Remembering Warisan Nusa @ Badan Warisan Malaysia

After buying a copy of Warisan Nusa years ago, I only browsed it. This exhibition reminded me to read it, and appreciate the great volume that it is. Ilse Noor was commissioned by Shell Malaysia in 1985, to make 24 etchings based on Malaysian buildings with heritage value. The book includes the artist’s jottings when visiting each of Malaysia’s 13 states, with a lyrical translation into Bahasa Melayu by Adibah Amin. Ilse’s road trip begins across the ocean, at a Bidayuh Longhouse and the Kuching courthouse, and ends at the ruins of Kota Datuk Purba and Makam Tok Pelam in one Terengganu cemetery. Her approach for this commission is stated in the book’s preface, “(m)y weapon is my pencil and the trail I leave behind will be of pictures and notes. Forward, towards East we rush.”

Kg. Mongkos – Sarawak (1986)

As a travelogue, Ilse’s running commentary informs the underlying emotions, that translates into her depictions. Ferried in a boat or a ride-sharing taxi, waking up to indefinite noises or a splendid view, solitary or human encounters within a building, haunted or not – these experiences matter, in how a place is remembered, then pictured here. Melaka is recalled in the fondest terms, where Mesjid Tranquerah is “incredibly beautiful”, looking out of the minaret at Mesjid Kling shows “an overwhelming view of Melaka (…) Out there I see figures like dragons and mermaids…”, and her first impression of the ‘Rumah Penghulu Natar’ is “of a cascade of rainbow colours on tiles, woodwork and glass.”

Mesjid Tranquerah – Melaka (1986)

Ilse’s printed illustrations are remarkable for its masterful compositions. Most buildings are not presented from the front, but from the side or back. Such vantage points allow for the delineation of shadows, which look great in etchings, yet invoke an unsought sense of nostalgia. Nevertheless, her night scenes are undeniably lyrical, with full moon hanging in the sky. The texts occasionally mention crumbling staircases and ruined facades; The pictures clearly illustrate architectural elements such as roofs, balustrades, and stilts & columns. Her clouds are always smoky, and the few etchings with fantastical visual elements, such as the high-contrast bricks of ‘Rumah Tangkak – Johor’, and the mist that envelops ‘Mesjid Tranquerah – Melaka’, point to sublime observations when one experiences old buildings in person.

Rumah Tangkak – Johor (1986)

This road trip took place in 1985, most etchings are labelled 1985/86 then copyrighted by Shell in 1987, and the volume was published only in 1991. How many of these places still exists today, what more recognized and maintained as heritage buildings? I never heard of Masjid Kampung Kling, although the guesthouse I stayed in my last visit to the UNESCO World Heritage Site, was located just 150 metres away. This realization exposes my middle-class hypocrisy – I have travelled around the world to visit heritage sites belonging to other alien cultures, yet have no knowledge of those much closer to home. As Ilse writes about her stay in a Kota Kinabalu hotel room, two days before a historic state election, “There it is, right in my heart a painful pull, a yearning to travel to far-away places, and without closing my window or switching off the airconditioning, I fall asleep.”

Istana Bandar – Selangor (1986)

“I leave the place, walking away from the lights and noise into some silent streets to my right. A beautiful round moon hangs in the sky, bathing palm trees, roofs and houses in its soft fluid light. It flows round the cupola of a mosque and caresses the curvaceous wall of a pompous villa – but how strange. The pleasant and gay impression gives way to a feeling of inexplicable sadness. The villa is deserted, windows stand open, its beautiful white shell is filled with impenetrable darkness. Trees grow on its roof like hair or hands, which call me to come over. Yes, tomorrow I will come, I will search for you and I will draw you. I can hardly sleep tonight.”
- Snippet from ‘Chapter 3: Kedah Darul Ahman’ in Warisan Nusa: Shell Book of Malaysian Heritage, Ilse Noor (translated by Adibah Amin), 1991

Makam Tok Pelam – Terengganu (1986)