Born in Singapore in 1964, Zai Kuning has lived for extended periods in Singapore, Japan, Indonesia and Malaysia. He completed a Bachelor of Fine Arts at LASALLE College of the Arts in 1995. A pioneering multidisciplinary artist who works across painting, drawing, performance, dance, theatre, music, sculpture, photography, film and writing, Zai has regularly collaborated with other artists, dancers and musicians who specialise in Asian classical traditions. He has worked for more than two decades researching the history and culture of South Asian peoples.
Zai engages with the idea of democracy as a faulty device in the experience of Southeast Asian peoples. His concern is not to ask explicitly, “What is democracy?”, but rather to constantly restate the displacement and disenfranchisement of communities in the wake of capitalist modernization as it has played out in Singapore. He is cautious about the continued influence of imported foreign “experts” in anthropology or ethnology and instead advocates for the cosmopolitanism of Singaporeans’ own ethnic history. In this sense Zai Kuning is an easy fit within the paradigm of this exhibition. Through his art, he presents the physical and psychological trauma of specific experiences of social change and, more broadly, challenges the ideologies that have initiated the new terms of modern Asia.
In June I travelled from Singapore to Johor Bahru, over the causeway in Malaysia, to visit Zai Kuning at his home and studio. There is a school next door, and it was a sports day, with frequent sirens and noisy cheering. Zai’s large open studio is under cover at the back of the house. Zai prefers JB to the island city of Singapore. He enjoys the peacefulness and space to work but hopes to move with his family to a wooden house nearer the sea. Once we start talking, Zai’s conversation quickly moves to the history of the Malay people and the Riau Archipelago.
Zai Kuning: My suffering is that the Malay people don’t understand their history. The first man is Dapunta Hyang. Some people don’t like him because he is actually a figure like Alexander the Great, a conqueror. He wanted to conquer the world, and the Malay people mostly don’t know about him. Why? Politically they just talk about the history of Parameswara. But Parameswara is nothing to me.
From very young I read about him but I know this part of the history. OK, we say seventh century to thirteenth century is Dapunta Hyang. Fourteenth century is Parameswara. And they both [came] from Palembang, from Sumatra, to fight with the Johor Empire. Dapunta Hyang was the earliest king who said, “Malaysia, Sumatra, Java, Myanmar, all belong to me”. We call him Sikander after Alexander the great. Beautiful, but nobody knows about this story. And he is not Muslim. That’s the problem. They denied him, the whole empire denied him, because he was Hindu and Buddhist. In Palembang or the island of Singapore in the seventh century there’s only Hinduism and Buddhism. Islam came in the fourteenth century. And that is with Parameswara as well. But he is also not a Muslim—I think he pretended only for political reasons.
Bala Starr: How long have you been working with the history of Dapunta Hyang and what was your first interest?
ZK: I would say 1999. I have been searching for these people [the Orang Laut or sea gypsies of the Riau Archipelago]. Do you know how much trouble I had? They are the original people of the islands, the sea-faring islanders who traveled from island to island to island and claimed everything as their own. But now they cannot have the rights [to this land].
BS: You are talking about their traveling and their nomadic existence, and this has also been the basis for your own research and practice.
ZK: You know I was born in a village. A Bugis village near Pasir Panjang, in the south-western part of Singapore island. We saw many islands in front of us and we always used boats. We always used ships and boats as our vehicles. My father’s side. We didn’t think about motorbikes, we didn’t think about cars. Every day we thought, can we make a boat or not?
We would always go towards the sea. We go to Pulau Bukom, Pulau Brani and many other islands, and the boat—many different kinds—is our pride. That is the idea of a vehicle, you can go very far, very far. The better the wood you use, you go very far. Seven hours, eight hours. I go fifteen hours, eighteen hours, twenty hours. We took water, we had everything.
BS: These were the destinations of your family. Did you also travel beyond the southern Singapore islands, to the islands in the Riau Archipelago? Do you call it exploring?
