We Are Home And Everywhere | 3.5/5

Zai Kuning’s Back To Mother. Photo: Tan Ngiap Heng / Zai Kuning / Ota Fine Arts.
Zai Kuning’s Converting. Photo: Tan Ngiap Heng / Zai Kuning / Ota Fine Arts.
Zai Kuning's Dapunta Mapping The Melayu. Photo: Tan Ngiap Heng / Zai Kuning / Ota Fine Arts.
Zai Kuning brings attention to the plight of the Orang Laut in his latest exhibition. Photo: Tan Ngiap Heng / Zai Kuning / Ota Fine Arts.
Zai Kuning draws attention to the plight of the Orang Laut
Published: 4:03 AM, June 28, 2014
Updated: 6:21 PM, July 1, 2014

SINGAPORE — A people without power, marginalised at every turn, uprooted from their homes and buffeted at every turn by external calamities such as natural disasters or even unsympathetic governments.

It sounds like a set-up for the sort of thing we go to the cinema to watch, but these are the struggles faced by the Orang Laut (or sea gypsies) in the region. Unlike a Hollywood film, however, there isn’t a convenient plot device or steely-eyed hero to swoop in and save the day.

Hoping to draw more attention to their plight is veteran artist Zai Kuning, whose latest solo exhibition at Ota Fine Arts, We Are Home And Everywhere, is based in large part on his travels in the region and 
research on the challenges faced by the Orang Laut.

Within the space, one’s attention may first be drawn to curious assemblages, which occupy various points along a sliding scale that ranges from commonplace objects of the Orang Laut to strange, rib-like growths. No less laden with significance are a number of drawings on the walls. As a whole, the exhibition is charged with symbolism, relating to everything from specific threats to the Orang Laut, to their everyday lives and innermost beliefs.

For instance, the piece Converting concerns itself with the complex inter-religious dynamics in Orang Laut societies — which are to various degrees Muslim, Christian, animist or some hotchpotch thereof — through the use of cell-like structures bearing religious symbols in a churning mass of black. Meanwhile, Back To Mother relates to us the prominence given to mothers in Orang Laut culture, portraying this relationship through a mandala-like pattern. There’s an insistent literalism to these drawings, though grappling with that hardly detracts from the artist’s starkly impassioned draughtsmanship.

The assemblages, as a whole, seem much livelier, while hinting at nuance and ambiguity. Rough-hewn, irregularly-shaped organic materials suggest the callus-inducing realities of seaborne life, while the ever-present coatings of beeswax reflect the degree to which meaning has been projected onto these objects, embalming them in sensuous translucency. The red threads that wind their way through these assemblages also suggest 
connective tissues and blood vessels — doubly so when seen under a coat of wax.

While the smaller pieces are similarly concerned with specific issues — a governmental attempt to settle the seafaring Orang Laut as land-bound farmers, for instance — they are caught within the orbit of the centrepiece of the show, Dapunta Mapping The Melayu.

Rather than conveying some struggle faced by the Orang Laut, it seems more like an attempt to channel some essential spirit of theirs, suspending a mandala-like flotilla of beeswax-coated books, anchored to disquietingly bone-like structures, above vividly reflective sheets of steel.

It’s as if the ghost of their glory days in the Srivijayan Empire was sailing past, which brings us to an important aspect of the exhibition. It’s more than just a way to tell the stories of the Orang Laut in an arresting, aesthetically pleasing manner. It’s also an act of deep personal and spiritual importance for Zai Kuning, as if enacting a ritual of quasi-religious significance. In a way, it seems like a counterpoint to the very earliest days of performing arts in Singapore, when befuddled audiences made sense of 
strange spectacles.

We Are Home And Everywhere runs until Aug 10, 11am to 7pm, at Ota Fine Arts, #02-13 Lock Road, Gillman Barracks. Closed on Mondays and public holidays. Free admission.