'Borneo Heart' exhibition brings Sabah's art community spirit, woven mats to KL

The weavers of Pulau Omadal in Sabah with one of their mats ('Tanahairku #002, 2020') that was exhibited in the 'Borneo Heart' exhibition in Kota Kinabalu. Photo: Andy Chia

A new exhibition opening in Kuala Lumpur this Saturday will see Sabah-born contemporary artist Yee I-Lann weaving an ambitious and inclusive new chapter for community-minded art programmes here.

Borneo Heart In Kuala Lumpur by Yee I-Lann and Collaborators will see several venues in the capital hosting activities tied to the exhibition, co-produced by RogueArt. The programmes will run for over five-months with main exhibitions and satellite shows in the line-up.

First held in Kota Kinabalu in May 2021, Borneo Heart began as an exhibition about finding ways forward, presenting works by Yee made in collaboration with weavers, film-makers, dancers, other fellow creative producers and friends. Borneo Heart turns on two concepts: the tikar (woven mat) as a collective platform for community, storytelling and ritual, and the tamu (weekly market) as a meeting place for the exchange of goods, stories and ideas.

For visitors, it's best to prepare a diary to list the highlights. There are many shows to catch. The exhibition's programmes in the coming weeks and months will be running at The Zhongshan Building, The Back Room, The Godown Arts Centre, A+ Works of Art, Ilham Gallery and Rumah Lukis.

"Borneo Heart in Kuala Lumpur 2023 finds a new shape in different sites, incorporating a series of exhibitions, a programme of workshops and talks, and a tamu for makers, growers, community-builders, problem-solvers and storytellers from Sabah, Sarawak and the Peninsular. It’s a celebration of collaboration, the need and desire for difference, and sharing cultural knowledge as we enter the 60th year since the formation of Malaysia," reads a statement from RogueArt.

Installation view of Yee I-Lann's 'Tikar/Meja' exhibition at the 'Borneo Heart' show in Kota Kinabalu in 2021. She will be launching this colourful exhibition in Kuala Lumpur tomorrow. Photo: Flanegan BainonInstallation view of Yee I-Lann's 'Tikar/Meja' exhibition at the 'Borneo Heart' show in Kota Kinabalu in 2021. She will be launching this colourful exhibition in Kuala Lumpur tomorrow. Photo: Flanegan Bainon

Yee's Tikar/Meja exhibition, which is central to the Borneo Heart programme, will be held at The Back Room gallery at the Zhongshan Building in Kuala Lumpur from Feb 25 to March 12. It features over 30 mats woven by various communities across Pulau Omadal and the Sabah mainland.

These works depict tables and allow for an interrogation of its symbolic prestige, juxtaposed against the communal nature of the traditional tikar (mat).

“Historically, we had no tables in South-East Asia; we sat and met on mats. Tables came in with others – the Malay word meja derives from the Portuguese mesa. The table, to me, represents the violence of patriarchal, colonial administration, which declares, via the census, land survey, school, and museum: ‘I tell you who you are’. The mat remembers feminist, egalitarian communities. Tikar/Meja juxtaposes the power of the table against the power of the mat. A table on a mat is like a stone on paper in a game of rock-paper-scissors, when my open hand encloses your fist. To decolonise is to see the table and to see the mat,” says Yee in a statement.

This exhibition is complemented by a woven mat exhibition at Tommy Le Baker (a cafe at the Zhongshan Building) and outside The Back Room - yes, there will be mats on display all around the building. These activities are part of The Zhongshan Building’s Share The Mat! event, which comprises workshops, exhibitions and fun mini festivities from now till March.

Also happening this weekend is the Tamu Tanah Dan Air "market" event at The Godown Arts Centre on Feb 25 and 26.

This ticketed event features organisations, artists, and collectives from Borneo and the Peninsular, which will be selling goods, exchanging stories, holding workshops, art presentations and more. Here is where you can meet people working in community-based projects, in green agricultural and hydro technologies, right to learning about art-making, local music and poetry. Not to forget artisanal produce to take home.

Two British Council grantees, Borneo Bengkel and Borneo Laboratory, will be participating in this event.

There will be conversations surrounding the topic of the Tikar Emoji (4m x 5m) an artwork by Yee with weaving by Bajau Sama DiLaut weavers as well as two other tikar works by the artist woven by collaborators from Pulau Omadal and Keningau.

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