Langurs: Primates on the Brink of Extinction

By Regina Hoo

January 2022 FEATURE
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Rabak PerBELITan Misi dan Visi by Maizul Affendy Baharudin, 2021. Mixed media. 84cm x 63cm.

ART CURATION IS not always only about aesthetic sense. Every now and then, mere visual appreciation is merged with, even submerged in, other much more pressing concerns. Nowadays, that is often about ecological dangers.

An example of this has been the exhibition Langur: Building Bridge Between Our Worlds, which was held over the last two months of 2021. As many as 60 artworks on this primate, done by 60 artists from Penang and Malaysia, were put on display at the Dewan Sri Pinang.

“This is its third iteration,” says curator Ivan Gabriel, as he takes me on a guided tour of the exhibit. “The initial idea was to study these langurs in their natural habitats, but the two lockdowns made this impossible to do. ” He had to rely on with the internet instead, dropping into virtual rabbit holes for research and often emerging distressed by what he had discovered, hence the array of re-conceptualisations.

A trained actor, Ivan also included subtle theatrical elements to enhance the meaning and intensity of the space and pieces on display. The artworks were divided into sections of seven, tracing an intimate narrative of the life cycle of the dusky leaf monkeys, from birth to death, the bond between mother and child, and of individual dispersing. Lee Weng Khim’s Mother Love, for instance, was bathed intentionally under a warm glow, but apprehensively faces Zaini Zainul’s Back Off, where the langur’s face is haloed with a sinister selection of weapons for its killing. Individual dispersing could well result in death.

Mother Love by Lee Weng Khim, 2021. Acrylic on canvas. 76cm x 56cm.
Back Off by Zaini Zainul, 2021. Mixed media. 110cm x 110cm.

Sandwiched in between are the audacious pieces Entah lah by bibichun and Maizul Affendy Baharudin’s Rabak PerBELITan Misi dan Visi, which openly challenge the authorities who are supposed to protect the endangered species, but instead had been responsible for their culling. Social media erupted into an uproar last May when PERHILITAN officers reportedly culled a troop of 20 primates, including a mother and her baby. By nature, these creatures are known to be docile and non-aggressive.

Entah lah by bibichun, 2021. Acrylic, aerosol spray paint, crayon on canvas. 91.5cm x 91.5cm.

“How do you justify Superman being the bad guy in this story, when the good guy is also the bad guy here?” asks Ivan. “The situation wasn’t clear even when explanations were made, which was why for this showcase, I had purposely opted for the walls to be painted grey to convey the point that Life isn’t always black and white, it is filled with many grey areas too. Grey also happens to be the colour of the langur’s fur.”

Sharon Kow’s Look Deep Into Nature served as an anchoring piece of hope. Its positioning at the centre of the space was vital. “Tearing away the layers of pain and suffering, I wanted to say that there is a life we’re trying to save, one that deserves to be on this planet as much as we humans.”

Look Deep Into Nature by Sharon SS Kow, 2021. Coloured pencil. 102cm x 86cm.

Having previously organised Belang: Save Our Malayan Tigers Campaign in 2020, Ivan felt compelled to shed light on the langurs’ plight. “The langurs are very much woven into Penang’s biodiversity fabric, so much so that you can’t spell langurs without lang, as in Penang lang (‘Penang people’ in Hokkien),” he chuckles. “But if we are two similar primate species, in familial relationships and values, and in forms of communication, why then is co-existence so hard to achieve?

The dusky leaf monkeys are one of 26 primate species found in Malaysia, but according to researchers, their population has been halved in the last six years alone from deforestation activities. “Habitat loss also robs them of food sources, forcing the monkeys from the forests in search of food and when that happens, they can become road kills.”

Many baby langurs do not make it to adulthood, not when they are forcefully separated from their mothers to be sold in illegal pet trade. Taken initially by their bright orange fur, new owners soon lose their incentive to care for these baby langurs once their fur changes to grey within a few short months. Ivan recalls watching a video, “I saw a baby langur ripped from its mum and hauled into a car. Langurs, unlike other primates, don’t chatter or screech, they honk instead; and the mum was honking in pain. She was trying desperately to communicate, but was unable to do anything beyond that.”

Inevitably, the exhibit raises the unsettling question: If all it took was six years for the langur population to be halved, what will the next six years look like then for these, our primate cousins?

Regina Hoo

is the deputy editor of Penang Monthly.