Here's an online zine you should be reading about Borneo contemporary arts

A screen shot of the Borneo Bengkel e-zine, with a feature on traditional basket weaving and research by Jennifer P. Linggi (manager/curator of Sabah Art Gallery). Photo: Borneo Bengkel

Sarawak-based cultural arts outfit Borneo Bengkel has launched a free e-zine, featuring highlights from its virtual series Bor(neo): The Project in the past year.

The 42-page e-zine contains excerpts from Borneo Bengkel’s four sharing sessions held between May and June 2021. It is available for download on Borneo Bengkel’s newly launched website here.

“We wanted these words and conversations to reach a wider audience rather than just those who had attended online. By presenting these live talks in a magazine format that can be downloaded for free, it will allow more people to read about these important issues, learn different perspectives and be more informed when talking about these topics,” says Catriona Maddocks, one of the curators from Borneo Bengkel.

Maddocks, who lived in Sarawak for 11 years, returned to Britain at the start of the pandemic in 2020, but continues to work with Borneo Bengkel’s programmes in Kuching.

Bor(neo): The Project aimed to transcend borders, cultures, languages, and perspectives by refocusing Bornean narratives for a contemporary audience. Artistic expression, indigenous identities, and cultural appropriation were among the topics discussed in the virtual talks.

Among the highlights of the series was a session with renowned Sabahan contemporary artist Yee I-Lann and hearing from the collaborators on her Borneo Heart exhibition. In the talk, Pulau Omadal weavers, contemporary dancers, and filmmakers discussed the exhibition’s ideas.

Cultural Futurism: Reimagining Heritage In The Modern Era was another one of the series’ talks that examined contemporary interpretations of traditional culture.

The cover art of the Bor(neo): The Project e-zine designed by Turoi Bagak, with additional art by Sonia.  Photo: Borneo BengkelThe cover art of the Bor(neo): The Project e-zine designed by Turoi Bagak, with additional art by Sonia. Photo: Borneo Bengkel

On the panel were Evey Kwong of Futureprimitiv, Tintoy Chuo of Fusion Wayang Kulit, and Timothy James, better known as Turoi Bagak. Borneo Bengkel commissioned Turoi Bagak, a Bidayuh artist, to create a new artwork titled Bor(neo) for the e-zine’s cover.

“First things first, if it’s commissioned work, I’d like to be more collaborative with the client-collaborator. In the end, Borneo Bengkel (BB) came up with the island silhouette idea and I came up with the oldie pictogram maps. Since BB is about celebrating today’s Bornean traditional creatives and there is a ‘Neo’ in Bor(neo), I wanted to join in the pun,” says Turoi Bagak.

He adds his vision of a modern-day Borneo: “Borneo in the 21st century. An electric sape player with electronic synthesisers. A bamboo hop dance with hip hop breakdance, hand-tapping tattooists with free-styling street artists. A traditional fabric weaver with digital artist.”

In keeping up with BB’s spirit of collaboration, Sonia Luhong Wan, programme curator and artist, was invited to add to the virtual artwork.

“I felt that Turoi Bagak’s final piece already told a holistic story. Adding wisps of clouds to complement it, although minimal in comparison, felt just enough; just right,” says Sonia.

Borneo Bengkel also had its first opportunity to collaborate with Brunei-based creatives as part of the talk series Representation Matters: A Glimpse Into Brunei Through Its Art Scene. The artists featured: Jang Elroy Anak Ramantan, Susannah Anak Rogo Sitai Liew, Maziyah Yussof, and Nazurah Usop shed light on Brunei’s contemporary art scene.

Juvita Tatan Wan of The Tuyang Initiative moderated the final talk of the series, Community Voices; Research And Publication As Cultural Activism, which featured Wendi Sia, Jennifer P. Linggi, and Dee May Tan, each an individual specialising in cultural documentation and research.

“We hope that we can reach beyond Malaysian shores and share these conversations with audiences from other nations, so that they hear first-hand the diverse and nuanced perspectives of communities from Borneo and the region, and learn more about the work of some incredibly talented individuals who are spearheading really exciting cultural initiatives,” says Sonia.

Borneo Bengkel, put together in 2017 by Kuching creative arts hub HAUS KCH and social enterprise Catama Borneo, has been steadily gaining a profile in the contemporary arts and culture circles.

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