Temuan Indigenous Artist Shaq Koyok: Art & The Unspoken

Around the globe, there is an emergence of people’s consciousness about the oppressed and marginalised, and Indigenous Temuan artist Shaq Koyok is no stranger in amplifying the Orang Asli voice in Malaysia through art and activism.

“There are countless Orang Asli stories or issues that are rarely in the public eye because it’s not the dominant narrative here. And because of this, it’s not often discussed or talked about by Malaysians,” said Shaq.

“My artwork highlights the unresolved and unpopular issues that continue to afflict the Orang Asli, such as land and customary rights, poverty, racial discrimination, and environmental degradation.”

Shaq takes inspiration from contemporary Aboriginal and Maori artists, whose styles and messages within their artwork resonate with him. “They, as I am, focus more on the theme or message of the artwork rather than the finished artwork.”

The 35-year old artist has been exhibited across Malaysia as well as in Melbourne, London, and Miami. Next year, Shaq will have his 3rd solo exhibition at The National Art Gallery of Malaysia and he’s taking this opportunity to further showcase Orang Asli art and challenge the dominant narrative.

“For this upcoming exhibition, I’m working with the theme of ‘The Past and The Present of Orang Asli’, a topic that still has not wholly found its way into the national narrative,” he explained.

Besides conveying indigenous-centric messages, Shaq also wants to redefine the art medium. His artworks are painted on and sculpted from media that are associated with the indigenous people of Malaysia—the pandanus, bamboo, and rattan.

Wounded Memories (2019) Acrylic on Pandanus Woven Mat

Shaq takes what is traditional to his people and turned it into the canvas for his painting or the body of his installations, inviting a new way of viewing and utilising the traditional in a contemporary context.

“I really want to bring this medium of artwork to a higher level of appreciation,” he stated. “At the same time, I want to create conversations among art enthusiasts, artists, and galleries about the use of these media that are conventionally looked at as crafts, to be used as canvas.”

According to Shaq, it takes a deep understanding of both the traditional and modern worlds to strike a balance between the two in order for him to create artworks that fit in the contemporary setting without losing their traditional and cultural essence.

Pulau Kempas Orang Asli Community Cultural Centre

TAKING ROOT AS AN ARTIST

Just off the ELITE highway is the Kuala Langat North Forest Reserve (KLNFR), one of the last tracts of peat swamp forest in Selangor. It’s a place where Shaq calls home, and also the beginning of his journey as an artist.

At the age of 5, Shaq was inspired to pick up the brush by his older brother Ramlan who would always paint whenever he returned home from primary school. Then he went on to pursue Fine Art at Universiti Teknologi MARA (UiTM). But it was the trauma of watching the forests nearby his village plundered by loggers in the 1990s, and then again in 2006, that fuelled his passion to fight for Orang Asli’s land rights.

“Without painting, I wouldn’t have the courage to speak out in public. Painting gives me the hope and confidence to endure these challenges. I can express whatever I feel through painting, so it helps me to tell my stories better, visually and verbally.”

His village, Kampung Orang Asli Pulau Kempas is named after the dense population of the Kempas tree within the peat swamp forest. It was his childhood playground, a place he revisits from time to time out of nostalgia, but of late, it’s to defend the forest and the way of life of his Temuan people when the state government announced early this year a plan to degazette the reserve.

The forest holds many memories to Shaq and he often goes back to them when creating a piece of work to help him compose the story of his artwork, as well as the visual representation of it.

“I believe that artists have a purpose to communicate what goes unspoken in society through our art,” he stated.

FROM COGNITION TO CANVAS

Before Shaq starts painting, he would first sketch an idea on a big piece of paper, drawing inspiration from the myths, symbols and patterns of his culture and traditions. Then, he would work to seam these visual elements with the theme he’s thinking of at that moment. This step is important to him as he’s working with a medium from the Orang Asli community—and even more so when the canvas (pandanus mat) is weaved by his mother.

Once in a while, ideas come to Shaq after reading a book of a similar theme to his work. To him, it’s equally important to fully understand the message he wants to convey in his work, especially when an issue does not only affect his community but the larger society as well.

“I will do my own research about a particular subject matter that I plan to put onto canvas,” he said. “It makes me feel better if I know and understand an issue in-depth, and then decide what I want to paint or do with this information.”

Meditation marks the start of his painting process and music accompanies him throughout the creation journey.

“Meditation helps me clear my mind and music helps me to concentrate better,” he said. “While I’m painting, I think about the issue or theme that I want to express in my artwork and which composition, depth, colour, size and so on to use to best communicate the said issue or theme.”

Shaq’s work table

Although Shaq’s artwork is known for his trademark pandanus mat canvas, he wishes to explore larger art pieces such as installation or public sculpture, as well as digital art. To further push the boundaries of his work, he dreams to collaborate with artists such as Ai Wei Wei or Banksy.

“I’d also like to collaborate with indigenous artists from Australia, New Zealand or Taiwan,” he stated.

Back in 2017, Shaq received The Merdeka Award and pursued the research topic of “Indigenous Arts and National Narratives: A Comparative Study of Indigenous People Art and Representation within National Institutions”. He spent the early part of 2018 travelling to New Zealand, Australia, and the United Kingdom, visiting and meeting representatives from the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa, the National Art Gallery of Australia, and The EDEN Project.

Shaq discovered that the situation in Malaysia closely resembles Australia, where significant inequalities and limited representation of indigenous history and culture within the national school curriculum persist.

“However in Australia, there are organisations such as the Koorie Heritage Trust in Melbourne that are providing teachers with in-service training and high quality educational materials for use in schools. The Trust also provides a centre where indigenous arts and crafts can be displayed and purchased,” explained Shaq.

“Furthermore, the national institutions that I visited in Australia acknowledge the need to represent Aboriginal voices. The quality of the exhibitions and archive materials observed were impressive.”

He pressed that similar institutions in Malaysia should mirror such commitments in taking the steps towards successful representation of our indigenous people.

Art has greatly influenced Shaq and he hopes that more Orang Asli will be able to experience the same with art.

“Art changed my life, physically and mentally. It pushed me to go out of my comfort zone, opened up opportunities for me to travel and discover other cultures, and allowed me to publicly discuss my community issues” he said.

He emphasised that art is a great communication tool for communities. “It will help the Orang Asli to better express their thoughts and emotions, especially those who do not have the opportunity to openly speak about the issues they face due to the lack of education and confidence to speak in front of the public,” he explained.

Shaq has proved himself to be a role model to the Orang Asli youths, inspiring them to reach greater heights with hard work and creativity. He is pleased to see an increasing number of Orang Asli youths sharing their talents online with the proliferation of social media and the multiple avenues to showcase one’s works.

Shaq Koyok and Leny Maknoh with team Gerimis at George Town Festival 2019

“Through this, the Orang Asli community is now starting to realise that people do value their art, culture, and traditions. This reinforces their belief that they are truly a part of Malaysia. All in all, the future looks quite promising with the young showing their interest and promoting indigenous art and culture. I do hope Malaysians will equally understand and appreciate it,” concluded Shaq.

At the crossroads of the past, present, and future, with the rise of indigenous voices and art, the question remains for Malaysia and its indigenous people: Where will we go from here and how will we weave our rich Orang Asli histories, culture and traditions into our national narrative?

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