A Frustrating Drive from Penang to Grik

 

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I drove to and back from Grik day last week. It left me with really mixed feelings. The Rapid Ferry ride to the Penang mainland was lovely. It’s so less stressful than using the bridge. Once off in Butterworth, you start driving east, the air clears, the rural and agricultural activities fan out to the sides. The hills become part of your driving view. Then the jungles green calm your eyes as you drive the straight forward road towards Grik. It’s quite beautiful. You start to calm as you shrug off the urban vibe of Penang and Butterworth.

 

Lunas is by passed, and then you hit the huge bizarre looking ‘MBI Desaku’ vision of a perfectly fake suburbia with its massive fantasy playgrounds with perfectly maintained road side topiaries, polka dot painted little houses and coaches full of tourists. All set up for your drive-by entertainment. There’s organized homestays there. I thought of the film ‘The Truman Show’. Personally it made my hair stand on end. Creepy. “Kulim Hi-Tech Park” is sign posted everywhere as you drive ahead and leave it all behind.

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As you get out of the lorry laden dual carriage ways, you start to wind uphill. You begin to take a deep breath at the beauty of the jungle, huge trees, amazing canopies, those jungle greens. Then, you notice the horror. Our beautiful jungle hills riddled with logging tracks. I’m driving on the highway and there’s no where to stop to take photos. Next there is no mercy land clearing and terracing for palm oil (probably smaller independent private or quasi government companies?). Like…. who gets to destroy all this amazing jungle land in this ruthless way? All on gradients way too steep and in opposition to the guidelines recommended by RSPO (Roundtable of Sustainable Palm Oil).

You drive around a big bend in the road and your view is full on open burning hills and crazy steep terracing. Where is the MPOC ( Malaysian Palm Oil Council) on all of this? The MPOC has in the past reacted in knee jerk defense to criticism from overseas , but here along the public highways going across the country, such blatant bad agricultural practice takes place in full view of everyone.

Change will only happen when the industry as a whole, and surely led by the MPOC (This has to be reason for this organization?), starts to put into practice and lobby, the fact that palm oil is a brilliant plant & oil that can be grown with best agricultural practices in a responsible manner. Its not about a few companies following RSPO guidelines in their own ‘holier than thou’ little bubbles. That is not good enough. It is shameful in this day and age when the industry refuses to come together to ensure that ‘the whole’ behaves responsibly. It is unacceptable that a few companies sit on their high horse about being ‘RSPO’ while allowing the others to ignore and refuse to join the world wide call for a more sustainable attitude towards our dwindling unique natural environment.

There is no doubt that the business of large scale agriculture is a compromise for the environment, but a small compromise on huge profits by the businesses is worth taking in the long term in order to ensure that agriculture can be successful alongside conservation. I have always believed that there are many definitions of ‘good mangement’. The definitions swing about depending on whether you stand on the side of profit only, or sustainability with profit. Everyone can take a stand for the longer term future.

Palm oil is a product that is stable, healthy, versatile, with a myriad range of uses. It is not only highly profitable & sustainable but can truly pull rural communities out of poverty when the effort is taken to grow it using best practices. The change has to come from inside the industry & it needs strong leaders. Change cannot genuinely be implemented when they are just made as a reaction to statements & noise made by international NGO’s & lobbyists ( some funded by competitive oil crops) who more often than not, know little about how the plantations function themselves.

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Driving just further along, hundreds of acres of failed ( possibly Felcra?) rubber left so abandoned, eroded, looking shameful. Cleared to make profit on the logging and planting, then left to struggle to even grow back to wild. Looking at all this failed waste land makes me cringe & want to hide.

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As a Malaysian I am embarrassed by the appalling mis-use and abuse of our unique jungles and environment in the name of ‘bettering the life’ of rural community small holders and share holders. Its obvious when you drive through these areas that the only people who have benefitted from the erosion and these now utterly useless plantation’s, are the contractors that did the logging and clearance, and those that did such a bad job of planting the crop. Huge profits for a few. Zero benefit for anyone left after.

The mountains Gunung Kenderong and Gunung Kerunai come into view. The almost prehistoric views, the lush tropical hills distract your eyes and mind away from the complete mess before. The mountains lead the way to Grik.

The right turn into Grik takes you along rows of relatively new built shop houses turned into boarded up swiftlet ( bird nest) houses. Long rows of them. You pass a hoarded off timber yard full of logs. A few lorries with huge logs have passed us along the way.

From the main road that would allow you to by-pass the town without a thought, you need to deliberately turn left at the Shell station & this takes you into the main street of what’s left of the old town. There are definitely still some leftovers from the past here. It does make me immediately nostalgic.

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Some of the wooden shophouses have still got the eclectic personality & vintage wooden style of their beginnings. From their fronts still hang the painted advertising chiks, wooden blinds & wooden shutters. These do provide charm & colour. Inside, their walls still hold up the tall vintage wooden cupboards filled with goods on display. These pull at my memories of childhood growing up in the small towns throughout Malaysia. There is definitely beauty here. People seem very friendly & curious to see strangers. And, bright flowers greet you as you park.

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There are colourful gatherings of Orang Asli families in front of the vintage wooden supply shops. The ladies in brightly patterned clothes. Many of the mothers are breastfeeding their babies while the toddlers play along the 5 foot ways. There’s lots of talking going on. They all seem to be waiting for a lift somewhere. They have bags of supplies and have bought things like tools and mats to take back with them. There is a lot of plastic replacements for things that were before, made in iron, tin, wood & rattan.

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However, for all its charm, colour and hints at the past, the whole town is totally overwhelmed, from outskirts to centre, by the shrill soundtrack of artificial swiftlet calls. A highly irritating frequency which immediately drives me to distraction.

Grik & its surrounding area is obviously a wide ranging swiftlet birds nest breeding area. It has the same sound frequency & feel of towns I’ve seen in Indonesia totally taken over by swiftlet farming. What about guidelines? No one seems to care. The majority of the swiftlet houses are extremely bland, with cement structural additions & towers, boarded up for the birds. There are smeary stains at the entrance holes for the birds. These buildings are merely artificial caves modified to attract the swiftlets to set up home & build their highly sought after edible nests, made from their mucous & saliva. Humans here learn to live with a frequency of sound pollution which I’m sure leads to illness, madness and cancer.

Below the bird nesting floors are restaurants, shops and businesses. Health and safety guidelines for swiftlet farming are actually very thorough on paper. There are rules and detailed guidelines on how far these farms can be next to human habitation, playgrounds, food production. Not here though. No compliance. No enforcement. All too familiar.

There is good food and I swear the best, lightest roti’s I have eaten for a long while. Great roti telur too, all cooked fresh for you on the hotplate at the entrance. Restaurant Thaibah. The rojak, however, is too sweet. Like everyone else it seems, the only way to really enjoy this delicious tuck is to turn blind eyes to the fact that the swiftlet farms above you leave much to be desired in terms of cleanliness. Public health & safety? Don’t think about it!

We walked the loop around the town & also tested out the mee soup tom yam at another coffeeshop run by Thai ladies. Very lovely lemony & light seafood tomyam noodles.

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I enjoyed looking through all the old supply shops with their selection of parangs, rubber tapping knives, ropes, biscuits, bottled sauces, clogs. Another shop sold baskets, rotan sticks, fish traps, bird cages, bird traps & the most beautiful fine rotan bangles woven by the Orang Asli.

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I ended up buying a selection of ground sheets, made from woven plastic fertilizer bags (Cap Tiger & Crown) all neatly sewn together. They will be strung up as curtains to hide the mess of the shelves in my studio. I bought a lovely, very heavy thick rotan stick to help me with my stretching exercises for my back. Its a solid sturdy thing. I also purchased a practical woven strap belt in a great khaki colour, a basic thing that you can never find in the ‘fashionable’ shops of the larger urban shopping centres. I also could not resist, and had to buy a couple of the Orang Asli woven bangles. These are precious things, so simple but so beautiful because of their exquisite crafting. They are made just from thin woven strips of rattan.

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It’s amazing that humans, so capable of creating incredible beauty seemingly out of nothing, are also equally if not more so, responsible for such selfish destruction of peace for their fellow humans, & the deliberate erosion of the amazing natural beauty that Malaysia has been blessed with. It is especially so frustrating when all these businesses can be run successfully with good and responsible practice.

