Kiwi artist Sam Thomas explores Malaysia’s indigenous culture in his new exhibition, writes Samantha Joseph
NEW Zealander Sam Thomas has spent a lot of time with the Mah Meri people on Carey Island. Here on a three-month artist’s residency that ends in this month, Thomas has made himself far more familiar with the Orang Asli of West Malaysia than many locals have, drawing artistic inspiration and satisfying academic curiosity at the same time. The result is his latest exhibition, Lost Pings.
“In New Zealand, there were some books about the Orang Asli,” says the lanky artist. “The tribe I was actually interested in was the Jahut (or Jah-het). They’re from Cameron Highlands.”
The Jahut people of the Senoi tribe live in Jerantut and Temerloh, and are known for their woodwork, or as Thomas describes them, “quite crazy sculptures”, many of which are associated with superstitions and mythical creatures like djinns and ghosts.
“They use them for medical purposes and in the healing process, to get rid of bad spirits,” says Thomas, who works in mixed media and intended to spend time with local sculptors learning their craft. “It turns out that there’s only one guy who still does that and he doesn’t do it regularly.”
As with many indigenous peoples, the younger Jahut have slowly drifted away from traditional skills and culture, embracing modernity and, unhappily perhaps, the capitalist trappings which come with it.
Thomas was pointed in the direction of the Mah Meri by Reita Rahim, the founder of Gerai OA, a volunteer outfit that connects indigenous craftsmen with buyers in the city through mobile stalls. At Pulau Carey, he spent much of his time with Aetin, a wood carver.
“Initially, I wanted to commission a piece from one of the carvers there,” says Thomas.
But he discovered that it would be a difficult endeavour for the Mah Meri to deviate from their usual carving forms. “They have these books by a German researcher named Roland Werner who came in the 1970s and took many photographs of their work and he redistributed these books back to them,” he says. Now they use them as a template on what to carve.
“In Western art tradition, every artwork you make is different from the last one. For the Mah Meri, it’s almost like they don’t want to change.”
Roland Werner was a German physician who lived in Malaysia and pursued a deep interest in anthropology and ethno-medicine that led him to further research on the indigenous people here. The Mah Meri were not the only people he was fascinated with. He also authored several books published under Universiti Malaya Press on the Ibans of Sarawak and the Jahut.
His impact on the art and culture of the Mah Meri, according to Thomas, was unprecedented and also quite ironic, as the book that is used as a reference for their carving is titled Mah Meri Of Malaysia: Art And Culture.
Printed in 1974 and at 485 pages long, no one would have expected it to cause a circular effect, resulting in the evolution of Mah Meri art being brought to an essential standstill, as Thomas observed.
“I had an interesting discussion with the carver that I stayed with. I asked him if he ever wanted to create his own design. He said, ‘Yes, one day I’d like to make my own design, but I’d wait for an inspiration from a dream’.”
Thomas says that there have been carvers who have created their own designs since the books became part of their artistic culture. One example is the Chained Tiger sculpture, a tiger spirit chained to a base, carved entirely out of a single piece of wood. “The carver came up with that design maybe 20 years ago and people respect him for that; they don’t usually try to make up their own design that often.”
Thomas does find something positive in the Mah Meri’s situation. He says “It’s kind of nice that they have these forms that they do over and over again. Sort of like an alphabet of motifs.”
Thomas worked in an art gallery before starting his own place with a few young artists in Auckland, and then taking up a residency on Rarotonga, one of the Cook Islands, where he first became interested in carving.
The wooden gods still carved by the Cook Islanders are modern-day survivors of ancient traditions.
On a trip to India, he learnt a skill that he incorporates into his more recent works — metal embossing. Originally used to decorate trucks and bicycle rickshaws, Thomas spent time in workshops under the tutelage of masters who have honed this art form. He combines this raw art form with an architectural curiosity, creating canvases that overlay the faux-Tudor buildings of Cameron Highlands with metallic indigenous carvings of old-fashioned taxis.
The Lost Pings exhibition is a mixed media work consisting of a LED display, steel hoop, chains, resin, plastic and a Mah Meri mask carving. It was, he says, inspired by the mysterious disappearance of MH370 earlier this year. The digital clock face housed in a spare looking casing does bring to mind the literal evocation of a ‘black box’.
Thomas’ other works are a little “kooky”, a word he uses to describe his older works. There is a man with a hoodie of bees and a flying dragonfruit, carved pipes as dancing snakes and a light sculpture made of resin-cast bananas with another Mah Meri sculpture seated on top. Unlike the carvers that he sought out, you can expect Thomas’ work to be anything but stagnant.
Where: Shalini Ganendra Fine Art, No. 8 Lorong 16/7B, Section 16, PJ
When: Until Sept 1, Tuesday to Saturday from 11am to 7pm