Nature’s wonders inspire artists the world over.
NATURE surrounds us even in temperature-controlled urban settings, where we are dependent on the natural world for air, food, water and clothes. We are tied not only physically, but also intellectually, mythically and artistically.
Nature art can be so realistic that paintings appear to be photographs, or so abstract that we need to imagine natural patterns and colours to identify them.
The audience interprets the artists’ view of the world. Artists — painters, bead artists, sculptors, carvers, silversmiths, jewellery makers or weavers — seek inspiration from the world.
At first sight glittering stars in the night sky appear to have been thrown like dust blown by the wind but the constellations and shapes can be seen in the abstraction of the sparkling diamond-like stars patterns.
Artists from before written history in cave drawings captured the essence of the animals they hunted, caught the beauty of their world in personal decoration.
Trees and plants inspire. A forest canopy is interwoven with a multitude of shapes and colours, but each leaf has a unique shape, colour and texture. Tree roots grow with gravity as root fibres seek nutrients and water in addition to anchoring the tree to the soil. Roots are the foundation of the crown of the tree. Ecologically speaking, trees create many micro niches for plants and animals — sheltering, feeding and protecting them.
Charles Darwin, in ‘On the Origin of Species’, symbolised evolution as a Tree of Life. Initially the tree of life had two kingdoms, animal and plant, but at present six, including fungi (mushrooms) have been identified. Life according to Darwin has many branches and many have fallen off representing species, or even orders, for example dinosaurs that have no living representatives.
Darwin wrote that he believed “it has been with the great Tree of Life, which fills with its dead and broken branches the crust of the earth, and covers the surface with its ever-branching and beautiful ramifications”.
Life is rooted in the Earth, as are trees. They symbolise the connection of life to the planet and the human connection to Earth. They have come to represent life across cultures, theology and mythology and are rooted in ancient and present-day symbolism and mystery. Many religions have worshipped trees and / or contain a belief in cosmic trees.
In Europe, the Celtic people believed that oaks and oak groves were sacred. Another reminder of ancient tree worship is the Maypole. Villagers cut down a tree and there is rejoicing and dancing around the pole.
Ancient and modern Trees of Life, generally symmetrical, have symbolic mythical and cultural symbolism, philosophy and religion. Animals are easily drawn on the intertwining branches. They represent the connection of life with heaven, the upper-world and the underworld.
According to ancient Egyptian mythology, the first couple, moisture and dryness, and, earth and sky, Isis and Osiris, respectively, emerged from a tree. The Egyptian holy sycamore stood on the threshold of life and death connecting the two worlds.
In South America, the Mayan people believed that the Tree of Life joined heaven and the underworld and flowed in four directions, north, south, east and west. The Mayan believed that all living things passed through the underworld, the earth and the upper-world, heaven.
The Orang Ulu Tree of Life (Kayu Aru), like the Mayan, has celestial symbolical connections. According to Kenyah and Kayan myths, the Tree of Life gave life to the first man and woman. A motif of the Rhinoceros Hornbill, a deity bird, representing the celestial upper-world is perched at the top.
Heidi Munan in the ‘Tusau Padan: A Retrospect Exhibition’ published in honour of the late Kenyah artist, painter, carver, dancer and musician Tusau Padan (1930 to 1996) described the asymmetrical Tree of Life as signifying the ordinary and the celestial.
The motifs within the Tree of Life show features of the natural world that were known to the people. Symbols, including hornbill, tigers, dragon (water serpent) and hawk originated in the natural world and appear near the top of the tree, as they are associated with the upper-world. There is a dualistic nature as these motifs are also associated with superior people, the aristocrats, who are more powerful in secular and spiritual worlds than commoners.
The tree itself is composed of interconnected curvilinear scrolls that can contain images of the dragon or dog motifs. Plants and other animals are woven into the maze-like scrolls. The ultimate rank is the stylised hornbill, which along with the Brahminy Kite (a raptor) represents deities, nestled at the top.
Lower creatures, associated with the underworld are arranged on the roots. Man is usually placed in the centre. These motifs appear on other works of art including baby carriers and show the social status of the child and his or her family.
