Delivered by Juvita Tatan Wan as part of InHERIT (International Conference Heritage and Cultural Conservation) in Kuching, Sarawak, Malaysia.
A place once rich with culturally diverse people, identified by the depth of languages. Unique traditions tied to lands, water, animals, plants. And the various transmissions of cultural heritage through mediums such as music, performances, visuals arts – all cease to exist.
What will this place look like?
Globally, there is an acknowledgement on the importance to promote, protect and revitalise cultural expressions and practices, including indigenous knowledge. This is because the wealth of knowledge passed down for generations through oral traditions and rituals, especially in regards to the natural environment have sustained societies in many parts of the world since time immemorial.
It is also acknowledged that the melange and wealth of cultural expressions and practices by indigenous communities contribute to global cultural diversity, which is important in fostering understanding and peace from a state, national and global level.
Here in Borneo, the artistic and cultural expressions of the Dayak communities is rooted in hundreds of years of practice, and its uniqueness is getting a wave of renewed recognition internationally thanks to the borderless world of digital technology.
Now, the irony of a globalised and interconnected society is that, we are also witnessing a wider gap between dominant society and the indigenous communities through irresponsible capitalisation of “exotic” people and cultures. Various forms of appropriation and marginalising has tremendous effects to living indigenous cultures, including the Dayaks.
To date, globally, there are no clear laws that prevents alteration, distortion or misuse of traditional symbols, songs, dances, performances or rituals that may be part of the heritage of particular Indigenous language groups.
But, it is acknowledged that the right to own and control cultural heritage is, and should be, in the hands of the indigenous communities themselves. These rights are confirmed in the 2006 United Nations Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which countries such as Malaysia, Indonesia and Brunei are signatories of. It states that Indigenous people have the right to practice and revitalise their cultural traditions and customs. ‘This includes the right to maintain, protect and develop the past, present and future manifestations of their cultures, such as archaeological and historical sites, artefacts, designs, ceremonies, technologies and visual and performing arts and literature.’
However, the lack of political will by some countries to meaningfully recognise this in-country means that the rights are not necessarily upheld. Which is why, now more than ever, as global citizens across multiple levels of society, being “responsible” is important to ensure the continued existence of our indigenous communities and cultures.
So, what does it mean to be responsible in this context of working in the areas of promotion and development of Dayak cultural heritage? Why does it matter? And what does it actually mean to be “responsible”? What would it look like?
- Meaningful community inclusivity
The Tuyang Initiative have journeyed for more than a year, focusing in the area of Sarawak’s traditional Dayak performing arts, as well as talent development and management. We have had the opportunity to engage and interact with individuals and organisations who appreciate the uniqueness and value of our cultural heritage. One key observation in Malaysia, is that most who choose to work with Dayak communities, especially in areas of arts and culture, more often than not, embrace a form of “hero complex”. This is especially true, when they come from more dominant social groups.
There are real dangers in this, as this is a form of systemic, societal exclusion by those with louder, or more visible voices.
Having preconceived notions from the eyes of a dominant social group, without the necessary experience of immersion inside a community, or having true understanding of the nuances such as community values, language, way of life, these proposed “solutions” or “stories” carries certain biases. It in turn, moulds narratives on behalf of the communities, which may or may not be accurate. When steered by those with societal power, especially directing narratives where communities are exoticised, or positioned in a non-dignified way, it perpetuates a gap and isolation from the rest of the world. It does not provide real insights to these communities, who, people on the outside sometimes forget, are made out of real people with real challenges.
Some examples here which we have encountered:
In the areas of fashion – which by the way, is a globally projected 385b US Dollar industry by 2025 – there has been an advent of businesses, positioning themselves as social enterprises, working in showcasing the distinctiveness of Dayak art and culture through traditional-inspired crafts and motifs. Some have taken it upon themselves to design products on behalf of the communities, or providing market access by being the middlemen. Some have even introduced the use of unsustainable materials in creation of fashion accessories. If this continues without questions, such as, environmental sustainability or meaningful capacity building, how does it positively impact the communities, especially if the businesses grow to match the potential scale of the industry’s revenue and profit? Do our community artisans become a permutation of sweatshops? Does this then become just a basic case of appropriation?
In areas of music or the arts, artistic directors and programmers who wish to incorporate traditional Dayak stories, music or talents, especially in Sarawak and Malaysia, have a preconceived, stereotypical idea of how it should be done. Dayak talents or art practitioners are often directed or told that they can, or should, only deliver certain aspects of their art form due to “creative licenses” or budget or production constraints. The lack of opportunity given to community talents or practitioners in playing a proactive role through meaningful dialogue or participation in the developmental stages raises the question – who is driving the story or the art form in the context of authenticity, or selecting the appropriate dialogues or themes?
Meaningful inclusivity just means that one have the humility, good faith, and respect to seek permission to learn something from someone, truly be a part of a community by spending quality time with the people and its culture, and honestly reflect how one’s action, would and could, potentially impact the community. This is especially important when one takes bits and bobs of someone else’s culture, to share with the world, either through academia or commercial endeavors.
Another key question that should be asked is – when one comes and takes, how can one meaningfully give back to truly include and elevate the communities worked with?
We at The Tuyang Initiative believe that working with our communities in areas of cultural heritage, must not be just about providing access to showcase the beauty of our traditions, art and culture. The paramount importance is in the inclusion of community members at every stage of the developmental process, while equipping with the right skill sets to deliver them.
It comes down to self-determination. The capacity building of community members to be, cultural entrepreneurs, closes the gap between our communities and the world, which means we are being empowered to participate in a global economy. It is allowing for opportunities to better articulate our own challenges or successes, and be our own champions.
