First Becomes Last, Last Becomes First: Shaq Koyok’s Land of a Thousand Guilts
Review by Lily Jamaludin

As a feeling, guilt balls up something inside you and sinks it to the pit of your stomach. Guilt implicates. It renders you not innocent but responsible and forces you to confront the consequences of your actions. Guilt forces you not only to look at your sins, but to feel them.

In the case of Shaq Koyok’s latest solo exhibition – the national sin we confront is the condition of Orang Asli life, which Malaysian national identity has shamelessly devalued and dispossessed. Aptly titled Land of a Thousand Guilts and presented by Richard Koh Fine Art gallery, the series of paintings deals with indigenous dispossession, and honours the dignity of indigenous survival in a world marred by loss. Most importantly, these paintings demand that viewers take a second look to truly understand what lies underneath the surface.

If you're lucky, you might be at the exhibition when Shaq is there, and benefit from his sharing and storytelling about the pieces.

Land of a Thousand Guilts is bold and unforgiving, consisting of portraits and paintings on canvas, woven pandan mengkuang mats, and bamboo baskets. I’m immediately struck by a series of six paintings when I first walk in: monochrome portraits of Orang Asli community members, contrasted against bright – almost violent – strokes of paint. None of the subjects are smiling. They are looking off into the distance; you see a nobility and grace in the artist’s renditions of them. Scratched in between the strokes of paint are lines of poetry or phrases from stories these subjects have told Shaq. Like many elements in the exhibition, these scratched phrases are not initially visible. But upon closer inspection, they are haunting and damning lines that viewers will carry into the rest of the exhibition.

In one portrait of an older man on orange paint strokes, the lines are: “MK Land stole / my land / my identity / right / now we / live in a / nightmare / we lost our / culture.” Then, next to the man’s neck, where a knife might cut: “Damansara Perdana. Kota Damansara.” On the face of a woman painted across blue strokes, written in minuscule handwritten pen: “dimanakah hak kami sebagai masyarakat Orang Asli? Tanah kami ada dijual dan diberoboh oleh pihak luar untuk menanam durian musing king. Sampai bila kami mesti berpindah? Sampai mati kah?”

These portraits serve as a tribute to people whose lives and land are being dispossessed. The paintings become a protest of their erasure, deeming these communities worthy of painting, of archiving, and being respected by audiences. The audience’s relationship with the Orang Asli community shifts. Audiences must observe, and they must listen.

The last painting in this particular style is one of my favourites: it is a gorgeous, larger-than-life painting of a young boy, whose face is painted like a tiger. He is the only one who looks directly at the observer. There is nothing written on this portrait, as if to say the future may still be rewritten. And perhaps there is something to say here about protection, about innocence, about a generation of children whose futures we are implicated in. Meanwhile, the child continues to look.

The next series of paintings has been done on pandan mengkuang woven mats. They’re intricately woven, by Shaq’s own mother and sister-in-law. He shows us the different patterns on the mat, their variations on the borders and on different sections. It can take hours to do a single section, involving complex calculations which weavers are able to memorise and work out in their heads. I never knew this about the mats and spent the next ten minutes looking at the different directions and patterns on each piece. Weaving may be devalued as a domestic craft, with mats often being used to sit on or step on. But here they are in their full glory: honoured, and uplifted as art forms. Shaq tells us that he tried to learn weaving when he was younger, and laughs after admitting that he gave up because it was too complicated.

Again, these paintings are monochrome portraits, with blue or red strokes painted on top that serve to interrupt. In some of the paintings, the strokes resemble the cracks you might find when soil has dried up. In one painting, the red paint becomes a truck driving through the neck of an elder from Gua Musang. In yet another painting, they are drawn as small upwards-pointing arrows. These, Shaq says, resemble skyscrapers. I can’t help thinking about how blue and red are often the main colours of political flags.

Finally, the last piece of the exhibition is a self-portrait of Shaq. His mouth is blurred out, and behind him is an ominous, clouded landscape. Look a little closer and you’ll see the word “guilt” has been embedded on the pandan mengkuang leaf. I find this particularly pertinent, a symbol for how we might look at the Malaysian landscape. Upon closer inspection, guilt, in all its varied forms, is embedded in the landscape. Upon closer inspection, there is dispossession, oppression, inequality. Upon closer inspection, there is violence here that is not initially perceived.

I think it’s important for me to think about this specifically in relation to my own Malay ethnicity. On one of the paintings, Shaq had written, “first become last / last become first.” I stared at it for a while, before it suddenly clicked and I voiced out a small sound of awe and recognition. Having been born a Bumiputra and benefiting from the cultural privileges and recognition of this identity, I am reminded more and more of how entitlement is embedded in the history of the Bumiputra identity – and how we must resist that.

To resist entitlement, we must start with guilt, though we cannot end there. Guilt alone does not dignify, uplift or transform. It must be followed with a commitment to learn, to question and to resist. Our duty is to recognise the system that oppresses indigenous rights – then to do what we can to resist that system, and to uplift the rights and voices of indigenous people. That is to say, once we recognise that we live in a land of a thousand guilts, we must all work voraciously for redemption.

Land of a Thousand Guilts runs at Richard Koh Fine Art until March 20, 2021.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are strictly the author's own and do not reflect those of CENDANA. CENDANA reserves the right to be excluded from any liabilities, losses, damages, defaults, and/or intellectual property infringements caused by the views and opinions expressed by the author in this article at all times, during or after publication, whether on this website or any other platforms hosted by CENDANA or if said opinions/views are republished on third party platforms.

Lily Jamaludin is a writer with the CENDANA-ASWARA Arts Writing Mentorship Programme 2020-2021.

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