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Above: Design house Otherhalf Studio has created an immersive life-size kaleidoscope featuring sounds and images of Sarawak.

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Edric Ong and several other designers such as Priscilla Shunmugam and Tom Abang Saufi show off their Sarawak-inspired fashion.

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The gorgeous wildlife photography of Ch'ien Lee has inspired many to explore the natural wonders of Sarawak.

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Using ancient objects such as tipaduak (spirit dolls) and ojungs (miniature sailboats used in rituals), Kendy Mitot’s contemporary art installation depicts the arrival of Christian missionaries in Sarawak and what that meant for the traditions of his indigenous Bidayuh people.

Sarawak flaunts its cultural cachet

Often overshadowed by its hipper sister Sabah, Sarawak is putting the spotlight on its rich artistic and creative traditions through the new Rainforest Fringe Festival.
Jul 14, 2017 5:50 AM

FOR two decades now, Sarawak's annual Rainforest World Music Festival has been drawing hordes of music-lovers to the Cultural Village near the base of Mount Santubong, about 35 kilometres north of the capital city of Kuching.

But within Kuching itself, there's plenty that new visitors coming for the three-day music festival tend to overlook - such as the scrumptious street-food culture and the wide array of heritage landmarks.

The Sarawak government is now hoping to remedy that with the new Rainforest Fringe Festival (RFF).

Opening one week before the music festival, it features art exhibitions, film screenings, a crafts market and musical performances within the city centre.

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The man tasked to lead this initiative is none other than Joe Sidek, the charismatic Johor impresario behind the buzzy George Town Festival that has helped to put Penang on the culture tourist's map.

Mr Joe is perfectly certain he can do the same with Sarawak. He calls it the "sexiest state in Malaysia" that too few people know about.

"What I've seen in Sarawak is better than anything else I've seen in the country. And I'm not surprised that the people here are proud, arrogant and opinionated, because they love their home so much," Mr Joe says.

Sarawak has a population of approximately 2.6 million. Malays and Chinese each account for a quarter of that number, while nearly half of Sarawak's population comprises indigenous tribal peoples.

"This melting pot of over 40 different communities, all living in harmony with one another," explains Mr Joe, "is what gives Sarawak its particular strength, spirit and originality."

From the looks of the inaugural festival that debuted last Friday, he isn't exaggerating. The festival opened with 10 exhibitions held at the stately Old Courthouse in central Kuching. They ranged widely from traditional ikat textile art by Iban women, to ambitious art installations and photography by contemporary artists.

Among the artists is Chi'en Lee, a wildlife photographer whose vivid, dramatic shots of exotic flora and fauna such as the pitcher plant, clouded leopard and rhizanthes lowii (a parasitic cousin of the Rafflesia flower) have graced numerous publications.

The American-born botanist-turned-photographer, who has lived in Sarawak for several years, explains: "Most eco-tourists who come to Borneo head straight to Sabah. But they're missing out on the amazing rainforests of Sarawak. Often, the Sarawakians themselves are surprised when they see my photos. They'd ask where they were taken, and I'd answer: 'Just two miles from here.' So one of the most important thing this festival could achieve is to create a stronger awareness of just how much Sarawak has to offer - which doesn't get talked about enough."

Indigenous influences

Echoing his sentiments is curator Donna Yong who is exhibiting the iconic black-and-white snapshots of Sarawak's indigenous communities taken by the late photography pioneer KF Wong.

Ms Yong says: "Sarawak is really new at telling the world about itself. For years, artistic creations were borne out of pure personal expression, with no thought of commercial interest or self-promotion.

"But things are gradually changing. Thanks to the Internet and social media, we no longer feel like we're on our own. Young people are becoming more aware of the global art discourse and the different means of contemporary expression. And so there's a slow but gradual development towards cultural appreciation, as well as the belief that we must show the rest of the world what we have.

"Interestingly, as more young people pursue the arts, they still turn to their strong Sarawakian heritage for inspiration. The connection to the community runs deep."

This is evident in the striking artworks of Kendy Mitot and Alena Murang. Mitot, an artist of Bidayuh (an indigenous tribe) origins, juxtaposes symbolic traditional objects in abstract configurations to generate meaning. In one of his installations, he creates an army of tipaduak (spirit dolls) and places them in hanging ojungs (small hand-crafted sailboats used in rituals to send spirits across the river to the other world).

He says: "The work harks back to the 1940s when Western missionaries came here in boats and converted the Bidayuh people to Christianity. While many of my people had embraced the religion by the 1960s, it also meant that we had to discard a lot of our own traditional beliefs and practices because they were regarded as un-Christian.

"Hence, my artwork reflects my own ambivalent feelings towards this historical development - even though I am a Christian."

Elsewhere, artistic duo Otherhalf Studio has erected a life-size kaleidoscope that visitors could walk into and be immersed in the sights and sounds of Sarawak.

Comprising Sumay Cheah and Ho Lay Hoon, Otherhalf Studio says: "With our multi-sensory installation, we wanted to transport people living in the city instantly into the rainforest. In a way, it's symbolic of Sarawak, whereby people living in the city are never too far away from the beauty of nature."

Local pride

Meanwhile, true to the tradition of the Rainforest World Music Festival, RFF also featured a public concert hosted by Sarawakian Tony Eusoff.

The exceptional musical talents included master sape (traditional stringed instrument) performers Mathew Ngau and Alena, charismatic soul singer Pete Kallang, cool rockabilly Noh Salleh and chart-topping songbird Dayang Nurfaizah.

The highlight of RFF, however, was the fashion gala that drew the who's who of Malaysian fashion designers. Local stars Edric Ong and Tom Abang Saufi attracted whoops and cheers for their sensational contemporary takes on traditional Malaysian silhouettes and fabric.

Malaysia-born Singapore-based designer Priscilla Shunmugam drew the loudest applause from the Singaporeans attending the event with Ong Shunmugam's collection of stylish dresses incorporating the pua kumbu, a traditional patterned ceremonial cloth used by the Iban people.

The Singaporeans who came to RFF included actress-producer Tan Kheng Hua (who also helped organise the Singapore contingent), stylist Daniel Boey, poet Marc Nair, actress Janice Koh, artists Rizman Putra and Safuan Johari, host Anita Kapoor, designer Elyn Wong and blogger Aun Koh. Also present was creative consultant Tracy Phillips, who raved: "This weekend in Kuching has been completely transportive. I had no idea how rich and unique the culture was ... I am already looking forward to coming back next time to explore more of its natural beauty."

  • The Rainforest Fringe Festival runs from July 7 to 16 at the Old Courthouse in Kuching. Visit www.rainforestfringe.com for more information. Meanwhile, the Rainforest World Music Festival runs from July 14 to 16. Visit rwmf.net for more information