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Above: An earlier version of Zai Kuning's Phinisi ship was built for the Esplanade's Concourse in 2015. But the Venice Biennale's version promises to be its grandest incarnation yet.

One hundred books dipped in wax and never to be opened again, such as this one, will hang or be strewn around the 17-metre-long ship as metaphors of forgotten knowledge and histories.

Thirty portraits of performers (such as this one) of mak yong, a dying ancient theatrical form, will line a wall of the exhibition.

Zai Kuning is representing Singapore at the Venice Biennale 2017.

Recalling a forgotten kingdom in Venice Biennale

At the world's biggest art showcase, Zai Kuning will evoke the 8th to 12th century Buddhist kingdom of Srivijaya.
Apr 14, 2017 5:50 AM

AFTER 18 years criss-crossing South-east Asia, Zai Kuning's artistic journey is now going beyond the region to make a stop at the most important art event in the world: the Venice Biennale.

There, at the Singapore Pavilion in Arsenale, Zai is constructing a massive Phinisi ship out of rattan, string and beeswax. It will be 17 metres long - a metre perhaps for each year he's spent exploring the history of Malays in South-east Asia - and it will be surrounded by 100 books that have been dipped in wax, never to be opened and read again, a metaphor for lost histories.

Since 1999, the artist has been obsessed with the meta-historical questions of: "Who am I? Where do I come from? Whom do I belong to? Whom do I answer to?" He's less interested in issues of national identity and family genealogy than the broader field of the ethnogenesis and migration of Malays. The central figure in his research is Dapunta Hyang, the first ruler of the Srivijaya kingdom that dominated the Malay Archipelago from the 8th to the 12th century. As a Malay Buddhist, Dapunta Hyang also helped spread Buddhism throughout his kingdom.

Zai, 52, elaborates: "Dapunta Hyang Sri Jayanasa had an army of 20,000 that ventured on a sacred journey, called Siddhayatra, crossing the Straits of Malacca towards the South China Sea, to promote Buddhism and acquire blessings. This first Malay king was building Buddhist stupas wherever he set foot on.

"I've travelled to Palembang (Sumatra, Indonesia) and my collaborator Wichai Juntavaro has gone to Kedah (Malaysia) and Chaiya (Surat Thani, Thailand) to document stupas which were built by the Srivijaya empire over a few centuries. These historical sites point out clearly that the Malays have gone through a very different period of consciousness before Islam came to the region.

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"This is the Malay world that the world knows little about. But it is our ancestral roots and origins. Imagine, a vast landscape and a wider region that informs us of our cultural bearings from Palembang (Sumatra) and Sailendra (Java) to Kedah (Malaysia), Chaiya (Thailand) and Champa (Vietnam) ... I see my journey towards understanding this past as my lifelong work and mission, rather than an art project."

Other remnants of pre-Islamic Malay cultures can be found in the animistic practices of orang laut (sea gypsies) of the Riau Islands, as well as mak yong, an ancient theatrical art with roots in Hinduism, Buddhism and animism. Although the latter is regarded by Unesco as an important piece of world heritage, the right-wing Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party has sought to ban mak yong on grounds that it is un-Islamic.

For Zai, such attitudes are worrisome: "I feel very sad about the fact that some Malays have shunned that aspect of our ancestry. Oftentimes I have strong feelings of remorse as to how the Malays here in Singapore are informed and educated about their ancestral roots."

At the Venice showcase, Zai will be putting up 30 photographic portraits of living mak yong performers on a facing wall running parallel to the ship. An audio recording of a mak yong master speaking in an ancient Malay dialect will also be played on loop.

Zai notes: "In general, the Malays in the region choose to recall their history from the 14th century onwards when Parameswara helped spread Islam to the region. But Singapore has always been a port where different ethnic Malays and non-Malays headed for. Bugis, Bawean, Batak, Acehnese, Balinese, Padang, Toba, Filipino, Austronesian people from Taiwan and many more came here for a better life. And the fact is, not all Malays back then converted to Islam - the orang lauts, for instance, did not. And these orang lauts carry with them a precious history of practices and rituals in the region before the arrival of Islam."

For Zai, the Venice Biennale is a valuable platform to raise awareness for a lesser-known period of Singapore and South-east Asia.

He explains: "I see the Biennale as an opportunity for the world to imagine this Malay empire. The power it exercised over the region from the 8th to the 12th century was not incomparable to the Greeks or Mongolians, but the history of the empire is buried and forgotten ... This could well be the first time Dapunta Hyang Sri Jayanasa is mentioned in a contemporary arts context."

  • Zai Kuning will be showcasing Dapunta Hyang: Transmission of Knowledge at the Singapore Pavilion of the 57th Venice Biennale from May 13 to Nov 26, 2017. Look out for The Business Times' coverage of the event