Alena Murang may be a little shy, but she definitely can be seen as an inspiration. She paints, plays at least 3 different music instruments, dances, teaches musical instruments and helps schools. She really can do it all! If you’re an aspiring artist, this interview is a definite must read.
What’s unique about your art?
I think everyone’s artwork is unique because it comes from within them, right? But I guess mine is inspired by Borneo, so a lot of my artworks are either portraits of local people or tribal designs. I think there are not many young Borneo artists, so that’s what makes me unique.
Why did you choose this specific path, drawing more traditional Borneo themed pieces?
It’s gonna sound really cheesy, but I didn’t choose it. It just comes. Like if you ask a musician why they play a certain kinda music, it’s cause it comes from inside, right? So for me, I was born in Borneo, my dad is Kelabit (tribe from Borneo), my mom is half English half Italian and I grew up in Kuching. In Malaysia, people don’t see me as Malaysian, when I’m in England, people see me as Asian. So, I’m like stuck, questioning where I belong to. So, I started exploring Borneo more and I realised that that’s my roots. I’m more drawn to the Borneo culture. So I guess, it took a lot of self-searching.
How long have you been drawing?
Drawing seriously, since 2012. Basically, after I graduated from university, I worked at management consultant for two years and then in 2013, I went to art school and graduated last year. I have always wanted to do art but when I did my A-Levels, I didn’t do art and when I went to university, I couldn’t do art… Then I had foot surgery and couldn’t do much at all. So, I decided to buy paints and started painting for fun. Then one day my friend asked to commission a simple piece and I was like “okaaay,” and then another friend and then commissions kept coming. And I thought to myself, I really enjoy doing this and if I push myself, I can make a living out of it. So the next step is convincing the parents, right? That took a while. It’s not like they were against it, but they obviously just want the best for me, right? So they were like, “Hey, if you’re an artist, what are you going to do? How are you going to sustain yourself, where are you gonna live?” and obviously I didn’t have answers to all those questions, so it took a while to convince them. Once I managed to convince them, I went to art school. Even after I graduated from art school, they were like, “What are you going to do? You’re going back to the corporate world right?” And I was like, “Nonono. I really want to do this. I believe I can do it.”
Do you think it’s possible to make a living in Malaysia just by doing art?
I think the art scene here is really growing. I’m more towards fine arts so as a young fine artist, I don’t think you can make a living out of it just yet. But if you take on other jobs on the side like design jobs or mural jobs, then you can make a living.
Are you doing art full time?
*laughs* No. I work for “Teach for Malaysia” full time. It’s an NGO but we work alongside the Ministry of Education. It’s a global network, so there is Teach for Malaysia, Teach for India, Teach for America and all that. Teach for Malaysia is about 5 years old. And we hire young people with degrees, train them up and support them to be teachers. The Ministry of Education hires them and puts them in schools that need help. We call them the ban 5 and ban 6 schools. It isn’t just about teaching, it’s about fixing problems. Like if this student can’t come to school, what am I going to do to get him transport to come to school? Like there was this one girl that realised that kids weren’t doing their homework, so she visited their houses and realised they don’t have space to do their homework, so she kinda made a space. I don’t teach, I do strategy. I do that and the people there really support my artwork as well. So, I do get to paint everyday.
Earlier you mentioned that you studied a year in art school. Many people say that art schools, regardless if it’s painting or music and whatnot, kills their creativity. Do you agree?
I don’t know, it’s a very interesting debate. I just did the foundation course so that’s like before your Bachelor’s Degree, right? All my classmates were like 18, 19 and I was like 23. So, the course was designed not to teach how to paint, how to draw, but it taught us how to observe society, how to observe objects and comment on everything. Like, you know, here’s a chair. Let’s talk about the chair… for one hour. After my foundation course, I was wondering if I should I do a Bachelor’s Degree. Degree in Fine Arts. I talked to my art lecturers as well and they said, “Depends on you.” Like every art institution is an institution. So, they’re gonna want to teach you something and not teach you something. Some of my art lecturers told me that I shouldn’t go and that I should explore instead. There are 2 sides to the coin, I guess, and it also depends on your teachers. So, I had this one lecturer who asked us, “So, how do you think we grade you in art school?” And nobody knew but everybody was panicking, asking ourselves how we’re going to get A. Then my lecturer said, “Sometimes, we have to give grades just to give it to the ministry and for us it doesn’t matter. Art school is more about conversation and feedback.” He also told us, “You have to know all the rules so that you know how to break them.” I really appreciate my course.
