Just as weavers create a tapestry, Gerimis Art Project is an effort to weave stories of Malaysia’s Orang Asli artists together, to depict a vast and evolving narrative.
For too long have Malaysians and the world viewed indigenous folk through an outdated and biased lens.
Now Gerimist Art Project aims to tear down such negative stereotypes.
Wendi Sia and Sebastian Heng, who founded the Gerimis collaborative art and archiving platform, formed up with the idea to showcase the different and diverse stories that belong to Orang Asli individuals and communities.
Few have acknowledged the creativity of Orang Asli, many of whom are traditional artisans, contemporary artists, musicians, and photographers.
Instead of being lauded and appreciated for their centuries-old inherited wisdom and craft, Orang Asli in Malaysia and many aboriginal tribes around the world, commonly suffer from erroneous public preconceptions largely due to a lack of written history.
Since 2018, the Gerimis team has collaborated with key Orang Asli artists to curate and document the variety and richness of culture that belong to original tribes around Peninsular Malaysia.
These stories and accounts are rarely included in history books and remain underrepresented at indigenous festivals.
Eksentrika speaks to Wendi to discover why and how the initiative came about.
The inspiration for the project first came to co-founders Wendi and Sebastian during a hike in Ayer Hitam Forest Reserve.
The duo had stumbled into some private land and was surprised to discover that there were Orang Asli settlements in Puchong.
Wendi was intrigued to learn that indigenous community settlements existed so close to Subang Jaya, where she herself grew up in.
It was different from the common and widely held presumption by many city-dwellers, that the Orang Asli live far away in remote areas of the forest.
Wendi and Sebastian soon realised that they needed to know more about Malaysia’s indigenous peoples, their history, culture, and developing progress.
Given their own creative backgrounds – Wendi, a copywriter, and Sebastian, an illustrator – decided to develop an art project around the issue.
“I love the creative world, so I was drawn towards doing an art project about it.
“But I didn’t want to do an art project about the Orang Asli, I wanted to do it with them. So that was the very beginning of Gerimis,” Wendi explained.
In Malay, the word gerimis means “drizzle”.
It represents a seemingly invisible yet crucial element of nature that nourishes the land, which mirrors the important and unseen contributions of the Orang Asli in protecting our forests.
This marked the start of their ongoing research to create more visibility for indigenous art and cultural expression.
“I love nature and I’m always talking about ways to protect our natural heritage,” said Wendi.
“What better way than by doing it with the Orang Asli, as they are the custodians of the land.”
Wendi and Sebastian soon got in touch with several Orang Asli artists through Facebook and approached weavers at Gerai OA.
They were later connected to more artists by word of mouth.
Before embarking on any collaboration, they took the time to get to know each of the artists and listen to their stories.
For Wendi, trust and friendship are the crucial values underpinnings of the Gerimis initiative.
Now close to three years, Gerimis has been involved in exhibitions, publications, and research to put Orang Asli folklore, cultural beliefs, and crafts in the spotlight.
In 2019, the team held a collaborative art exhibition at George Town Festival in Penang, featuring six Orang Asli artists: Shaq Koyok, Ramlan Koyok, Leny Maknoh, Vicky Eluq, Jefree Salim, and Ronnie Bahari.
Piecing together these stories, Gerimis also published several zines to document these indigenous crafts and customs.
The Mad Weave zine focuses on the stories of Temuan master weavers whose collective memories are reimagined through photographs and illustrations, beautifully interwoven with a poignant take on environmental issues.
While Orang Asli stories are intrinsically linked to their shared history and struggles, with land rights on top of the list, Wendi is keen for the project to highlight their strength and creativity in spite of the challenges.
“A lot of news talk about the issues that Orang Asli are facing, their struggles but I also want to show the resilient side of them. The fact that regardless, they are surviving and upholding their culture,” she said.
“For me, this is not done enough in Malaysia, and they (Orang Asli artists) too, want to show that side of them.”
Gerimis is currently, working on putting together a gallery at GMBB in Kuala Lumpur to exhibit their research and artworks by Orang Asli artists.
Initially, they were ready to promote several ecotourism packages on their website, however, the pandemic has delayed these plans.
The team has had little choice except to keep their community active on social media while waiting to ride out the pandemic restrictions.
In conjunction with World Indigenous Day, Gerimis organised an online event for their video project, Studio Seni Orang Asal, featuring Leny Maknoh, a contemporary artist, master weaver, Hanim Apeng, and musicians, Herry and Alang.
Among their future projects, Wendi is excited about documenting a family of hill paddy farmers in Pahang, along with their unique traditions and taboos.
She also hopes to help some of their Orang Asli collaborators to achieve their dreams, be it opening a shop or connecting them to more opportunities.
Wendi believes this can help pave the way forward and build a bridge across the digital chasm, a major disconnect that still affects Orang Asli artists in rural parts of Malaysia from being adequately seen.
If not for the pandemic, Gerimis would have liked to reach out to more collaborators in isolated communities to help bring out their stories.
“It is a matter of creating a space where Orang Asli communities can express themselves in a society that is systematically marginalizing them, so anyone can learn about their experiences.
“Before we started Gerimis, I had zero Orang Asli friends.
“I believe that everyone should have the opportunity to get to know more Orang Asli as the humble, kind, hardworking, and resilient people I have come to discover.
“We should have more spaces to have us all together and that’s what Gerimis is about.”
All images were sourced from Gerimis Art Project.