Sarawakian artist goes beyond the ‘exotic’ with his textile works


Kueh has always been more curious than annoyed at the notion of being from ‘exotic’ Borneo. – Photo: The Star/Muhamad Shahril Rosli

Contemporary artist Marcos Kueh’s first solo exhibition in Kuala Lumpur titled Kenyalang Circus offers visitors a contemporary glimpse of how textile art can showcase and reimagine his home state Sarawak, the land of "hornbills, tribal warriors, blowpipes, and traditional beads".

Kenyalang Circus (“hornbill” in Sarawak Malay) is a concept that Kueh, who has a graphic design background, has been working on in the past six years. It started as a digital collage and found its way into the Malaysia Design Archive’s blog “O For Other” three years ago, before being developed further in Europe.

The Kuching-born Amsterdam-based artist's show highlights eight “postcards” at The Back Room gallery, Zhongshan building in Kuala Lumpur. They are inspired by the perceived (and advertised) exoticism of Sarawak in mainstream culture.

The works in Kenyalang Circus are presented at the gallery space as a series of warp-weft weave structures.

The show has weaving, myths, tribal motifs and an assortment of images pieced together from his childhood environment and memories. It is loud and colourful, restrained only by its physical borders and eight-colour yarn combination.

“I have always been more curious than annoyed at the notion of being from ‘exotic’ Borneo. Being Sarawakian, there are not many descriptions I can hold onto to understand where my identity stands, as we don’t quite fit into the stereotypical Malaysian model of ‘Malay, Chinese, Indian’,” says Kueh.

A view of Kueh’s 'Kenyalang Circus' exhibition at The Back Room, in which presents eight woven ‘postcards’ are being showcased. Photo: The Star/Muhamad Shahril Rosli A view of Kueh’s 'Kenyalang Circus' exhibition at The Back Room, in which presents eight woven ‘postcards’ are being showcased. Photo: The Star/Muhamad Shahril Rosli

Kenyalang Circus ended up being his final project for his diploma course at Dasein Academy Of Art (Kuala Lumpur) and subsequently the Royal Academy Of Art (The Hague, in The Netherlands).

“Most of the figures started out as collages – the idea was to compose freaky creatures using ‘Dayakian’ humans, creatures of the rainforest and indigenous motifs as a satirical joke on the perceptions of Peninsular Malaysia towards Borneo and the irony of our disparity in identity as a unified nation.

“Later on, when the idea matured a bit more in Europe, it became simply a giant campaign where the freaks of Borneo were featured on giant woven posters to ‘sell my exotic culture’ to the West,” says Kueh.

A time for conversation

This work is sensational, satirical, somewhat historical ... maybe partly hysterical, too?

But it isn’t all fun and games, as he also wants to talk about identity, disparity and diversity here. And sometimes these are not so different from each other.

“The ‘mainstream’ way of trying to talk about topics like disparity is with a lot of big statements and anger. But being put in an environment where there are different ways to deal with things, really opened up my mind to the possibility of talking about such topics without being angry, confrontational or aggressive.

A close-up of 'Woven Postcard #07: Exotic Hospitality' (industrial weaving with polyester, 2022). Photo: The Back Room KL A close-up of 'Woven Postcard #07: Exotic Hospitality' (industrial weaving with polyester, 2022). Photo: The Back Room KL

“Trying to understand the perception of the West, in their ways of seeing us from their descriptions of our artefacts in their museums, also played a big part in the shift in perception. Can we talk about things in a fun way, a smart way? This is what this project is about,” explains Kueh, 28.

He is currently living and working in the Netherlands, going big – literally – with this project.

His biggest woven banner for Kenyalang Circus is 8m in height.

“In Europe, there are big discourses like AI tech and how it is trying to take over humanity, immigrant issues and the Ukraine war. If I were to put out small village problems, are there ways for me to draw attention to it? Even if my problems are small, can I make them very big, like through giant posters?

“Can I make these posters very colourful to draw even more attention? In a world saturated with so many discourses, can I force my discourse onto such a world?” he asks. Being inclusive and diverse

This KL show is the first time Kueh is bringing the Kenyalang Circus to Malaysia, the eight postcards being smaller, simplified versions of the bigger banners and posters that have been exhibited in Europe.

