In this month’s cover story, we speak with creative spirits Suhaili Micheline, Marini Ramlan, and Alena Murang on how they managed to pursue their dreams while striving for a purpose bigger than their craft.
As part of the first generation to be born outside of the Borneo rainforest, Alena Murang sees herself as the link between the past and the future. “I always say when I’m on stage or recording or creating, it’s where the past and the future are made present right now,” says the creative soul who advocates visual art and music as a tool to preserve her culture and language.
“There was a lot of making sense when it came to the community values that my parents taught me when I was growing up in the city. From there, I sought to figure out a way on how to portray our arts in the modern world while still staying true to myself,” says Alena who grew up in Kuching and is of part Kelabit heritage.
The rich natural environment of Borneo informs every aspect of her music as she strives to convey the stories of the community and surroundings of Borneo’s vast landscape. “I always say our music was written by our ancestors and genuinely born from the natural environment they lived in. I hope that through my music, people are transported back to this rich natural environment and feel the same kind of emotions.” One of her central themes for this year also focuses on language. The United Nations has declared 2019 as the year of indigenous languages and Alena aims to raise awareness on indigenous languages which are listed as threatened. “Language is so important to keep identities alive. When you keep stories alive, you ensure people’s memories and cultures stay alive.”
Though she has been playing the sape’ (a traditional lute instrument) for 19 years now, she still struggles to call herself a musician. “In our language and many other Dayak languages, no word exists to describe art or music as everything was functional back then. We just grew up learning that these are part of our stories,” she shares. Where does this sense of responsibility to share the stories of her people and their environment stem from? “I think a lot of it comes from my parents. They really pushed me to learn all the different cultural art forms and make the trips back to the villages. My mum is also an anthropologist so she researches on ritual ceremonies, patterns and cultural heritage.”
Though she had initially left the corporate world to study to become a painter, she realised she had a much bigger calling which led her to embark on a music career full-time in 2016. She describes her music career journey as an organic process, from cutting an album to producing music videos. “It’s not something I knew how to dream of, being a professional sape’ player,” she says candidly, referring to the numerous global music festivals she has played at including Wonderfruit in Thailand, Rudolstadt Festival in Germany and OzAsia Festival in Australia.
Today, the audience she plays for has demonstrated plenty of interest in the sape’, especially the youth. “Malaysian youths are very curious with what it means to be a Malaysian and curious about each other’s culture,” she says. However, her journey in the world music industry has come with its fair share of struggles. “Musicians in the world music genre have a purpose way bigger than music and we need managers and record labels that can communicate that message effectively. Creating that ecosystem here and finding my allies in world music have been a challenge,” she shares.
In the last few years, Alena has shifted her focus to her music alongside supporting causes she believes in. She is currently supporting four Penan girls from the rural areas to gain access to schools and providing financial aid for their education.
Her plans for next year also include the release of her new album featuring folk songs as well as original pieces recorded in Kelabit language. She will also be rebranding ART4 Studio, an organisation she founded that aims to use art and music as a medium for positive impact, into Kanid Studio. “Kanid means cousins and I’ll be focusing more on supporting musicians with a cultural focus through talent booking and production.”
Suhaili Micheline is many things – dance artist, choreographer, educator and most recently entrepreneur. Having gone through the highs and lows of solely being a dance artist, the dynamic dancer describes these phases as essential for her to express, explore and experience.
Her most recent venture Barre-D is a ballet fitness and Pilates studio set to open in January in the vibrant suburb of Bukit Damansara. “Barre-D is my new business with my other partners where we aim to enhance and enrich the lives of people through ballet whether it is through helping them with their postures, with rehab or even mental stimulation as part of their routines,” says Suhaili who will be taking on the role of training the instructors. “I am trying to encourage people to teach better. My belief is that ballet is incredibly hard, but if you learn it wrongly, then the purpose of achieving better posture is defeated.”
Suhaili also has her plate full running her family business of 30 years, Aurora Dance School. She trains students as young as four years old and most recently divides her time training her latest recruit – 72-year-old Dato’ Freida Pilus who founded her alma mater Cempaka Schools. “There is a need for golden citizens to also learn dance as it serves as a holistic treatment that can be beneficial,” she justifies.
On top of that, she is also producing and choreographing a play which will be showcased in January at KL Performing Arts Centre. “When I come to realistic terms, I think about what is priority,” she says with a laugh when I query her on juggling her multiple roles. “I just love moving.”
