The Malaysia Diary – final entry

Time and space are a constant source of inspiration for my art.  The train was four hours late, and when I finally arrived a sign proudly announced that we were heading for Nagano and many hours later I was standing in front of the Taj Mahal!

But not all is what it seem in Malaysia. The train I am a boarding  is the famous Jungle Train that travels up the central countryside of Malaysia right up to the Thailand border on the east coast of the country.  Unfortunately the locomotive suffered a breakdown, two hours out of Gemas, my boarding station, so a new locomotive had to be transported up from Singapore. This added another four hours to my waiting time.  I had left Kuantan on a 1 am bus and arrived in the sleepy little town of Gemas at 4.30 am. The town’s only claim to fame is its railway station and the fabulous Gemas Curri Point.

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Ironically, travelling often means waiting! So I waited and waited, circled the town with my camera a few times and when the 9:18 train finally left the station at 13:40, the fact that I was on an old Japanese carriage didn’t matter at all, we were moving and that’s all that mattered.

Unfortunately the famed ‘Jungle Train’ these days is more of a plantation train, as palm oil and rubber tree plantations take turns to dominate the landscape. The scenery is, however, occasionally interrupted by thick jungle that whacks and wallops the train carriages as the train bucks it way towards the next little town.  The train trip from Gemas to Kota Bharu takes a long ten hours, and I was fortunate to be able to see the jungle just before it got dark, that scenery is worth the trip alone. After a long 24 hours on the road I hit the hard pillow at my hotel in Kota Bharu that night for a well-earned rest.

But what about the Taj Mahal, well read on….

Kota Baruh in Kelantan is located in the north-eastern corner of the peninsula, Kelantan, which is said to translate to the “Land of Lightning”, is home to some of the most ancient archaeological discoveries in Malaysia, including several prehistoric aboriginal settlements.  Islamic architecture dominates the urban landscape, shop fronts however are signed in Malay, Chinese, English and Arabic.

I spend my day visiting the famed central market, Pasar Siti Khadijah, where I witnessed the colourful and boisterous theatre that can only be found in an Asian market.

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A lucky encounter at the bus terminal with a young French traveller meant that I spent the rest of the day with Pierre exploring the buddhist temples around the neighbouring town of Tumpat, including the largest sitting Buddha (Wat Machimmaram), in SE Asia and the second largest sleeping Buddha at Wat Polithivan.

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A big thanks here to a very friendly local man, Mohammed, who rescued us from walking in the heat and offered us a ride to the sleeping Buddha and back into Kota Baruh. He even fed us some free fruit.  The hospitality that I have experienced in this country has been very humbling and has been a highlight of my travel in this beautiful country.

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So finally I am standing in front of the Taj Mahal. Ok it’s not he real one but it’s impressive just the same.  After Kota Baruh I’m now in the town of Kuala Terengganu, where I am visiting Taman Tamadun Islam, a kind of ‘best of’ in Islamic mosque architecture.  In about two hours you can travel from the National Mosque of Malaysia, to the Great Mosque of Samarra in Iraq, to Al-Haram Mosque, Mecca in Saudie Arabia and of course to the Taj Mahal and many more extraordinary mosques in the world. This would have to be one of the most unique theme parks I have ever visited, and also one of the most beautiful.  In addition the site also boasts the fabulous Crystal Mosque, a glass and steel structure that sits out on a little island on the river.  Just stunning!  This could only be topped by a visit to the famous floating mosque, on a friday at midday prayer times.  An experience I will never forget!

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I finished my trip up the north coast with a warm swim in the south china sea.

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After three weeks work my sculptures and photographs are now ready to be shown at the Rajawali ArtGroupe Internationale, in Kuantan.  I presented a slide show of some of my portrait work and gave a talk on art as a international language, as well as a way to strengthen communities. I also discussed how my camera was the perfect tool to meet people and learn about new places and cultures.

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At the end of this week I will head to Indonesia for my next project at the Jatiwangi Art Factory.  For now, a big thanks to Jessin from ECAir and her staff, a warm thank you the staff from Rajawali ArtGroupe Internationale for hosting the exhibition and a special thank you to Raoul Mirlo, my fellow artist in residence.

