Antsy Pokemon GO-hunters in the country should make their way to the Hin Bus Depot Art Centre in George Town, Penang, if they can’t catch any of the game’s colourful creatures.
Departing elephants, moustached macaques, a yearning eagle, silky ghost cat, firecracker crow, eyeless fish owls and tectonic mudskippers – it’s one curious menagerie there.
Hunters be warned though, these creatures at the Run Amok Gallery’s latest exhibition Local Fauna (In Progress!) carry amazing stories to fascinate and at times, sting. The linocut prints by visual artist Sharon Chin, set to writer Zedeck Siew’s lyrical musings on the fantastic South-East Asian flora and fauna, are equally realistic as they are magical.
Their collaboration started as a fun diversion, says Siew.
“At the time I was working on serious short fiction … I was trying to be proper fiction writer, haha, and I started writing these short animal stories as a fun, procrastination thing.”
But what started as an amusing distraction soon became serious work.
“As I made more (stories), I had the sense that they were quite rich in themselves,” adds the 30-year-old.
Exploring the ways in which our world is intruded upon by animals and plants, the collection of stories grew into a bigger work in progress – an illustrated book with 75 stories.
An excerpt of the collection, each story beautifully illustrated by Chin, were published in local publisher fixi novo’s new Malaysian writing anthology, Little Basket 2016. Last year, they put up 10 of the animals on public properties around Jalan Petaling and Puduraya in the KL as part of the Making Space exhibition.
At Run Amok Gallery, Local Fauna showcases 20 handmade linocut prints (39cm x 29cm) and colouring zines in a kedai runcit (grocery store) set-up, complete with its own “online shop”.
“The exhibition is to raise funds to produce the book and we wanted to do this ‘cash n carry’ thing in the gallery, so anyone could immediately buy and take home the artwork if they liked it,” says the Petaling Jaya-born Chin, who turns 36 in December.
To date, some 45 animal and 30 plant stories have been written, which Chin is in the process of “translating” into images.
“When I read Zedeck’s stories, most of the time images tend to come into my head on their own, and I’ve had to learn to let the images lead the way … instead of thinking too hard.
“So, in that sense it’s very much like translation, not word for word translation but with an interpretation of the meaning and emotion behind the original text of the story,” she explains.
Even though a lot of the narratives ended up in a city setting, Siew notes he only started thinking about them after he and Chin moved away from Kuala Lumpur to Port Dickson, Negri Sembilan.
“I think our geographical distance from urban life made it possible for me to not feel like I had to write about serious things.”
There is definitely more fauna and flora in PD, quips Chin, who is already known for her environmental and political commentary in her earlier works, like Weeds/Rumpai (2013) and the recently completed graphic journalism series, In The Land That Never Was Dry, which discusses the water issues in Malaysia.
“There are foxes, giant centipedes, cicada, butterflies, woodpecker …” she shares. “We now have three toads who took up residence in our house. They come out in the evening and sometimes soak inside the cat’s water bowl … and the cat lets them.”
Port Dickson-born Siew’s main inspiration, however, comes mainly from the wilds of his imagination, and our collective trove of fables, he concedes, “Most of the creatures that I’ve been writing about are ‘magical’ and mythical because I wanted to write stories about creatures that are not subservient to people whether literally or symbolically.
“The old fables are also always about figuring out how to live with the wild just outside the compound.”
Underlining the works is their concerns about Anthropocene or Age of Man – the idea that the current geological age that we are living in is shaped by the massive impact of human activity on the planet.
“It reflects a human-centric worldview, I think,” remarks Siew. “Something I had in mind while writing these stories was the idea that the way we do think about animals – when we think about them at all – is as symbols, even utilitarian in many ways – like, ‘what is the moral of this animal tale?’ or ‘look at that sad tapir, so sad, take care of environment more …’”
Concurring, Chin describes their animal tracking as an exercise to see themselves as part of the animal and plant world.
“To me it’s more living alongside flora and fauna, not separate from them …”
And they have encountered many intriguing animals on their “trail”, they share.
“My favourite is the the mimic octopus; native to our waters, it has amazing camouflage powers and can pretend to be fish and stingray. In my story, the octopus pretends to be human, kind of like a benign bodysnatcher. Sharon played around with that and found the image of a tentacle selendang,” says Siew.
Chin feels a strong affinity to the Siamese fighting fish, as she has just started training in Muay Thai seriously.
“In the story, Jealous Betta, the fish is kept as an artist’s muse. But you can’t keep more than one because they get jealous of each other and will start fighting, killing off the artist’s creativity! So I gave the fish a mongkol, which is the headdress that Muay Thai fighters wear before they start their fight,” she tells.
Their most exciting find yet for their collection, they share, is some otters, which they stumbled upon recently at the Tan Jetty in Penang. All without an app too.
Local Fauna (In Progress!) is on at the Run Amok Gallery, Hin Bus Depot Art Centre, 59A, Jalan Timah, George Town, Penang. Opening times: Tuesday to Sunday, noon-7pm, or by appointment. Call 010-461 7311. For more details or the e-catalogue, go to runamok.my/localfauna.