Brandon Ritom's exhibit documents contemporary Malaysian indigenous culture


  • Arts
  • Saturday, 30 Nov 2019

An oil work called 'Will You Still Notice Us If We Step Aside?' (2019) from Sarawakian artist Brandon Ritom's exhibition 'Portrait Conversation x Menua Kitai' at the Centre for Malaysian Indigenous Studies in Kuala Lumpur. Photos: The Star/Azhar Mahfof

If you step into the Centre for Malaysian Indigenous Studies (CIMS) in Kuala Lumpur, you'll be treated to a series of portraits representing contemporary Malaysian indigenous names from the visual art, music, cultural and social activist circles.

For those who like landscape studies, there are many canvasses depicting lush, natural outdoor scenes.

These portraits and landscapes may seem very different, but they're both parts of a single exhibition, and both the series of Sarawakian-born British-trained artist Brandon Ritom. His show Portrait Conversation x Menua Kitai at CIMS is an attempt to capture the people and places around him, and to document encounters and conversations from a modern day perspective.

Ritom, 29, says the exhibition came about as a result of his project research at CIMS since last December. He previewed some of his work at the CIMS show Voices Of The People: An Exhibition Of Indigenous Languages Of Malaysia in September.

“This solo exhibition is partly organised to showcase the end result of various projects I've undertaken over the past year. It's also a means for me to gather together all my various works, ” says Ritom, who was born in Miri. His art, he mentions, is a slightly less than conventional way of recording progress.

“Most of the sessions, we don't record. We feel it's more natural, and most of the time when you are conscious of being recorded, you hold back. I like more informal interactions, like gatherings between friends. Each of the transcripts from our sessions will be turned into a small writing piece. So we have about 21 paintings, portraits and landscapes, each with their own personal story.”

Ritom's 'Temiar Lawan' (oil on canvas), his portrait of Temuan artist Shaq Koyok.Ritom's 'Temiar Lawan' (oil on canvas), his portrait of Temuan artist Shaq Koyok.The exhibition is supported by CIMS, as well as Yayasan Hasanah, in conjunction with the Young Art Entrepreneurs (YAE!) Artist's residency programme at the National Art Gallery, which Ritom was part of in 2018. CIMS is a venue for inter-cultural exchanges, communication, educational platforms and community engagements for academics engaging in the study of the indigenous people in Malaysia.

This exhibition in the CIMS bungalow space is divided into two parts: the first, Portrait Conversation, features 13 portraits of noted orang asli and orang asal creatives who are based in Kuala Lumpur. These include Temuan artist and activist Shaq Koyok (whose portrait is titled Temiar Lawan), Bidayuh researcher/artist Kendy Mitot (Pak Sigar Gawea), Kalimantan Dayak traditional dancer Petrisia C (Dayung Kalbar) and Kelabit/English-Italian musician Alena Murang (Alena Murang).

Ritom, who has Iban/Bidayuh roots, says most of the portraits were drawn after a series of one-to-three hour portrait sessions with him. Some of the portraits however, had to be done from photographs due to travel limitations, particularly those who were still fully based in Sarawak and Sabah.

“I never gave anyone any brief of how they should pose. But it went well, everyone put in their own personal stories. For my portrait of Shaq, he was nice enough to bring over his Temiar tompoq (headpiece), and his sumpit (blowpipe) as well.Kendy brought a male Bidayuh shaman's outfit because that's his area of research,” says Ritom.

His favourite portrait in the collection, however, is one of the Semai band Luhiew Sahi Soul, which performed at the George Town Festival this year. The work is in black and white, and titled Will You Still Notice Us If We Step Aside?.

“One of our regulars to the centre dropped by here. I hadn't finished the work, but wanted to make it a full colour composition. But he recommended we leave it as it was, as it reminded him of those old anthropology photos from National Geographic. It's as if they were from an earlier era, ” says Ritom.

Ritom wants to develop a broader documentary series of portrait and landscape works surrounding indigenous people in Malaysia.Ritom wants to develop a broader documentary series of portrait and landscape works surrounding indigenous people in Malaysia.

The second part of the exhibition is called Menua Kitai ('our land' in Iban language). It comprises eight natural landscape scenes, most places or rituals with a connection to the indigenous peoples and their culture. Some of them come with commentary on the effects of over-development in these communities.

These include Engkabang, a work depicting the engkabang trees of Borneo, and Puja Pantai, Pulau Carey, which showcases a Mah Meri Ancestor's Day celebration. Bawal Gawea Nguguoh Kpg Raso, on the other hand, depicts a bamboo platform used for Bidayuh Gawai rituals. One work, The Fairy Woods, Topah, took Ritom about three years to complete, due to natural conditions sometimes preventing him from accessing it.

Ritom's 'The Fairy Woods, Topah', oil on canvas.Ritom's 'The Fairy Woods, Topah', oil on canvas.“Native ancestral lands have often been at the forefront of conflict over ownership, usage, and appropriation. They are intimately tied with rite and ritual, and represent the livelihood and very identity for many indigenous groups. Encroaching development in their territory therefore is not merely a material conflict, but one of spiritual and psychic significance," he says.

Ritom hopes his exhibition will encourage people to be more conscious of Malaysian indigenous culture and voices. He wants the focus of the show to be on the people in his art and their stories.

“With East Malaysian creatives, we are often shoehorned into very narrow categories. Like you always have to be culturally aware, and always have to dress up. There's a lot of 'exoticising' elements that go on, and certain perceptions towards us. But I hope this helps with our visibility: show people that we are around, and we have our own stories to tell.”

Portrait Conversation x Menua Kitai is on at the Centre for Malaysian Indigenous Studies, No 11, Jalan 16/4 in Kuala Lumpur till Dec 8. Entrance is free. Open: 11am to 6pm every day except Sunday. For more information, email ritom.art@gmail.com or www.facebook.com/AtelierBrandonRitom.


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