Sarawak musicians join global indigenous peoples' celebration at Venice Biennale


  • Arts
  • Monday, 11 Apr 2022

Kulleh Comrades (from left) Matt Dalin, Kulleh Grasi, Stanny Benedict, Jen Rossem, Gabriel Fairuz Louis and Nelson Sabi. This group will represent Malaysia at the Sami Pavilion at the Venice Biennale 2022. Photo: Andy Phe

The Kulleh Comrades, led by Sarawakian artist-poet Kulleh Grasi, is one of the guest participants at the 59th International Art Exhibition, La Biennale di Venezia (aka Venice Biennale 2022), a first for Malaysian indigenous musicians.

The group, brought together for the Venice Biennale, will perform at the Conservatorio di Musica Benedetto Marcello di Venezia on April 22 as part of the opening night of the aabaakwad ("it clears after the storm") event, a gathering of international artists, curators and thinkers.

It will take place at the Nordic Pavilion, transformed this year into the Sami Pavilion in celebration of indigenous heritage.

The aabaakwad event is a unique annual indigenous-led conversation on indigenous art by those who create, curate and write about it. A gathering that alternates annually between Toronto and international venues, showcasing dynamic dialogue examining themes, materials and experiences in indigenous art practice globally.

Founded in 2018 by Wanda Nanibush (an Anishinaabe curator of indigenous art, Canada), aabaakwad brings together creatives from all over the world. It is now in its fifth year and will be part of programming for the Venice Biennale 2022.

“The involvement of indigenous artists from Sarawak at the Venice Biennale 2022 is an honour and an important opportunity in the ecosystem of indigenous arts of South-East Asia,” says Kulleh, 37, a poet, singer-songwriter, and cultural activist from Kapit, Sarawak.

He is also a founding member of Nading Rhapsody, a band which draws from the oral and music traditions of Sarawak.

Kulleh Comrades will also take part in panel discussions and poetry readings from April 21-26.

Apart from Kulleh (pen name of Royston John Kulleh), the group includes musician Gabriel Fairuz Louis, Stanny Benedict and Boy Nelson from the Dayak Cultural Foundation, singer Jen Rossem and music teacher Matt Dalin.

Kulleh Comrades, featuring performers with Iban and Bidayuh heritage, will present a show blending Sarawakian folk music, Nusantara ballads and poetry.

“Besides presenting indigenous music, visual art and literature of Sarawak and Malaysia on the global stage, it offers us an opportunity to expand our network and understand indigenous art and culture from around the world,” adds Kulleh.

Kulleh writes in Bahasa Malaysia, Iban and other indigenous languages (from Borneo). His poetry book, Tell Me, Kenyalang, made it to the shortlist of the National Translation Award 2020 and longlist of the 2020 Best Translated Books Award in the United States.

Also participating at the upcoming Venice Biennale is Ipoh-based arts community People of Remarkable Talents (PORT), which will be presenting a fringe group exhibition called Pera _ Flora + Fauna. It is part of 31 "Collateral Events" that are scheduled at the Venice Biennale, which opens to the public on April 23.

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