In the previous feature, we caught a glimpse into the life of Shaq Koyok, an Orang Asli artist and activist, living in Peninsular Malaysia. Now, let’s journey to the vast, beautiful lands of East Malaysia, where so many aspects of our culture and heritage intersect.
Kendy Mitot, a wildly inspiring artist, was born into a Bidayuh family from Bau, Sarawak. Before delving into his story, he introduced his tribe.
During the Brooke Regime and Colonial Era, the term “Bidayuh” meant the natives of Sarawak and they were referred to as “Land Dayak.” The Bidayuh predominantly speak different dialects and they are divided into 4 main sub-groups – Lundu, Bau, Penrissen-Padawan and Serian districts.
Their traditions, practices and culture were passed down orally from one generation to the next. Like Shaq, Kendy also grew up within their forests, learning the traditional methods and practices of his people.
Having learnt a little about his upbringing and culture, I was curious about what inspired his passion for art.
He sheepishly laughed, “People always ask me this but honestly, I’m not entirely sure. As a child, I would always conteng-conteng but it wasn’t really about exploring my creativity.”
His tone took a serious turn as he recounted his early education. To my surprise, given his artistic inclinations, I learnt that he was in the Science Stream for his STPM examination.
“I didn’t enjoy any of it! That was when one of my teachers encouraged me to take art. I mainly did this to make up for my grades, not expecting to enjoy it as much as I did.” His journey officially began when he pursued art at UiTM, Shah Alam.
It was difficult for the Bidayuh artist to adapt to the rigidity of learning from lecturers and he almost gave up.
His eyes shifted, turning bright as he fondly remembers that it was the thought of his parents and family that kept him going.
Kendy believes that anything can be achieved with the right amount of practice and drive. Even if one does not necessarily possess a natural talent for art, they can get better if they continuously work at it.
During his years at UiTM, Kendy’s lecturers would advise him to focus his art on a theme and he decided to centre his talents around his Indigenous identity.
Throughout his Masters and PhD courses, the indigenous artist centred his pursuits around building nuances for his chosen theme.
Kendy’s artistic triumph
“I knew it was not easy to become an artist, so I sort of gave up on it but in 2017, everything changed,” Kendy smiled, glancing at his West Malaysian friend.
Shaq had invited Kendy to display his art at an exhibition. As he continued, it struck me how Indigenous artists have cultivated something many of us have forgotten about as we pursue individualistic goals – a sense of community.
Having their own art showcased and exhibited is not their ultimate goal. Indigenous artists want to ensure each one of them is given a platform to be seen as they all have unique stories to tell.
In describing his challenges up until 2017, Kendy explains the lack of trust and encouragement among young Indigenous artists due to their absence of representation in the world of art.
“We need more examples of indigenous artists to inspire the younger generation. Over the years, we have seen improvement. But when we were younger, this visibility was missing,” Kendy said, slight frustration clouding his voice.
The artist had several other challenges throughout his journey. He was bullied when he was younger, and it affected him greatly. Although, looking back now, this only pushed him to work harder for his community.
“It was also very difficult when I first started out as people would pay no attention to me and my art because I wasn’t a big name. But it was all worth it in the end.”
Kendy’s voice brightened as he thought about how his work has centred the Bidayuh people. Although most mainstream artists may not always see the value behind his work, Kendy is comforted by the fact that it inspires his community.
The artist’s paintings that depict their festivals, culture and spirituality bring his people so much joy as they are finally being represented on a canvas.
“I love seeing my people relate to the art. When they say things like, ‘I’ve seen this before at the Gawai festivities!’ – it invokes so much happiness,”
The journey continues..
Kendy strives to retain the Bidayuh identity within his work, ensuring each piece accurately represents their lived experiences and opinions on their “dying culture”.
Although he includes contemporary aspects, he ensures to focus his pieces around traditional elements. This amalgamation he incorporates has inspired local and international artists alike.
“Artists who inspire me? My friend Shaq Koyok, of course!” he chuckles. Kendy is often enthralled by Shaq’s depictions of their struggle for land and Orang Asli rights.
During the pandemic, Kendy has continued his job as a lecturer at Tunku Abdul Rahman University College, Kuala Lumpur, recording videos for his students to watch online. He’s also active on Instagram, posting regularly about his art and culture.
As an educator, he emphasised the importance of ensuring Indigenous children continue learning during the pandemic. He has personally seen how difficult it can get for them due to connectivity issues and the lack of technological resources. Like Shaq, he also urged the public to help wherever they can so that these brilliant, young minds do not get left behind.
I think it is evident that Kendy Mitot is living and breathing proof that our indigenous people have so much to share. Their oneness with nature and deep-rooted appreciation for culture provides them with completely unique perspectives. Perspectives that could change the world
When in conversation with Kendy, you can’t help but be inspired by his raw passion and love for art and his community. In feeling this surge of inspiration myself, I asked him what he’d like to tell young Indigenous artists who are facing challenges in their journeys, he smiled and said,
“No matter what, keep doing what you love. Never, ever give up. Continue practicing and be patient because in time, you will become exactly who you want to be. In the meantime, enjoy the processes of life – you’ll realise soon that this is the best part.”
Pictures courtesy of Kendy Mitot on Instagram
Check out our first piece on Shaq Koyok, a Temuan artist, here.