Imagine a childhood where you grew up amongst the plants and animals that live within our luscious, dense forests, making them part of your daily life. As if you, the sacred forest and the beings within it are one and the same…
This recurring dream I have is very much a reality for our Indigenous people. Do you see? How precious their homes must be to them?
If it’s still a little unclear then I hope these pieces, written in conjunction with the International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples, provide you with the clarity I was so fortunate to obtain first-hand from two phenomenal Indigenous artists
Join me as we unravel tales, hidden gems and beautiful discoveries surrounding the lives of Indigenous artists and activists, Shaq Koyok and Kendy Mitot.
When Shaq and Kendy both agreed to an exclusive interview with GoodNews, I was beyond excited. I’d seen them both on panels and forums, discussing Indigenous rights, art and livelihoods. I would always be entranced by their storytelling and unique perspectives on life and art. This interview was no different!
I was a little nervous about interviewing them together but Kendy jovially set my anxieties aside, “An Interview with Shaq? Of course, he’s my best friend!,” the artist laughed, thrilled to be joined by his ‘senior’ from University.
We’ll first journey into the life of Orang Asli artist and activist,
“I’m from the Temuan community in Banting, Selangor,” Shaq started, smiling proudly.
He proceeded to explain how within Banting, there are two prominent Indigenous tribes – the Temuan and the Mah Meri.
If you visit Shaq’s village, you’d notice similarities between their customs and traditions due to mixed marriages. His sister’s husband is in fact from the Mah Meri community.
“Sometimes, they speak both languages and aren’t even aware of it!” Shaq chuckles.
The artist’s kampung is situated deep within Kuala Langat, at the fringes of the North Kuala Langat Forest Reserve. His childhood was very much immersed in Orang Asli traditions. They would venture into the forest daily to look for food and necessities.
“My family was not well to do but I would not change a thing about my upbringing. I grew up in the forest, practicing our tradition of ‘hunting and gathering.’ This cultural element of my early days shaped me into the person I am today – one who’s able to appreciate nature and it’s magic,” Shaq narrated, his eyes crinkling in the corners as he reminisced.
The artist-activist currently lives in Kuala Lumpur, about an hour away from Banting. He has held multiple exhibits showcasing his art which often depicts the plights of Indigenous people scattered across the country.
His artistic talents began to surface while he was in Year 1 of primary school. At his teachers’ encouragement, Shaq represented his school for multiple art competitions, often stealing the show with his pieces.
“Art brought me joy. So, I asked my teacher how I could progress to becoming an artist. I was only 7! I knew even then that this was what I wanted to do.”
Shaq’s talent was undeniable – his teachers at his secondary school urged him to follow his passion. And he did. Shaq went on to study art at University.
But his time there was far from simple. Due the lack of public information surrounding Indigenous communities, people were constantly curious about his origins. While it was encouraging that people wanted to learn more about the Orang Asli, it was exhausting for Shaq to have to repeatedly tell his story.
“I have to say, although it was tiring, it gave me so many opportunities to conduct my own lecture presentations,” he burst out laughing.
Enamouring. Transcendent. Emotional – some of the words I would use to describe Shaq’s art.
If you follow him on social media or have been to one of his exhibitions, you would see how his pieces speak to the Indigenous collective struggle for rights and self-determination. Each artwork is curated purposefully, with powerful messages interlaced within each element and colour used.
The Temuan artist often even incorporates natural material sourced from the forest.
“I don’t place too much emphasis on technique. I always figure out the message I want to convey and that will then dictate my technique.”
However, it doesn’t always work out the way he wants it to. The Indigenous artist currently has 10 unfinished pieces spanning the past decade. He explains how it is a process and it takes time for him to produce a piece that he’d like to share with the public.
Shaq’s passion about his work is palpable – it’s like you can feel it in the air when he speaks. I realised it’s because his art reflects his emotional intricacies. He needs to feel each piece, it is not just about selling commissioned art.
I was curious about what inspired him to focus his art on raising awareness about Indigenous people and their lives.
“My lecturers at University insisted that I find a theme for my art and that got me thinking about how the people around me knew so little about Indigenous communities in our country. That’s when I decided it’s time for me to change this status quo,” Shaq said, with determination shrouding his tone.
And thus began Shaq’s 16-year journey (and counting) of working on Orang Asli-themed art.
Inspirations and beyond
Throughout his ventures, Shaq has stumbled upon inspiration in the form of aboriginal artists, especially those living in Australia and New Zealand.
In 2018, he travelled to the two neighbouring countries and visited their aboriginal museums. The excitement in his voice, as he spoke about these visits, was apparent.
“It gave me chills! I used to research their art while at University and to see the actual exhibits in person – it was beyond words. I want to replicate what they‘ve done in Australia and New Zealand here in Malaysia so that our local Indigenous artists receive the same amount of appreciation as other artists in the field.”
Due to the Covid-19 pandemic, Shaq has only managed to organise one exhibition in March this year, when lockdown restrictions were relaxed. Throughout this uncertain period for artists all over, the talented creator has chosen to focus his energy on expanding his artistic mediums. His method of choice: YouTube.
“I was consistently painting and it hit me, ‘why don’t I record this process?’ People only get to enjoy my finished work, they never get to see how it is created. And I’ve actually got quite a number of subscribers!” Shaq grinned.
From the ripe age of 7, the Temuan artist has utilised his pieces to tell stories of Malaysia’s Indigenous people and their rich heritage. Shaq has spent most of his life fighting to raise awareness about these communities and to create spaces for them within our society’s various spectrums.
Wondering how we could support his efforts, I asked Shaq how the Malaysian people could help Indigenous communities, especially during this pandemic.
“There are so many disadvantages they face, especially in terms of communication. For example, young Orang Asli students are missing their online classes due to a lack of infrastructure,” Shaq relays morosely.
He encouraged people who can help to donate laptops and other technological necessities that would make attending online classes easier for these young, enthusiastic children. Their lives should not be any different from those of Malaysian students elsewhere, who are able to continue with their studies despite the pandemic.
At the end of our interview, I was in awe, absorbing the realisation that artists like Shaq Koyok live and breathe for Indigenous rights and their livelihoods. No matter how challenging this struggle is, he never gives up, always sending distinct messages through his art. And the sooner we hear him out, the better we will be as a nation.
Shaq had a few things to say to young Indigenous artists, who share his dreams:
“Follow your passion but also, think about your culture and its survival. What you do today will change our future. So, let the world see you for who you are. “
Pictures courtesy of Shaq Koyok on Instagram
Check out our second piece on Kendy Mitot, a Bidayuh artist, here.