Development can take place in line with sustainable practices and a responsibility to protect and conserve. Its not rocket science to do this. Yet, we seem too lazy and too hung up with making a fast buck at the expense of the future. I can’t believe that this short 2 .5 hour drive to Grik ended up making me so frustrated for Malaysia. It encapsulates everything that is precious, everything that is at risk, and everything that we need to change in so many ways.

Phinisi- The Indonesian Art of Boat Building

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The phinisi, a maritime icon of South Sulawesi & of the Indonesian seas, is a traditional & wooden boat, with two masts & seven sails. She is long & slender in style with an elegantly upward reaching prow. Also known by some as a ‘bugis boat’, the phinisi boat building craft is historically centered in the Bulukumba Regency of South Sulawesi, the residents being mainly of Buginese and Makassarese descent. They are still used for coastal & inter-island cargo transportation & fishing. More recently the phinisi have been adapted for use as ‘liveaboard” cruise charter boats in the dive and slow travel tourism sector, particularly in the remote Eastern islands of Indonesia.

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Voyage by phinisi is by far, one of the most satisfying ways to travel through these remote places. The experience takes you back in time & to a pace of travel so opposite to what we have in the ‘modern’ world today. Travel on these phinisi makes you realise that life is more than being bound to technology & a fast stressful life. It immerses you into the natural elements, reviving sleepy & forgotten instincts between your human spirit & the sea, weather & the land. As you sit on the bowsprit of one of these vessels, you fill with a real sense of anticipation as you approach land, & realise the vastness, strength & life within our seas.

In December 2017, I was thrilled at the designation by UNESCO, of Phinisi boatbuilding as an Indonesian ‘Masterpiece of Oral & Intangible Heritage of Humanity’. This is a wonderful acknowledgment of not only the beauty & sea worthiness of this all wooden boat, but a huge appreciation of the skill of the craftsmen who have built her on beaches in South Sulawesi for centuries. The skill has traditionally been passed down from generation to generation.

 

Fewer & fewer phinisi craftsmen are working on the coconut fringed sands of Bulukumba today & there is concern that this maritime tradition will fade as less interest is shown by the younger generation. Raw materials in the form of specialized timber is also a challenge. There are legal issues over the importation & sustainability of the timber from other regions, namely Southeast Sulawesi, Maluku, Kalimantan & Papua. The timber used has to be mature & of good size in order to carve out the keels, prows & ribs of these boats. Hopefully, this listing will ensure that phinisi will live on as a tangible form of sea trade & travel, & will encourage the younger generations of craftsmen to continue building these craft on the beaches of South Sulawesi.

 

In 2007, whilst based in Jakarta, my husband & I, with another family as partners, decided to build a phinisi on Bira Beach. We designed Tiger Blue as a liveaboard phinisi & we wanted to embark on voyages of discovery & adventure with lots of diving, around the islands of Eastern Indonesia. Our idea was to design her so that she would accommodate our families & guests, cater to mixed age groups, a range of activities & to provide spaces more than just an all dive boat. We wanted plenty of deck space, large deck beds, a great big dining table & areas so that people could spread out & do their own thing whilst voyaging on her. The master builder in Bira,  Haji Abdullah took a year to complete the build.

The basic aesthetics of Tiger Blue was designed by my husband David Wilkinson & the late Wouter van den Houten. We’d met Wouter when we had chartered a trip on his own phinisi ‘Majestic’ before making the decision to build Tiger Blue. After the eight day charter with Wouter, we shook hands as friends & he then managed the whole build for us in Bira. Wouter specialised in the mechanical, engineering & maritime elements of Tiger Blue. He was a great sailor & it was brilliant to have had his expertise & passion for Indonesia, its boats & its islands with us as we all went through the process of building Tiger Blue. We couldn’t have done this project without Wouter. However, every step we took we did in collaboration with Haji Abdullah. His skill & spirit as the phinisi maker, was obvious right from start. He somehow breathed the life into the timbers of Tiger Blue. A real project of passion & camaraderie, we really did create a very beautiful ship, steady & strong & in love with the sea.

 

Haji Abdullah, at the final stage of Tiger Blue being winched down the beach into the sea, announced that the whole build had been extremely smooth. It had been one of his best experiences with no hitches & that all through it he said, Tiger Blue, she seemed impatient to get into the sea. It was a wonderful way to describe her incarnation from a specially chosen keel timber on the sand to her completed hull being launched into the sea from the beach in Bira.

 

Haji Abdullah has retired from commercial phinisi building but is still working on special boat building projects in Bira. It would be a real loss to this masterful art of boatbuilding if he retired completely. There would be one less phinisi master craftman working to keep these skills alive.

It has been a real privilege to have been part of this collaboration & it will forever be forged in my mind & memories. The building of Tiger Blue was personally, one of my most life changing experiences. I was terrified of the sea before, not a strong swimmer & with no control over my instincts & fear of it. I have in most part, come to terms with these fears mainly because the voyages around Eastern Indonesian can only be described as magical. Its good to have fear, it keeps you alert but life is a journey of learning & tolerance, & where one should occasionally be thrown out of one’s own comfort zone. It is also a journey where we should take every opportunity to soak in what is around us in this world. We can’t do everything, but with a phinisi, we can marvel at the archipelago that is Indonesia, its myriad seas, its people & natural beauty.

At the most important stages of the build there are rituals, incantations, ceremony & the calling up of spirits. The laying down of the keel timber is the first stage. We went specially to Bira for the ceremony of the laying of the keel timber.

 

Haji Abdullah was there to greet us, as were all the boatbuilders working on Tiger blue, with their families. Offerings of food had been made & laid out on the long keel timber. We all waited for the bomoh to arrive. He brought with him a very fine cockeral. Too fine to be sacrificed we hoped. It was tied by its leg to one of the pieces of wood while proceedings took place.

The blessing of the keel timber was important. It ensures a good build, safety for all involved in the life of the boat, & later, for her safety on the sea.

With the food offerings all displayed, the tools used by all the craftsmen were also placed together on the keel. These comprised of a pile of axes, adzes & a couple of electrical drills & tools. They would all be blessed with good luck & prayers.

The bomoh & Haji Abdullah then took their positions. They squatted & kneeled, one on each side of the keel. The bomoh then lit incense & whispered prayers to the spirits. The cockerel was then brought forward & a little nick made in its comb with a knife. A tiny drop of its blood was dripped into the smoking incense charcoals. He was then held nearby to watch until the end of the proceedings. We all noted that it must have done this many times. The cockerel stood by with such confident poise as if it knew its position & importance in this ceremony.

Haji Abdullah then placed his hand on the end of one of the keel timbers, & the bomoh marked out a section on the end with a chisel & a wooden hammer. He marked a line & then sawed off the end of the whole beam. The bomoh then took this piece of wood, walked down to the beach & whilst uttering more prayers threw the piece of wood into the sea, a sacrifice to the spirits of the sea.

 

The bomoh returned to the front end of the keel & chiseled off the edge of the beam. A spoonful of food( a delicious coconut & palm sugar delicacy) was then placed on the end to feed the spirit of the keel. A pot of tea was then brought, blessed & Haji Abdullah poured tea over the timber. Once this feeding of the keel was complete, it was the turn of everyone else to eat & the ladies of the families came forward to distribute food to all of us. We took the plates & fruit from the keel & joined in the happy & chatty atmosphere. The blessing was complete.

 

The cockerel was tied back up while the bomoh ate his meal & then was unceremoniously grabbed by his feet & dangled off the hand of the bomoh for the walk home. His job done, it was back to being an ordinary cockerel until the next ceremony!

 

After the meal was finished everyone got back to work & the prow timber was winched & maneuvered into its place on the end of the keel.

 

Those builders not directly involved in the winching of the prow beam, sat aside with a log of the caulking timber, chopping into it & pulling out the strands of this fibrous wood, ready to start caulking the internal planks of the hull.

 

Tiger Blue’s keel, ribs & hull are of iron wood. There is a particular method in building a phinisi. They are built from the outside in. Once the keel timber is down, the hull timbers & planks are all set in place. Once the outer ‘skin’ of the phinisi is formed & shaped, the ribs are then added on the inside. This part of the build is fascinating because the builders almost ‘massage’ the ‘skin’ to fit against the ribs. At this stage the vessel looks like a great body with the internal cavern of a whale. Caulking is done with a particular tree bark. The internal structures are then added, & above it the decks & superstructure of are teak.

At the time, as I walked down the beach at Bira viewing these enormous craft being formed on the sands, I remember very clearly feeling that they were more than inanimate objects. They were being crafted & imbued with an ancient sense of strength, calm & serenity. As I wandered here, I really did think of ‘arks’, rather than ‘boats’. An ‘ark’ brings up such a different image in your head, & on the beach in Bira, ‘ark’ was more appropriate.

