Featuring 17 portraits of members of tribal villages in Sarawak, the show explores a hidden face of Malaysia.

Art Radar looks at the artist’s second solo exhibition at Richard Koh Fine Art, Kuala Lumpur.

Tan Wei Kheng, 'Portrait of Kayan Headman', 2016, 60 x 60cm, oil on canvas. Image courtesy Richard Koh Fine Art and Tan Wei Kheng.

Tan Wei Kheng, ‘Portrait of Kayan Headman’, 2016, oil on canvas, 60 x 60 cm. Image courtesy Richard Koh Fine Art and Tan Wei Kheng.

Over the past few years, self-taught artist Tan Wei Kheng has been travelling to the interior jungles of Sarawak, with one purpose: the hidden living tribes of the region. Visiting indigenous Iban, Kenyah and Kelabit tribes, amongst others, Tan’s latest solo exhibition “Forgotten Beauty” at Richard Koh Fine Art is a beautiful and lush visual record of the culture that still guides their everyday lives.

Located along the northwest coast of the island of Borneo, Malaysia, Sarawak is home to over 40 different ethnic groups. The diverse population (measuring about 2.6 million) is spread out over coastal areas and interior areas. Much of the population comprises indigenous peoples, who belong to specific ethnic and sub-ethnic groups. For his project, Tan acquainted himself with the tribal villages that reside in the interior of Sarawak. Each village belongs to a different ethnic group, keeping much of their culture, language and way of life alive.

Upon his visits to the interior, Tan was inspired by the tribal ornaments worn by the various groups that he visited. Writing that such tribal adornment are “only seen among tribal men and women” whose “faces are etched with time”, Tan’s project is a record of the visual and material cultures that hold particular significance for these groups.

Each of his life-like portraits record every detail: tattoos, earrings and neck pieces, headgear. His portraits also capture, with painstaking detail, the wrinkles, white hairs and expressions on their faces. Working with oil on canvas, Tan’s portraits are intensely realistic. Often painting on square canvases, the faces of the villagers almost fill the entirety of the canvases, often imposed on richly coloured backgrounds. In some ways, Tan’s portraits remind their viewers of imperial or courtly portraits, displaying a fierce sense of majesty about them.

Tan Wei Kheng ,'Portrait of Kenyah Woman No.2', 2016, 75 x 75 cm, oil on canvas. Image courtesy Richard Koh Fine Art and Tan Wei Kheng.

Tan Wei Kheng, ‘Portrait of Kenyah Woman No.2’, 2016, oil on canvas, 75 x 75 cm. Image courtesy Richard Koh Fine Art and Tan Wei Kheng.

Much of Tan’s artistic practice centres around the people of Sarawak and the stories that they have to tell. Tan was born in Sarawak, and, for years, was a commercial potter producing works supporting the tourism sector of the region. Drawn to the distinct cultures and lifestyles in Sarawak, he began to travel into the interior jungles of Sarawak, painting portraits of the people that he encountered on his visits. Many of his works were produced from 2014 onwards, and document the lives of the tribespeople that he visits.

Tan Wei Kheng, 'Portrait of Penan Hunter - Bulo Engan', 2016, 75 x 75cm, oil on canvas. Image courtesy Richard Koh Fine Art and Tan Wei Kheng.

Tan Wei Kheng, ‘Portrait of Penan Hunter – Bulo Engan’, 2016, oil on canvas, 75 x 75 cm. Image courtesy Richard Koh Fine Art and Tan Wei Kheng.

Tan Wei Kheng, 'Jungle Beauty No.1', 2017, 91 x 66 cm, oil on canvas. Image courtesy Richard Koh Fine Art and Tan Wei Kheng.

Tan Wei Kheng, ‘Jungle Beauty No.1’, 2017, oil on canvas, 91 x 66 cm. Image courtesy Richard Koh Fine Art and Tan Wei Kheng.

