Malaysian artist's passion for forest plants leads to blossoming online archive


A screen shot of Syarifah's ongoing online project 'Sight And Sounds', featuring the changing sights and sounds of a forest, accompanied by an ethnobotanical series of plants found in the forested landscapes in Selangor. Photo: Syarifah Nadhirah

In November last year, Syarifah Nadhirah launched Recalling Forgotten Tastes, her first illustrated book featuring watercolour paintings of edible plants and traditional culinary practices of Orang Asli communities in Selangor and Negri Sembilan.

She recently expanded this project with an online component, a series of botanical paintings and videos collectively titled Sights And Sounds, which is available on her website.

The illustrations, accompanied by descriptions and interesting facts, offer a more in-depth look at selected plants mentioned in the Recalling Forgotten Tastes book.

“I hope the reader can not only learn more from the added knowledge for each plant but also understand the deep connection it has with the forest, threatened or protected.

Tepus has a long pink-green hued pithy stalk and bright red flowers with yellow margins. Often pollinated by smaller birds, it resembles Kantan. Photo: Syarifah Nadhirah Tepus has a long pink-green hued pithy stalk and bright red flowers with yellow margins. Often pollinated by smaller birds, it resembles Kantan. Photo: Syarifah Nadhirah

“The idea is to treat this project like a growing archive of plants according to the ecological knowledge tied to the indigenous wisdom. Hence, any plants that pose the most significance to the pool of botanical knowledge would be prioritised,” says Syarifah, 28, who runs a small design studio (Paperweight KL) and works full-time as a textile designer.

At the moment, Sights And Sounds – with forest plants found in Kuala Langat and Gombak in Selangor – exists as an online archive that will be updated with new illustrations from time to time.

There are plans to do another physical compilation, but as the research requires extensive fieldwork, this will be reviewed at a later date, depending on the pandemic situation.

The leaves of the Bemban are customarily used as rice wrappers when cooking food in bamboo. Its ubik can also be made into cooling powder. Photo: Syarifah Nadhirah The leaves of the Bemban are customarily used as rice wrappers when cooking food in bamboo. Its ubik can also be made into cooling powder. Photo: Syarifah Nadhirah

“Folks from Urban Biodiversity Initiative and I also plan to do art classes or foraging/culinary workshops with the Orang Asli women based on this work in the near future,” says Syarifah.

She shares that she had always been drawn to nature – trees, the forest, our source of food. She has friends in the botany and ecology fields who help to feed her thirst for knowledge.

She credits her mum, who is passionate about food, for her interest in all things culinary.

“I have a profound interest in native plants and their association with the landscape. Many people don’t realise where our food comes from, and that even modern medicines are products of plants.

When 'Recalling Forgotten Tastes' was published, Syarifah leaned to the idea of continuously sharing and extending parts of the work in different ways. Photo: Syarifah NadhirahWhen 'Recalling Forgotten Tastes' was published, Syarifah leaned to the idea of continuously sharing and extending parts of the work in different ways. Photo: Syarifah Nadhirah

“My project is a process of educating myself not only about plants but also about the people who tend to them and the communities who have a direct relationship to our forests.

“Growing up with a complete detachment from the environment fuelled my query towards the untapped knowledge left behind by our indigenous people. Their history and culture are often left out of our education system, or at best, mentioned in a few paragraphs in a very cut and dry manner.

“The result is the majority of us having little to no understanding of their culture and who they are,” she elaborates.

So Syarifah reached out to the community and started following artist-activist Shaq Koyok and his friends on foraging excursions in the forests. She was also a former resident artist at arts centre Rimbun Dahan in 2019.

The Setawar thrives partially submerged in the water or lying low on the damp forest floor. The water from the stalk is used to treat stomachache and fever. Photo: Syarifah Nadhirah The Setawar thrives partially submerged in the water or lying low on the damp forest floor. The water from the stalk is used to treat stomachache and fever. Photo: Syarifah Nadhirah

“We plucked, smelled, tasted the leaves and roots of the plants, and sometimes cooked them. They told me what they were for and I painted the plants in my journal until it grew to more than 50 botanical illustrations,” she relates.

For this project, 32 of these illustrations made it into the book.

Syarifah notes that the mission to preserve wildlife and indigenous plants is an urgent one. Her plant illustration project is an attempt to share not only about edible plants but also to spotlight the indigenous communities and their way of life, culture and history.

“When I started this work, I knew it would be a lifelong learning process for me and that it should be continued in any way or form possible. As long as knowledge continues to be shared, more awareness will be created in preserving such knowledge, more so when it is inextricably linked to our disappearing forests,” she concludes.

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