 

Tiger Blue took two months to be hand winched, inch by inch, down the beach into the water. The craftsmen & carpenters worked on her as she slowly went down the beach.

It was a wonderful day seeing her afloat for the first time.

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The boat builders continued working on her until she was floating completely on her own, getting used to the water. She was then towed into Bira Harbour where worked continued.

Here the engine room was fitted out & on the day the engine was brought in, a goat was slaughtered in the engine room, a sacrifice to ensure that Tiger Blue voyages safely with all who travel on her. Afterwards, one of the goats legs was tied to the underside of the dive platform. It remained here until it fell away into the sea about a year later.

 

 

From Bira Harbour, we motored Tiger Blue to Makassar, where all the finishing, the electrics, plumbing, interiors were all finished off. It was here in Makassar that we also filled her with huge chunks of marble, her ballast.

Our whole family joined her on this sail from Bira to Makassar. We had dolphins at the bowsprit & it was a lovely sail. It took a couple more months of finishing before we were ready for the first charter. The few nights before the start, the crew, Wouter & I worked around the clock to get her ready for guests.

 

On the last evening I took out the various offerings I was advised to offer to the sea by the local fishermen on Pangkor Island, where we lived in Malaysia. Kneeling, I was to tie a red cloth tightly around the front most rigging on the bow sprit. I then had to make a small display & offering of food, cheroots, betel nut & incense & flowers. I was to then say a prayer to the sea, wishing to keep Tiger Blue & all on her safe from harm. May she voyage well & strong. I was to let the incense burn out & then throw all the offerings in as many directions as possible from the bow sprit. I did all this as our Indonesian crew watched, an extra ritual to keep them safe. Remnants of the red cloth stayed on the rigging up to just a couple of years ago.

Tiger Blue feels totally ‘alive’ on the sea, her spirit keeping us safe & steady through all sorts of weather, a great testimony to the men who crafted her on the beach in Bira. She is 10 years old this year & she continues to exude great spirit & energy to all the voyages we take on her. I love that every time I board her, I feel her come alive. Its an exhilarating & quite emotional connection.

Tiger Blue remains true & strong & in June this year, she will undergo a big maintenance schedule & a new major fit out that will see the cabins & bathrooms upgraded, ready for the next season of charters & voyages of discovery along the Spice & Wallace Routes.

Join a voyage of discovery with Tiger Blue.

Website: <www.tigerblue.info>

Email: <sail@tigerblue.info>

Tiger Blue Instagram: @sailtigerblue

Tiger Blue, Voyage Indonesia  Facebook: @sailtigerblue  https://www.facebook.com/sailtigerblue/

Note: If in Jakarta take the time to go to Sunda Kelapa where you can still view the traditional ‘working’ phinisi, in both the ‘lamba’ (straight stern) & “palari’(curved stern) styles. Here in these busy docks, the phinis are unloaded & loaded with goods that will be trans-shipped all around the Indonesian archipelago. The scene is reminiscent of an olden day harbour, busy with men hauling sacks & large packages boxes on shoulders, running up gang planks onto decks & disappearing into the large holds of the boats.

 

In Search of Birds of Paradise

I’m on the beautiful traditional adventure liveaboard Tiger Blue. We are traveling along the Alfred Wallace routes here from Raja Ampat, to the clove island of Ternate. We are anchored off the village of Bessir on the island of Waigeo in Raja Ampat, West Papua. Its a 4am wake up call & its raining. We have cups of coffee or tea & hope for the rain to subside. There’s only this one chance on this trip to try to find the birds of paradise. Some of us don’t have rain gear, its dreary but then we decide to go for it anyway.

We start off from Tiger Blue in the tender in the dark. It stops raining heavily. Our local guide from the village of Bessir is with us at the front of the tender & in the drizzle we land in the shallows & with torches on, we wade to the narrow beach under the heavy dark canopy of the rain sodden trees growing thick on the shoreline.

 

Everything is wet. We rinse our feet of sand & put on our shoes. Then with our guide in the lead with a torch we start the hike up through this forest in single file. It belongs to his family. The guide walks slowly & makes no sound as he pads up the slope & over stones, rocks & logs. He is in no hurry & we all have to deliberately slow down to adjust to his pace. Along the way he stops to clear leaves, fronds & cuts away branches that have fallen during the storm. It is not a particularly difficult hike but it is uphill with a couple of steep parts to negotiate. There’s also a few fallen trees to climb over. The crude hand rails made a while ago with tree branches, are quite rotten & one falls away as someone puts too much weight on it as they pull themselves up the slope.

The jungle starts to light up a bit & its easier to see our way. After about 20 minutes we climb a steep wooden ladder up a slope & arrive at the hide, a crude canvas lean-to hut with a bench inside. It is all damp & steamy. There are holes through which you can view the display trees used by Paradisaea rubra for their courtship displays. We wait in silence, just the odd cough to give us away. A male bird of paradise calls & our guide mimics the call in order to encourage other males to join the tree. There are 2 high up in the branches. We catch a glimpse of them. There is a flurry of excited whispers & movement in the hide as we shuffle around to give each other a turn to look up into the branches. A couple of females come in but not much happens. There isn’t enough competition.

Our guide patiently mimics more calls, some very tentative, waiting for a reply. He calls more enthusiastically if he gets a response. It’s not easy. We watch him press a finger to his nose as he squeaks out the call that gets the competitive male birds excited. There is some movement in the trees as the birds half heartedly begin a courting display. We take turns to look through the open holes in the canvas & some of us get a better look at the birds than others.

We continue our patient & silent watch for about an hour but the mosquitoes have found us and there is a little boredom setting in. Our guide has one last go at calling. Two females fly high into a nearby tree & wait to see if there will be any male action this morning. The wet rain has upset the atmosphere & put a damper on everything so most of the males have stayed away from the display tree.

Bird watching is not an exciting past time. Most times it is about having the stubborn patience to wait for the bird to just show up. You have to constantly think past the feeling of being hard done by & disappointment. At best, there will be no rain & your hide is comfortable. Ah well, maybe next time.

The dawn chorus of birds in the jungle as we make our way back down the hill in the morning light, makes up for the lack of visuals on the birds of paradise. The act of getting on a little tender, wading in the shallows & starting the hike in the dark is exciting. Silencing yourself while you listen to the sounds of the morning rising in the steamy damp jungle is something we should try to do more often. It reconnects ones whole being to the natural elements, taking you a little out of your own comfort zone. The calls of the butcher birds & other unknown birds, the blurred vision of white cockatoos as they fly through the trees, their caws heard all over the islands. And then there was the wonderful sighting of the black cockatoo with its red crest, Burung Kakak Tua Raja Hitam. That is definitely one for the bird list!

I’ve been lucky enough to have trekked up to this location in Bessir a few times now & only once can I describe the end game as magnificent. 8 birds in full, crazy, noisy display. I say that has been great odds. It is more likely that you have to be content to have caught just a glimpse of the Red Birds of Paradise. We are all lucky that they are still around for us to get excited enough to go look for them. Their numbers are very much threatened & it is likely that soon, their numbers will dwindle to just above none. This is a very sad prospect.

Alfred Russel Wallace was fascinated by them & he desperately wanted many of the birds of paradise in his collection. He struggled to find them, shoot them, collect them from the locals. He found it difficult to keep them alive. All of the ones he tried to keep died within just a few days, despite eating well & greedily. He was completely at a quandary over this. Wallace was also constantly at the mercy & competition from the Sultan of Ternate who had everyone on his side when it came to the procurement of these birds, so coveted for their magnificent feathers. During Victorian times, their feathers were in any fashionable persons hat, the trade in feathers so huge that numbers of these birds were forever affected & unable to recover from the fall.

Today they are at risk, not so much from the collection of feathers, but from the destruction of their natural environment. It is hard to expect the people of the villages on these remote islands to wave away prosperity & modernity gained from tourism & other related businesses. As health & housing improves, as modern gadgets become more affordable, as tourism increases, these villages will prosper & expand, & the impact on their immediate environment, no matter how small, will be marked.