To see the portrait series from this project please klick here: http://www.flickr.com/photos/romanschatz

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The Malaysia Diary part 2

I dragged myself back into the sanctuary of the ECAiR residency, one hand swollen and aching like an overconfident prize fighter, and in the other, good hand, I clung desperately to a warm beer. I was covered in mud and proudly sporting a bright red bindi on my forehead.  It had been a wonderful afternoon!

Earlier that afternoon I decided on a quick trip to a local natural highlight, the Gua Charas, a huge cave famous for its  mixture of Hindu and Buddhist artifacts.  It’s a mere 26 kilometres from the centre of Kuantan and should make for a nice afternoon outing.  My fellow artist in residence , Raoul, was busy with some online appointments, so I set off on my own.  My first obstacle, a busted tyre on my bike, was easily overcome courtesy of my neighbour who offered me a lift to the bus terminal.  I was greeted by thousands of people who had gathered around the central location for a huge marked and music festival.  According to a local this only happens ‘once in a blue moon!’. This lunar event managed to create a huge traffic chaos and subsequently all buses were running behind schedule.  Nothing to do but play a travellers favourite game, waiting.  As a photographer, this is never a problem, so I sat with my camera primed, taking it all in. Finally bus 500 arrived and was ready for take off, by now we are about 40 minutes late, never mind, it’s only a short ride to the caves.  Another 40 minutes passed and we had managed to do a circle of the town to pick up more passengers but at last we were heading out of town.

Sitting next to me on the bus was an Indian man who also seemed keen to get to his destination.  As it turned out, after many hand gestures and map pointing, he was going to get off at the same bus stop as me.  Excellent, at least I won’t miss my stop.  Not that I need have worried, as the bus approached the Charas mountain, it stood out of the surroundings like a real Chinese brush painting.

Leaving the air-conditioned bus, I was slapped around the face by the hot and humid reality of the Malayan countryside.  The Indian man gestured to me that he and two of his friends would take me to the cave.  He also knew a short cut to the entrance, a good thing since the bus stops four kilometres from the cave.  So my three new friends and I trekked through a large palm oil plantation towards the Gua Charas; we were kept company by a heard of cows and scores of monkeys.

We arrived at the gate with one minute to spare, closing time was at 5pm.  This has turned out to be a lucky day for me, because if it wasn’t for my Indian friends I would have been greeted by a locked gate.  Arriving this late had the added bonus that we had the entire cave to ourselves.  Climbing into the coolness of the cave I noticed the smell of incense and as my eyes adjusted to the dark I was presented with a huge cathedral like space.  In the dim light I could make out several altars devoted to different gods. It appeared that the Hindus and Buddhists shared the space equally.  But according to my friends, Hindu gods and Buddha are the same anyway.  At the back of the cave we stopped at a large Hindu altar and made offerings of incense and we all applied a bindi to our head.  This should protect me well, I thought.  But I think I may have applied it incorrectly as within minutes, trying to descend the stairs even deeper into the cave, I slipped and fell.  My first reaction was to protect my cameras, which resulted in landing hard on my left wrist. But I was OK, just a bruised wrist, dented ego and muddy pants.  For the rest of the journey my friends circled me carefully and watching every step I took, warning me constantly ‘ slowly, slowly!’   At the very end of the cave we found a giant sleeping buddha, a most splendid sight. We lit more incense and in the warm glow of the candle light, quietly reflected on the serenity of the Buddha’s face.

The monkeys and cows patiently waited for us and together we trekked back to the bus stop where we parted with handshakes and warm smiles.  As I stepped onto the chill of the air-conditioned bus, I felt like I had just returned from another world.

I crawled, tired, sore and happy into my bed, thinking that perhaps, my bindi did protect me after all.

The first thing you notice is the smell; a sweet, smoky odour that permeates the room, and then the eyes are dazzled by the shimmering colours and forms all around you.  Scenes with dragons, tropical fish, swirling patterns of flowers and dream-like landscapes.  I am visiting the Ghazil Arts Gallery for a batik workshop.  My first task is to colour in a pre-waxed stencilled work.  I guess I can’t go far wrong here. I love working with the fluid colours, a bit like working in water colours and a perfect way to get my eye and hand in as preparation for my own design.  I am working on a fishy theme in Malaysia so I am sticking to this topic and my hand drawn design is a big fat fish.  With the guidance of one of the workers, Sharifa, we bring my creature to life. My assistant can neither talk nor hear, so we communicate with a mixture of signing and smiles.  I think that the final outcome is a beautiful reflection of our effort.

