Malay culture old and new

Malay culture old and new
A 19th-century Malay manuscript in Thai folding book format at the Budi Daya exhibition and wayang beber scroll painting by Dani Iswardana Wibowo, held at the Malay Heritage Centre.

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.

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