Star Wars through shadow puppetry, and other old-new juxtapositions at Malay CultureFest

The 19th-century tepak sirih. -- PHOTO: DESMOND LIM
The 19th-century tepak sirih. -- PHOTO: DESMOND LIM
A 19th-century Malay manuscript in Thai folding book format (above) at the Budi Daya exhibition and wayang beber scroll painting by Dani Iswardana Wibowo. -- PHOTO: DESMOND LIM
A 19th-century Malay manuscript in Thai folding book format (above) at the Budi Daya exhibition and wayang beber scroll painting by Dani Iswardana Wibowo. -- PHOTO: DESMOND LIM
A 19th-century Malay manuscript in Thai folding book format at the Budi Daya exhibition and wayang beber scroll painting by Dani Iswardana Wibowo (above). -- PHOTO: MALAY HERITAGE CENTRE
A 19th-century Malay manuscript in Thai folding book format at the Budi Daya exhibition and wayang beber scroll painting by Dani Iswardana Wibowo (above). -- PHOTO: MALAY HERITAGE CENTRE

Third Malay CultureFest and exhibition marry the traditional and contemporary

The spotlight is on Malay culture and artistry this month.

The Malay Heritage Centre is launching its third Malay CultureFest as well as a new exhibition, Budi Daya, that marries both the traditional and the contemporary aspects of Malay culture.

The festival runs for three weeks from now till Nov 2, while Budi Daya has a longer run, until March 29 next year. Visitors have free admission to all performances and artworks as well as programmes such as curator tours.

"Budi" roughly translates to ethics, graciousness and intellect, while "daya" means one's abilities or capacities. The exhibition's title is also similar to the word "budaya", or culture in the Malay language.

Thus, as a whole, the festival and exhibition put Malay culture under the microscope.

Budi Daya marks the first time the centre is holding an exhibition with contemporary works. These include 18 new commissions and existing artworks by artists from Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, Myanmar, Vietnam and Cambodia.

These contemporary works will be presented alongside 53 artefacts from the national collection, such as a 19th- century tepak sirih, an ornate receptacle to store betel leaves, and animal-shaped ingots used as currency in the 1800s in the Malay Peninsula and Sumatra.

"It enables us to portray a multi-dimensional view of both the heritage and living aspects of Malay culture. For example, certain works will encompass both static displays and live performances, some of which are integrated into the Malay CultureFest," says exhibition curator Noorashikin Zulkifli, 36.

One young Singapore artist, Ms Izziyana Suhaimi, 28, is pleased that her installation exploring weaving and embroidery, titled Small Studies Of An Everyday Practice, is placed next to a traditional woven songket, or brocade textile. Her work explores how master craftsmen undergo a journey of repetition to perfect their craft.

"It allows the audience to make more of a connection, how traditional weavers use the method and now we are appropriating it," she says.

In addition to featuring Singapore artists, the exhibition also incorporates works from artists in other parts of the region, including Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam. This is an attempt to illustrate the wide-reaching roots of the Malays - going back to the ancient kingdoms of Champa (Cambodia and Vietnam) and Langkasuka (Kelantan and Thailand).

Performing artists from countries outside Singapore have been invited to demonstrate aspects of Malay art and culture which are rarely seen here.

For example, while most people have heard of wayang kulit or shadow puppetry from Java, some might scratch their heads at the mention of wayang beber, which also comes from the same region in Indonesia. It comprises a storyteller, or "dalang", who tells a story while he unrolls a horizontal scroll painting gradually. His narration (sometimes in song) accompanied by live gamelan music, brings to life the illustrations on the scroll for the audience.

Solo-based artist Dani Iswardana Wibowo, 41, who is exhibiting a wayang beber scroll painting, hopes that it will catch the attention of the younger generation, who often know little about their roots.

"When a bird carries a seed to a far- away land - there's a new fruit that doesn't know which tree it came from," he says.

He has contemporarised the craft, telling a modern story of consumer culture and social commentary instead of the traditional "panji" or epic story focusing on a hero. He is also collaborating with Singapore group Ethnic Shadows, which will act as the "dalang" during the live performances that will be held next weekend. The music, which is usually played live by an Indonesian gamelan ensemble, will also incorporate more Malay influences.

This interplay between traditional and contemporary is not just limited to the exhibition - it will be seen in the Malay CultureFest as well.

One festival highlight, Fusion Wayang Kulit, will tell a Kelantan version of Star Wars through shadow puppetry.

nabilahs@sph.com.sg


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WHAT TO LOOK OUT FOR

Java's Machine: Phantasmagoria

What: Indonesia's colonial history takes centrestage in Indonesian artist Jompet Kuswidananto's 2008 installation, which features Dutch and Javanese military garb arranged like a royal marching band, but with the bodies of the soldiers conspicuously absent. The installation comes alive when the "soldiers" start "playing" the drums, but sans faces, hands and bodies, the action rings hollow.

When: Till March 29 next year

Where: Malay Heritage Centre Gallery

Admission: Free


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Fusion Wayang Kulit

What: The science-fiction pop cultural movie franchise Star Wars gets the shadow puppet treatment with a decidedly Kelantanese spin, as per wayang kulit's roots. Look out for such characters as Sangkalang Vedeh (Darth Vader) and Si P Long (C-3PO). The puppets, made of leather, wood and plastic, are designed by Malaysian artist Tintoy Chuo. Performances are in Malay.

When: Performances on Oct 31 and Nov 1, 8.30 to 10.30pm, followed by a post-show talk with the artist. Puppets are on display till March 29 next year.

Where: Malay Heritage Centre Auditorium

Admission: Free


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Ulek Mayang Showcase

What: An ulek mayang dance troupe from JKKN Terengganu, the Malaysian state's department for culture and arts, will present a ritualised dance performance that used to be performed before fishing season to appease the guardian spirits of the sea. Rarely seen outside Terengganu, it is accompanied by a folk song, titled Ulek Mayang, ("ulek" translates to "making a request" and "mayang" refers to the leaves of the Areca palm flower) that is familiar to the Malays. It has often been featured in pop music and film, including a version by Malaysian rocker Ella.

When: Tonight, 8.30 to 9.30pm

Where: Malay Heritage Centre Lawn

Admission: Free


Cerita Hikayat Agus Nur Amal and Wayang Beber

What: These two performances revolve around the art of storytelling. Acehnese storyteller Agus Nur Amal will use found items and household props such as plastic pails to flesh out his story. Wayang beber features storytellers from local group Ethnic Shadows telling a tale of an agrarian society transformed through capitalism, while gradually unfurling a scroll illustrated by Indonesian artist Dani Iswardana Wibowo, accompanied by live Kelantanese music. Both performances are in Malay and Bahasa Indonesia.

When: Oct 25 and 26, 8 to 10pm

Where: Malay Heritage Centre Auditorium

Admission: Free


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A Nada Story

What: Commissioned by the Malay Heritage Centre, this installation by Singapore artists Rizman Putra and Safuan Johari documents the musical history and journey of 1970s local pop band Nada. Blurring the line between fiction and reality, there will be a one-night-only performance in January featuring the band's hits, which melds pop yeh-yeh, keroncong and Western classical music genres.

When: Installation till March 29 next year, performance is on Jan 24, from 7pm

Where: Malay Heritage Centre Gallery

Admission: Free