Where did you come from? And where are you going? The word “roots” is a very interesting one. It has many varied definitions, many of them connected with ideas of “support” and “origins”.
To emerging artist Afiq Faris, 27, roots are something to be valued and to be proud of. “For me roots are a symbol of unseen strength and energy that stays deep buried inside,” says Afiq in a recent interview.
“This is in turn relatable to traditions and culture, in this case being the strength that lets you stand strong and proud. Like trees, without their strong and firm roots they can easily crumble and collapse,” he adds. “It is important to know and appreciate our roots. When we mention tradition, culture and history, we are also tracing our identity.”
Afiq, together with fellow artists Shahar “Shaq” Koyok and Alena Murang, is featured in Roots, Emerging Malaysia, a group exhibition at Shalini Ganendra Fine Art in Petaling Jaya. The exhibition showcases the developing and distinct art practices of these three artists. This is explored through the concept of “roots”: whether it is personal ethnicity, traditional crafts or the artist’s familiar mediums.
For his work in Roots, Emerging Malaysia, Afiq who is of Kelantanese origin, explores traditional batik with his own mixed media style. His works such as Ular Sakti Mona and Golden Fence invite viewers to appreciate forgotten ways of life.
“The works featured are a part of my new series, created with new techniques and narratives, and inspired from old text, literature, Malay historical stories and myths. It is the beginning of my experimentation of this fusion of photography and traditional batik printing technique. The focal content and inspiration is ‘mess’, or rather in Malay ‘sepah’ or ‘bersepah’,” he explains.
Afiq’s faded, bleached tones are the result of him combining batik dye technique, dripping hot wax, photographic images, raw silk and paint.
Elsewhere, Shaq, who comes from the Temuan ethnic group of Kampung Pulau Kempas in Banting, Selangor, also pays tribute to his ancestry. His works are done in the medium of woven mats made of pandaneous leaves. There are personal stories to these works.
“I still remember my mother weaving a floor mat for my siblings and me. At home, we didn’t have a mattress when we were young, but it didn’t matter. We had a rugged woven mat,” recalls Shaq, 32, one of the recipients of the 2017 Merdeka Award Grant for International Attachment last December.
With the grant, Shaq intends to continue his research to raise the profile of indigenous culture in Malaysia, particularly its art forms.
For Shaq, the Roots, Emerging Malaysia show is a useful platform to prepare for a busy year ahead.
“Weaving is essential to indigenous people (in Malaysia) as we use this traditional handcraft to build and make things. Our houses, clothing, cooking utensils and living accessories. These works represent the memories of my roots and my passion.”
Shaq commissioned six woven mats from his mother Lopo Pipeh, a master weaver, and his aunt Inak Habeh. These were to create the canvas for his distinct portraits featured in Roots, Emerging Malaysia. His works, including Dancer and The Last Temuan Singer, are all individuals that he personally knows.
Alena, a Sarawak-born artist, trained musician and sape player, also contributes heartwarming portraits to this exhibition.
“There has been a lot of hype about indigenous people. But they also seem to be nameless people. I’ve seen photographs and paintings of my aunties and uncles being sold on the Internet or exhibited in galleries. And they’re not given names. It’s like here’s ‘a Kelabit woman with long ears’,” says an amused Alena, who is part-Kelabit, part-English-Italian.
“For me, I want to really show the character of the individual, to present a human angle,” she adds.
Through her mostly acrylic, charcoal and chalk on canvas works, Alena is giving an identity to a population that often feels nameless.
“The large smiley piece called Tepu Ngelinuh Karuh, that is a woman’s name. She’s not ‘a Kelabit woman in a beaded hat’,” she says.
“She taught me singing and she is quite a cheeky and kind character. That’s what I want to portray in this series.”