When you come from a family of carvers, it seems that only special circumstances would justify hanging up your gloves. For Kemi anak Khamis’ grandfather, it was when he became blind in both eyes.
Such is the dedication to their craft among the Mah Meri folks who live on Pulau Carey in Selangor, where wood carving is seen as more than a mere trade or profession.
To them, it is a vocation that has been passed down from their fathers and their fathers before them.
Kemi himself has fond memories of his first contact with the spirit wood carvings that his community is so well-known for.
“I was around 12 years old when I started helping my father put the finishing touches to his masks, like sandpapering, which can take up to several days to complete,” he relates.
The Mah Meri talk about their carvings with great pride. It is an especially exciting time now as there is growing interest in their works coming from far beyond this place they call home.
For Kemi, who is now in his early 40s, it wasn’t too long after his first brush with what would end up becoming a lifelong passion that he embarked on his first solo project.
“I carved a few masks which were quickly snapped up by tourists who really like my work. It was very encouraging,” he says, adding that he has never looked back since.
Among the Mah Meri spirit carvings biggest fans is British-born Peter Crowe, whose coffee table book titled Spirit Carvings Of The Mah Meri Of Malaysia has just been published.
With some 90 carvings from these carvers in his collection in his home in London (most of them are placed in his study), his first purchase can be traced way back to 1994, during a festival in the village.
“My wife I and bought three carvings,” recalls Crowe, before adding, “and then the bug struck. I have always been fascinated by them, they are so unusual, so unique – totally different from carvings from other parts of the world.”
This was the start of what he today jokingly refers to as an epidemic of sorts.
He and his Malaysian wife soon found themselves making commissions during their annual visits to Kamping Sungai Bumbun in Pulau Carey, and returning home with three or four carvings each time.
Crowe sings high praises of the quality of the workmanship, which was what first caught his eye.
“The carvings were very precisely carved, had great detail, and were polished to a high lustre. They look absolutely spectacular. I think that was really what drew my wife and myself in, to form a collection,” he says, admiring the fact that an “unusually high proportion” of the community are gifted carvers.
“They just seem to have that gift for carving. And this is what we want to see continue in the young people,” he adds.
Now retired, Crowe, who is in his early sixties, has been a civil servant in Britain for more than four decades.
Spirit Carvings Of The Mah Meri Of Malaysia is his first book, and at the moment, he is convinced that it will be the only book he would ever write.
“I love the carvings, and over time I grew to love the people behind the carvings as well. So the two things together just made for a wonderful experience. I never actually expected to write a book in my life, but it got to the point where I felt like I wanted to make a contribution somehow,” he says, calling it a labour of love.
Crowe is no anthropologist, and he states this upfront in the book. Spirit Carvings Of The Mah Meri Of Malaysia is an easy read, which works well for the everyman who wants to find out a little more about the carvings and the people behind them.
“I didn’t want it to be a really deep book. I wanted it to have a lighter touch,” he says of the book, although he does concede, that without an academically-skewed background, it would have been difficult to write it any other way.
The writing took him a couple of months, and it was certainly not the most challening part of getting the book together. Instead, it was getting the information he had corroborated.
“The Mah Meri have an oral tradition, nothing’s really written down. So you have to talk to a large number of people and try to pull out some consistencies to be quite secure in your conclusions,” he says.
For many years now, the Mah Meri carvers have been using Roland Werner’s Mah Meri: Art And Culture, published in 1973, as a go-to reference. (Werner is a physician with a long-standing interest in anthropology, and has lived in Malaysia as an educator and a researcher).
The limited copies are passed around the village, with the occasional grumble heard when an enthusiastic carver holds on to it for a little too long. When copies of Crowe’s book were presented to each carver during the launch at Pulau Carey recently, many of them immediately placed their copy into a resealable clear plastic bag for safekeeping.
There have been other books written on the Mah Meri wood art in the past, but Crowe’s 253-page book stands out as its bulk comprises colour photographs of the spirit carvings, complete with information on each carving featured, and the carvers behind them.
Spirit Carvings Of The Mah Meri Of Malaysia also provides information on the Mah Meri, their culture and beliefs, and common practices. “One of the purposes on this book is to ensure that those designs don’t get forgotten. I’m also wanting it to inspire a little bit, particularly the younger carvers,” says Crowe.
Oral traditions that are passed down are often in danger of being forgotten. In the case of spirit carvers, the knowledge of the carving they specialise it can easily disappear if not preserved in some form or another.
Collectors might purchase and keep these carvings, but many of the carvers are not all that sentimental.
Kemi, for instance, does not keep any of his own carvings.
“I sell everything I make,” he says with a shrug. But he does hold on to a few of his father’s works.
The Mah Meri believe that everything, whether living or inanimate, has a spirit.
Each spirit carving, painstakingly crafted from the nyireh batu trees found in mangrove swamps, is borne of the carver’s imagination and interpretation. Ranging in size from just a couple of centimeters to almost half a metre in height, they can fetch prices of up to a couple thousand ringgit each.
Gerai OA, a volunteer-run “travelling” stall that sells crafts made by the indigenous communities, has been instrumental in promoting their works and talent to a wider audience. It is a regular at events such as art fairs and bazaars outside the village.
Spirit Carvings Of The Mah Meri Of Malaysia is co-published by Gerai OA and the Centre for Orang Asli Concerns.
Spirit Carvings Of The Mah Meri Of Malaysia is available from the Center For Orang Asli Concerns (013-350 8058 / www.coac.org.my), Gerai OA (www.facebook.com/geraioa), and Gerakbudaya (www.gerakbudaya.com). Price: RM70 (paperback) and RM95 (hardcover).The book will be available in bookstores nationwide soon.