Ultimately, when our communities have agency, recognised as the primary guardians and interpreters of our own culture, it means that we, especially in rural or unseen areas, are no longer “invisible”.
- Policies which empower & protect
Similar to challenges faced by global indigenous communities, policies surrounding the exploitation of Dayak communities’ tangible and intangible cultural heritage is almost…non-existent.
In the context of the Dayak communities of Sarawak, despite being in a slightly more privileged circumstance than our indigenous brothers and sisters globally, sadly, the postcolonialism effects still linger. I will not go into details of the local political landscape, but there is currently no meaningful mechanism or political will to empower and protect the communities, especially in areas of cultural heritage.
Despite the clear commercial value of Dayak cultures and its contribution to a wide range of industries including Tourism, Arts & Craft, Academic/Research, Advertising, Film and more, there is no legal framework which provides recognition and protection, particularly to own and control representation and dissemination of our stories, knowledge or other cultural expressions.
There are learnings on workarounds from the region.
An example is in Australia. As their current legal framework provides limited recognition and protection of Indigenous heritage rights, the current method to safeguard is through the development of Protocols, which serves as guidelines for appropriate ways of using Indigenous cultural material, and interacting with Indigenous people and their communities, with the key purpose to encourage ethical conduct and promote interaction based on good faith and mutual respect. Under copyright laws, these rights are not always protected. They therefore enforce policies where the use of Indigenous Protocol Guides is mandatory for recipients of grants from Australia’s Council for the Arts. This means that anyone who intends to produce work with indigenous artists and themes, would need to adhere to the protocol set in place, which spell out the legal, ethical and moral considerations for the use of Indigenous cultural material across media arts, music, performing arts, visual arts and writing.
3. Sustainability and transparency at the core
Sustainability in the context of Dayak cultural heritage is about the people and the culture. Any decision making when working with aspects of Dayak cultural heritage need to be evaluated on its sustainability, not only in terms of preservation through avenues such as research and documentation, but also in the holistic, long term impact to the community in ensuring that the practice and transmission of its cultural expressions are continued for the benefit of future generations.
Simple actions such as, inviting actual Dayak community members to perform their own cultural dances at events, or inviting community acknowledged experts as cultural consultants in advising on cultural protocols and use of cultural materials, is important so that the community feels valued, protected and respected. Doing this makes the intent of the work transparent, and is a simple sign of good faith and mutual respect. It also subsequently provides opportunities for community members to play an active role in their cultural heritage, while benefiting socioeconomically.
This is one of the key values we practice at The Tuyang Initiative. As we envision sustainable economic opportunities through cultural heritage for our communities, we commit to promotion and development, while empowering our communities through capacity building.
But what is most important to us, is that we make it clear so that our talents know that we value their input from the point of conceptualisation, to the delivery of products and services. Our communities also know that 60-80% of client receipts go back to them. Our communities know that we look out for them.
4. Work with qualified professionals with the right heart and motivation
The importance of having professionals especially in something as volatile and complex as cultural heritage must be underscored.
From arts managers, researchers, performing artists, programmers, artistic directors – the people who want to work with aspects of Dayak cultural heritage, while are experts in their fields, must also have meaningful understanding and a certain depth of knowledge of the different Dayak culture and transmissions of it.
There must be a level of respect and acknowledgment that the beautiful culture goes beyond just mere content to feed hungry consumers.
We dance because it tells stories of our experiences with our lands and the environment. We sing because we are celebrating our ancestors while teaching us our languages. We tell stories because that is how we learn about our lives, society and the politics of our people, of past and present. It goes beyond aesthetics, and more people need to understand that. Hence the importance of more professional representation.
Today, there is a growing number of urban-educated, well-traveled and experienced Dayak community members in areas of art and culture, who can play a proactive role in bridging the gap that exists between professional non-community members and community members. This will make the real difference in the empowerment and protection of our culture.
That is currently the role that we pride ourselves in doing at The Tuyang Initiative. Being members of the community ourselves, coupled with more than 10 years experience in national and regional media arts production, marketing and business development, in industries such as music & entertainment and advertising, we carry the responsibility to be the two-way bridge for people who want to work with our communities, but also articulate and look out for the welfare of our cultural guardians. Our hope is to see more young community members undertaking this responsibility together with us, in the near future.
Dayak cultural heritage are living and constantly evolving entities. It is not just a historical phenomena. Because of that, it is especially important why we, from the communities must have the right to self-determination of cultural affairs and expression of cultural materials. If you think about it, today with technology, we have more tools that relatively encourage accessibility such as smartphones. This means we can and should be telling our own stories, express our art forms, and meaningfully benefit from the continuation of cultural practices, even take lead in its development.
As you and I gather here to share best practices and discuss cultural heritage discourse at this illustrious event, I feel that what is most important to have it done responsibly, boils down to this – if we truly care about heritage and cultural conservation, let us not TALK about the communities. Let us talk about it TOGETHER with the communities.
My personal plea is that we humble ourselves, tear away the hero complex, engage at grassroot levels and remember to be meaningfully inclusive. Especially for academicians and researchers, in the spirit of good faith and mutual respect to any Dayak communities worked with, let’s work together so we can play a proactive role in bridging and creating wins for the communities and policy makers. Art and culture professionals, don’t impose, instead, please engage with respect, love and care.
Be transparent with your intent, and use your conscience to guide you to the WHY you choose to work with certain cultural heritage in the first place.
We, as people from the communities ourselves have the burden of responsibility to ensure that our cultures are maintained and protected so it can be passed onto future generations.
But let us all, as human beings reflect on the potential realities of a world without indigenous cultures and what effects that would have, what that would mean. And most importantly, how all of us could have shared a responsibility in creating that reality.
Tiga tawai. Thank you.