At the Fringe of Sarawak’s Rainforest

28 July 2017

The recently held first edition of the Rainforest Fringe Festival helped give more cultural resonance to Sarawak’s longstanding – and most important – world music event, the Rainforest World Music Festival.

To commemorate the 20th anniversary of the Rainforest World Music Festival (RWMF) this year, its customary main course of international bands needed a more succulent choice of starters.

The solution: Rainforest Fringe Festival (RFF), a ten-day programme that enlivened Kuching’s Old Court House, from 7 to 16 July. The RFF focused on providing deeper insights into Borneo’s – and the world’s – indigenous tribes and rainforest through a selection of arts, photography and crafts events. Besides exhibitions and pop-up markets at the Old Court House, the highlights of this free-for-all, pre-RWMF event included fashion gala Theatre of Clothes, and the musical showcase Sada Kamek: Music of Sarawak.

Theatre of Clothes showcased new collections by local designers

Curiously enough, with all this indigeneity on offer, the festival is the work of Penang-based Joe Sidek Productions – the team behind the popular George Town Festival. “I was asked to look at the Rainforest World Music Festival and see how we could work to make it better,” says Joe Sidek. “In my opinion, after 20 editions, the RWMF lacked a layering of events, and needed more public knowledge of the wonders of the rainforest beyond just the music presented at the festival. That’s why we created the RFF. It was by going back and forth to Kuching, meeting and hearing so many stories that had to be told and shared, that I decided to start working on the Fringe.”

However, organising an event this scale remotely was not the easiest of tasks. “The whole process was a little challenging,” remarks Joe, “but I think that, in the end, we managed to deliver a quality festival.”

A Celebration of Fashion and Music

The RFF's two main evening events, Theatre of Clothes and Sada Kamek, brought more dynamism and diversity to the festival's exhibitions of artworks and photography. The first took place at Kuching’s Waterfront Hotel on 8 July, and showcased new collections by designers Edric Ong, Ramsay Ong, Dato’ Tom Abang Saufi, Neng Kho Razali, Tanoti and Ong Shunmugam which mixed modernity with Sarawak’s indigenous cultural and weaving traditions. Particularly remarkable was the work of Tanoti, a Kuching-based brand well known for empowering disadvantaged women by teaching them traditional weaving skills.

Sape player, singer and artist Alena Murang

On the third night, the Fringe moved to Kuching’s Amphitheatre for Sada Kamek – an outdoor concert featuring some of Sarawak’s best performers and musicians. Among big name acts like Noh Salleh and Dayang Nurfaizah was also Kuching's master sape player Mathew Ngau Jau, who performed onstage with his protégé, Alena Murang.

One of the first few women to take up the sape (which is traditionally only played by men), Murang is a multi-talented performer and visual artist who also champions indigenous women’s rights. Some of her artworks – powerful black and white portraits of the elder Kelabit, Kayan and Penan women she’s encountered – were even exhibited at the Old Court House as part of the festival. Her most notable piece, The Storyteller, mixes visuals with a soundtrack loop of original orang ulu female singing.

Following an intriguing set by Nading Rhapsody, a band that cleverly fuses indigenous folk music, rhythms and chants with imagery, At Adau later took the stage for one of Sada Kamek’s best performances of the night. The seven-piece group, one of Kuching’s hottest acts, has one foot firmly planted in rock, and another in tribal psychedelia.

At Adau

The Old Court House of Art

Besides artworks by Murang, the Old Court House also exhibited works by Bidayuh artist and researcher Kendy Mitot, whose haunting installation of binuak wood sculptures represented the myths, dreamscapes and symbols of his native tribe. Meanwhile, the paintings of Raphael Scott Ahbeng, a master of Sarawak’s landscapes born in 1939, offered a visual description of Sarawak’s ever-changing nature-scapes. Nature is also the canvas for Spencer Byles, a forest sculptor whose masterpieces involve using materials from the forest where they’re also installed. For RFF, Byles’s installations were placed around the Old Court House.

Alena Murang’s The Storyteller

The festival’s ongoing exhibitions also included stunning collections by world-renowned photographers. Before They Pass Away, named after photojournalist Jimmy Nelson’s 2013 book, was a showcase of the exotic costumes and practices of numerous tribes and indigenous people around the world, as captured by the British photographer. Meanwhile, pioneer photographer KF Wong’s early collection of black and white photographs shot on a Rolleiflex gave us a rare glimpse into the lives of Sarawak’s remote communities of the past.

Botanist and photographer Chien C Lee

Shifting the focus towards Borneo’s rich flora and fauna were the works of botanist and long-term Kuching resident, Chien C Lee, known for his wildlife and flora photographs shot in jungles all over Malaysian and Indonesian Borneo. “Sometimes I have to stay hidden in a shelter for days on end to capture the perfect shot,” explained Lee, “that’s really the best way to meet and see nature, because its living beings won’t run away knowing that you are coming. No creature can really kill you in Borneo.”

Outside the Old Court House, Lay Hoon and Sumay C of Penang’s Otherhalf! Studio set up a tunnel installation dubbed Oh! Rainforest – a kaleidoscope of rainforest-themed images digitally animated to draw the viewer in. “We aim to impress children, pushing them to discover the rainforest,” remarked Lay Hoon.

Finally, an exhibition of high quality prints of original 1955 Berawan paintings from the longhouse of Long Jegan, near the Tinjar riverbanks, injected some authentic indigenous strokes into the Fringe. The final week of the festival featured mostly talks and film screenings, including a talk on British naturalist, anthropologist and historical figure Alfred Wallace, and screenings of rainforest-themed films from around the world.

A Promising First

With a diverse programme of events, the maiden Rainforest Fringe Festival was a successful first attempt to paint a solid cultural background to complement Sarawak’s most famous world music event. The only criticism, however, would be the festival’s lack of focus on the importance of conserving Sarawak’s natural environment and indigenous cultures and groups. For example, there could have been talks or programmes shedding light on Sarawak’s logging issues, the destruction of the rainforest, or individuals like Bruno Manser – a pivotal figure to Sarawak’s indigenous rights. The rainforest indeed is an attractive and mysterious environment that invites reflection and contemplation, but especially in Malaysia’s most exploited and ravaged state, a fringe art festival could have done more to put forth some key issues for the wider public to consider.

By Marco Ferrarese
Photos by Kit Yeng Chan and Rainforest Fringe Festival

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