This village of Bessir  was where Alfred Wallace himself had a house. He stayed here with the firm goal of collecting the Red Bird of Paradise. When you are standing in the village looking out towards the water, you do get the feeling that it has not changed that much. It is here, in this tiny area, that these birds were exclusively found & they still are today. For now that slow, dogged patience & determined silence required of a small but avid birdwatching community, most often dismissed as boring by other kind of adventure types, ensures that these birds have a chance to regroup & stay amongst us in this world. Paradisaea rubra cannot withstand a frenzy of excited activity around them. A glimpse of them on a wet damp day is satisfaction enough to make me feel happy knowing that they are still with us on this earth.

 

Get on a bucket list trip like this:
Let Tiger Blue take you on a voyage of exploration & discovery along the Wallace route. There are various itineraries, that can be customized to your interests, available beginning in Sorong, West Sorong taking in his journeys around the islands of Raja Ampat, his journey from Raja Ampat to Gag & Ternate, as well as sailing south Passing through the islands around Misool (which eluded him completely despite his desire to explore there), to the Banda Islands & Ambon. These trips take place in season at certain times of the year.

Go to <www.tigerblue.info> for more information. Contact <sail@tigerblue.info> for general enquiries.

Check out the Tiger Blue Instagram page: @sailtigerblue

& our Facebook page: Tiger Blue, Voyage Indonesia

Activities are all included and you can expect to dive, snorkel, hike, kayak, waterski, paddle board, walk around villages & markets, hang out on the beach.

What to bring:
Swimsuits, a rasher top (against sunburn & jellies), leggings (against sunburn & jellies), good walking shoes or a pair of hiking sandals that are easier to dry after wet weather, a rain poncho or lightweight raincoat, sarong, small selection of clothes, a light colored set of walking pants & top (better against mosquitoes), a sweatshirt (mainly for the airconditioned flights around Indonesia), your own special medications. There is a selection of wetsuits, rasher tops, all dive & snorkeling equipment on board.

Women Artists as Role Models

The social role of women artists in contemporary art. This was the discussion posed by a forum organized in August by the International Women’s Arts Exchange Association. I was, with two other artists( one each from Korea & the US), asked to present a paper for the Forum organized in Georgetown Penang. It was to be based on research done. However, as I’m not from an academic/research background I wrote it based on my own individual thoughts towards the  theme.

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The Forum & discussion took place at the UAB Building on Lebuh China Street Ghuat, Georgetown, Penang. The event was held in collaboration between The International Women’s Art Exchange Forum, The International Women’s Art Exchange and the Georgetown Festival.

Rachel Herzer spoke on her upbringing within a religious & remote household, the view, still, that girls do not need to go to college, and talked about her way out into the world of art. Very inspiring, her artwork is often ephemeral. It is very beautiful & her clay work is exceptional.

The speaker from Korea was Kyung-ae Kwon. the president of the Incheon Women Artists’ Biennale. She spoke of the issues related with organizing a women specific biennale & is looking forward to putting together another soon.

It was wonderful to connect to women artists from all round the world & to realize that we all face very similar issues in all parts of the world despite believing that women are more liberated in one place or another.  Historical, religious & cultural stereotypes still do haunt us & make us hold back. It was great to be in a forum like this where we could give & receive support, learn from each other, about each other, free from judgement, and celebrate our very diverse art.

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Here is my paper.

The Social Role of Women Artists in Contemporary Art

The Basic Role of Women & the ‘Image’ of ‘Woman’ in our heads:
Before we look at the question of women artists having a social role in any context, it is important to ask if women as a whole, have an innate instinct to create an impact within their own social community, whether it be large or small.

Women are traditionally the caregivers in any community. They reproduce, protect, feed & take care of their families & children, & often are responsible for the care of groups of young. In any traditional context, women gather as groups to prepare food, care for children, & craft basic items that protect the community e.g. clothing, textiles, teaching these skills so that they can be continued. They gather to openly discuss issues of everyday life, often mutually solving problems through social interaction. These gatherings often revolve around everyday tasks.

In the most basic tribal context, women have traditionally been limited to these functions: mother & producer of children, caregivers, food preparation, & as a maker of craft ( producing items that are of use to the community in which they live). This has been accepted as a ‘fact of life’ in most communities.

Generally, women (& certainly in the traditional Asian context) are still limited to the function of the family caretaker; expected to marry, produce children, take care of them & to set aside their own aspirations for anything else. Men on the other hand are generally given the freedom to be ‘selfish’. Their manhood is measured by the fact that they can impregnate a woman, that they bring in the money to maintain the family, that if they work long hours to achieve this ‘success’, they are ‘better men’. Their roles as fathers are ‘limited’ and they are certainly not judged on their quality as fathers. For example, if they spend time away from the family home, away from mealtimes, from parent teacher meetings, away from the playground, they are not ‘missed.’  Their ‘fathering’ times are often limited to weekends & holidays.

Women generally, are not expected to be ‘selfish’. Those that have families are certainly judged on the amount of time their careers take them away from their children, the time spent away from the husbands, if they miss parent teacher meetings etc. The world is still very much about making the judgement that ‘Fathers are great if they spend any time with their children even thought they work so hard’ & ’Mothers are bad if they spend time away from their children because they work too hard’. These judgements are often made by both men & women, with both men & women looking down on a ‘bad mother’. Men are praised for giving up time for their children. Women are still expected to give up time for their children, & praise is certainly not to be expected for this.

In addition, today there is more pressure for women to have successful careers as well as everything else. The basics of being a mother is not enough and in modern Asia & often in the West, mothers that choose to be at home & look after their children are relegated to the title of ‘housewife’, & their worth is based on this alone despite this job being one of the hardest out there. We, as women, do not want to be referred to as ‘housewife’ any longer. We are much all more than that.

As a result contemporary women often have to become especially high achievers in order to ‘fit’ into their expected roles in society. A woman’s sense of self worth, in the age of instant gratification, sharing everything on social media, & the branding of ‘the perfect women’ on social media as the base for what you are supposed to achieve, has I feel, made the role of women so much more complicated with all of us struggling to match up to the ‘world’s’ idea of what women are supposed to be. This results in many of us being extremely high achievers often working tirelessly, without recognition.

“Still, those years of relative obscurity often became a source of strength, says (Mary)Sabbatino(Galeri Lelong), allowing these women artists to hone their vision and sense of self-worth as they continued to produce work without the need for accolades.”

Bring into this the volatile issues of morals & faith, religion, feminism, gender, race, poverty and privilege, the ideas of what women are supposed to be, & what they are supposed to contribute to their various communities becomes further skewed & unclear. In Malaysia, ‘woman’ cannot be defined as ‘one’. She is many, and the ideas that come from the many, impact hugely on how our country defines ‘woman’ as a whole. It also impacts on the physical ‘image’ we have of what a woman is supposed to look like. Should she be clothed, naked, demure, pretty, ugly, dark, white, long hair, short hair, seen, not heard, educated, uneducated, with children, married, unmarried? Should she be Muslim, Hindu, Christian, Iban, a party girl, a good wife, an Other, an Orang Asli, an Atheist? All these ideas translate into a ‘physical image’ in all our heads. Even with our eyes closed we as Malaysians, can conjure up what each of these women ‘look like’ and then we make an assumption on the ‘personality’ & ‘moral standing’ of this woman.

Then we have to add to the question of social responsibility by asking, is the contemporary social role of women limited to their own small community, or is it important for them to look at the wider context of not ‘just the ‘family’ of Malaysia’, but of ‘the whole world’.

How does this connect specifically to the social role of women artists?

“Given the undeniable high quality of these women’s work, why has it been overlooked for so long? Part of the answer—as in many other parts of the labor market and society at large—is simple sexism. Men have long dominated many facets of the art world, from galleries to museums to criticism.” Anna Louie Suissman. Artsy editorial.

What is an artist? Throughout history we have only seen lists of male artists. Men traditionally had the freedom to create ‘Art’, to philosophize, to imagine outside the idea of what constitutes ‘The World’, to explore outside their own family, to take the risk & to make the move out of the limited circles of their social standing. Women were held close to family, to their social circles, to the often overwhelming ‘morality’ of their communities. For women, creativity was stamped on, expressions of thought & ideas treated more like a sickness, a mental illness & a weakness. Women were kept from wantonly expressing their own sexuality lest they prompt the innate ‘debauchery’ of the male sex. Women have always been known as the ‘weaker sex’ but throughout history, the idea that women had to be hidden away, is in reality a fear that they possess the ‘power’, just by virtue of their sex & gender, to wreck havoc in the world & minds of men. Women are Witches, men are Wizards. Witches to be punished out of fear that they could be evil. Wizards to be held aloft, given power to rule & advise, often in order to create fear & evil.

