I must be frank: like any other profession, creating art (and content) can lead to disillusion and burnout. I know well — after having published a novel, “Nazi Goreng”, in 2013, I quickly realized that book royalties could not pay the bills, and I spent the best part of the next decade honing my magazine writing skills and focusing on becoming a travel writer. I have been quite successful at that, but I have always wanted to write another work of fiction.
At times, all that a creative individual needs to materialize an idea into a work of art is a change of pace. More than all that, I felt I needed a different space — somewhere I could change my routine and live for a spell of time by only pursuing the project I could never focus on. That’s how I started searching and discovered Rimbun Dahan, the home of landmark Malaysian architect Hijjas Kasturi and his wife Angela. Set on fourteen acres of forested land in Kuang near Sungai Buloh on the northern edge of the capital Kuala Lumpur, Rimbun Dahan is the country’s oldest art residency.
Since 1994, it hosted more than 100 international artists. As their website states, Rimbun Dahan offers residencies to “visual artists, dancers, choreographers, writers, arts managers, curators and researchers, as well as educational opportunities for students of architecture, ecology and botany.”
The residency’s prime focus, however, is on Southeast Asia, especially its visual arts. “Compared to their peers in the developed world, artists in Southeast Asia receive very little support from their governments,” Bilqis Hijjas told Eksentrika. The daughter of Hijjas and Angela, Bilqis is a Harvard alumna, esteemed dancer and choreographer, and today curates Rimbun Dahan’s residency.
“Ironically, because of the way international funding systems work, Southeast Asian artists can often find more support to travel to Europe or East Asia than to other places in Southeast Asia,” said Bilqis, who also believes it’s sad that for a majority of Southeast Asian artists, international networks are far away outside their native region.
Part of the reason why they look away and forge more connections abroad is because many countries in Southeast Asia, from Burma to Thailand, from the Philippines to Malaysia itself, “are having issues with their democratic governments,” says Bilqis.
“Some of the new power structures that are emerging — with high levels of corruption, brutal censorship and arbitrary exercises of power — are antithetical to the peaceful development of arts and culture communities. But sometimes, these pressures can spur artists to greater heights.”
At its core, “Rimbun Dahan aims to redress [all of] this in a small way: to support Southeast Asian artists experiencing Southeast Asia, to build artistic networks and develop art communities within this region,” says Bilqis.
When I started my residency in October 2022, I met and shared spaces and time with Thai visual artists Sittiphon Lochaisong and Pasutt Kanrattanasutra, Filipina writer Rayji De Guia, who was working on her first short story collection, and Kuching-based British curator and visual artist Catriona Maddocks. Some of us lodged in a series of beautiful, forest-fringed studio rooms designed by Hijjas himself, while others in two 20th-century heritage Malaysian houses from Penang and Perak state that the architect bought, moved and restored to even greater charms at the back of Rimbun Dahan’s large compound. All around us, wildlife like macaques, kingfishers and owls hooted and tweeted up in the trees, coexisting within the perfectly manicured tropical gardens planted and curated by Angela Hijjas. Everywhere one looks, Rimbun Dahan beckons with trees, shrubs and nature.
Totally immersed in this natural ambience that feels like a secluded national park, the resident artists are encouraged to relax, mingle, and foster legacies and community. They can make use of a series of studios, use the Internet and meet at a common office/resource room, or lounge and socialize on the sides of the compound’s swimming pool and man-made pond. Being only 25 kilometres away from Kuala Lumpur, if they need or miss the city, they are just a 15 minutes drive from the nearest MRT station at Sungai Buloh for quick and easy access to the Malaysian capital’s galleries, connections and nightlife.
“As we accept a greater number of residents every year, they have a better opportunity to meet other artists,” says Bilqis. “Sometimes [they] meet each other, click and collaborate, but in actual fact, this is quite rare — although we hope that our residents can all create a supportive community for each other.”
The most unusual and interesting thing about Rimbun Dahan’s residency is that, unlike other result-driven programs, resident artists here are not required to achieve any particular goal or outcome. This may be hard to grasp for those who need targets and goals to keep themselves accountable and occupied, but like its soothing nature, Rimbun Dahan’s open-ended residency is rather an invitation to follow one’s true call and use the facilities as one best wishes.
“Their time here is their own: for their own artistic development, to follow their own curiosity, to bend the residency to their own ends,” says Bilqis. “This limitless scope can sometimes be quite paralysing — but sometimes it allows for significant shifts in practice. Instead of being just another art project, it can be an opportunity for an artist to really centre their work. It can affect the trajectory of their entire careers.”
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All images courtesy of Rimbun Dahan.
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