ZK: No, not exploring. We are at home, because that is our home. Few hundred islands, everything is our house. We can go here, we can go there. Mixed marriage here from this island and mixed marriage there. They’re all mixed marriages. They keep moving here and there. They are not exploring, they are living their lives. This is completely misunderstood. They are completely discriminated [against]. Moving from one island to another and mixed marriages between—it’s natural. It’s very natural.
This archipelago is island-based. You know how many islands there are? Three thousand. They are not deserted. These people have been moving around in these islands for more than 2000 years. And their psychology is not the same as nomadic people who are in the desert in the Middle East or in Australia for instance. They deal with water. They deal with the sea. But this sea doesn’t have waves. It’s flat. Waves would mean South China Sea, open sea. But these Malay people were living with flat water. Their boats are different, they don’t need big ships. So that is the world that I’m living with.
BS: You talked about the different psychology of these island people. What sort of differences are you meaning?
ZK: Islanders are very peaceful. The only problem I discover is religion. Fishermen don’t need religion because fishing already is very religious. You bring food to people but this religious idea at times is too much. It’s just too much. Fishermen should be left alone. They are the ones who provide food. Farmers too.
Where I grew up it was very peaceful. We are kampong [village] people. I am a kampong boy. We climb a tree, we take a mango, go to the river. My unhappiness for the Malay people is that we have lost all this already. Everything is destroyed. We make boats, we make houses ourselves, we make everything ourselves, we don’t hire people. Now it’s all gone, of course. Only contractors make. That’s why I left Singapore and came here.
BS: To Johor?
ZK: Actually we plan to move further. I want to go to Muar [a coastal town closer to Malacca, north of Johor Bahru]. I want to live in a wooden house. I think that is the best for me. It’s closer to the sea. Here we have no sea. Growing up every day I would swim at the sea, jump at the river. That’s my spirit. I am already old. I am already fifty. To think like desert always I cannot. Too dry. But I have to wait.
BS: Can we continue to talk about your sense of place, the kampong and the sea, and how your traditional cultural experience is more nomadic? How your cultural life connects with a strong sense of living and travelling by the sea?
ZK: OK. I must explain something to you. I am not a Malay man. I am a Bugis. We come from Makassar [on the island of Sulawesi, Indonesia]. The Bugis are warlords from Makassar. They were warriors. Thousands of them came to Johor because the Johor Empire had no army. This capital of colonialism came to the Straits of Malacca, to Johor and Singapore, and the Johor Empire had no army. Can you believe it? The Bugis came to Johor to defend Johor in colonial times and became the power behind the Johor Sultanate.
I am a Bugis, my father is a Bugis, my village is all Bugis. The Bugis people are strong. They always fight. They can kill very easily. Do you want me to show you something?
[We move outside to the studio adjacent to the kitchen. There are work benches, shelves, chairs and a low wooden platform on the concrete floor. Small table-top and larger freestanding sculptures of wood, found tools and functional objects, wax and thread are all around. They are soon to be transported for exhibition at Ota Fine Arts in Singapore. From time to time the sounds from the nearby school sports activities overwhelm our conversation.]
ZK: We are Bugis. I’ll show you. [Throws a knife into the wooden platform that is part of Dapunta Mapping the Melayu, 2014.]
Always misunderstood, the Bugis. But the Bugis people are, we are warlords. Warriors. And very grumpy. [Throws knife.] The Malay people are different. The Bugis people also capture the Malay world. They are also assholes. They are not nice people. But they come to this area to serve the Johor Empire. Few thousand of them with big ships and they are good like that, very good. I was trained from young to throw a knife. But we cannot kill people. Not any more, since the time of Raja Ali Haji. He said, “Throw away your knife, take a pen and write”. OK, there came a point, he was telling all the warriors, because a few thousand warriors who can really throw knives, this is a different kind of problem too. And he said, “Stop it. Take a pen”.
Raja Ali Haji was born in Selangor (although some sources state that he was born in Penyengat, off Bintan Island) in 1808 or 1809, and was the son of Raja Ahmad, who was titled Engku Haji Tua after accomplishing the pilgrimage to Mecca. He was the grandson of Raja Ali Haji Fisabilillah (the brother of Raja Lumu, the first Sultan of Selangor). Fisabilillah was a scion of the royal house of Riau, who were descended from Bugis warriors who came to the region in the eighteenth century. His mother, Encik Hamidah binti Malik, was a cousin of her father and also of Bugis descent. Raji Ali Haji soon relocated to Penyengat as an infant, where he grew up and received his education.