It was at the tender age of four that Suhaili fully immersed herself into the art of dance, insisting to dance alongside the older children in class as she wanted to show off that she could perform equally as well. “My mother was a very self-driven person who started her own business and handled two different dance studios. I went for classes at both studios and if she refused to bring me along, I would cry and climb over the gate. That’s how much I wanted to be involved in dance,” Suhaili reminisces with a chuckle.
Her formative days involved performing for many shows and the memory of a nurturing and supportive Tun Dr Siti Hasmah who always applauded at every performance is one she will always cherish. Another profound memory she shares dates back to just a few years ago when she performed for national icon Tan Sri Michelle Yeoh. “We had to greet her and her entourage at the end of the show. She walked up to me and touched my face as she said ‘you are such a beautiful dancer’,” she recalls as her face breaks into a smile.
But Suhaili’s purpose is bigger than just making dance a lifelong career. She opens up about a time in her life when she
began questioning her work with dance and her real purpose. “I had money and I had commercial jobs but I felt lost somehow,” she reveals candidly. It was only upon completing a volunteering stint with Street Feeders of KL that she came to the realisation that forced her to look deeper into how she was being a responsible citizen. “Within that time of realisation, I started transforming to look into ways I can do things better, whether it is through production or my role as an educator by creating a better programme model that will benefit everyone. I want to make sure the programme we are implementing is something the young kids will always remember.”
Having embarked on this journey with dance so early in her life, Suhaili acknowledges how dance has shaped her into the woman she is today. “Dance has made me more humble and increased my awareness in humanity. It has also given me a great partner who loves me because he understands me better when I move rather than the typical relationship of expressing ourselves through conversations. It’s a beautiful thing when I can relate to people through my dance, I think that makes me feel even more purposeful and powerful.”
Behind the multiple facets of Marini Ramlan, she regards herself as many different things. “I was Marini in the corporate world, Nini to my friends and Nini Marini is my online persona. What I am is I’m an artist, I’m a maker and I’m a content designer,” shares the spirited art advocate who abides by the phrase “imagination is necessary.”
For Marini, this year has revolved around a journey of self- discovery and stepping outside her comfort zone especially since she left her corporate job in pursuit of establishing her art business. “It’s been hard,” she reveals candidly in regards to the change. “Especially as I used to operate 70 percent media and 30 percent art. I’m trying to flip that percentage over now to 70 percent art and 30 percent media.”
Establishing an art business of her own may sound like a natural progression to this artist who has been making things with her hands ever since she was a child. Though she initially started out by creating illustrations and paintings, Marini is now steering her focus on surface pattern designing. “My mother is teaching me as I’ve always wanted to learn surface pattern design. Just learning how to repeat the pattern on fabric has been an interesting exploration as it’s very different from painting,” shares the artist who first hosted her maiden art show back in 2016.
Her approach to art has somewhat evolved today as well as there is the business aspect she has injected into it. “When I was working nine to five, I would do art on the weekends or whenever I was free. Now putting business to it has been the change for me. There is a line between trying to put pressure onto it and trying to make your art work. I don’t really want to make art my work, I still want it to be play but it forces me to look at different aspects of my creative self,” she says.
Education is also a huge aspect she is thinking of venturing into. Though she is no longer involved in teaching the underprivileged kids attached to Yayasan Chow Kit, she foresees herself working with some of the kids who have gone on to establish their own organisation, specifically a youth community centre focusing on performing arts. “Someone once asked me, Nini what problem are you trying to solve with your business? I said imagination, it’s a huge thing I feel strongly about especially on this side of the world.”
Having carved a name so synonymous with the art world, what kind of role does she see herself playing when it comes to preserving the craft? “I feel like I have a voice, an opportunity to share with people what art means to me especially when everyone is concerned about making money. I want to expose art in a fun and tangible way.” One of the ways she is giving back is through an organisation she founded with her mother called Citra. Her passion for art and textiles was greatly influenced by her mother Professor Fatimah Ismail who is largely known as a textile artist extraordinaire. With the Queen of Malaysia on board as a member, Citra is an NGO created for heritage textile lovers to expose and disseminate information on traditional textiles to the public. “The makers have this mindset that it is no longer worth their time to produce things at a scale that can make money while we have designers who want to work. There is a gap somewhere. My role is to expose, to connect and to bring light to issues like this, which will be my focus for next year.”
This story first appeared on Prestige Malaysia December 2019 issue
Photographer Chee Wai
Stylist Colin Sim
Make-up Artist Sharman Yee
Hair Artist CK Liow
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