These are all ‘images’ that we have seen through history. Stories & images told, retold & perpetuated by the work of artists ( mainly male) through out the history of the world. Successful male artists had patrons, sponsors, belonged to ‘guilds’, were given huge commercial contracts, workshops, had access to young interns that worked in their ‘master artists’ names. Male artists were allowed to study anatomy & life drawing the ‘naked’ form, women were not. There were even restrictions on what materials women could use because of the ‘Guild’ system in Europe. The world was & is also conditioned to issues of religion & race, limiting the type of image that could be produced . Female artists were practically unheard of and when they were, it was often the ‘controversies’ that they ‘created’ that they were remembered for, not their work.

Where women were allowed to excel was in the role of craftswoman, often based at home, trained from young in the arts of tailoring, embroidery, flower pressing, music, watercolor. These were the arts & hobbies that caused no controversy, no emotional stimulation and certainly no passion. It was not their place to have an opinion on religion, independence, family holdings, science, the process of learning.

Much of the public art through time has been made through the eyes of male artists; the ‘what’ of the world, of men, of women transformed into tangible images by the interpretive imagination of the male perspective.

Female artists (in the Western world) managed to come out of their drawing rooms when a few gained traction as ‘botanical’ artists. In their own time, many were unknown, working independently of the largely male dominated ‘scientific community’, quietly, much of their work kept together as a private collection. This did not however, mean they enjoyed success. And independence (both financially & privately) seems to have been a very large factor in the success of a few women artists during a time when only male artists were sponsored & given financial support by private patrons. This has been an issue throughout time, for women artists.

 

“Consider the trajectory of Carol Rama. Despite her recognition at the Venice Biennale, she was little-known in the U.S., and died penniless in 2015, according to McCaffrey. Ten years ago, Isabella Bortolozzi, who had met her in the 1990s through a mutual friend and art collector, put on a solo show of Rama’s work at her gallery in Berlin, with the eventual aim of realizing a major retrospective; a show of over 200 works spanning seven decades was finally mounted in 2014 at MACBA Barcelona, and subsequently traveled to Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, EMMA Museum in Finland, IMMA in Dublin, and GAM Torino in Rama’s hometown.”

It is only very recently that we are beginning to feel the influence of these ‘pioneer’ women artists, many of whom were not given credence in their own time. Important names of women artists are being highlighted now as never before & at last, work from the past is now bolstering the general rise of women artists. The factor of media, & social media especially in very recent times has been especially important in highlighting the talents of women artists. This factor cannot be under-estimated in ‘pushing’ the work of women artists & artists generally, into the everyday public eye. It is by far the main reason art has ‘boomed’ in recent years, making art from all over the world accessible to all.

This also paves the way forward for women artists to push for their vision away from the predominantly male dominated imagery that we have taken for granted for too long. There has been a female version all along, albeit small, and it has now been given the platform to slowly but surely change our versions of art history, & certainly of our interpretation of history, social standing & culture as we have known it. It is becoming more important to make sure that women artists work alongside, at the same rate as their male counterparts in order to open all our eyes on how women are ‘seen’, how women visualize themselves and the issues that reveal a common ground. This also builds a feeling of ‘self worth’, something that still is often lacking, by virtue of social forces in local society & culture.

“The art world in general is quite shallow and quite lazy and doesn’t pay attention,” says Ivan of Brătescu’s long years of working without recognition. “But if an artist is really good, eventually people will take notice.”

Ideally, that would be the case, but sadly, many gifted women artists whose careers began in the mid-20th century are likely still awaiting recognition. People interviewed for this story were quick to point to others whose renown did not yet match their talent.”

A Few Lesser Known Pioneer Women Artists We Should Be Aware For:

There are many other women artists that should be on this list as pioneers in the field of art. Their value was not only in the work that they created during their lifetimes, but the very choice that they made ‘to be an artist’ & social statements that they tried to make during their time in history are key to their standing in the history of art. These are as valid now as they were then, and in some ways more so because they show us quite clearly that history has been very unfair in its treatment towards women. The success of these artists was limited during their lifetimes but now as they are rediscovered & restored, their work shared & unearthed from archives & museums, they show a what should be ,a much more enlightened world, that women are still having to face issues that limit their freedom of expression, that limit their ability to build self worth. The issues sound so familiar in so many ways. The difference today is that women are able to communicate freely & share experiences that are familiar across all cultures & age groups, & thus take strength & knowledge from the experiences of others. This in itself creates social impact in that it slowly creates the confidence to inquire & question.

Caterina van Hemessen (1528-1587) a Flemish Renaissance painter, she is the painter to have painted the first self portrait depicting an artist at their own easel. Trained by her father, she did many portrait commissions but her body of work was small, having married, at which point her work stopped.

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Sofonisba Anguissola (1532-1625) set a precedent for women to be accepted as apprentices & students of fine art. Her father was a huge encouragement to both her & her sisters. However, because of the social constraints at the time, she was unable to study anatomy or life drawing, unlike her male counterparts. To get over this, she painted informal portraits of her family members or herself, with natural expressions. A painting of her sisters with natural expressions, playing chess makes a further statement because although chess was a popular game, it was typically for boys who at the time monopolised the powers logic and strategy.

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Artemisia Gentileschi, the Italian Baroque painter( 1593-1653), influenced by Caravaggio, although hugely talented, was more famous in her lifetime for the charges she made against her mentor Agostino Tassi for rape. Her story is one with which we can connect with here in Malaysia. She, the young student, is raped by her mentor & her rapist promises marriage to restore virtue. The following trial is a sham & Tassi never actually serves any time despite a sentence of just one year of jail. This experience, the trail, changed the force of her amazing work. The lack of support from the public, from the law, from other women, made her focus on images of powerful women & graphic depictions including one where she paints the portrait of her tormentor in agony as he is tortured & murdered.

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Maria Sibylla Merian (1647-1717), a German naturalist and illustrator, was trained by her step father. At 28 she produced her first book of illustrations. In 1699, she was awarded permission from Amsterdam to travel with her daughter to Surinam. Her scientific expedition makes her perhaps the first person to ‘plan a journey rooted solely around in science.’ with the goal of spending 5 years illustrating new species of insects. Merian used vellum primed with a white coat. Because of the guild system in Europe, women were not allowed to use oil paints, so she was restricted to watercolours and gouache. To finance the trip she sold 255 of her paintings. She documented & collected specimens & in 1705 published the book ‘Metamorphosis Insectorum Surinamensium’ (Re-published in 2016 with updated scientific descriptions). After her death, her daughter Dorothea published ‘Erucarum Ortus Alimentum et Paradox Metamorphosis’, a collection of her mothers work. It was only in the last quarter of the 20th Century that her work was reevaluated & reprinted, & she was recognised & her portrait was printed on the 500DM note before Germany converted to the Euro. When she died, she was simply listed ‘pauper’, a thoroughly despicable description for a woman who contributed so much to the world of science & art.

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Louise Elisabeth Vigee Le Brun(1755-1842), a French portrait painter during the Rococo period. She painted hundreds of portraits & landscapes, but was also Marie Antoinettes personal portrait painter & it is through her paintings that we now visualize the Queen who was the ‘figurehead’ for the French Revolution.

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The British artist, Marianne North(1830-1890) travelled with her father. He was a big influence on her life. She never married. On the death of her father she became independently wealthy & took to traveling alone, visiting places far far away. She took her paints, observing flora & fauna, taking in views and kept all of her over 800 pieces of art. Her ‘value’ as an artist is now huge, having documented with paint, the views & places in situ during her travels, showing us today how these places looked in the past. Her interest in local flora & fauna & her drive to observe & record it in her paintings resulted in species, previously unknown, being named after her. She collected bits of wood, amassing an important collection, now used as decorative panels in the Marianne North Gallery at Kew Gardens. Marianne left her whole collection of paintings to Kew Gardens ( upon the agreement of the open minded curator who acknowledged the importance of her work) & with her own funds, designed & built the Gallery that houses all her work today. It is the fact that her work has been kept together as a single collection that hits the observer today as possibly the most important decision made for her own work. It is the fact that it was not broken up that created its value, both artistic & scientific, today. The fact that she made these decisions herself during her own lifetime, with her own money, gives us an idea of how strong & independent a woman artist she was. It is this fighting independence that gave her to us today. The contemporary world of female art, and the world of science, would have lost a star, without the wealth of her work on show today. Marianne North, although from the past, is without doubt still a huge role model for women artists in this contemporary world. Her legacy shows us that as women artists, a certain independence, a need to make decisions on our own, making a plan, is crucial.

