Through the lens of exoticism, there seems to be two prevailing opinions: that these people are savages, or that they are “poor but happy”. Both make for familiar stories, even if they they do not necessarily paint a complete picture of life in the interior.
Sarawakian artist Tan Wei Kheng has a better grasp of the everyday reality in these far-flung areas of the state than most city folks, having chalked up numerous trips into the deep over the last 25 years or so.
But he does not talk much about either popular depictions.
Instead, Forgotten Beauty, his second solo show with Richard Koh Fine Art in Kuala Lumpur, zooms in on the elderly folk and their tribal adornment – in the form of tattoos, extended earlobes, elaborately decorated outfits and headgear, or other accessories.
The exhibition presents 17 portraits of various figures from tribal villages in the interior of Sarawak.
Those who enjoyed Tan’s 2014 show called Language Of The Jungle will not want to miss the current set of works in Forgotten Beauty.
Underneath all the colourful embellishments Tan paints is a tale about how the people he met have touched him, and continue to do so.
“Ancient Sarawak practices in tribal adornment are only seen among tribal men and women whose faces are etched with time. The elders have weathered faces from toiling in the fields and hunting in the jungle, their eyes and faces tell a story. The treasures I present in my portraits are moments when I was touched by the natural beauty of the elderly folk from tribes in Sarawak,” he says.
Tan, a self-taught artist based in Miri, keeps it simple and unpretentious with the stories he shares from his experiences with the people living in the interior.
He talks about their smiles and in doing so, whether intentionally or not, speaks of a universal language that we can all understand.
The 48-year-old started his art journey in a pottery shop in his teens, where he did ceramic painting for four years before putting his art on canvas. He pored over art books, learning the techniques of the old masters and applied them to his work.
He was 20 when he started professionally painting.
Two years later, drawn to the many stories, symbolism and traditional knowledge of Sarawak’s tribal people, he headed off into the interior to better understand the many aspects of their cultural practices.
“I was interested in finding out more because to me, they are so different, so beautiful and artistic in the way they look. Some have tattoos on their arms, hands and feet, others have their eyebrows completely shaved off. This is a culture unique to Sarawak and I wanted to capture it in my paintings,” he says.
Getting there was no walk in the park then – in fact, it was more often than not a very long boat ride.
“At times, we spent up to a week travelling to these villages along the Baram riverside. Most people lived in longhouses then. Today, many villages can be reached by road, and many people have moved to the town or city, and the longhouses are left empty,” he notes.
Tan has been visiting these tribal villages since he was in his early 20s and still recalls those early visits and the hospitality extended to him with fondness.
At one such time, he found himself in the highlands, sorely unprepared for those chilly nights when the temperature dropped. An elderly woman purchased a blanket from a small shop and handed it to him, imploring that he keep warm while sleeping lest he fall ill. It did not matter that they were strangers to each other.
“Everyone was so warm and they invited me into their homes and lives even though they did not know me. They cooked for me. Their smiles, so beautiful and natural, were a form of blessing to me. Such smiles are not easy to find in the city today,” he muses.
“I feel sad that this beauty is slowly vanishing and being forgotten. The new generation has changed and city folk no longer practise the ways of the old,” he adds.
Gallerist Richard Koh comments that the beauty in Tan’s portraits transcend physical aesthetics.
“His work documents the tribes that are slowly disappearing in more ways than one, including their way of life and the ancient knowledge of their ancestors that are being forgotten as practices of old are discarded. Forgotten Beauty addresses something that is hard to put into words: it celebrates the beauty from within and the meaningful things in life that we are losing touch with. Looking beyond what is on the surface is more relevant than ever in today’s world. Beauty can be found in the most unexpected places if you open your heart to it,” he says.
Tan is aware that there are outsiders who think that these so-called village people are uncivilised.
But to him, this could not be further from the truth.
“It is in such a place where you realise the people there welcome everyone into their lives. It is in these homelands where you can find the most beautiful rivers and mountains. It is here where you learn to treasure the people you meet,” he says.
His depictions of the elderly folks who have welcomed him with open arms is a realistic one, every wrinkle and every toothless grin on stark display. A man grasps a spear while a woman with elongated earlobes gaze pensively into the distance.
Tan’s paintings have a certain steadfastness about them, his subjects effortlessly poised and radiant.
“Through my paintings, I hope to convey this celebration of the majesty of the beauty of the elderly folk. But also, I hope that people who look at my art will feel blessed and at peace,” he says.
Standing among these grand portraits, this thought is strangely comforting. Not bad for people I have never met.