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“In retrospect, maybe traditional art was always my ‘way of life’. It was already ingrained in me.” Alena Murang. Pix by Nik Hariff Hassan

IN January this year, Alena Murang, the Sarawakian artist whose Instagram page usually consists of drawings of Kelabit elders and colourful wildlife paintings, sent out an S.O.S. via the photo-sharing site.

She posted a rather grim photo of a bridge completely ripped apart by the raging river beneath it.

“All four bridges in my village, Long Peluan, were destroyed in the flood,” read the caption. Remnants of wooden planks and steel floated aimlessly, jutting in and out of the caramel-coloured water as the strong currents continued to crush what use to be an important crossing for the Kelabit community in one of Ulu Baram’s most remote areas.

“I’ll be selling some of my artwork in the next few days to raise funds to rebuild these bridges,” she added.

Alena was in Genting Highlands, painting a mural when her father called to tell her the distressing news.

“I was so sad. The floods in Terengganu and Kelantan were devastating enough but when it hits so close to home, naturally it got to me more,” confides Alena, who started drafting out a plan on what to do to raise money for the rebuilding of the bridges.

The initiative called ART4 Bridges saw RM6,000 collected from sales of her art, forming the bulk of funds to repair the bridges. Its success sparked the idea behind ART4, a social enterprise which Alena formed in April this year.

But the set-up, which combines her passion for art and music, is more than just a platform to fund community-led projects.

At the heart of ART4 are the stories she wants to tell about the people she loves and place she calls home.

EAST SIDE PRIDE

“Borneo is my focal point in everything that I do,” Alena says, as she pulls up a chair to a table at Balai Berita’s cafeteria. She towers above most people she walks past but is unfazed by the fact that heads are turning as she grabs her seat.

She’s calm, casual and laid back, reflective of her upbringing in the East Malaysian city of Kuching.

“It’s just great growing up there, isn’t it?” she beams, throwing a rhetoric my way.

“So many ethnic groups, languages, beliefs, music, art, song and dance. So many different names for one tree or for one bird. So much diversity and these differences are highlighted yet we embrace and know all of them. I know what Bidayuh sounds like, I know what the Iban dance is, I know Hokkien phrases, I know what Saaban tattoos look like. We’re all proud of each other’s heritage,” she shares.

We joke about the much-missed idiosyncrasies of growing up on East Malaysian soil but when I ask her about the beads she is wearing, she launches into one of her favourite subjects—the rich heritage of her people, the Kelabit.

“Beads are very important to this community,” she says, looking down at her multi-coloured beads while twirling them around her fingers. “Everywhere we go, even when my cousins are overseas, going clubbing, we wear them,” she adds animatedly.

She relays with enthusiasm, the stories behind the beads — of how they were used as currency between the tribes and the Kelabit folktales revolving around them.

“This one here,” she points to one of the beads, “is my grandmother’s bead. I never had a chance to meet her but I carry a piece of her with me here,” she explains, clutching the beads with a tender smile.

“I can only imagine the different histories this particular bead must have had, from where it came from to the different people who may have exchanged it and it ending up with my grandmother.”

But Alena’s fascination with Sarawak’s mythical art and culture started a lot earlier. In 2001, Utusan Malaysia journalist, Roslah Othman wrote an article chronicling Alena’s fervour for her Kelabit heritage.

Roslah was so intrigued by the 12-year-old Alena who was performing traditional dances and songs at the World Eco-Fibre Forum. Alena was also there as a Kelabit craft demonstrator together with her aunties who had taught her how to weave baskets and hats from bamboo.

“I can’t believe you found that interview!”she exclaims beforec ontinuing, “In retrospect, maybe traditional art was always my ‘way of life’. It was already ingrained in me.”


