Spirited: Reminders of How Man and Nature Are Inseparable

By Elizabeth Su

March 2024 FEATURE
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Anwar Fazal (left) and David Goh (right) at the "Spirited: Human Art of the Non-Human" exhibition.

IF YOU COULD have conversations with your ancestors, what questions would you ask? Visitors to the Tribal Art Exhibition “Spirited: Human Art of The Non-Human” Exhibition held at the Homestead [1] , the main campus of Wawasan Open University (WOU) in Penang, were certainly prompted to be curious on that front.

Greeted by rows of totem poles standing in dignified solemnity, these visitors were welcomed into a world where the ancestors of indigenous Malaysians lived in harmony with spirits, gods and nature. The exhibition featured some 60 art pieces [2] from the collection of David Goh, founder of Entopia (formerly Penang Butterfly Farm).

Curator Tan Yu Kai had a vision for visitors “to step into a magical world of meaning that most of us do not have direct access to, and see a way of relating to nature that is largely lost in urban lifestyles.” In this spirit, he designed the exhibition “as a platform to foster conversations about inequities in our treatment of indigenous peoples. By telling stories about alternative worldviews and modes of knowledge-making, we confront the question of whether or not our ‘modern’ lifestyle is necessarily superior.”

Indigenous Communities and Their Craft

Today, indigenous people comprise 5% of the world’s population but are stewards for 80% of the Earth’s biodiversity globally [3] , acting as custodians of history, traditional knowledge and cultural wisdom. In modern society, indigenous people have been labelled as “primitive”, and their cultural and art forms, when collected, are somehow denigrated to the level of “primitive crafts”, somehow perceived to represent less developed cultures, lower down the “cultural-evolution” chain.

This exhibition debunks this myth of tribal, native art forms being less sophisticated and less significant cultural traditions. Instead, it highlights the importance of indigenous communities as a collective that imparts wisdom and meaningful practices to urban communities that have somehow lost touch with nature and their ancestral heritage.

Think City Chairman Anwar Fazal is convinced that the exhibition had the potential to propel “Penang into a whole new cultural arena that is too often forgotten and even sometimes, viewed negatively. Every piece displayed in this multiverse of exhibits was a story speaking out a message to the whole of humanity. Penang now can easily be known as a place where the United Nations Declaration of Indigenous People, adopted in 2007 [4] , is systematically sprouting a diverse manifestation of its essence and its currency.” Moved by the displays, Anwar declared it “so creative, so meaningful and so inspirational”, hoping that it “spawns a series of local, national, regional and globally participatory activities on a regular basis like lectures and conversations, publications, festivals of arts and music working jointly with the UN and indigenous networks.”

Chief Executive and Vice Chancellor of WOU, Lily Chan commented that the exhibition “presented an excellent opportunity for the University to reinforce its position complementing George Town, a UNESCO World Heritage site, and thriving centre for arts and culture. Hosting this exhibition through our George Town Institute of Open and Advanced Studies (GIOAS) [5] shows our support of diverse arts and creative events in Penang, and also reflects the principles of openness and inclusivity that WOU actively promotes.”

One message that she believes the exhibition highlighted is how society at large should break free from stereotypical views of indigenous peoples, empower indigenous voices and encourage a more inclusive appreciation of cultural diversity. “Challenging the use of negative terms like ‘primitive’ or ‘uncivilised’ to describe indigenous communities is both bold and groundbreaking. It urges us to abandon the ‘Us’ and ‘Them’ thinking’—‘Us’ being the ‘conqueror’ and ‘them’ the ‘conquered.”

Challenging these stereotypes empowers indigenous voices and brings forth a more accurate and respectful representation. Ultimately, “this progressive shift in thinking will break down prejudices and enhance our appreciation and understanding of indigenous tribes, their wisdom, ancient practices and perspectives which are now more crucial than ever as we battle the challenges of climate change.”  

Sneha Poddar [6] , an Associate Research Fellow at GIOAS-WOU, commented that the exhibition “challenges the homogenisation of our culture resulting from colonisation, underscoring the urgent need to accord equal importance to the profound wisdom and scientific knowledge inherent in diverse cultures and communities worldwide.”

When visiting the exhibition, she experienced “a profound sense of awe and reverence, stirred by the exceptional craftsmanship and symbolism encapsulated in each artefact. These objects felt alive with a profound sense of history, almost as if they were inviting the observer to delve into their stories. The masks, in their nuanced craftsmanship, became conduits to a realm of unspoken stories and emotions. Each one possessed a unique ability to communicate with the observer on a visceral level, touching upon feelings that defied articulation.”

While admiring the totem poles, Lily was moved by the “symbolic narratives, often representing family histories, tribe affiliations and spiritual beliefs within their cultures. The tall, beautifully carved poles are able to tell special stories, as each carving and colour on the pole has a meaning, like a picture book.”

Reshaping Perceptions

We should remember that indigenous communities have a special connection with the land, which they cultivated, foraged on and lived on for generations, often spanning tens of thousands of years. They possess the expertise about how to manage natural resources sustainably and play a role as guardians or custodians of the land. [7] In many ways, it is their identity. From traditional healing, handicrafts, music and even weapons for hunting, it tells of their deep connection to their settlement.

The exhibition depicts this ecosystem and focuses on the relations between the human and non-human. In the past, indigenous tribes held “conversations” with the other-than-human beings of the land, learning through their “ancestors” how to survive in the natural environment. Today, we may have lost this relational capability to connect with our ancestors because of our urban distractions.

Traipsing through the exhibition, it becomes evident to the visitor that stereotypical views of the indigenous communities must change. Celebrating and appreciating cultural diversity that includes indigenous practices could be a start—perhaps perceptions would be reshaped.

  • [1] The Homestead in Penang is philanthropist Towkay Yeap Chor Ee’s mansion, now the main campus of Wawasan Open University (WOU). “Spirited” was held from 16 December 2023 to 16 January 2024.
  • [2] These artefacts were gathered from indigenous artists throughout Southeast Asia during David Goh’s butterfly- collecting expeditions from Peninsular Malaysia to Papua New Guinea.
  • [3] https://www.worldwildlife.org/stories/recognizing-indigenous-peoples-land-interests-is-critical-for-people-and-nature
  • [4] https://www.ohchr.org/en/indigenous-peoples/un-declaration-rights-indigenous-peoples
  • [5] Founded in December 2018, GIOAS is an independent, nonprofit institute which is part of Wawasan Open University (WOU), George Town, Penang.
  • [6] Sneha is also an associate of the Global Soil Health Programme, and an adjunct faculty member at the Himalayan Institute of Alternatives Ladakh.
  • [7] https://www.amnesty.org/en/what-we-do/indigenous-peoples/
Elizabeth Su

is a Harvard Mason Fellow (Class of '97). She is very curious about people and the world around her, and believes that asking questions is a great way to learn. Elizabeth teaches, writes and loves storytelling.