His intimate portrayals of the people are marked by a sense of care for them, as the artist writes:

When I went to tribal villages in the interior long ago, everyone was so warm. They invited me to their homes even though they did not know me. They cooked for me.

The closeness of community, hospitality and warmth that he encountered was a far cry from the alienation of modern life. Over the course of repeated trips, creating a relationship with these tribes allowed him to delve into deeper meanings behind the tribal ornaments that adorned the head, hands and skin of the people that he wanted to paint.

Tan Wei Kheng, 'Portrait of Iban Man No.2', 2016, 75 x 75 cm, oil on canvas. Image courtesy Richard Koh Fine Art and Tan Wei Kheng.

Tan Wei Kheng, ‘Portrait of Iban Man No.2’, 2016, oil on canvas, 75 x 75 cm. Image courtesy Richard Koh Fine Art and Tan Wei Kheng.

Imbued with beliefs, mythologies and legends, many of the tribal ornaments are tied up with the spiritual practices of the land. Tattoos, for example, are often believed to carry protective powers. Beyond their spiritual associations, much of the traditional headgear and clothes are worn for specific rituals and ceremonies, marking celebrations, observances and other events that bring the community together. Often brightly coloured, and decorated with intricate beadwork, the ornate garments of the tribe are also important signifiers that identify the wearer and the community that he or she belongs to.

Tan Wei Kheng, 'Portrait of Penan Man - Jawa Sega', 2016, 90 x 90 cm, oil on canvas. Image courtesy Richard Koh Fine Art and Tan Wei Kheng

Tan Wei Kheng, ‘Portrait of Penan Man – Jawa Sega’, 2016, oil on canvas, 90 x 90 cm. Image courtesy Richard Koh Fine Art and Tan Wei Kheng.

Part of Tan’s mission in painting these portraits lies in the need to remember what is slowly fading away. Tan states that these canvases were meant as a way to “capture all this beauty before they fade away”. Noting that these traditional lifestyles and cultures were no longer being practiced by those from younger generations, Tan’s portraits are a window into a life that hardly many people encounter, let alone take the time to understand.

Tan Wei Kheng - Portrait of Kenyah Woman, 2016 [60x60cm] oil on canvas. Image courtesy Richard Koh Fine Art and Tan Wei Kheng.

Tan Wei Kheng, ‘Portrait of Kenyah Woman’, 2016, oil on canvas, 60 x 60 cm. Image courtesy Richard Koh Fine Art and Tan Wei Kheng.

In some ways, Tan’s works become an archive of fading cultures. The population of these tribes have been steadily declining over the past few years. More and more indigenous youth are choosing to migrate to urban centres for better work prospects, leaving behind the jungles that they grew up in. Exacerbating the issue has been deforestation, which activists have been fighting for years. Locked in fights with activists, who champion the land rights of tribes that reside in the jungle, Malaysia has relentlessly continued to pursue a policy of aggressive deforestation until this day.

Yet, Tan continues to capture a spirit of undaunted resilience and strength amongst the tribespeople. Amongst some of his portraits, one can even detect a steadfast peace emanating from their expressions. Creating these works at a time when modernisation and tradition are still in conflict, Tan’s works are an interesting approach in bringing the people who are most affected by these conflicts to the forefront.

Junni Chen 

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“Forgotten Beauty” by Tan Wei Kheng is on view from 10 to 24 April 2018 at Richard Koh Fine Art, 229 Jalan Maarof, Bukit Bandaraya, Bangsar, 59100 Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

Related topics: gallery shows, art and the community, events in Malaysia, Malaysian artists, emerging artists, connecting Asia to itself

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By Brittney

Brittney is a writer, curator and contemporary art gallerist. Born in Singapore and based in New York City, Brittney maintains a deep interest in the contemporary art landscape of Southeast Asia. This is combined with an equally strong interest in contemporary art from the Asian diasporas, alongside the issues of identity, transmigration and global relations.

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