Thursday, July 9, 2009

A different aesthetic

Gali Adam specialises in producing wooden masks which have a hauntingly beautiful form.

A CASUAL glance around woodcarver Gali Adam’s open air work shed could easily give the visitor the impression that he has a fascination for the grotesque. After all, the sort of faces that Gali can pull would send the faint hearted running for cover.

In one corner of the shed, lay a snarling form of a midget dragon. Next to it was a mask with a contorted grin to reveal a huge set of teeth with a tongue sticking out between the incisors. Nearby, was a crocodile in human form; displaying a gnash of a smile and swishing a thorny tail between its legs.

Gali Adam with a mask which is carved in the likeness of Nasi Pejang Seniokala, a spirit is believed to be able help those who have lost their self confidence.

Is this Mah Meri native plagued by deep-seated resentment and suppressed anger? Or is Gali simply an artist who has an unexplained fascination for the hideous?

After taking some time to reflect on the question, Gali hesitantly admitted that he had issues when the forests in Carey Island were felled to make way for the oil palm plantations. He was also not too pleased with the plantation guards who stopped him from going through the estate to reach the part where nyireh wood could be found for his wood carvings. But that was a long time ago and Gali has since purged himself of such feelings.

The wooden figure of the Buaya spirit is believed to protect one from harm.

“It is not good to hold grudges. In the long run, it will affect your health. In the end, I decided that we should leave things to God,” was Gali’s simple reply.

And leaving things to God was the deciding factor that had changed this former plantation and factory production line worker’s life.

In letting go, Gali turned to wood carving to calm his mind and to lift his spirits.

“In Mah Meri society, skills such as wood carving and weaving are very much a part of our daily life and they are passed from one generation to another.

“Nowadays we talk about ‘art therapy’ and treat it like some new thing but my ancestors have long discovered the benefits of art as a way to curb a wandering mind and to restore self confidence,” explained Gali, who at the age of 27, had sought tutelage from a village elder named Pak Pion Bumbung. And it was Pak Pion who had showed Gali how to capture the distinctive characteristics of Mah Meri wood art.

The Mah Meri, said Gali, are firm believers in the existence of orang halus (spirits).

When they go to the forests to look for palm leaves and wood, it is obligatory to ask the spirits for permission by presenting them with offerings of rice, tobacco and incense.

“I presume the logic behind this is to remind man not to take nature for granted and such rituals are a way of giving thanks for its gifts,” explained Gali.

A mask of the spirit Lembu. Legend has it that Lembu was a man who got tired of running away from pirates and begged the gods to turn him into a cow.

The animistic beliefs of the Mah Meri are clearly shown in their arts and where the wooden figurines are concerned, Gali revealed that they have been carved in the likeness of spirits who are capable of taking away illnesses and giving protection.

It is, he explained, a way of communing with the spiritual realm and is used as a form of “exchange” when their help is sought.

And while Gali relies on a reference book to carve out his wooden figurines, there have been times when he has based his work on visions from his own dreams.

Maybe this explains that while Gali’s wood carvings may be far from pretty, an art lover will be able to see beyond its superficial appearance to detect an eerie but hauntingly beautiful form.

“There was once an artist who commented that there is no such thing as ‘waiting for inspiration’. Well, I rely on it 100% for my work,” said Gali with a chuckle. He sells his work directly to buyers who come to his village in Kampung Sungai Bumbun.

“When I don’t have the mood, I don’t force myself as the end result has always been terrible,” said this wood carver who can produce up to five works in a month.

At such times, he said the only thing to do is to take it easy and go fishing, one of his favourite pastimes.

Otherwise, it’s off to the city whenever his wife, Julida Uju, 39, gets an invite to perform the traditional Mah Meri dance at the various cultural centres.

Asked if he would ever want to relocate to the city, the polite soft spoken wood carver was quick to reply with a firm ‘no’.

“I love the kampung life where the surroundings are serene and peaceful. This is where my inspiration comes from,” he said.

Gali Adam can be contacted at 013-6987081. He resides in Kg. Orang Asli Sg. Bumbun, 42960, Pulau Carey, Kuala Langat, Selangor.

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