Shy and conscious that her English is not perfect, the young indigenous lady spends time crafting her answers carefully before she offers them during this interview.
Jumeleny Maknoh, or Leny for short, is a hyperreal pencil artist who does stunning portraits with graphite and colour pencils.
Her subjects are mostly her own tribe from the Temuan community at Guntur, Batu Kikir in Negri Sembilan. Her work is gasp-worthy, the sort that will make you do a double, and triple, take because it looks so believably real.
“My father used to love to draw, and I would watch him as a young girl. I think my interest grew from there, ” she said during a recent interview in Petaling Jaya.
“I would take part in colouring competitions and win, so I knew I had some ability.”
While Leny lives in an Orang Asli village today, she grew up in the city.
“I was born in Kuala Lumpur and spent most of my childhood in Gombak. After I finished secondary school, I attended Maktab Perguruan and finished my teaching diploma in 2004.”
The Science and Music teacher left her teaching job at SMK Padang Tembak, Jalan Semarak, to focus on art when her parents retired (both used to work at the Hospital Orang Asli in Gombak) and moved back to the village in Batu Kikir. Leny and her thee younger sisters followed suit.
“Now I am trying to reconnect with my roots. We still respect our moyang (ancestors) and adat (traditions), and try our best to maintain them, ” she shares of her family, and tribe.
“The Orang Temuan look like Malays, and our language is also similar to the Malay language. We are not really very different from the rest of Malaysia, except perhaps we lead a more traditional lifestyle, and we have a deeper understanding of the forest, but even this mostly belongs to the older generation.”
The sprightly 39-year-old leads a pretty ordinary life, she says.
“Wake up, yoga, breakfast, prepare lunch as my mother goes to the kebun, house chores, go to my studio, play music to get in the mood to start drawing ... When I feel tired I water the plants (I love plants), or do something to relax my eyes.
“Sometimes my relatives come over so I have tea and spend some time talking to them. Then it’s dinner time. After dinner, I spend some time with my mum before going back to my studio to continue my work. I enjoy working at night because it’s calmer and quieter.”
In 2011, Leny did her first group show at the White Box @ Publika Solaris Dutamas in KL. Since then there have been numerous occasions when she has been featured alongside other contemporary indigenous artists.
Last year at the George Town Fest, in Penang, Leny and a bunch of others including Shaq Koyok, Jefree Salim, Ramlan Koyok, Ronnie Bahari and Vicky Eluq were part of the Gerimis art exhibition project.
More recently she participated in RTM’s Program Aspirasi Merdeka “Senoi Ek Merdeka – Orang Kita Merdeka” in conjunction with National Day and International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples (which was on Aug 9).
Her work is also displayed at the Centre of Malaysian Indigenous Studies (CMIS) in KL, a venue for inter-cultural exchanges, communications, educational platforms and community engagements for academics engaging in the study of the indigenous people.
“I feel appreciated and am happy that my art has home there. Since I live quite far away, it’s nice that people can walk in to CMIS, which is more accessible and central for public viewing. This way, my art can reach more people, and more people can learn about the Malaysian indigenous people,” shares Leny.
You’ll notice that in her portraits and other drawings, Leny likes to include elements of Malaysiana in her portraits – nothing too complicated, a cup of coffee, chicks from the kebun, bougainvillea, tudung saji.
“I love Malaysia, it is my birthplace, but I also hope to see more Orang Asli empowered. And so I try to include flora and fauna that are found widely in Malaysia, such as the hibiscus and yellow lantana in my portraits, to make Orang Asli inclusive.”
She is humble, down to earth and feels joy when she receives positive feedback about her art.
“Everyone has been very encouraging so far. I am in awe when they are in awe! Many have asked for bigger pieces from me, and that is one of my goals, ” she says, revealing that when she first started out she was very afraid to interact with strangers viewing her art.
“I couldn’t even smile when I met new people.”
But she has gone from strength to strength, and built up her career. “Dah tahu networking sedikit, ” she coyly admits. “But I am still quite shy.”
Leny designed her own website and manages her own social media (Facebook, Instagram and Youtube channels), takes her own photographs and videos, and is eager to someday have a solo exhibition.
For her, art and photography go hand in hand. She uses a Nikon 5320 DSLR to help her picture the light and shadows in her predominantly black and white portraits of the faces that greet her in her village.
“There are many stories behind the eyes, emotions that cannot be described by words,” she explains about her portraits.
During the movement control order this year, she was able to spend time developing her work and learning new things.
“As an artist, I’m always seeking to grow,” she says.
“I plan to mix media – use watercolours alongside pencils, because I want to step out of my comfort zone and challenge myself,” she shares, explaining that with a computer and sturdy Internet connection she has been able to do all of her learning online.
She also managed to work on a new piece, Surviving, to document the pandemic.
“I am happy to be able to practice my art, but it can be a struggle because there is a lack of appreciation in art among Malaysians. And of course things were worse during Covid-19,” she admits, but adds that she wouldn’t trade her pencils for anything.
“Art to me is freedom, and expression. When I’m drawing, I escape into my head and that is when I am most present in the moment.”
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