He is the one who formalised Malay language with the idea of “unification” as many islanders speak with different “lingo”. He also the one who began promoting press or printing of writing for all in Riau. As in this period most people don’t read nor write as it’s an oral history tradition. No writings but a lot of storytelling.
You know in Bintan, people are so scared of me. [Throws knife.] They all run away from me.
BS: Zai, I’ve got to ask you about these beautiful sculptures here in the studio. This is a rib cage [points towards Justice, 2014]?
ZK: Yes, it’s a rib cage, you are right—the wisdom of the ancient world. If you want to make something float you need a rib and they [the Buginese people] studied the ribs and they made a boat. The idea that ships and boats all come from. They realised that the rib is the structure that can make it work. That’s the Bugis world.
It’s from my childhood. If you want to make something float you have to make a rib. It is a philosophy that things just grow. There is one thing and then something else will grow.
Feel your body. There is a centre at the back. That is how the Bugis discovered how to make a ship. There must be a centre and then something at the side. Beautiful actually.
BS: These are for the Ota Fine Arts exhibition later this month? I understand this will also be your first commercial gallery exhibition, is that right?
ZK: Yeah, I think they are nice people, because I don’t tend to trust commercial galleries. I don’t sell work at all, for more than ten years. But when Christina talked to me and Yasuko talked to me I said OK, because to be honest with you I am also poor, and I know many people want to buy my work and I don’t want to sell it. I only make my work, I say, no, I’m not going to sell it. My wife suffers from that too, she says, “Everyone wants to buy your work and you don’t want to sell it”.
Why am I so stubborn? I cannot trust people easily. An artist’s life is very difficult.
BS: Do you feel connected to other artists who are living these unusual lives in different parts of the world?
ZK: Not really. I think for most artists they find a philosophy, and then this philosophy can change everything. It’s not business. My suffering is I cannot find a philosophy. I am waiting—every day waiting for a new thought that can change everything. I don’t have it yet.
BS: You are very patient.
ZK: If you cannot wait you bluff everything. You just bluff people. The wisdom, you cannot pick it up. Only if you wait will new thinking come to you. Wisdom is something that needs waiting.
BS: Have you been conscious since you were a young artist that you were waiting?
ZK: Yes. My father is a great artist you know. You saw him already. He taught me that you have to wait. If you cannot wait, it will not come to you. All these other artists they did not wait. They are still making like craftsmen. Of course you can paint things easily, but artists, you wait for a reason. And then it’s something so simple and nice that comes. I want that. I am only fifty. That’s why I am alone. If I can wait I think clarity will come.
BS: Zai tell me, how do you begin a work like this [Justice, 2014]? If you are waiting for an idea, the right idea to come, how do you then move forward from one day to the next?
ZK: All humanity is suffering. I am trying to speak about human suffering, not just enjoying everything, not happiness. It’s all human suffering.
BS: Do you make drawings before you begin the sculptures?
ZK: Yes, I make drawings, I write. The sculpture is object-based.
BS: Do they all happen at the same time? Not one media or practice after the next?
ZK: No, all at the same time. Today I draw, tomorrow I make sculptures.
BS: And the wax, how long have you been using wax? [Gestures to the series of new work in wax including I Don’t Need Religion, 2014.]
ZK: Since 1995. So wax—it’s material that the bee produces and makes into a home. I think about home. I cannot find a home. That is what the sea gypsies are feeling, how can I find a home? How can I settle down and make a house?
BS: You’ve been fairly constant in your use of materials, not always introducing new things but repeatedly using wood, wax, twine, fire—is that right?
ZK: I am very attracted to materials that animals have an association with. I imagine … OK, in my spirit, I saw the animal use the material. And that’s my secret. Even fish!
BS: Like this element [part of the sculpture To Be a Farmer, 2014]? Is it a fishing net?