‘Pahin Processing Sago’. As a young girl, Alena used to practise drawing portraits with her cousin Henrick Nicholas, an artist who also had a huge influence on her work

KEEPING IT GOING

Fourteen years has passed since the article was published and Alena’s passion for her heritage burns brighter than before. She now shares her love for traditional arts through her art pieces, sape performances and traditional dance classes.

“It was my mum who was always encouraging me to learn about my Kelabit roots,” she says of her mother, a British anthropologist who came to Sarawak as a volunteer teacher in 1980 with Voluntary Service Overseas.

“And she’s not even the Malaysian one!” she adds with a snigger. Her heritage is central to her craft, from her art to her music.

Alena is one of the first females to play the sape (the traditional lute of the Orang Ulu from Central Borneo) and uses the instrument as a way to tell other Malaysians about her homeland in her Stories From Borneo performances around the Klang Valley, where she is now based.

“Mathew use to travel from Bau to Kuching every weekend to teach my female cousins and I how to play the sape. And he would teach us traditional songs by ear, not by notes,” she says in reference to renowned sape master Mathew Ngau who was recently recognised as a National Living Heritage by the Malaysian government.

“Learning traditional art forms is important because I believe that preservation of the traditional art forms will make us stronger in preserving the natural environment, because it’s the natural environment that has influenced our art,” she argues, noting the link between art, indigenous communities and the land.


‘Pitta Bird’. Alena’s paintings are inspired by Borneo’s rich natural environment.

ART OF LIFE

Although she was raised in the state’s capital, Alena spent a lot of time in many rural areas in Sarawak and this has influenced both her outlook on life and her art.

Alena’s exposure to issues relating to the people and the environment came courtesy of her mother and her father, a Kelabit himself, who is involved in rural development.

“Conversations my parents had around the dinner table with their friends, have definitely moulded who I am today and my direction in life.” Alena has vivid memories of hiking up hills for hours, experiencing the lives of different indigenous communities and the swift, sometimes difficult, changes they went through in the last two decades.

Even in her own village in Long Peluan, the transition was obvious.

“I’ve seen its transition from no electricity to running on a generator for two hours a night, to now running on solar power; from eating meals on the floor to now sitting at homemade tables; from no phone lines to now having connectivity; from taking boats and hiking to get somewhere to now taking a motorbike or a four-wheel drive along the logging road. These things make life there much easier but I’d like to see that traditional knowledge and ‘development’ can go hand in hand,” she confides, adding that showing the indigenous community that there is demand for their crafts and traditional arts outside of their own community will encourage them to continue practising these art forms.

Art, she believes is a way to connect the urban with the rural, the traditional with the contemporary, the East with the West.

“There is so much that I cannot tell you in words about how the people in the Highlands live, how they hunt, the transitions that they are going through, how the ladies have tattooed legs, how they show love so gracefully, how they throw a good party.I hope to communicate this through my paintings,” says Alena.


‘She used to wear brass earrings’. Alena draws portraits of Kelabit and Penan elderly as she searches for that connection with the grandmother she never met.

MALAYSIAN MADE

“Alena may come off as very timid or shy,” reveals Satpal Singh Dhillon, Alena’s band member from the all-Malaysian world music outfit Diplomats of Drum.

“But she’s a really strong person. You can throw her in any environment and she’ll adapt very easily. When she puts her mind to something she does it.

“But she does get away with a lot because she’s the only girl in the band, especially when she shows us her 5 sen, puppy face!” he quips.

Satpal, who first introduced Alena to the band after learning that she played the sape, says she was taken by the group’s principles of love, harmony, unity and peace.

“She really loved the idea because it’s something she believes in — bridging that gap, building that understanding of the different cultures through art, through music. We’ve seen her develop as a musician and as an artist she doesn’t let material things get in the way,” Satpal shares.

A writer once described Alena Murang as a “fusion of both modern and traditional, city and rainforest”.

She is also a fusion of performer, teacher, musician, speaker, social entrepreneur, visual artist and heritage advocate. But she, in essence, is all Borneo. All Malaysian.

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