Speaking of art being subjective, if you’re an artist, there will be people that love your work and there will be people that think your work is rubbish. So, do you try to find a balance or do you just go, “you know what, this is my thing, I don’t care what people think”?
Again, very tough. Cause if you want to sell, then you need to paint what people like but then again, if you see some of the most successful artists, they kinda like, stay true to themselves and put it out there. As a young artist, I do take commissions because I can charge more for commissions, so it sustains me. I know what people want and I just paint it. But now, I try to give myself time and space to just paint whatever I want. Just see how it goes, I guess. Art is just so subjective. Sometimes it’s just not about what you see, right? Take Richard Prince for example. Recently, he screenshot Instagram photos, made it into posters and sold them for 90,000 bucks. So there is this question. He didn’t create that, so why are people buying it? Art is just meant to be a commentary about lives and society. So, sometimes it doesn’t need to look visually pleasing, but it’s more about the art making process. I’m trying to explore that more now. Move away from commission and focus more on the process of making art and you don’t know what the output is going to look like.
Since art is subjective, how do you deal with criticisms? What if you produce a piece, you look at it and think, “this is the best shit ever” but your lecturer or whoever hates it?
It depends on your mood, I guess. It’s hard but you learn to deal with it. Like for me, it was really heart-breaking at first. Like you spend 10 hours on one piece and then it’s not good enough. I started to question myself if I’ll ever be good enough. So, I think for me, I started to look more on the flip side. People see things differently, like some people like it, some people hate it. But basically, what is your purpose as an artist? Is it to please people, is it to express yourself, is it to make social commentary?
Is it demotivating when you put in 10 hours of work and people don’t like it and then there is some other artist out there who screenshots Instagram photos and sells it for 90,000 bucks?
I think if you ask me a few years ago, it would have been demotivating, but now no. I think Richard Prince is hilarious. A lot of people say Richard Prince is a fraud but I like to see it as more towards commenting on society. He observes and he just expresses on whatever medium. So, no, I don’t find it demotivating, I actually find it pretty inspiring. And I don’t know a single good artist where everyone loves their work.
You say every artist should have a purpose, so what is your purpose?
Thanks for asking that question. I’m still exploring right now but well, my purpose… Hmmm, okay, I’ll take you a few years back. So, before, my purpose was to learn the technical skills and learn how to play with different mediums. Then it went more towards self-discovery, I guess. Now, my purpose is more about focusing on people in my tribe and the Penan tribe. So, Kelabit and Penan. I do that by getting portraits of the elders and drawing them. And when I draw them, I try to explore their stories, like their lives are so simple but so beautiful. My dad’s generation is the first generation to leave the kampung and jungle. So, my grandparent’s generation is so different from my dad’s generation and my dad’s generation is so different from my generation. We’re the first group of kids to not live in the rainforest. My grandparent’s generation have such beautiful stories. Their lives are so different, so I think that’s what I wanna communicate and appreciate.
What’s your favourite piece and what’s the story behind it?
The Penans are some of the poorest people in the world, I think. So, this Penan guy’s long house is beside mine and we always go over during the weekend. So, I went back during Chinese New Year. Me, my mom and my dad were sitting with the headman and his wife. And then this guy walks in and he’s so animated. He just walks into the longhouse with the biggest smile on his face and he was so loud. Then he just sat down. I don’t understand much of Penan but when he was talking, he was like an Italian, you know, lively, with all these hand gestures and everything. He was wearing this broken watch and telling stories about my dad’s late brother who I never knew. He was also telling stories about my grandfather who I also never knew. So, I thought it was quite special. Like this whole series of portraits that I’m doing, I don’t have portraits of my own grandparents because I don’t have photos of them. So part of my journey is also about finding my grandparents through all these other people that have stories about them. Many of these people have poor living conditions. Like they don’t know what a sewage is. So, I was asking my dad, what can I do to help them? And my dad said, if you want to help them, you can’t just go and build them a toilet because they don’t know what it is. So, you have to go and tell them, why you need a toilet, why it’s healthy, all these kinda things. And then my dad was like, “you know if you go back there, they’ll really appreciate it because your great grandfather used to always help them.” Only then did I realise that we actually had a long standing relationship with this Penan village and I never knew.