ZK: It comes from thinking about how they force fishermen to become farmers. I went to this area called Trikora [on Palau Bintan in the Riau Archipelago], a big stretch of beach. It’s now called Club Med Bintan Island. All these companies, they make all these resorts. And then I realised all these fishermen have to move out, and they don’t know where to go. They took their land and then they said, “You guys go ahead now and be farmers”. They are fishermen! How can they be farmers? I cannot accept this. I was arguing with a lot of people. I cannot tahan [stand it], but I stay cool.
BS: You connect social and political ideas about land and sea, the grief of disenfranchised people, with art. You have worked in this area for a long time.
ZK: All these places are beautiful and expensive. And these sea gypsies, the Orang Laut, they are ugly, really they are ugly. The thing is they don’t know what to do. And then they move them to a farm and give them ten cents, one dollar, ten dollars. How can I not be angry? I’ve been to the marine police and asked, “How can you do this to these people?”.
BS: You have done that?
ZK: Yes! I went to the marine police and told them, “You cannot do this to these people, you relocate, you move people properly, responsibly, if that is what has to happen. Not ten cents or one dollar—you make a better house for them, on the coast or an island”. They don’t give them anything! They proposed to all these fishermen: “Say you be farmers lah”. I think I’ll go crazy. I can’t take it.
BS: When you were young were you conscious that change was going to come? Even as a young child you could see this happening?
ZK: We are Bugis people, strong, and we search for a way. We are warriors, resourceful. Even my father fights a lot. Bugis came here to fight. We are not here just for peace.
BS: But you are not literally fighting.
ZK: If there is something valuable to kill, I will throw a knife at it. But forget it, it’s not worth it.
I’m trying to talk about a simple thing also. There are two parts to the history of the Malay world. Like I’ve already said, Parameswara from the fourteenth century, and Dapunta Hyang from the second century. But this earlier world is discriminated [against]. Who discriminates [against] this? It’s the attitudes of LKY [Singapore’s first Prime Minister, Lee Kuan Yew]. He even used Parameswara as a word, as a token, and then he used Raffles as the [hero of our] modern history. When Raffles came to Singapore in the eighteenth century, Singapore already had a big port and LKY destroyed it, and then he destroyed the rest of Malay history. That’s my anger.
If the Malay people could accept [the history of the Malay world], their minds would be deeper.
Bala Starr, Director of the Institute of Contemporary Arts Singapore, was also most recently senior curator at the Ian Potter Museum of Art. She was previously International Program Manager at the Melbourne International Biennial from 1998 to 2000, and Director at the Contemporary Art Centre of South Australia, Adelaide, from 1995 to 1998. She served as a member of committee for the Australia Council, Arts Victoria, the City of Melbourne, NETS Victoria and Linden Centre for Contemporary Arts, among others.
Bala Starr thanks Zai Kuning and Lin Shiyun; Milenko Prvacki (LASALLE College of the Arts) for the drive to Johor Bahru; and Wardah Mohamad (Ota Fine Arts) for her assistance with the transcription of the interview. A shorter version of this interview was published in Issue, no. 3, Port of Call, published by LASALLE College of the Arts, Singapore, in August 2014.
Multidisciplinary artist Jailani Zai Kuning is considered as one of the pioneer experimental artists in Singapore who has redefined what it means to engage in multicultural and multidisciplinary art forms. Zai experiments with different art domains in his artistic pursuits, and is recognized for his multitudinous creative roles, including painter, dancer, poet, sculptor, choreographer, actor, director, musician, playwright and film-maker. His works often push the boundaries of contemporary art and are deemed controversial at times.
In ‘The fleeting world of Dapunta Hyang’, artist Zai Kuning contemplated the pre-Islamic history, arts and culture of the Riau Archipelago. Dapunta Hyang Sri Jayanasa was the first maharaja of Srivijava and the first king of the Malay empire, known for conquering areas in Riau from the late seventh to the early eight centuries. Drawing on this history, the exhibition presented two new works—a sculpture of a boat inspired by the legend of Dapunta Hyang’s twenty thousand strong fleet, and a unique edition of the artist’s video documentation on the Mak Yong opera, reflecting Zai Kuning’s ten–year relationship with a Mak Yong troupe on Mantang Island.