KUALA LUMPUR, March 3 — Did you know that there are Buddhist wats (temples) in Kelantan? These wats are the historical heritage of the Thai-Buddhist community in this East Coast state but many Malaysians haven’t even heard of them, much less encountered these places of worship and the faces behind the community.
As part of an interfaith excursion to Kelantan, eight Malaysian artists — Nadia J. Mahfix, Poodien, Alex Lee, Wiliam Sim, Engku Iman, Khatijah Rahmat, Yoke Tan and KG Krishnan — were invited by Projek Dialog, a local social discourse project, to encounter various communities and traditions in Kelantan.
These included witnessing a sewang healing ceremony at the Orang Asli Temiar villages and a traditional Kelantanese Main Puteri ritual, to visiting Rumah Sahabat, a religious-based HIV shelter home for former addicts, and Masjid Kg Laut, the oldest surviving mosque in Malaysia.
The results of this excursion are showcased in Khabar dan Angin: Excursus on Faith in Kelantan, an exhibition at at Galeri Reka, Balai Seni Visual Negara, currently running till March 16.
Curated by Ong Jo-Lene and Yana Rizal, the exhibition seeks to recreate a sensory experience of modern-day Kelantan, with an exploration of the faiths and history of its diverse and sometimes overlooked communities.
For Nadia J. Mahfix, a self-taught photographer and recent finalist at the Asia Women Photographer Showcase, visiting the Temiar people at their village in Gua Musang proved to be a transforming experience.
She says, “We spent the whole day mingling with the Temiar people and listening to their concerns regarding their lands and future generations. At night, we witnessed a healing ritual, known as sewang. Surrounded by the stillness of the night and a sky full of stars, it made me realise how small we are in this vast Universe.”
This epiphany shook up her up. She continues, “We are so self-absorbed — whether we like to admit it or not — that we fail to see the bigger picture of our existence. We are always thinking that we are better than one another, fighting over who is right and who is wrong, be it in matters relating to our beliefs or everything else.
“With my work, I wanted us to look back to the origin of Creation, to see the signs that are all around us, to take a step back into our natural self and to appreciate our world better.”
Poodien (whose real name is Shaifuddin Mamat), a visual artist, was one of five recipients of the inaugural Malaysian Emerging Artist (MEA) Award. For him, the trip to Kelantan cemented his perception that all places are fundamentally more similar than not.
He explains, “Kelantan, unique as it is, is just the same like other places, where all these influences of religion pass through it and some take root there. What makes it different is how the locals deal with it and how political and economic powers shape the physicality and psychological aspect of that space.”
For Poodien, the sewang ritual mentioned by Nadia is emblematic of this condition: “It felt like we were mentally travelling to the source — the primal religion — where it originated in the pre-modern society, where the Shaman is at the centre and acts as the middle-person communicator between the human community and the creator.
“My view is not coming from the perspective of exoticism, but from the understanding of how time preserves the elements from the beginning of things up to this point.”
He smiles and adds, “There are always pieces of me and everyone else there.”
KL-born KG Krishnan, a photographer who explores themes of sexuality and gender politics, certainly left a piece of himself back in Kelantan; to be specific, Kampung Balai in Bachok where the Wat Phothikyan is located. He recalls, “The scale of the standing Buddha at Wat Phothikyan would have you in awe, especially when you’d been driving down a coastal road and suddenly found the statue coming into view through the trees.”
The winner of the Golden Peacock Excellent Photography Works Award at the Xishuangbanna International Festival, KG found that the beauty and presence of the temple enabled him to alter his preconceptions about the East Coast state.
He says, “I wondered just how funny it was that with the rumours about Kelantan being a radical Islamist state, this statue stood here, unopposed. Meanwhile in KL, people have been taking offence to just about every single religious symbol or statue on bogus claims. So perhaps the radicals weren’t even out here, in Kelantan.”
This realisation brought KG a lot of peace, a shift in perception that translated in his artwork for the exhibition. He says, “What I can say with great conviction is that Kelantan is nothing close to what it seems through the political paragraphs that appear in the press. The state and the land in itself is a beautiful place — and even magical at times.”
“Khabar dan Angin: Excursus on Faith in Kelantan” runs till March 16, at Galeri Reka, Balai Seni Visual Negara. Open daily 10am-6pm. Free admission. Artist talk moderated by Yap Sau Bin on Saturday, March 12 (4pm).