The method of batik making in Malaysia is quite different to those of Indonesian Javanese batik. The pattern is larger and simpler, it seldom or never uses canting to create intricate patterns and relies heavily on a brush painting method to apply colours on fabrics. The colours also tend to be lighter and more vibrant than deep coloured Javanese batik.

The Malaysia Diary part 1

The smell of durian was unmistakable and just wrong. Not that I mind the exotic odour of this wonderful tropical fruit, it’s just that I don’t remember passing it on the way into town.  There was no doubt in my mind, I had taken a wrong turn!  I pride myself on my sense of direction, which is visually based; I lodge advertising signs, shops, natural features etc. into my virtual GPS and this generally serves me well.  But riding my push bike through the unforgiving cloud of durian, I realised that I can also follow my nose home.

My new abode for the next four weeks is Kuantan, the capital of the Pahang state in east Malaysia.  I have been invited to the east coast artist in residence (ECAiR) group and will continue my residency projects here.  This will be followed by a two week visit to the Jatiwangi Art Factory in West Java, to conduct a series of workshops.

After a long journey from Port Macquarie, I was happy to arrive in Kuantan and by the afternoon I needed to go out and stretch my back and legs properly. There is no better way to do this than on the back of a push bike.  It’s about a 30 minute ride into the centre from my studio and the roads are very quiet, a nice change from the traffic chaos that I had experienced only a few weeks ago in Vietnam. My destination was the state mosque in the heart of the town; a beautiful mint-green and sky-blue coloured building.  A visually perfect place to welcome me to my new home.

“I love you forever!”, how could I refuse such a generous offer.  I smiled and continued to take photos of the young men and the two women who were preparing fishing nets and ropes for the next day’s fishing.  It was hot and the stench of rotting fish left no doubt in my mind where I was. I had wandered into a large shed in the fishing village of Tanjung Api, a mere 40 minute bike ride from my studio.  At this stage I am working on my own, that is I have no assistant or translator who can help me to explain why I wanted to take photos of the workers.  I can manage a handful of Malay and together with the little English that the young man knew, we got on just fine. Besides an offer of unconditional love is always a good starting point to any kind of relationship.

I am still struggling a bit with having to get a good image in a short time.  The lack of clear intention for the person that I am photographing, often means I have to work fast, take the photo, and then let them get back to whatever they were doing.  This is one reason why I like to work with little equipment, it’s less intimidating and more relaxed. But it can be a challenge, especially when taking photos in difficult light situations.  At the same time, I really enjoy working like this, it’s important for me to allow for ‘accidents’ in my work.  The magic of photography lies in its ability to catch a glimpse of reality, but reality never stands still.

“The photograph is an undeniably powerful medium. Free from the constraints of language, and harnessing the unique qualities of a single moment frozen in time.” – Steve McCurry

When I got up this morning I was greeted by a snake and a dragon in the kitchen. Today marked my first week in Malaysia and by now these things don’t worry me anymore.  I calmly reached for the knife and cut them up into small pieces!  I love breakfast in the tropics and my new discovery has been the snake fruit, a native from Indonesia and Malaysia, a perfect match for the dragon fruit. I ended up leaving the breakfast table feeling rather heroic.

The first week of any residency is always challenging, as I feel my way into a new culture, neighbourhood and working environment. I share the residency space with a fellow artist from Mexico, Raúl Mirlo, and together we have made the space our home for the next few weeks.

First challenge is always material. As I don’t have fixed plans for my works, except the conceptual idea, the first few days are spent sourcing suitable materials for my sculptural works. I am pleased that after the first week two sculptures are taking shape and materials have been located.  The basic structure of the sculptures will be used next weekend with local art students for a collaborative art making workshop.  My other work is an ongoing photography project that explores local people at work, plus I am starting a new series of portraits.  More to come!

Working in Malaysia so far has been an absolutely positive experience. I  love the cultural mix of people in this country.  Walking around in my new neighbourhood I am likely to meet a Malay, Chinese or Indian person.  This is also reflected in the look of the streets; a Taoist altar in front of one house which is greeted by a Hindu statue next door and washed over by the sound of the muezzin. I find all of this very inspirational and I hope to somehow reflect this in my work.