. The book, written by his author friend Stephen-John Curtis, features Shaq’s illustrations.
“Obviously children love comics, like I always have. So, the friendly images I’ve created to tell the story will hopefully let kids know what it’s like to be part of the orang asli community.”
Shaq clearly sees that children are our future. He knows if they are taught well, they can one day lead the way, which is why he has engaged a cultural school holidays programme for orang asli kids. “We run the programme in the villages, where we use art to teach English, sports and culture. There’s basket weaving, hunting, cooking, music and dance. For the moment, it’s only for the orang asli kids, but we’d like to reach out to all kids some day in the future.”
He knows too well the need for preservation of the arts and culture. And if the holiday programme is only a small scale act of conservation, Shaq rests assured that he tells his bigger stories through his breathtaking artwork.
Shaq Koyok’s Contemporary Indigenous Art Exhibition is on at G Art Gallery, Level 1 (Link Bridge), G Hotel, Persiaran Gurney, George Town in Penang till June 30. Admission is free. More info: www.shaqkoyok.blogspot.com.