Amid the sago fronds trailing from ceiling to floor, the fierce wood carvings, and the talons of eagles and monkey skulls hanging on the wall, half-forgotten stories of shamans, myths and magic lurk at an exhibition at Galeri Petronas in Kuala Lumpur.
To much of “modern” society, the indigenous world is one cloaked in mystery, often served up in exotic packaging and blanketed in the warm glow of romanticism. But wait!
This isn’t quite the tone that associate professor Dr Baharudin Arus, curator of group exhibition Manah: A Living Legacy at Galeri Petronas, is keen to adopt. In fact, if there is to be just one thing this impressive showcase has to drive home, it would be the representation of indigenous culture in a new context that challenges the notion that it is mysterious, inferior or backward.
“Our aim is to dispel the prejudice and misconception towards indigenous arts and culture,” says Baharudin, who is with Universiti Malaysia Sabah’s faculty of humanities, art and heritage.
“In my opinion, the term ‘exotic’ or ‘unusual’ given to their works and material culture is not quite right. Whatever they produce are for rituals and utility, for their own consumption and use. Their work is based on their beliefs, worldview, rituals, myths and taboos. Our modern society, too, came from similar beginnings,” he explains.
There is no magic or exoticness about the indigenous culture if we understand their worldview, he adds, noting that such opinions stem from misconceptions and a lack of understanding or awareness.
“My experience with the Mah Meri and Jah Hut and some of the Sabah and Sarawak indigenous groups convinced me that these people have rich religious rituals and performance culture. This culture needs to be highlighted in order to educate the general public about their expectations and perceptions from an indigenous point of view,” he says.
He stresses, however, that an exhibition of indigenous people “similar to an anthropology and antiquity show” will not do justice to the cause.
“It is not fair for us to judge them based on our expectations and achievements. What we should highlight instead is the local knowledge and ingenuity of the indigenous people that we have learned from, but failed to acknowledge.”
This exhibition, the first to be held this year at Galeri Petronas, features artworks from four young indigenous artists in their 20s and early 30s: Kendy Mitot (Bidayuh), Kaleb Anyie Udau (Kenyah) and Alena Ose’ Murang (Kelabit) from Sarawak, and Shahar “Shaq” Koyok (Temuan) from Selangor.
There are also collectible items on display, including war shields, rafts, wood carvings, articles of clothing and paintings, to complement the exhibition.
According to Baharudin, the exhibition title, Manah, means “ancient” and “permanent” and originates from the Temiar vocabulary. The Temiar, one of the Peninsular Malaysia’s subtribes of Senoi, are ardent weavers and are known for their beautiful handwoven mats and baskets.
“For this exhibition, we coined this title, Manah, because it indicates that the arts and culture of the indigenous can be traced back to ancient times and that the culture we have today originated from previous civilisations and achievements. ‘Ancient’ refers to the origin of the indigenous people, and ‘permanent’ to their culture and arts that has stood the time from its beginnings till present day,” he explains.
Kendy’s Bilayar Simonggi I’eng D’e Piobuo (The Last Voyage Of The Souls/Spirits), a grand display crafted out of sago fronds, boyuh tree bark, rattan, beads, bells and other objects procured from the jungle and from wildlife that calls the rainforest home, draws inspiration from the items used during the rituals performed during Gawai.
In this installation, figures hewn out of wood sail into eternity on boats suspended in the air.
“The rituals performed by the shamans provides a ‘bridge’ for them to traverse the space between this world and the other, which you reach by climbing a ladder for three days,” relates Kendy.
But time is a relative construct, of course, so three days in the world of smoke and mirrors are mere seconds in this world of solid ground beneath our feet that we think we know.
“This might be the last year people celebrate Gawai this way because the people who do this now are in their 70s and older. And sadly, the younger generation are more interested in social media than customs and tradition,” laments Kendy.
Indigenous motifs venture beyond aesthetics, with symbolism and meaning assigned to every flick of the knife, every stroke of the brush, every image captured and carved. Kaleb’s Urip Suai, a totem painted in stark black and white, is a reminder of eternal life.
“The motifs are not just decorative, each element has a meaning behind it,” says Kaleb.
“What the rest of the world calls art, to us are just everyday objects. The Kenyah believe that life after death is longer than the life we experience here on earth, but such ceremonies with totems are dying out as quickly as people are converting to other religions.”
At any rate, the assimilation of the “traditional” and “modern” is hardly foreign, as demonstrated in Shaq’s Per(TEMUAN) where he weaves tradition and heritage with modern-day city living quite literally, combining the “original” weave with material from banners, billboards, posters, magazines and newspapers.
“Logging and encroachment in my village have resulted in us having to travel further just to get to the jungle to forage for herbs, plants, food and material for weaving items we use for ancestral ceremonies. This work is my way of saying that traditional culture and modern living can coexist, just as I am an indigenous person living in the city attempting in my ‘soft’ way to give a voice to the indigenous folk in rural villages and creating awareness on the issues they face,” he says.
Alena’s The Storyteller is an acrylic and charcoal work, accompanied by old Kelabit songs which she learned from the village elders. These songs, which are stories told through music, impart life lessons, values, advice, with rather colourful elements like love affairs, animal sacrifices and headhunting thrown into the mix.
“Many of these songs have been forgotten or not sung anymore, which is a pity because they teach you everything, from how to live with nature, how to collect water, how to take only what you need from the jungle,” she says.
“We don’t talk about how to ‘look after nature’ because we are not superior to it. We are nature, we are all part of nature...I think the indigenous people really know how to live this way.”
Manah: A Living Legacy is on at Galeri Petronas in KLCC till April 16. For more information, visit galeripetronas.com.my. In conjunction with the exhibition, there will be a Papier-mâché Making and Indigenous Weaving workshop facilitated by Shaq Koyok and Kendy Mitot on March 18 (10.30am-5pm) at the gallery. March 26 (10am-12pm): Storytelling for Kids (Tales of the Kelabit Highlands) with Alena Ose’ Murang. April 15 (10.30am-5.30pm): Art Discussion: Music And Folktales Of Indigenous Communities. All events are free.