“Fellows in my village call me Orang Putih - the foreigner or ‘white men’”, says Shaq Koyok with a laugh during the recording with AWANI Review at Shalini Ganendra Fine Art.
This description is by no means racist nor reflective of the color of Shaq’s skin.
It is, rather, a word to characterize the 33-year-old contemporary artists’ love for a different way of life - the English language, music and arts. And this same inquisitiveness also motivated Shaq to take on a carer path less travelled, compared to his fellow peers from the indigenous Temuan tribe.
“My friends in the village are doing what they love - hunting, fishing, building things from the jungle.”
“We like the safe communal life in the village. There’s nothing wrong with that. At the same time, I want to put another edge to it - how do we deal with rapid development of the country and how are we going to prepare for that?,” says Shaq, who was employed as a cleaner in Putrajaya before pursuing higher education.
In that sense, through art and education, the Universiti Teknologi Mara (UiTM) Fine Art graduate sees the opportunity to do two things.
First, highlight the plight and issues facing Orang Asli. At the same time, prove to his community that there’s so much more that they can accomplish beyond the way of life and familiar grounds of the village.
I hope to inspire the younger generation of indigenous people in Malaysia
“There are so many dropout cases in secondary school among indigenous students due to many reasons - bullying, lack of (positive influence) or ambition and not feeling confident enough to go further. A lot of my friends have this problem. So I want to help in any kind of way.”
Shaq also runs art workshops for indigenous students when not travelling to exhibit his artworks.
One of which that he participated in at the Galeri Petronas Kuala Lumpur in 2016, lead him to the next creative phase of his career.
“The installation at Petronas Gallery is about Temuan weaving. That woke me up - why not showcase my hometown - where I came from, my roots.”
Weaving is a Temuan heritage that is dear to Shaq but may be at risk to die out as the raw materials used - the Pandanus leaf - is becoming increasingly scarce due to extensive land development and logging.
What worries Shaq more is losing the rights to ancestral land - cutting off his community’s spiritual, genealogical, and historical ties to nature.
“There’s so many issues happening in the Orang Asli villages - land grab, developments encroaching our homes, highway developments and even palm oil plantation.”
“Some of these cases lead to resettlement of the village itself. Sadly, they will be detached from their roots because Orang Asli’s culture is tied to land and nature.”
And for these reasons, Shaq is striving to create more awareness on the plights of indigenous communities and their importance in the national development narrative.
“Sadly, I find that there there’s inadequate knowledge about indigenous people in our history books.”
“That’s what actually led me to apply for the Merdeka Award Grant, that will allow me to do research on how indigenous people in different countries manage to become a primary culture or icon - putting indigenous studies in schools and some even have their own TV channel,”
Shaq’s winning of the Merdeka Award Grant for International Attachment 2017, sparked a lot of media attention - being the first Orang Asli to receive this accolade.
The pressure is on but Shaq is hopeful that his research and attachment abroad will give him the exposure and ideas needed to put Malaysia's indigenous art, crafts and culture on the map. More than that, he hopes to raise the stature of the Temuans.
‘There’s nothing wrong in being indigenous. You should be proud. That's why I always put myself as indigenous person first."
Podcast of the interview:
Venue: Shalini Ganendra Fine Art
Exhibition: ROOTS, Emerging Malaysia @SGFA