Sebob youth keeps traditional Orang Ulu art alive

Kenyalang Portraits

By Lian Cheng

FREDDY LAGEY JELUM, 28, has an air of humble unpretentiousness about him. He is a fast learner, intense, in possession of a broad range of interests, curious, self-motivated, loves spending time alone, and immensely in love with nature. Yet there is more to him than initially meets the eye and it is only when one physically sees the art birthed from the depths of his creativity which flows from his hands that one perceives the flame of talent and passion which burns brightly in him.

Hailing from Kampung Long Puah, Ulu Tinjar, Freddy who is a Sebob—one of the smallest Orang Ulu subtribes—only started to paint Orang Ulu motifs on wood in 2020. His art however, has gained attention especially from those who are interested in native art.

Despite only picking up painting two years ago, Freddy paints as if he has been doing so for most of his life. This can be seen in a video he posted online where he created a traditional Orang Ulu human figure motif freehand without making a rough pencil sketch prior, where every stroke he makes is confident, certain and authentic. There is no moment of hesitation. The art which he created with only a marker pen comes out to be remarkably symmetrical and balanced, which are very important features in Orang Ulu motifs.

Talented Orang Ulu artist Freddy Lagey Jelum. (Photo from Freddy’s Facebook page)


The chosen one?

In the olden days of the Orang Ulu community, only the chosen ones are allowed to paint traditional motifs. It was the belief that these images would be revealed to the chosen ones, and they would know what to paint without having to refer to anything.

Whoever is not chosen but attempts to produce images, ill fate would befall them and what they produced would be repulsive and not pleasing the eyes of the beholders. This is also why not many in the Orang Ulu community would attempt to paint traditional motifs.

“According to our old tradition, painting motifs was a sacred calling. Only the chosen ones can do it. It is not for anyone to try. Those who try to do it without divine blessing will go insane.

“One also cannot just draw any image, or they may be cursed. So most people they don’t dare to simply paint these motifs. But to the chosen ones, these images will come naturally to them, they just knew what to draw,” Freddy told DayakDaily in an online interview recently.

Today, with most Orang Ulu having embraced Christianity, such practices are no longer strictly adhered to but the taboo is still respected. Those who create these images will not claim such divine anointing but will instead announce humbly that they are doing it for its preservation, like Freddy. But anyone witnessing him creating his art will have little doubt that he is naturally blessed with the gift and talent, chosen or not.

Freddy welcomes opportunities to immerse himself in nature.

In his blood

An apple does not fall far from its tree. It seems Freddy’s gift runs in his blood. His grandfather Luat was a traditional motif artist and a sape player. Freddy’s father, Jelum, inherited Luat’s ability to play the sape while Freddy seems to take after his grandfather when it comes to painting.

“My father told me that my grandfather was good in painting motifs. He also played the sape. And in our village, the art of painting motifs is on the verge of extinction. There are not many young people who know how to do it. So I thought, if I don’t do it, the art will be lost forever.

“We can wait for the chosen ones but how long shall we wait? I believe we should do it lest it is lost forever but we must do it in such a way that we do not go against the tradition of our forefathers.”

Freddy is self-taught. He first tried to paint by recreating an existing traditional motif, with some success. He then started to create motifs on sape which his father saw and gave his approval for. From there, Freddy started to paint quite often, started with decorating his own home.

It wasn’t only Jelum which approved of his paintings, his fellow villagers also accepted them too. It was this acceptance from the community which gave Freddy the confidence to continue painting these motifs, as a humble “artisan” and not a divinely appointed medium for the ancient deities.

One of Freddy’s paintings of an Orang Ulu motif which was sold for RM70.

Painting comes third

Currently employed as a field conductor for an oil palm plantation, Freddy denies he is among the chosen ones and downplays his talent in painting. He sees painting Orang Ulu motifs as just his effort to preserve a dying art form, as he only started to do it after being jobless for a long time after graduating from Universiti Selangor with a psychology degree.

However, within a relatively short period of time after starting to paint, he started receiving requests to do murals from house owners. He also managed to sell one of his paintings for RM70. Though obviously talented, being a full time artist is not in his plan. Actually, it ranks third on his list of priorities. Practising in his chosen field of psychology is on top of his list because he hopes to have a chance to apply what he learnt in university in real life.

Second on his list is to be an adventurer. His passion for outdoor adventure is apparent on his social media account. There are pictures of him riding on speed boats to reach the interiors of Tinjar to get to clear streams and waterfalls where he fishes, diving into and bathing in streams, cooking his small catch over a small stove fire in the jungle, and sleeping under the stars. He cannot find the words to explain his love for nature and the wild.

“I don’t mind to be an adventurer, to spend a lot of time in the wild. I don’t know why I like to go back nature. I just miss it if I don’t do so. It is just a necessity for me. Perhaps it is because I am so used to it. I don’t know. Except now that as I have a job, I cannot be going back to Tinjar constantly anymore.”

Freddy does not see himself as a artist, nor does he see himself as anyone great or talented. He says he is an average guy who hopes to get a job with steady income, preferably in the field of psychology, which will allow him to return to nature every now and then. He said painting can wait—until he has the time! — DayakDaily