Portraying the Penan, Up Close and Intimate

By Ooi Kok Chuen

September 2021 PENANG PALETTE
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Penan child with a pet monkey.

THEY ARE INSIGHTFUL portraits, ethnographic studies in fact of the remaining straggly bands of the nomadic Penan, unknown to the world beyond the forests, rivers and mountains in Borneo which they inhabit. With muted Hyper- Realist theatricality, Tan Wei Kheng has painted for the world to see, rare glimpses of this elusive people.

Wei Kheng, 51 this month (September), has just returned from another trip into the interior of Borneo with an appointed rendezvous with the Penan, usually a family of eight or 10.

Since 1992, this has been a ritual, a labour of love carried out every two months. He and three to five friends tend to venture in a 4x4 from his Miri base deep into the jungle to places such as Ulu Baram, Ulu Tutoh, Balaga and the Bakun resettlement.

Penan Girl, 2011, 91cm x 66cm. The little girl cried after nibbling a biscuit given by Wei Kheng.

Each trip takes five to eight hours, and each stay is five to eight days long. Sometimes, that can stretch to two weeks. Despite shorter travelling time now because of better accessibility, navigating terrain used by logging during the rainy season can be treacherous.

"We bring our own food and we eat with them," says Wei Kheng; they have to get vaccinated each time. The Penan staple can be whatever they hunt down – bearded pigs, monkeys, bears, snakes, deer, squirrels, monitor lizards, birds, even hornbills. While the Penan also subsist on cultivating rice, sago and tapioca, they also gather fruits and vegetables from the wild. With the molong conservation discipline, the Penan take only what is needed.1

"At the base camp, we take photographs or sketch the people, and once back home, I choose (and paint and recompose) from the pictures taken," explains Wei Kheng, in an email.

Penan woman from Sungai Asap in the Bakun resettlement, with child.

Wei Kheng and his regulars are treated like family members among the Penan; eating with them, chatting with them, and sleeping in the makeshift hutments they erect in minutes each time from bamboo, saplings and palm leaves.

The group shares the costs for fuel, car repairs and food. These can work out to RM600 to RM1,000 each. Wei Kheng once helped lay water pipes for the Penan, in a project initiated by the Rotary Club of Bandar Seri Begawan.

The Penan are spread out across Borneo, including Brunei and Indonesia. Some 350 to 400 Penan are estimated to be still leading itinerant lifestyles (down from 13,000 according to a 1970 estimate), with most now earmarked into longhouse settlements. They have a distinctive identity, sporting stylised tattoos and body adornments and markings such as shaved eyebrows and elongated ears. Certain bangles, necklaces and rings are worn to mark social status.

Collage of Kenyah woman, Penan woman with grandchild and Beraok Limun.
Collage of Abun Betelit and a Penan from Long Liwok helping out in a water pipe project.

Wei Kheng's painting oeuvre encompasses generations and gender. The bond and camaraderie are observed in gestures and expressions, often of great sensitivity and bathed with loving and alluring light.

His portraits of the elders, with etched lines on their withered faces, speak of their long struggles and strong valour. In more recent studies, Wei Kheng has surveyed the younger crop, with the query, What now for these (young) Penan? Blithely innocent and contented, these youngsters are weaned on natural even if at times morbid playthings such as a decapitated head of a hornbill. But it will be hard escaping the modern world, intruding on one hand, and offering lures such as the handphone on the other.

Collage of Penan Hunter (in Long Kevoc) and Siden Jemelee.
Collage of Bulo Engan (Long Lamai) and Agan Polisi Jeluan.

Increasing logging (since 1981), oil palm plantations, and the building of hydroelectric dams have all encroached into their habitat and livelihood, causing soil erosion and water contamination. Built settlements are not ideal to them.

Wei Kheng's artistic focus is not always exclusively on the Penan, like when he saw other indigenous people bartering at a designated market in 1990; these included the Kelabit, Kenyah, Kayan and Iban. What the Penan gather in the forest are much sought-after – gaharu (incense wood), bird's nest, wild mushroom, honey, camphor tree resin, bezoar stones and rattan. Their women weave to trade mats and baskets from rattan and tree-bark, or make a baby carrier called Ba.

Marudi-born Wei Kheng hit international fame when his solo, Nostalgia of Tribal Borneo, held in 2009 at the Avanthay Contemporary in Zurich, Switzerland was sold out; and in 2013, he was chosen to take part in the prestigious Singapore Biennale contemporary art event.

The hardened vines among the undergrowth are a natural playground for this Penan boy, the whole composition rendered in monochrome.

His works have been on a good trajectory with art auctions since his debut in the November 27, 2017 Henry Butcher Art Auction (HBAA). His Top 3 lots in the HBAA are 1. RM33,600 Kenyah Woman, 2009 (HB October 28, 2018); 2. RM31,360 Berouk Limun, 2011 (HB November 27, 2017); and 3. RM26,880 Penan Woman With Grandchild, 2011 (HB March 24, 2019).

Apart from collectors in Malaysia and Singapore, his works are also bought up in the US, Switzerland and Britain (London).

Not bad for one self-taught who made his art debut – he painted on commercial ceramics for four years previously – at the Hilton Kuching in 1992. He followed that up with three solos in Miri (1993, 1994 and 2001), before making his KL debut at Leonard Yiu's Art House in 2003, his Brunei debut in 2004, and the Tong Tana exhibition at Metro Fine Art Kuala Lumpur in 2012.

Wei Kheng (second from left) coordinating a water pipe project for the Penan with the Rotary Club of Bandar Seri Begawan.

Wei Kheng is now represented by the Richard Koh Fine Art marque, where he has held solo exhibitions, such as the 2014 Language of the Jungle.

What the great Sarawak world-class photographer Wong Kou Fou did for the indigenous peoples, Wei Kheng has done with elegiac portrait tapestries on canvas. For his great effort, Wei Kheng is a Penan Warrior himself, fighting with paint and brush instead of the sumpitan, the Penan's blowpipe.

As a folkloric adage goes, "Earthworms go hungry and mousedeer get lost in the jungle, but not the Penan."

Ooi Kok Chuen

art-writer and journalist, is the author of MAHSURI: A Legend Reborn (Ooi Peeps Publishing), an adult contemporary fantasy “movel” (a novel conceived as a mock movie) spun from a local legend.