Malaysian artist Tan Wei Kheng showcases the effects of modernisation in his exhibition.
There is a certain power in her stare. Something potent and primal.
Sigang Kesei may be well advanced in years, her face wrinkled and sunken, her body emaciated. But the ardour emanating from her being is simply captivating. Rough may have been her life but the spirit in her spoke of resilience.
Visual artist Tan Wei Kheng was besotted by this steely Penan woman, not only for her fortitude but her cordiality as well.
Her portrait is one of the highlights of this Miri, Sarawak-based artist’s exhibition Language Of The Jungle at Richard Koh Fine Art in Kuala Lumpur.
“She is a lovely woman (from Ulu Limbang, Sarawak). She is very kind. Every time I visit her house, she comes to shake my hand and give me a hug,” says Tan in a recent interview.
“But I feel she and her husband are lonely. Only two of them in a small house. The house is dark. For the Penan family, when their children get married, they have to move to their own house. All their children are married,” he adds.
The self-taught artist and nature lover spent months in the deeper parts of Sarawak, specifically in Ulu Tutoh, Ulu Magoh and Ulu Limbang, living with the Penan people and learning about their culture and lifestyles. A small number of them (12,000 Penans) still maintain a largely nomadic way of life despite wide-scale logging and deforestation in their living environment. Tan’s relationship with these communities has grown through the years.
Some 20 years ago, Tan, who grew up in a small town in Marudi on the Baram River, began photographing the Penan people and other Orang Ulu tribes.
The process has been an arduous one. But Tan has persisted through the years and he has developed a keen insight into the lives of these tribal communities. Tan says that it takes him eight hours to drive to a settlement, coupled with hours of walking. Sometimes, the walk into the villages can take two days, depending on how far the nomadic Penan community lived.
His most recent work offers up a stunning series of nine oil paintings, highlighting different aspects of the Penan tribe. Language Of The Jungle, which is a rare exhibition of figurative art at Richard Koh Fine Art gallery, is Tan’s expression of how the life of the Penan is changing.
“When I first met them, they were in the jungle. Now they are moving into settlements. I am capturing what they see happening around them. I am also expressing my feelings of what I see happening to them,” explains the 44-year-old artist.
Tan, who started out as a ceramist for a commercial outlet producing touristy objects in Miri, began to take interest in the stories, symbolism and traditional ways of Sarawak’s interior peoples in the early 1990s. His previous works – solo shows and group exhibitions – have documented the lives of the Kayan, Kenyah, Penan, Kelabit and Iban communities.
His collage work Voice Of Hope (2013) is also now in the collection of the Singapore Art Museum after exhibiting at the Singapore Biennale 2013.
The subjects in the paintings are all friends with Tan. For the Language Of The Jungle exhibition, he speaks fondly of people like the late Along Sega, Penan leader/activist, the blind hunter Jamalang Ringgut and Penan elder Kulin Jamaleh. He has known them for more than a decade now, especially after his frequent excursions into the deep interior of Sarawak. Apart from the older generation (some deceased), Tan has seen some of his younger Penan friends start families and try to adjust to modern life.
This is evident in the painting Another Jungle, which has pride of place in the window of the Richard Koh Fine Art gallery in Bangsar Village II. It shows two young boys, brothers, playing among giant roots of the ancient trees around them. Juxtaposed with the natural environment is their modern attire ... not traditional Penan wear but T-shirts.
“Someone had given them clothes from the city. The people in the city are living in another type of jungle. I hope this beautiful jungle will not change into a concrete jungle in the future,” says Tan about these brothers – Jesua and Ruan Gasi.
“When they go to school, they will move from one town to another until they reach the city. The concrete jungle. They cannot return. They have no choice. It is a dilemma,” he adds.
Tan does mention that it has been a struggle for the boys’ parents to get to a school.
The artist, who is well-known for depicting the stories and lives of the Sarawakian tribes in his paintings, shared that it was the simplicity of the Penan people that fascinated him.
“Their culture is not like the culture of the other tribes such as the Orang Ulu. They are very simple,” says Tan.
One element that makes Language Of The Jungle interesting is Tan’s usage of colour as a medium to convey a particular message.
“My colour scheme reflects what I see in their journey. My colours capture the mood. My feelings are presented in the sombre colours. I use contrasting tones to show the complex feelings I have: the fresh jungle and the vanishing world of the Penans,” says Tan, who took a year and a half to complete his paintings.
Take for example, the painting Sigang Kesei that depicts the aged Sigang. She is seated on the floor, her arms wrapped around her legs. She is wearing a white T-shirt and a batik sarung, many string bracelets lining her arm. Hanging from the low ceiling of her hut are baskets weaved by Sigang. Only a sliver of light played across her wrinkled face. The rest of the room is dark. The darker tone speaks of the old lady’s loneliness.
In the painting Crossing The River, a Penan hunter called Malin is holding a hunting spear. He is seen looking forlornly at a yellowish-brown expanse, probably mulling over what had happened to the once beautiful river. Beyond is a grey vastness, a troubled reminder of the vanished jungle.
Tan’s Our Beautiful Garden is also a beautiful documentation of a Penan camp in the forest. But as you look at the painting, you realise how their lives have changed. A particular palm tree that provides leaves for their roofs no longer exists in the jungle. What you see now is the Penan community using tarpaulin for roofing, which they carry with them every time they move from camp to camp.
The pointed commentary on The New Hunter is another piece to bring anger and sadness to the viewer. In this work, Lisan, a hunter-gatherer, is unable to find wild sago (his staple food) in the jungle. He now needs money to buy sago from village markets. He never needed money before to survive.
“Perhaps the people looking at this painting will remember the missing jungle and that the river used to be clear,” says the artist.
Language Of The Jungle is a remarkable series of paintings that not only captures the simple lives of the Penan tribe but also bravely portrays the encroaching effects of development on this nomadic tribe.
Homes are destroyed and culture may be eroding and it forces us to think whether we ourselves, the inhabitants of the concrete jungle, are victims of modernisation.
Tan Wei Kheng’s Language Of The Jungle is on at Richard Koh Fine Art in Bangsar, Kuala Lumpur, till Dec 31. Opening hours: 10am-10pm / Phone: 03-2283 3677