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Harriet Powers:
A Black American slave, Harriet made art in the only medium she had access to, Quilting. She created her pictorial masterpieces based on well known stories told to her. Her quilts were shown at cotton fair in the late 1880’s. When in financial difficulties she sold a quilt & the buyer, Jenni Smith, recorded the meaning directly from Harriet. Her quilts were sewn & embroidered, using thread like a pencil.

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Beatrix Potter (1866-1943), British, is now known as a naturalist, conservationist, illustrator and writer. She painted many studies of fungi which serve as an important resource for mycologists today. Known as the writer & illustrator for the books on “Peter Rabbit’, she created & patented, amongst other things, a Peter Rabbit doll in 1903. The products were licensed by her publisher, allowing an income beyond the scope of her books & illustrations. She had a strong sense for business, & protected her work & illustrations.

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Note: The American Folk Art Museum is an institution that showcases the work of women ( & male) artists that often worked beyond or just in the fringes of gentile society. Their exhibitions highlight the arts of quilting, of embroidery, carving, drawings made by artists from all levels of society. Many of the artists often worked obsessively using the most basic materials available to them and are eyeopening, often emotionally raw pieces that reveal the worst of how ’society’ can decide a persons worth. They can be followed on Face Book & Instagram.

The Power of Art:

‘Contemporary Art’ creates trends that influence all parts of our lives, interiors, fashion, architecture, fabrics, even attitude & personality & how we perceive other people, other cultures & the world, and more than anything it has the power to attract people to certain locations anywhere in the world. At this moment in time it would be fair to say that Art is at the height of its influence & arguably one of the most important factors that can drive even economic forces up and down. We see this here in Penang in its very basic form, where Street Art attracts people, with the knock on effects impacting on numbers of hotel rooms, number of restaurants opening, the number of side businesses etc. set up to attract some of the run off.

We see the power of Art to attract, in the number of ‘Affordable Art fairs’ around the world, the number of countries that now set up their own Art Biennale’s around the world. As a curated ‘attraction’ they create an economic force to be reckoned with, and with this the power to take on a ‘social role’ or take on a ‘social position’ is definitely building momentum.

Do women artists have to take up the responsibility of a social role?

Personally for me, this question always brings up another question. Do male artists have to take up the responsibility of a social role? I do not often see men gathering to question their moral responsibilities in any capacity? I think this has to be part of the discussion. I do find it interesting that it seems fine for women to meet. Its non threatening somehow. In fact, if male artists & men today deliberately gathered, my feeling is that it would be quite negatively looked upon,  a bit like a mens club, probably interpreted as sexist & old fashioned, or some kind of threat. Do men feel the need to question their ‘being’, their morality or their worth?

I asked a few men & women I know, this question. ‘Why do women gather as a group that often questions or discusses their role in community or society? Certainly women seem to do this more often (outwardly) than men. Most answered that the reason behind it was ‘hangups’. Men don’t have them, many women probably do. Some said that in their own communities, women do not have the freedom to speak, or possess the position of power to be seen as individuals, the result being that their comfort zones are compromised. They are talked over, they are not taken seriously. Interestingly it was also mentioned that maybe men do want to support each other but the idea that they have to be seen as ‘macho’ is something that stops them admitting to wanting the support of a group. It puts into question the whole issue of ‘gender based’ artist groups.

Art does not rely on physical restraints. It does not highlight the physical differences between men & women.

So, should women artists deliberately make the choice to go into highlighting social issues within their work? Is it ok for them to rely just on making art that is a reflection of their natural thought process? Does having a social role limit an artists creativity or does it enhance creativity in the world of contemporary art? Does a social message add value to a piece of contemporary art?

Women & Social Consciousness:

Women no longer need to marry & they have the choice to bear children. This choice takes away a lot of the need to be ‘socially responsible’ in terms of bringing up children. It certainly gives women the option to be totally ‘selfish’ in the way they live & how they choose to behave in a social circle. Men have historically had the choice to be more ‘self centered’ for a long time. Both men & women instinctively feel responsible for their children. It is an instinct that kicks in with a power that is hard to explain. Parents worry about the future of their children.

Does being an independent single female artist with no children give an artist less social responsibility?

This ‘independence’ also highlights the ‘power’ of the older woman artist. Family dynamics change after a woman has done her share of the job of parenting. As a mother, other choices are often sacrificed to take up the full time job of parenting which includes imparting social skills & teaching social responsibilities, providing a list of rights & wrongs, to her children. After the children leave the nest, a woman has the power & the time to return to focus on her own work & certainly for older women artists, the sudden disappearance of these responsibilities is a strong catalyst to refocus on other themes. Today we are seeing the emergence of the older woman artist over the younger male artist and it speaks for the larger freedoms given to women today. Freedoms that these women did not have as younger women, freedoms that their mothers before them certainly, did not have.

“They’ve always been visible and exhibiting, but most of them had careers that weren’t at the center of the art world,” says Mary Sabbatino, vice president at Galerie Lelong,”

“Older women artists became the natural choice for galleries to look at, especially after 2013 and 2014, when all of a sudden it became clear that not every emerging artist is the next Warhol,” she says, noting that they offer the pedigree of being connected to the major art movements of their time.”

Often an artist cannot always be aware of the general social consciousness at any one time but it is a great time when art can hit a particular mind set or speaks for a body of people whose voices are too weak to be heard, even if only once. It begins a conversation. Art has the power to speak louder than words if an artist ’s thoughts can over lap with the public conscience at a specific given time. Nowadays, there are specific issues that play on our collective conscience; Climate change, the use of plastics, human trafficking, child abuse, domestic abuse, destruction of our natural environment, destruction of our biodiversity, extinction of species. Do we sub consciously impart our views on these issues in our work? As a group of women artists from diverse backgrounds, it would seem obvious that we will express many issues that impact on our lives.

“The art world is always looking for something that it both doesn’t know and it knows,” says Sabbatino. “They’re fully formed artists, they’re mature artists, they’re serious artists. They’re not going to burn out as sometimes happens with younger artists…and normally the prices are far below the other artists of their generation, so you’re offering a value to someone.”

Should We as Women Artists, Gather?

“These women were working well before the women’s liberation movement made inroads in the West;”

There is only one answer. Yes! It is of huge importance that on July 13, 1848 5 lady friends met for teas.

“The Women’s Rights Movement marks July 13, 1848 as its beginning. On that sweltering summer day in upstate New York, a young housewife and mother, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, was invited to tea with four women friends.”

Without the act of ‘gathering’ women would not have won the vote, liberation, freedom to speak. freedom of choice. Women must continue to gather and work together in any capacity, Art being an especially creative reason to do so. With tea is preferable.

“The feminist movement (also known as the women’s liberation movement, the women’s movement, or simply feminism) refers to a series of political campaigns for reforms on issues such as reproductive rights, domestic violence, maternity leave, equal pay, women’s suffrage, sexual harassment, and sexual violence, all of …..”

The Gathering of Women Artists in Malaysia:
I have been delighted to find on Twitter Malaysian Women Art @MyWomensArt Please follow them on Twitter & add your name to their list of Women Artists in Malaysia. The show ‘Di Mana?’ (Where Are?) showcasing the work of 101 Malaysian women artists at the National Art Gallery, is also very timely, & also marks the way forward for the very diverse group that makes up Malaysian women artists. Malaysia has always been a melting pot of cultures, of different peoples & religion. In some ways it represents a microcosm of the world as we know it & within our peoples are held the genetic memory of so many peoples from around the world. It seems only natural that here we have the opportunity to gather as women artists to once again begin a larger social movement that brings women together as a force of social betterment for all genders.

“If you are looking for issues of gender and identity, feminism and struggles of women at the Di Mana (Where Are) Young exhibition of 101 works by Malaysian contemporary women artists, you might be disappointed.

What you get at the all-women show currently on at the National Visual Arts Gallery (NVAG) in Kuala Lumpur is more of a fuzzy, meandering voice in the conversation of what it means to be a woman in the 21st century world.

But then again, why should our gaze on today’s women, much less women artists, be confined to the singular lens of sociopolitical labels?”

 

There is a much longer conversation to be had & for me the bigger questions include:

“Can we really start to think of no borders between all genders?”

“Are men ready to be treated equally?”

“Can we take what we have today for granted?”

Rebecca Duckett-Wilkinson

 

 

Follow Rachel Herzer on Instagram @rachelcastleherzer

The quotes within the paper can be found in the links & references listed below.

