When leprosy was still an incurable disease, it was pretty much a death sentence for anyone who had it. Those afflicted were shunned by society and lived in fear, shame and isolation.
In then British Malaya, the colonial government enforced compulsory isolation of leprosy patients, under the Leprosy Enactment Act, as a measure to prevent the spread of leprosy. But there was a glimmer of hope for the sick, even before the first treatment for leprosy was introduced in the 1940s.
It came in the form of the Valley of Hope in Sungai Buloh, Selangor, a leprosarium that was set up by the British in 1930. At its peak in the 1950s, the Sungai Buloh Leprosy Settlement was home to over 2,440 patients.
It was the biggest leprosarium in the British Commonwealth. In the world, it was second only to the Culion Leprosarium, built on an island in the Palawan province of the Philippines.
Today, the Valley of Hope has opened it doors to the outside world. The community hall in Valley of Hope has become increasingly popular as a venue for events especially among the arts and craft groups.
It has been used by the Mari pop-up market that promotes sustainable living by gathering artists, designers and organic farmers. There are 136 former leprosy patients who still call it home, and they continue to share their stories.
Hope Art Exhibition, currently showing at the Creative Space at the National Art Gallery in Kuala Lumpur, is one such avenue. This exhibition is a vibrant and heartfelt presentation of their artistic skills, with its main piece being the Tree Of Hope, a large-scale installation placed in the middle of the gallery.
From floor to ceiling, some 2,000 faces drawn on loose, yellowed sheets of paper from old books are linked to each other with fishing lines.
They travel upwards, reaching towards the ceiling and then branching out, just as a tree would. These are portraits of familiar faces; people around them, friends and loved ones.
“The Valley of Hope was a sanctuary for those with leprosy in those times, a far cry from the previous ‘camps’ they were accustomed to. It was like a small nation, with their own markets, schools, community halls, clubs and associations, prison, postal service and police force, and at one point, they even had their own currency,” says Yew Souf, Hope Art Exhibition curator, of the 227ha site.
But they were still cut off from the world in many ways.
“Often when loved ones wanted to get something to the patients, they would stand outside the wall – for fear of contracting leprosy themselves – and attach little notes or food items to fishing rods, and toss them over the wall, where the recipient would then retrieve them. People find a way even around the most difficult circumstances; these stories are testament to that,” he says.
The Hope Art Exhibition features a variety of works, from watercolour to ink markers, oil pastels to Powertex sculptures, and other mixed media installations. It is a heartfelt reflection of life – happiness, sadness and some cute quirkiness – by the people who know the Valley of Hope’s living history the best.
Also on display are selected artefacts used by patients in the past, and which are on loan from the Valley of Hope Museum, and 12 architectural sketches of the Valley of Hope buildings and other structures. Photographs of the current residents working on their art are lovingly captured in this exhibit as well.
Hanging from the exhibition’s Tree Of Hope are brown “fruits”, a nod to the early treatment for leprosy, where oil was distilled from the fruits of the Hydnocarpus wightiana, a tree that grows up to 10m tall. These days, a multi-drug therapy is the choice of treatment.
This is Yew’s first time curating such an exhibition, and its bright colours and uplifting vibe is intentional. He is a self-taught artist and creative director at his own advertising agency.
“I believe art should be for the public, for everyone, so it should be accessible. The challenge in putting together a show like this was that I didn’t want it to feel like a gloom and doom story, I wanted it to be filled with positive energy. I was very moved by their stories and wanted this exhibition to reflect their resilience and optimism for the future. I thought it would be fitting to anchor it on something basic, yet so important: hope,” he says.
The people behind the artwork in this exhibition are some 40-odd rehabilitated patients, and also the Valley of Hope medical staff and volunteers.
In total, the artworks in the Hope Art Exhibition are a collective effort of over 100 people. They were created in a series of workshops conducted by Yew, art teachers and volunteers, held over the past year.
“Valley of Hope is a place that should be given more attention and should be preserved as a heritage site because of its historic significance and the lessons we can learn from it. We hope that this exhibition will help cultivate a better understanding of leprosy and inspire people to find out more about the Valley of Hope,” he concludes.
Valley of Hope is now on the tentative list for the Unesco world heritage nomination.