3 - 4 August 2023

Nanyang academy of fine arts

Why more Southeast Asian artists and entrepreneurs are working with indigenous communities

From artists in Malaysia and Singapore collaborating with indigenous communities to ancient craft-making inspiring a social enterprise, ecological sustainability and indigenous cultures are becoming increasingly resonant.

by Reena Devi  /   OCTOBER 29, 2023


This September, London’s internationally renowned museum, Tate, announced the appointment of two new curators, Marleen Boschen and Kimberly Moulton, who specialise in art and ecology as well as First Nations and Indigenous art, respectively. 

Across the pond, museums in the United States put on exhibitions showcasing indigenous art through works by emerging and established artists. For one, the famous Whitney in New York held the city’s first retrospective exhibition of Jaune Quick-to-See Smith’s artwork, an artist from the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes. 

Closer to home, the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts organised its latest edition of the Southeast Asian Arts Forum 2023, Sustainability 2.0: Coding The World That Will Remake Itself.

The hybrid forum ran from August 3 and 4, 2023, featuring artists and speakers across the region, such as Wen Di Sia, a Malaysian writer and researcher who launched the Gerimis Art Project in 2018, an artistic and archiving collective co-producing artworks and cultural content with indigenous Malaysian (Orang Asli) artists and artisans.

Collaborating with indigenous communities 
Sia said she works with key community members who are “already leading their own efforts to recognise, restore, and preserve their arts, culture, and traditions” in several villages across various states, such as the Seletar in Johor, Temuan in Selangor and Negeri Sembilan, Mah Meri in Selangor, Semai in Pahang and Perak, Temiar in Perak, and Batek in Pahang.

“The key learning point is putting aside all my understanding of how the world works (from what school and society taught me) and living with the Orang Asli and understanding how they view the world because a lot of their practices require sensitive and intimate knowledge of the relationship between themselves and their lived environment, from the rivers to the rocks to the mountains, right down to the insects and flowers,” Sia explained.

nstead of reading research papers or books, the 31-year-old was compelled to simply sit and listen to their stories and follow them on their daily activities like gathering natural produce, planting in their kebun, or just swimming in the river. 

“The most memorable experience is getting a nickname in the village because I am there so often and also because I would leave for a while when I went back to my life in the city, so they gave me a name that meant ‘longing’ when I was gone,” she added.

Art borne from ecological grief 
Sia is also working as a co-artist and researcher on a project exploring ecological grief by UK-based artist Youngsook Choi, titled “In Every Bite of The Emperor”, supported by Heart of Glass UK, Arts Council England, and British Council Malaysia.

One of the questions posed by the project during the ongoing climate crisis is: How do we — through a process of grieving, gathering, storytelling, collective healing, and solidarity — imagine new ways to recover our lost connections and move towards a shared future? 

Her attempt to answer this question led to a digital publication calling for everyone, be it individuals, state agencies, or corporates, “to start listening to our indigenous people and their traditional ecological knowledge and wisdom, as the solutions to the crisis that our planet is facing are within their practices.”


Read the full article here