Links & References:
https://design.tutsplus.com/articles/10-influential-women-of-art-throughout-history–cms-25924

http://www.star2.com/culture/arts/2017/06/28/di-mana-where-are-young-women-artists/#Ju3jZyRfveXywVby.99

https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Guild

https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Artemisia_Gentileschi

https://www.artsy.net/article/artsy-editorial-women-replaced-young-men-art-worlds-darlings

https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2017/jun/23/blooming-marvellous-the-worlds-first-female-photographer-and-her-botanical-beauties

https://www.researchgate.net/publication/311959894_Women_Artist_in_Malaysian_Visual_Art_History_and_Development

https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marianne_North

http://www.kew.org/mng/marianne-north-gallery.html

http://www.botanicalartandartists.com/about-marianne-north.html

http://www.nwhp.org/resources/womens-rights-movement/history-of-the-womens-rights-movement/

https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Feminist_movement

Malaysian Women Art @MyWomensArt

https://docs.google.com/spreadsheets/d/1KvoWHuuW6GvKBd6gTWi6nE-LLmt4_hJVFh1zVz7ZT0U/htmlview

http://folkartmuseum.org

http://www.jamunanews24.com/index.php/show/news/3627/Others/Special/june-15-2017-10:13/Malaysian-housewife-turns-living-legend-(Watch)

https://www.artsy.net/artist/carol-rama

 

Inspiration and Knowledge

 

What inspiration…?

People always ask me “What are you inspired by?”. My immediate gut answer has always been, and always will be, ‘Malaysia’. The beautiful natural environment & cultures of my country are always on my mind. I love it. It is what I have grown up with, always close to the jungle, outdoors, free to roam around the plantations in which I grew up, mixing with people of all races, watching festivals and ways of life in little towns.

Parents and knowledge….

Through the years, as an adult,  my inspirations are being drawn from a much wider range of countries visited through my travels. However, my strongest inspirations still come down to the world’s environment and cultures. As a child, my parents made us observe nature, make things, draw things we saw. They encouraged artwork, an interest in natural history, and they encouraged general knowledge. The volumes of the Encyclopedia Britannica was always on hand and out on the big work table in my fathers study.

The inspiration of a teacher….

At school I developed an interest in art and pattern, anthropology, archaeology, natural history and art history. At boarding school in Dorset, UK doing my A levels, I took part in a new activity that was being offered, ‘Weaving’. It was there in the wonderful ‘weaving shack’ created by the totally inspiring textile artist Wendy Barber, I found the exact thing that allowed me to combine all my favorite interests; woven and printed textiles. I couldn’t get enough and there was never enough time in the day to keep working at creating and trying out ideas on the loom, block printing, dying natural colors, spinning wools, and learning about textiles from around the world. My short time living with Wendy Barber and her partner, the late artist John Hinchcliffe, after school before going to New York, has been fundamentally vital to my growth as an artist today.

On my own….

I carried all of this with me to New York and Parsons School of Design where I studied Print & Surface Design. Here I could mix up all the ideas I’d learnt from studying cultures around the world and found my own ‘hand’ and ‘colour sense’. It was here I was told “Stick with your own ideas and never be afraid of acting on them.” And so I managed to focus it all down to pattern, color, nature and culture. I took this back to Malaysia when I finished and set up Owen Rebecca Designs with my future husband specializing in prints that promoted the environment & culture of Malaysia.

Decide on a lifestyle….

That was 30 years ago and since then my ‘work’ has morphed into a ‘lifestyle choice’ of art, hospitality and activism highlighting Malaysia, nature, heritage and culture. Whilst living full time on Pangkor Island, I was all about the jungle. In George Town within the UNESCO heritage zone, I was all about what I saw on the street, intangible heritage, old trades and customs and a moral inkling to want to preserve some of that for the future. Still in Penang, as I watch the steady destruction of the islands fantastic natural environment & hills, my interest has swung again to nature: its patterns, colours and my own gut reaction to it.

Support a cause….

My participation in the recent ‘Save Our Hills’ campaign by the Penang Forum has pulled my focus out of the urban mess, into the hills of Penang and once again I’m fascinated by everything most people just simply dismiss as they go about their lives. The shapes of leaves, the colors of their veins, the patterns in bark, the types of birds that flit in and out of our view, the amazing blooms on our trees, the way the sunlight plays on the jungle canopy. Once you stop and start looking, you can find extraordinary things in the most ordinary places. I find this very uplifting and recently I have started to translate these daily ‘visual memories’ or ‘visual imprints’ into quick paintings.

Focus….

These quite large paintings on paper have stemmed from an exercise I started some time ago to create what I call ‘A travelling artists diary’. There have always been certain images that have stayed with me through time and my travels, visual memories that I have taken in. Instead of just leaving them be in my head, I started to translate and draw them in a sketchbook, filling the whole page with an ink drawing and pattern. Once started, I made myself complete the page even if I felt that I’d made a mistake or ‘didn’t like it’ along the way. I wanted to create a routine for myself by starting and then making sure I completed the page whilst working through the mistakes in order to make the image ‘whole’. I didn’t want to give up on that particular ‘visual imprint’.

Work to create….

I use the same technique with my quick paintings. There is no sketching or thought. I just start painting and work through it all with layers of color and pattern until I feel its complete. I have really enjoyed this process and the amount of work I have been able to produce in this way has been so very satisfying. Part of this focus is also because I’ve reached a stage in life where the kids are all grown up and I suddenly have time to give myself. I’ve also inherited a certain ‘work ethic’ from my parents, my father in particular, that does not allow me to be idle for too long. I’m throughly enjoying my ability to spontaneously produce these ‘visual diaries’, a collection of pattern and colour. That is to me, the essence of my art, a visual record of things that I see on a daily basis, often ‘ordinary’ but absolutely not!

The essence of my work….

I am a ‘hoarder’ and I love producing a collection of work rather than individual pieces. My ideas and inspirations then have a ‘story’ and together I feel the works make more sense. The ‘collection’ relays my thoughts and emotions during the space of time in which I produced them.

Stop and look….the importance of Knowledge….

I always have my camera with me and I take many many photographs to use for ideas and to look at again for inspiration. However, most important, when I’m out, I take the time to look at things and inspect how they are formed. A flower for example is not just a four petaled thing. It has been designed specifically to be pollinated by its chosen creature or element. It may be designed to shake in the wind, float on a river, be rubbed by the back of a beetle, to be entered by the long tongue of a moth or be fluttered by the wings of little tiny bat. These shapes look disjointed and strange but as soon as you understand how nature has interconnected everything, ones ability to draw and put marks on paper becomes all the more easy and fluid. Ultimately, it is this ‘Knowledge’, that I find incredibly inspiring.

My Artwork: http://rebeccaduckett.com

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Harking back to my childhood: http://tigerrock.info

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A Traveling Artists Diary: For you to colour in! https://www.instagram.com/atravellingartistsdiary/

Hinchcliffe and Barber today: https://www.facebook.com/hinchcliffeandbarber/?fref=ts

Go for a walk in the Penang Botanic Gardens https://www.facebook.com/pages/Penang-Botanic-Gardens/137102772979219?fref=ts

Support this cause: http://penangforum.net

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Birdwatching on Gurney Drive

Please stop and watch the birds on Gurney Drive….

 

Gurney Drive is the main point where the public can visually connect and meet the sea, here on Penang Island. It is here that you can view Kedah Peak on the mainland, an often ethereal and hazy shadow of a mountain that floats on the view. All the early voyagers to Penang made reference to Mount Kedah. It marks the entry by sea into Penang Island.

The promenade (originally called New Coast Road & completed in 1936) was renamed in 1952 after Sir Henry Gurney the British colonial Administrator, was assassinated on route to the hill station Frasers Hill on Oct 6th 1951, by communist insurgents during the Malayan Emergency. Thousands of people attended his funeral at Cheras War Cemetery in Kuala Lumpur. The Rolls Royce in which he was assassinated is displayed at the Penang State Museum.

Wake up early….

I walk on Gurney Drive, with lots of other people, early morning at least 5 times a week. I always aim for sunrise. It is a stunning introduction to each day. I’m always surprised by the beauty of it all. The Drive is approximately 2.5kms in length and most times, there is too much traffic, noise and fumes. Where the drains discharge, and especially around the seafood restaurants, your nostrils will smart in protest at the sharp scent of ammonia and rotten food. It is at times unpleasant, but if you walk with purpose, or run, past these points, you’ll get over it. I smile at each municipal street cleaner as I walk by, acutely aware of the fact that without them thanklessly sweeping everyday, the pavements and the beaches here, would be a tip.

