Art Detail | Ilham Gallery
The Nightmare of Moyang Bajos
The Nightmare of Moyang Bajos

The Nightmare of Moyang Bajos tells the story of the recent destruction of the mangrove forests in Selangor’s Pulau Carey and Sungai Judah, the land of the Mah Meri indigenous community. Since the early nineties, the Mah Meri community’s land has faced consistent threats of deforestation by both local and governmental bodies in the name of development. To Shaq Koyok, an artist and activist of the indigenous Temuan tribe of Selangor, the bitter reality of the Mah Meri community’s struggle for land speaks to a wider exploitation of Malaysia’s indigenous communities for capital gain, a reality that he explores in the exhibition Land of a Thousand Guilts (2021) where this painting was first displayed. 

The barren landscape that dominates the painting’s background is an obvious allusion to these atrocities. An arid grey shore is populated only by the tree stumps left behind by their loggers, illuminated by slight trails of white acrylic paint. Above, stippled brushwork is used to build a heavy storm of clouds which broods over the composition. Sailing towards the shore in the far right background is a distant view of a fleet of boats representing perhaps the imminent arrival of the mangrove’s assailants. 

Koyok injects colour into this mournful landscape with his principal subject in the foreground: a figure dressed as the ancestral spirit, Moyang Bajos, who strides forward with both arms raised above his waist. This male dancer is shown performing the Puja Pantai ritual of the Mah Meri people, wearing a traditional costume made of a wooden mask and woven leaves of nipah and pandanus. The ritual, performed as a celebration of their protector spirits, commands the painting with the dramatic movement of each tassel on the dancer’s vibrant yellow costume. This yellow is echoed in the far left background, where Koyok depicts the grand altar at which offerings are made by the villagers. 

By placing the focus of colour and composition on this celebratory ritual, Koyok draws attention not only to the community’s celebrated craft of mask-making, but also to the community’s persistence of tradition and celebration amidst the acts of violence committed onto their land. It is a powerful portrayal of resistance and protection against the tyrannies of modernity upon Malaysia’s indigenous communities and the natural world.

Acrylic on canvas
51.5 x 121.5 cm
Credit Line:
Collection of ILHAM Foundation
© Shaq Koyok
About Shaq Koyok

Shahar a/l Koyok a.k.a. Shaq Koyok (b.1985, Selangor, Malaysia) is a contemporary artist and activist of the indigenous Temuan tribe of Selangor. His art is a reflection of his people and the rainforest in which he grew up. His works, which explore a variety of mediums from contemporary painting to installation art, aim to capture the tensions and pressures faced by the indigenous communities whose lives interact with and pay reverence to the natural environment in a rapidly modernising Malaysian state. Koyok holds an honours degree in Fine Arts from Universiti Teknologi Mara (UiTM), Malaysia. In 2015, Koyok received the Indigenous People Excellence Award by Tourism Selangor. In 2017, he was awarded the Merdeka Award Grant, making him the first Orang Asli to receive this accolade which identifies outstanding young Malaysians, equipping them with opportunities to participate in collaborative projects at internationally-recognised institutions. His work has been shown in the UK, Australia and the USA. He has also been invited as a keynote speaker in conferences in the UK and New Zealand. His first solo exhibition, Land of a Thousand Guilts, was held in 2021 at Richard Koh Fine Art in Kuala Lumpur.

Further Readings

Learning Section

  • Describe the figure at the centre of the painting. How is he dressed and what is he doing? How does the artist emphasise the importance of this figure? What other elements can you see in the painting? What does each element represent? What is the overall message of the painting?

  • What do you know about the Mah Meri tribe? What do you know about their customs and craft making? What do you know about the challenges facing their communities? Where did you learn this information? Are Malaysians well informed about the indigenous population? What is the best way for people to learn about different cultures?