Moving on to your music. When did you start?
I started as a kid actually. Classical guitar when I was 10, traditional dance when I was 6. My main instrument is the sapeh. So, how it happened was, a bunch of us girl cousins used to dance and we used to choreograph our dance to the CD track. One day, we wanted to make our dance longer and my mom was like, “Hey, why don’t you girls just go and learn the sapeh?” So, seven of us went to play the sapeh. We were the first girls to play the sapeh because traditionally, girls weren’t allowed to play it. So yeah, I picked up sapeh when I was 14.
You started off with classical guitar, so why did you move towards the more traditional side of things?
I didn’t really move away from it. I still play classical guitar alongside the saxophone. So, my mom is an anthropologist, and although she’s not the Malaysian one, she’s the one pushing me to do all the traditional stuff. So it’s all just a part of me. It was a natural transition.
What’s unique about the sapeh as compared to more contemporary instruments?
Sapeh is actually very easy to learn. The hardest thing is maintenance. Maintenance sometimes makes you wanna cry. I have 9 sapehs at home and for some reason, before every gig, they will decide to go crazy. Strings will break, pickups stop working, frets drop off and every sapeh is different. The strings we use are fishing strings, so we have to look for the right fishing strings. So, how’s it different? We learn from hearing, not from notes. I think now, someone has started putting notes to it and stuff but I’m not great with theory. After we learn like the basic traditional tunes, every sapeh player has his or her own style. So, there’s no right or wrong way to play it. There is no standard tuning, you tune it to whatever you want. There is no chords, so you just play the song on the bottom string. But now, people modify the sapeh, so you can move the frets around. It’s a very personal instrument.
Do you perform a lot in the Klang Valley?
Yeah, I perform like once a month or so. If people want to hear it, I’ll play. But there isn’t a specific place for you to go and watch it. There used to be a place, The Warehouse, in Petaling Street and they always used to have jam sessions and you get like crazy cool people coming in. People with bamboo flutes, Chinese instruments and double basses. That was a really good space but it closed down. Now I don’t know. If I wanted to, I’d probably try Merdekaya. I’ve played at Kedai Sebelah, Subang and at the French Music Festival a few years ago.
Do you think awareness is a major problem for the traditional music scene here in Malaysia? Malaysia is supposed to be a country rich in culture and heritage but if you ask an average Malaysian if he/she knows who Ravi Shankar is, nobody knows.
I think it’s because there’s no exposure. You can’t just tell people, “Hey, traditional music is really cool, Ravi Shankar is awesome.” You actually have to show them. But then, traditional music is not very accessible to the listener. It’s a challenge to make traditional music more relevant. I think the general idea is, traditional music is really boring, it is meant for the village anyway. But I think collaborations could change that. Like, you know, there are people that learn the tabla, gendang, really talented people. And if you just pair it together with a guitar or something and perform at Laundry, for example, it could be really cool.
What are some of your favourite performances overseas?
The most recent one was in America, with the Diplomats of Drum. We travelled the mid-west, had about seven gigs and the rest were all workshops. I don’t know what my favourite is because they were all very good. Our tour was called Caravan Serai and it’s purpose is to bridge the understanding between Muslim majority countries and communities in America that are like “one race.” We don’t preach or anything, we just play music. And they will be like, “Oh, these guys are from Malaysia and Malaysia is a Muslim country. And they’re like 5 different races, 6 different religions but they’re all the same.” So, it was all about really getting through to people and making a change through music.
Alena will be a panelist at the Borak Arts Youth event in Kuching on 13 June to share about promoting Sarawak-based art through artreprenuership. Read more about it at BAYS’ website.
She will also be running a workshop on “Highland Arts” in Ba’Kelalan at the e-Borneo Knowledge Fair 5 (EBKF5) on the 15th to 17th of November. The EBKF5 showcases the use of ICTs for development in rural communities, and welcomes anyone who is passionate, experienced and/or actionable in the areas of indigenous art and craft, art promotion and ICTs for development. Learn more on EBKF5’s website.
Also, don’t forget to check out Alena on her social media profiles!