Munan pointed out that longhouse walls could be painted with a Tree of Life, but artwork commissioned by aristocrats according to Victor King — in ‘Symbols of Social Differentiation: A Comparative Investigation of Signs, the Signified and Symbolic Meaning in Borneo’ — could also be used to increase prestige. Artwork was a sign of wealth and status.
The Sarawak Museum, which was established in 1888 by Raja Charles Brooke and further extended in 1911, has two outstanding examples of the Orang Ulu Tree of Life. Tom Harrisson, the then curator of the Sarawak Museum, commissioned these murals, based on originals from a Leppo Tau Kenyah longhouse at Long Nawang, in the upper reaches of the Kayan River, Kalimantan.
Harrisson was rescued by Long Nawang folk during the Second World War, thus they and the mural had a lasting impression. He invited the original artists — Bit Ncuk, Anyin, Saging, Limpan Bilung, Baya Laing and Gun Dian — to Kuching to reproduce the Tree of Life, an undertaking, which is reported to have taken almost two years and was completed in 1960. One is brightly painted with orange being dominant over red, green and the non-colours, black and white. The other is black and white as are the side panels of predominantly dragon or dog motifs.
A nesting orange, black and white striped hornbill is nestled at the apex of this colourful rooted Tree of Life. Rusty orange snakes, among other types, with distinctive diamond-patterned backs drape over the stylised hornbill motifs and their curvilinear beaks that mesh to become branches. One snake appears to be following a person down the central bole of the tree. Crocodile-like motifs, turtles, lizards, fish, birds, leaves, flowers and lots of snakes as well human figures, are also interwoven into the mural.
A European-looking man clings to and crawls along a branch while those who appear to be locals are comfortably seated. Real-looking tigers at the base stand on their hind feet to reach into the bole, while the spreading roots of the tree provide protection for people as they are enclosed in tepee-like swirls. This is not the typical Tree of Life described by Heidi Munan as the tigers are at the bottom rather than the top and people are at the roots and in the middle.
The bright colours, smiling animal faces contribute to the sense of joy and perhaps humour. Were the painters chuckling as they drew people crawling along the branches? When Adeline Ooi and David Lumenta in ‘The Malaysian Roadless Trip’ visited Long Nawang and one of the artists, this was a question.
On the opposite wall, the stark black and white Tree of Life with prominent pointed teeth of snakes and other predators, was hair-raising. Even the fruit-eating deity hornbill in the purity of the non-colours became stronger and more god-like. Power exudes from it. White skeleton figures lack details — there are no faces. Two paintings by the same artists, commissioned at the same time, yet are so different but so much the same.
Tusau knew and was taught by the talented Long Nawang artists. When he moved to Kuching in the 1970s, he worked for the Sarawak Museum, in addition for private commissions and collectors. Traditionally the expertise of a Kenyah artist was measured as a degree of his ability to copy old patterns. However, collectors of Tusau’s art can identify development in his style. Materials changed, as he started to work with bark cloth rather than wood or paper.
Tusau believed artists had to paint for the person. My husband specifically asked not to have tigers in our Tree of Life and thus there are none, but the style is Tusau’s. Although plants along with animals are generally woven into the design, they are especially noticeable in this painting. The detailed leaves show veins and the drip tips that let water flow off the leaves. A dancing couple are at the base of the tree, instead of the normal centre. We see the tree as a beautiful piece of Orang Ulu art representing my husband’s culture. It also shows the ties that bind us to nature — a reminder that we are part of this world.
Alena Murang, an Orang Ulu artist, agreed that artists include themselves in their work, but like Tusau, they have to paint for their clients.
She said that the Tree of Life she painted came instinctively from her experiences in the forest and as a member of the Orang Ulu Community. The curvilinear pattern, a distinct part of the artistic traditions, flowed and she didn’t need to draw them. The asymmetrical painting linked her to the natural world as she swings on a branch surrounded by elephants, giraffes, wolves, and birds. She places herself in the centre of the tree, as humans are placed traditionally in Orang Ulu Trees of Life. To her the Tree of Life shows her connection to the natural world, but not the greater cultural significance as this she learned after completing the painting.
The culturally significant Tree of Life connects people to the physical natural as well as spiritual and mythical worlds. To appreciate this, take time, sit and look at the stunning murals in the Sarawak Museum painted by the talented artists from Long Nawang.