And so, on one Saturday evening in July, I found myself seated in the third row of the Theatre of Clothes fashion extravaganza in Kuching. It’s not a spot that I’m accustomed to, and surrounded by fashionistas who all seem to have the enviable talent for keeping their hair strictly in place.
I enjoyed having a bril view of the impossibly tall models strutting by in long strides, severely unsmiling as they showed off the Sarawak-inspired clothing adorning on their lanky frames. It was all stunning.
Suddenly, a burst of spontaneous applause broke out. Who might have strutted on stage? I looked up. Ooh, it was three elderly Bidayuh women dressed in their traditional finery complete with brass rings wrapped around their forearms and calves. Also severely unsmiling, the women paid no heed to the applause and cameras as they dipped and swayed in a bird-like dance before gliding into the wings.
I recognised one of them – although she would not remember me, of course – as I had met her once before in her home village of Semban in the Penrissen mountain range.
Seeing her on stage brought me back to that time when I first met her – in 2013, the year when I felt lost as to where life was taking me, and spent six months wandering around Sarawak before I found my way again.
To go back a bit in time to that year, I had been in Kuching for several weeks when a local friend suggested I visit Semban village. He didn’t tell me that it entailed a four-hour trek up a mountain to get to there but he gave me a number to call.
And so, I went. I walked for four hours to reach the village, and stayed there three days. One evening, in the guide’s home, he invited two of the ring women, as they are dubbed, to his house. They have worn these heavy brass rings on their arms and legs from childhood, and it didn’t seem to hamper them. The next morning, I saw them going to the farm with the rings that they never remove, and later in the evening, one of them took ill and was carried downhill.
I was inordinately happy to see them, so unglamorous yet with a quiet dignity, on stage. It was a reminder of my trip to their home, and a reminder of all the other ‘invisible’ people whom I had met in my six-month sojourn, people who had shared with me a worldview that is so different from ours, a life lived with different values, filled with richness, and who helped me find my path again.
They are not literally invisible, of course, but they are often invisible to the world even while their crafts, arts and culture are celebrated, and often used in ways that do not pay heed to them or their world. Yet, they are so much more than just the beautiful things that they make. The way they live and view the world have so much more value than those objects. But those remain invisible, unless you seek them.
And so, I was really happy to see the women on that opening weekend of the Rainforest Fringe Festival to which I had kindly been invited by festival director Joe Sidek. This was the first such fringe festival, held as a prelude to the more famous and infamous Rainforest World Music Festival.
From what I gathered, the fringe festival was to be a thoughtful celebration of Sarawak’s immensely rich culture before the rambunctious music festival. That’s certainly a tall order. It is no easy job to capture the soul and spirit of Sarawak, and its deep and unfathomable culture that is still being lived and evolving, and not fossilised or ‘exotic’. Something that’s alive is ephemeral and keeps changing, and how does one tell that story?
I liked two exhibitions which I thought had tried to explore this evolving culture: Kendy Mitot’s installation and Alena Murang’s paintings. Their exhibition was, unfortunately, tucked away in an obscure annexe, with hardly any text by way of explanation.
Fortunately, on both counts, I bumped into Alena’s parents one morning. They pointed the way, and then on the spur of the moment, decided to walk me through the exhibition of Alena’s paintings.
That made all the difference.
Suddenly, Alena’s evocative paintings of elderly women came to life as her mum told me who they were, and what they had meant to Alena and her heritage. These elderly Kelabit women were the ones who had taught her their songs, passing on their knowledge to the younger generation in the way that it has always been done. They sang their songs to her, she learnt by imitating them. And thanks to an audio recording running on a loop, we can hear them as well. This knowledge is never simply received and stored away as it would be in an archive, fossilised. As the young learn from their elders, they live their own culture in their way and adapt it for their times, as Alena has.
Alena’s mum, an anthropologist herself, also walked me through Kendy Mitot’s exhibition before Kendy arrived to tell me his story. His installation, a dramatisation of his Bidayuh’s community’s funeral rites, was rich with stories which Kendy explained to me. It was his way of capturing the stories that are vanishing as Christianity replaces the old belief systems, and perhaps to also mark their inexorable passage into the past. As he pointed out the details that record the influences that changed his culture, I tried to get a glimpse into how the people of the past made sense of it.
Then, I also liked Ranong Peru’s market stall of pretty necklaces, not just because she’s an aunt of a friend! I liked seeing her interpretation of the cherished Lun Bawang bead tradition. The Lun Bawang women love their beads, and are always trying out new designs, yet there’s still a sense of Lun Bawang in their works. And of course, I have a soft spot for the Lun Bawang because my husband is Lun Bawang. She also showed me the works of younger Lun Bawang beaders where cloth has replaced ceramic beads. Very pretty.
So, I think what I really liked most about this fringe festival was its fringes, ie the bits that hover at the periphery. Perhaps this is because my introduction to Sarawak had come through anthropologists who had taken me on their research trips into the interior, and continue to spend much time mulling over issues with me. Over the years, I have come to cherish its people who adapt to changes on their own terms, and only as much as they want.
The beauty of Sarawak is bewitching and dazzling, for sure, and years later, I’m still dazzled and bewitched. And it’s lovely to see its beauty celebrated in a festival.