A mission stemming from a passion.....
By YAM PHUI YEE
SHAHAR Koyok was swimming in the trench when he saw the flames licking up his “playground” – the forest where he had spent his childhood hunting, playing, collecting jungle produce, and learning about how humans, plants and animals live together.
The land clearing by developers turned into a peat fire that eventually took firemen two weeks to put out using helicopters.
Unique interpretation: Shaq’s humorous take on the contrast between the traditional orang asli and contemporary culture is seen in his work, ‘Waz Dat’.
“I was so sad that I cried. It was very emotional for me. The place I used to play is not there anymore, it has become completely ‘black’ from the burning,” said Shahar or Shaq, who was about seven then. That incident became the backdrop for his painting, Burnt, one of the pieces to be showcased in his first solo exhibition.
His first Solo will feature works that mark significant events while he was growing up as a boy in the orang asli village in Pulau Kempas, Banting, Selangor.
Shaq could perhaps be the first contemporary aboriginal artist of his generation.
His first Solo will be a milestone for the 24-year-old Temuan youth, who will be graduating in Fine Arts at Universiti Teknologi Mara (UiTM) during the exhibition period.
Shaq hails from a village where there was no piped water nor eletricity. His early drawing materials were pieces of charcoal from the previous night’s cooking fire and the tree bark walls of his hut.
Although friends scoffed at his ambition to become an artist, Shaq’s art teachers in school encouraged him a lot.
Shaq’s teacher took him to the city for a children’s art competition and that first trip opened him to the world beyond his village, a world he had only seen on his grandfather’s TV set.
Even though he had to walk 2km to his grandfather’s house to watch TV, he would faithfully travel to catch another episode of Astro Boy, Thundercats and James Bond films and think about the outside world often.
Fast forward 17 years, the determined guy would be holding his very own solo exhibition.
Until recently, he still made trips back home to paint on-site, often portraits of his fellow villagers and scenes of the village nestled in a fresh water swamp forest.
Dream comes true: ‘Emerging’ by Shaq is inspired by the artist’s childhood dream to become an artist while growing up in a village with no electricity, piped water and painting materials.
“I love portraits. The face can tell a lot of stories,” said Shaq, who has won prizes for drawing portraits of the Yang di-Pertua Negeri of Malacca and the UiTM Malacca chancellor.
Visitors to the exhibition should look out for the face of a young boy with big, round eyes in Shaq’s paintings, often a portrait of himself.
In Kubang (‘Playing in the Pond’), he is the thrilled young boy throwing himself into a swamp (swimming was his favourite pastime in the village). And in Witness, Shaq is the boy in the painting who is both astonished and confused.
His painting, Emerging, where the young and topless Shaq holds a palette and paintbrushes among the foliage, speaks of his passion as well as mission.
As in so many other orang asli villages, Shaq’s village faces problems of logging and land clearing which threaten their livelihood.
He documented these observations and expressed these frustrations on canvas.
“I’m a witness to what happened to our jungle – the burning and logging. I don’t know how to stop them and I’m not good at public speaking so I paint. Then at least I have something to show others and hopefully make them aware and understand” he explained.
He remembered developing a keen interest in the English language while studying in boarding school where he earned the nickname "Orang Putih" from the village children.
He just ignored them.
“I thought someday if I become a successful artist, I should be able to speak in English. I need to be able to communicate with people about orang asli, my journey and what happened to us. Being an artist is the right way to go,” said Shaq.
Shaq hopes that his art will raise awareness on the orang asli and their plight.
“By being an artist, I want to gain recognition and influence so I can help to solve the land problems of my people. It’s a big task, and I will just be doing a small part,” said Shaq.
Upon the scheduling of his first Solo, he hopes that people of all races and incomes will attend to gain the broadest understanding of his art and his people.