I started walking here for exercise, a routine I wanted to keep to. A minimum of 10,000 steps a day!  What a change this has made to my mind, body and mood, despite fumes and nasty smells. It has now become a bit of an addictive passion and I carry both my big Nikon camera & my iPhone6 with me each day.

Wildlife….

I look forward to the sunrises each day, but it is the birdlife that has really got me gripped here. In particular, the very beautiful, small colony of white egrets that fish so elegantly along the shore line. There are also little herons, redshanks, waders and at night, a change of guard with larger night herons, standing still as sentries, where the island water discharges at the main drains out to the sea.

Otters, dolphins, monitor lizards, mud skippers, bats, crows and pigeons add to the mix. Everyday there is something different. You cannot come to Penang and miss a walk along Gurney Drive. With reclamation for more development about to start, the line of the shore, the mudflats, the bird colonies and wildlife,  are all at risk. Before it all disappears, sunrise or sunset, get your steps in now and take a moment to look out, up and around. Stop and watch the birds!

For me they are an inspiration for my artwork, and their elegance and calm resilience, a call to become more aware of what the natural environment means to me. I do not wish for them to disappear.

How to get there….

From China Tiger, our apartments on China Street in the centre of the UNESCO heritage zone of George Town, take the Rapid Bus 101 from Weld Quay. Bring your camera! Ask to get off in front of Gurney Plaza. Walk the length and back, from the ‘Sunrise’ Apartments roundabout to the collection of fishing boats on the end. It is here you can wait for the sun to rise above the hills. The egrets are fishing all day long, shining bright white in the sun, moving position with the tides.

Get savvy….

Pepper Cake

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Pepper is probably the most well known spice. Its historical value was such that it was treated like gold. It was used as currency in the Middle Ages and used to pay rent and taxes. The term ‘peppercorn rent’ indicated ‘payment in full’, but today the term has become to mean ‘a nominal amount’.

Peper nigrum, a vine grown on tall stakes in a wigwam shape, is indigenous to the Malabar Coast, India, but was taken to Java by the wave of Hindu traders and colonists. It spread throughout the Far East. In Malaysia it was grown widely in the past here in Penang, but Sarawak is now best known for its wonderful quality pepper. Black peppercorns are green berries dried and raked until they shrink and wrinkle. White peppercorns are red and orange berries, packed in sacks, then soaked in slowly running water until the outer husks rot and can be sloughed off.  Green peppercorns are fresh, often freeze-dried or pickled in brine or vinegar.

Pepper is extremely versatile and is used at all stages of the cooking process, as well as a table condiment. Pepper enhances flavours and can be happily, often surprisingly, paired with sweet ingredients: try it ground on strawberries or pineapple. This tastes great! Specks of ground black pepper add interest to otherwise pale sauces.

Pepper stimulates the appetite, is thought to help in the preservation of cooked food when used in larger quantities, and if consumed in copious amounts, is also thought to help your body repel mosquitoes.

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Christmas is coming….

Spices have always traditionally been used at Christmas time to decorate and add flavour to the feast of food. Spiced tea and mulled wine are traditional cold weather drinks and here in the tropics, a heavily spiced chai tea is not only stimulating for the body but a good way to keep off colds and sinus troubles.

The Recipe….

Here is a good easy recipe for a heavy current cake, very copiously spiced with ground pepper. I always get asked the recipe when I serve it and at last…. here it is!

It can easily replace the traditional sweet Christmas cake and in fact, I much prefer it. You could ice it with sugar and marzipan. I don’t, and wrapped in wide Christmas coloured ribbons or fabric, it looks an honest part of the festive table. When I make this cake, I make several in different sizes all at once. They can keep for months in the fridge & longer in the freezer. Fresh out of the oven, they are crumbly and served hot or cool, excellent with a dollop of good quality butter and a good citrusy homemade marmalade. Every time I make them, they disappear fast, brilliant with an afternoon cup of strong tea. It is a real energy giving food.

I’m afraid that I’m not good at using measures when I cook and in this recipe, no matter how much pepper I add ( and you start with a lot) the cake seems to be able to cope with the spice and it never seems too much. I do not use sugar in these cakes but some people do prefer them sweeter, in which case add a couple of spoonfuls of dark sugar. I find the raisins well sweet enough, and I use proper full cream butter, NOT margarine. I use eye and texture more than anything to gage if my mixture is right, so please do experiment a couple of times. You will find your ideal way of making this cake. This recipe will yield me two bigger and two smaller cakes, but you can divide the batter up into any size cake you like.

You will need…

About 1 kilo + – of currents or raisins. I like using a mix of black & golden but either or, is fine too.

4 eggs

1 good sized bar of unsalted butter- 250 grams

Water

Self raising flour

Several heaped tablespoonfuls of pepper (I prefer black but I have mixed black and white before)- between 3 to 5 depending on amount of flavour in the pepper

1 small stick of real cinnamon

3 cloves

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When you pound all the spices above together, the cloves and cinnamon need to be totally powdered, but the pepper left still a little ‘gritty’. You may have to do this in batches if your pestle & mortar set is small. The pounding really releases the flavour, but you can also put the spices in a grinder and whizz them.

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-Put all your raisins in a big pot, pour in enough water so that the water level is just below the level of the raisins & currents in the pot. Add the lump of butter on top, cover & put on low heat until it boils. Take the lid off and let it all simmer nicely, the currents soften and the liquid is ‘creamy’ and opaque looking. Stir occasionally to make sure the butter is well mixed into the final liquid. About 45 minutes. Do not let it continue at a rolling boil as this will make the currents mushy.

-Grind and pound your spices while you wait for this.

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-Prepare your cake tins. Butter the bases and sides well. Put on the oven (mine is electric) to 180 degrees C.

-Once your currents have simmered, the pot should look a bit like this in the  photo below. The liquid is definitely there but is not overwhelming the currents. The currents look plumped but are not soggy. Throw in all your ground pepper and stir in well. Let the pot cool but make sure there is some considerable heat left for the next stage.

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And this is the weird part of this recipe. I find the texture of the cake is much better when this part of the recipe is done as fast as possible with the mixture still hot. Be aware that  the eggs could get ‘cooked’ as you mix them into the hot batter, so make sure your tins are prepared at hand & ready to put in the oven.

-Transfer the whole contents of your pot of currents into a large mixing bowl.

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-In a separate mixing bowl, beat your eggs together & add enough self raising flour so that you have a thickish batter.

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-Sprinkle a little flour over the top of your hot currents, stir into the mixture.

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-Then as fast as possible, dump the egg and flour batter over the top of your currents and stir in as fast as your arm is able. The batter is very heavy & its hard to work the wooden spoon through everything…but you need to do this as soon as possible, mixing properly, stirring up all the warm liquid at the bottom of the bowl.

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You end up with a thick mixture, heavy & gloopy. The batter is there just to keep the currents ‘locked’ together as it cooks. I have found, making these cakes many many times, that they will be good, even if you make the mixture slightly runnier. If it is runnier, you need to make sure there’s more batter in proportion to the currents, or else your finished cakes won’t have an even amount of peppery ‘binding’ throughout. They will be nicely ‘bound’ at the bottom of the cake but just loosely ‘current’y’ at the top.

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-Divide your batter between your tins, knock them heavily on your kitchen table to help level out the batter, and get them into the oven ASAP. On cooking they do not rise very much so make sure you are happy with their depth in the tins.

-As they cook keep a little watch as the exposed currents on top can get singed a little. You can adjust the heat down a little if you like. Once done, a knife put through the centre should come out clean. About 40 mins depending on the size of your cakes.

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-Let the cakes cool before you knock them out of the tins. To keep them in the fridge or freezer, wrap them tightly  in baking paper, then waxed paper, & store.

Note: Hot out of the oven, they are also great with good quality ice cream as a dessert.

Check Out….

Go check out the pepper vines at The Tropical Spice Garden, Teluk Bahang Penang and learn a lot more about what other spices Penang is known for. You can buy fresh pepper at their retail outlet at the Tropical Spice Garden itself, or at Tropical Spice Garden In The City at 29 China Street in the heart of George Town, Penang. They are also the only outlet selling real cinnamon in Penang, imported directly from Sri Lanka. Its a whole different ballgame to cassia, which is commonly and widely sold and packaged as ‘cinnamon’.   http://www.tropicalspicegarden.com