Colours of the Highlands
Colours of the Highlands, successfully breaks past the time barrier that surrounds indigenous imagery and allows us to look at Kelabit culture with fresh eyes. Her collection forces us to deconstruct our traditional perception of cultural preservation and reconstructs it into a world of cultural revival. Revival, unlike preservation, usually involves the introduction of something new into the mixture, which Alena has masterfully done through her playful use of colour. The images stir up a feeling that our culture is not dead and lying in a case well preserved like a mummy on display, but rather a living and breathing thing, still evolving, still growing just like the ancient spirals, or arit, whose lines are always connected and continuous.
"When I think of the Kelabit people, often the first images that come to mind are black and white photographs of a longhouse on the jungle. This is perhaps because those were the only visual references that connected me, as a Kelabit, to my past, from which I drew identity and inspiration. But the thing about black and white is that it also gives the notion of something frozen in time, and for so long our culture has been just that: frozen in time".
It is worth noting the use of colour is not foreign to Kelabit craftsmanship. Often you will find striking reds and a splash of blue and yellow amongst other colours in their beadwork, or painted into carvings of the sape and casings of parangs. Alena cleverly uses the mix medium of charcoal and acrylic colour in her portraiture that spotlights traditional craftmanship that have been passed down through generations. And while our elders may no longer be with us, their stories remain alive through these cultural artefacts that have now become popular symbols of our culture, weaved into modern day fashion as a statement of identity.
Alena’s abstracts, while at first glance may seem so far off from what is considered to be typically Kelabit, with a closer look is very much evident of her years of close study of heritage through interactions with her elders and the larger community as well as her own lived experiences. Her choice of colours are nods to our people’s deep connection to our land and nature. Her strokes show a sense of movement, almost in diaspora, giving an impression of how we as a people have migrated from the highlands into cities all over the world, yet remain deeply connected to our land, culture and each other.
Her collection rightly paints the Kelabit highlands for what it truly is: a people full of colour. And in them, holds a wealth of artistic depth and a thousand memories, giving us an insight into the past while simultaneously having the present state of our cultural evolution stare right back at us, in full technicolour.