At a glance, it’s easy to mistake Leny’s artwork as a photograph. At a closer look, and you’ll be sure to do a double take in disbelief, the work before your eyes is entirely rendered by pencil and her gifted pencil drawing skills.
Indigenous artist Leny Maknoh, who is from the Temuan tribe, always goes for hyperrealism in her creations. According to her, it’s the best way to visually represent her people.
“I draw anything that catches my eye but I mostly draw portraits of indigenous people,” said Leny. “Indigenous people are very close to nature. Therefore, I sometimes add leaves, flowers, insects and animals to the portrait.
“With just pencils, I can achieve high levels of realism that reflect the unique beauty of individual faces that each carries emotion and stories behind the eyes, the wonderful and beautiful culture of indigenous people, the traditions that we inherited from our ancestors, and the struggles of indigenous people,” she elaborated.
Stating Indonesian artist Veri Apriyatno as one of her inspirations, Leny’s works have been exhibited at White Box Publika, Selangor Indigenous Arts Festival, and George Town Festival.
What’s amazing about her creation process is her patience to capture the soul of her subject on the canvas, and with the tremendous amount of time spent stroke by stroke, her charm is inevitably imprinted on the finished work.
BRINGING LIFE THROUGH PENCIL
If you’ve ever had the pleasure of meeting Leny, her gentle demeanour, coupled with her impressive artwork, will leave you mesmerised. But the magic of her artwork is neither in her drawing nor demeanour. It’s in its ability to evoke a distant, long-forgotten feeling—one of childhood innocence and carefree bucolic bliss.
Leny comes from the small village of Kampung Guntur, located north of Kuala Pilah, Negeri Sembilan. It takes about 30 minutes to drive to the nearest small town of Batu Kikir.
“My village is surrounded by spectacular nature and breathtaking mountain sceneries. Every morning and evening, you can hear the calming singing of the birds and insects. If you take a stroll around the village, you will get a taste of village life when you see the chickens and ducks that are raised by the villagers everywhere. Some of us have fish ponds near our homes, which add to the beauty,” said Leny, painting a picture of her village.
“Nearby, there’s a beautiful waterfall within the Serting Ulu Forest Eco Park known as Jeram Tengkek, naturally formed from the rapids of the Jempol River and Tanun River. This rainforest provides clean water and fresh unpolluted air. There are many species of rainforest tree you can find here. People at my village live a simple life. They are very welcoming and friendly, albeit a little shy with outsiders.”
Growing up in such an environment, it’s not surprising that the charm of her home rubs off on her work. Leny was a primary school teacher for 8 years, teaching science and music before venturing into the art industry.
She started drawing as a child. At the age of 6, she had an affinity for colouring books and was always winning colouring contests. She moved on to tracing cartoons on tracing paper, then slowly learned to sketch until she could draw the exact copy of whatever catches her eyes. Gradually, this grew to become her passion.
Later on, the introduction to realism drawing caught her attention and she has not stopped drawing since.
“I’m impressed with what just a pencil could do and I challenged myself to master this technique,” she said.
“For me, pencil is the perfect tool to achieve finer details as the expression of a person’s face is important,” Leny explained. “Plus, pencils are easily accessible and a very affordable medium. It’s amazing how this basic art tool can actually produce a great work. I am always happy with the outcome.”
Traditionally, there are several mediums used in indigenous art such as the white clay and the red fruit that are used for face painting. However, the source of these mediums are very limited today.
“I am creating art that is a mix of traditional and modern practicality. Due to the limitations of traditional sources, I use present day materials to recreate the trademark white dots of indigenous patterns in my subjects’ portraits.”
Through her deep understanding of her people and her dedication as a self-taught artist, Leny is able to inject life into her work and powerfully tell the stories through her subjects’ eyes, which otherwise would not be told or heard.
ART AS A CONNECTING POINT
Leny draws on the many symbols and patterns found in indigenous culture. Her artworks complement the available literature on indigenous culture with a strong focus on their identity.
“Art in my view is extremely broad and free. It could be a meditative outlet for stress-relief or a way to express the intangible beyond words,” she said.
To Leny, it’s both. While art allows her to escape reality into an imaginative world where she can create freely, art also serves as a pathway for connection to happen.
She believes that art gives Orang Asli the opportunity to reflect on their individual and shared experiences with other communities. Most Orang Asli live in the interiors of Malaysia’s backbone, amid a mountainous landscape, which are only accessible by 4WD. Even if the villages are reachable by tarmac roads, it’s rare for outsiders to drive past or stop by these villages.
“Art reduces this isolation by bridging people and strengthening relationships between Orang Asli and other cultures,” she explained, aspiring to collaborate with indigenous artists from across the globe as she hopes to exchange knowledge and learn about other indigenous cultures.
“It’s a source of resilience to difficult living conditions while enhancing physical and mental well-being. All in all, art develops positive community relations and a positive cultural identity.”
According to Leny, art has been the expression of Orang Asli history and is the future for indigenous peoples.
“In many ways, art has helped us to preserve our culture and traditions. Our ancestors had passed on information to the next generation through dances and songs, such as the sewang dance performed during certain ceremonies, which acted as a medium to cure diseases, to protect villagers from any harm, or simply for celebration.
There is also the tarian lilin, which was performed at weddings as well as after the rice harvest season. Furthermore, stories and spiritual legends are carved into the Mah Meri masks and Jah Hut sculptures. And finally, handicrafts such as pandanus and basket weaving, bamboo hair combs and other sorts of jewelry.”
Although pencil drawing has gained Leny recognition and fans from across the world, she wishes to try watercolor or acrylic painting, or perhaps move away from realism to surrealism.
As a closing point, Leny hopes that the younger generation will keep their culture and traditions alive through art. Nevertheless, she is seeing positive changes and initiatives among the Orang Asli youths, and she serves as a role model to them.
“They came to me for advice and now they had started drawing. Some of them have even started selling their products online,” she said.
“I hope to see more indigenous artists after this and more platforms for us to share our art to the world.”