With creatives often aiming to tack down the big picture, it is refreshing to hear a curatorial coordinator say, “There is no bigger picture”, when asked what she wants to convey at Borneo Heart in Kuala Lumpur. Instead of size, Beverly Yong hopes visitors will be drawn by the multilayers and rich details that make up Malaysia’s cultural scene.
First held in Kota Kinabalu in 2021, Borneo Heart began as an exhibition about finding ways forward. It hinges on two concepts — the tikar (woven mat) and tamu (weekly market). In Sabah to turn ideas into tangible objects was Yee I-Lann, the artist born and based there.
Yee collaborated with weavers, filmmakers, dancers, fellow creative producers and friends, using both concepts as a platform for community storytelling and ritual. Participants celebrate the possibility of creating new spaces, aesthetic languages and shared ideas through conversation and collaboration.
Many of the works and new tikar developed under that umbrella, as well as a related series of pieces that have grown since, have winged their way to shows and art fairs around the world. What is more important is that their stories are being discussed at talks and in publications.
There is something friendly and egalitarian — everyone sits on the floor — when you unroll a mat and gather people to make themselves comfortable on its criss-crossed squares or rectangule. Whether you sit cross-legged, on one knee or with both legs outstretched, the woven piece of colour and design becomes a space to share stories and embrace what each individual has to give. Place multiple tikar together and the floor transforms into a platform where communities can meet to exchange goods, ideas, conversations and a cuppa.
The second showing of Borneo Heart, featuring displays and events by Yee and collaborators is co-produced by RogueArt, of which Yong is co-founder/director. Yee works with artisans from Pulau Omadal, Semporna and Keningau in Sabah.
Working with The Zhongshan Building,The Back Room, The Godown Arts Centre, A+ Works of Art, Ilham Gallery and Rumah Lukis, the exhibition finds a new shape in the different sites by incorporating displays, workshops and tamu for makers, growers, community builders, problem solvers and storytellers from Sabah and Sarawak and Peninsular Malaysia.
Sharing the tikar, meeting at the tamu, the theme that weaves through all the events at the venues from end-February until June “looks to the local and inherited knowledge we hold and uses it to think about ways to share space and stories and embrace difference”, Yong says. “It’s a celebration of collaboration, the need and desire for difference, and sharing cultural knowledge as we enter the 60th year since the formation of Malaysia.”
Yee has done work in photomedia, textiles, installations and videos. She focuses on Southeast Asia, drawing from the aesthetics of colonialism, power, gender and shared memory. After 25 years in Kuala Lumpur, she moved back to Kota Kinabalu in 2017 and began working with Dusun and Murut weavers, with very different traditions employing different materials (bamboo pus and pandanus), motifs and styles.
Yee, whose last exhibition in the city was in 2010, hopes KL audiences “boleh rasa” the incredible journeys and joy she and her collaborators have experienced learning and playing together. “Indigenous concepts found through the tamu, the tikar and the complex thinking within our linguistic forms have been utterly triggering for me, and I hope they trigger you too.”
Looking across the venues and line-up of events, Yong says each visitor experience will be different because of the community and space that have produced it, “whether you find yourself humming along to a karaoke mat while munching on a sourdough platter at Tommy Le Baker, immersing yourself in a stunning photomedia installation in the white cube gallery space of A+ or joining a conversation on the Emoji mat at Tamu Tanah & Air. I hope people will take away different things and give back something too.”
She also hopes Borneo Heart will show “how rich and layered and dynamic our cultural scene is, in KL and across Borneo, and how much more we can do when we reach out to each other. I think it will give everyone involved a certain pride and confidence in the work they have made together and the ideas generated. Of course, cultural work doesn’t become part of our culture until it is in the public space and engaging with others.”
This article first appeared on Feb 27, 2023 in The Edge Malaysia.