Language of the Jungle @ Richard Koh Fine Art

The neighbourhood gallery celebrates this festive season of giving, by supporting self-taught and socially-conscientious painter Tan Wei Kheng, although the artist being featured in Singapore Biennale 2013 probably factored into the gallerist’s decision to represent him. Selling out by opening day, the exhibition presents illustrations of the Penan people, an indigenous tribe active in rainforest near the Sarawak and Brunei border. Having encountered them while trekking, it is difficult to empathise with realistic paintings which exotic presentation risks trivialising the real issues, and seeing Orang Ulu as the Other.

Let Me See You Again (2014)

Wei Kheng “…composes his paintings as triptychs or mosaics of canvases, constructing a collage of images of their struggle, values and hopes (…) In articulating the Penan’s lived experience, Tan visualises the language of the Penans.” Ong Jo-Lene’s excellent essay complements these paintings by articulating about the tribe’s problems in sustaining their nomadic lifestyle, and their living practices that emphasise on coexisting with the natural habitat. Dichotomies aside, this essay is indispensable in interpreting the artist’s genuine intent to highlight a minority plight by painting cultural loss. When viewed and read together, one can empathise with the shared desire to uphold the rights of an aboriginal people whose “…language fails to express the violence of our world.”

Language of Leaves (2014)

Greyscale images and isolated figures present a conventional approach and a direct message; conversely, works which juxtapose subjects project visual contexts for greater appreciation of socio-cultural concerns. ‘Language of leaves’ depicts a leaf-root sign that indicates the whereabouts of two families, and also serves as an invitation to others. A coin (as trading currency) is threaded into a Penan man’s necklace in ‘The New Hunter’. The blue tarpaulin canvas in ‘Our Beautiful Garden’ makes one wonder about the material used to construct roofs before this. In times when people from a notable gallery is suspected of stealing from one Chinese artist, the spirit of Molong - which interpretations include "not taking more than needed" – is something everyone should learn from.

Our Beautiful Garden (2014)

“When we look at images of the Penans - be it in documentaries or the beautiful paintings here - what do we see? Can we see beyond the exotic? Do we think of them as still existing to teach us lessons in sustainability? A nostalgic trip to the days of living close to nature? A reminder that we have “come so far” from days of “roaming the jungles”? Or can we begin to catch a glimpse of the nuances of what it means to be Penan? Humanity needs to recognise the independence and autonomy of these differences we think of as the “Penan’s way.” That there can be more than one claim to reality.”
- Excerpt from catalogue essay for “Language of the Jungle” exhibition, Ong Jo-Lene, 2014

The New Hunter (2014)