A work such as Woven Postcard #04: Burung Melodie Rezeki, which features the kenyalang, represents that icon of icons which has become synonymous with the Sarawak state. From being a popular tourist attraction and the symbol that adorns both the Sarawak coat of arms and the logo for Visit Sarawak, the hornbill is an ever-present sight.

A textile work from Kueh titled 'Woven Postcard #04: Burung Melodie Rezeki' (industrial weaving with polyester, 2022). Photo: The Back Room KL A textile work from Kueh titled 'Woven Postcard #04: Burung Melodie Rezeki' (industrial weaving with polyester, 2022). Photo: The Back Room KL

Sengalang Burong, the deity of war and omens, is another icon for visitors to learn about.

“I can imagine Kenyalang Circus being like a tour. To me, these woven postcards can be sent back as a greeting,” he says.

Kueh was awarded the Dutch accolade Ron Mandos Young Blood Award in 2022, and his work was acquired by Museum Voorlinden in Amsterdam.

“The reclamation and recognition of our identities will be grand and entertaining and you will witness it,” promised the artist in a statement after winning the award.

He has shown his work in several exhibitions outside Malaysia including Three Contemporary Prosperities at Galerie Ron Mandos, Amsterdam (2022); When Things Are Beings at the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam (2022); This Far And Further at Museum Voorlinden, Wassenaar, the Netherlands (2022) and the Osaka International Art Fair, Japan (2017).

He was also featured in the Common Threads textile (group) show at The Back Room in 2017.

'Woven Postcard #02: Bumi Kenyalang' (industrial weaving with polyester, 2022). Photo: The Back Room KL 'Woven Postcard #02: Bumi Kenyalang' (industrial weaving with polyester, 2022). Photo: The Back Room KL

“The significance of the works shifts with the context of where it is being placed. For instance, what does it mean when you have a Sarawakian artist having his purposefully exotic art acquired by an institution in the most expensive district in the Netherlands?

“At one point the project was showing at the same time in The Stedelijk Museum (national contemporary art museum) in Amsterdam, the Voorlinden Museum in Wassenaar (most wealthy district in the Netherlands) and the Tweede Kamer (national parliament) in The Hague (political capital of the Netherlands). The posters then became objects of contemplation reflecting on the country’s attitude and decisions on the cultural discourse of inclusivity and diversity,” he says.

Nevertheless, Kueh was once told that his work was “too traditional”, and that gave him food for thought. Is being too traditional something he had to move away from? Is it considered too basic, too unsophisticated?

In the Kenyalang Circus exhibition essay, writer-architect Lim Sheau Yun observes: “Crucially, Kenyalang Circus is not a romantic reclamation of the past: the series’ allure is that it engages with capitalism as both an aesthetic and a mode of production.

"In South-East Asia, weaving is associated with tradition: the image of an old woman in a longhouse and a backstrap loom is a rebuke of colonialism, industrialisation, and mass production.

“Yet Marcos’s works are all woven on industrial jacquard looms, which were first developed during the Industrial Revolution and made the contemporary industry of fast fashion possible. Jacquard machines are controlled by a sequence of punched cards, essentially a binary code of 0s and 1s.

“Contemporary industrial looms, like the ones Marcos uses, are completely digital: people like Marcos are known as ‘textile programmers.’ The work of making contemporary textiles is a project of the head, not the hand.”

During this trip back to KL for a few weeks, Kueh has seen how the contemporary art scene here is shifting, and there is a certain boldness and honesty surrounding certain exhibitions from the new generation of artists.

Kenyalang Circus presents a homecoming experience with a difference, a show devoid of sentimentality.

“In our world of efficiency and obsession with acceleration, modernity implies that there is power and nobility in reduction, simplification and abandonment.

“But if you really think about it, there is also a lot of value still in the opposite – traditional rituals and craft often require us to manage complications, to hold on to values like patience and focus. I am not saying that either one is better than the other but I think there is enough space in our lives for the co-existence of both concepts,” concludes Kueh.

Kenyalang Circus is on at The Back Room, Zhongshan building, off Jalan Kampung Attap in Kuala Lumpur, till Feb 19. More info here.

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