Inaugurated this year as a prelude event to the Rainforest World Music Festival (RWMF) held every July in Sarawak, the Rainforest Fringe Festival (RFF) kicked off last weekend, showcasing the artistry and cultural diversity of this mythical land through a series of curated events, screenings, and exhibitions. Held throughout the Sarawak Tourism Complex and the Kuching Ampitheatre, the colourful festival featured notable Sarawakian artists and creatives. Below, you'll find our highlights.
1. Textiles, Textures and Tattoos On 8 July, we witnessed fashion gala, 'Theatre Of Clothes', take to the runway. A personal highlight of the festival director himself, Joe Sidek says, "It's the layering of textiles, textures and tattoos that inspire me most about the diversity of Sarawak." The presentation focused on ethnic motifs that fuse traditional and contemporary styles while exploring different raw materials, surfaces and production methods. The participating fashion labels were fronted by luminaries of Sarawak fashion, including award-winning designers Edric Ong and Dato' Tom Abang Saufi, artist and designer Ramsay Ong, master weaving collective, Tanoti, and headpiece maker, Neng Kho Razali.
In addition to Kuching's star-studded lineup, our very own Singapore-based label, Ong Shunmugam, also collaborated with Pua Kumbu artisans on a range of accessories to pair with and update her past collections. Founder Priscilla Ong Shunmugam shared: "Working with Pua Kumbu was a challenge, but a familiar one. Pua Kumbu are essentially ceremonial blankets — this means they are not made with the intention of making garments — so they are not cut or woven with the ideal width, handfeel or drape for clothing. We had to respect this but find a way to have fun with them anyway. That's not particularly different from what we typically do, so we just looked at Pua Kumbu through the Ong Shunmugam lens."
Another memorable segment on stage? We saw a departure of ethnic motifs on textiles — instead, indigenous models made their way down the runway wearing the distinctive tattoos of their tribes with pride.
2. Jimmy Nelson — Before They Pass Away One of the few artists featured at the festival that does not hail from Sarawak is celebrated photojournalist and photographer Jimmy Nelson, known for his portraiture of tribal and indigenous people from around the world. His photos may not be of Borneo but his mission to raise the awareness of these cultures resonates strongly in a place like Sarawak, where 70% of the population is made up of indigenous communities and over 40 sub-ethnic groups, each with their own distinct language, culture, and lifestyle.
The large-scale photography on display was stunning, transporting viewers to the most far flung and inaccessible locations across Europe, Asia, Africa, South America, and the South Pacific. Meticulously shot, using an antiquated 50-year-old 5x4 inch camera, each portrait captured their subjects in full tribal regalia, showing their pride and acclimatization to their home terrains.
While Nelson's art speaks a thousand words, those of us who attended the talk by art curator, Anke Degenhard, on the second day of RFF were treated to a live recording of Nelson himself. In the video, he animatedly illuminated why and how he managed to photograph these tribes, many of whom had never seen a white person before. Recounting serendipitous moments on his journey, the hardships and dangers, one of the most moving parts of his story was hearing Nelson's return to the tribes to give them his book, Before They Pass Away, so they could see themselves as well as other indigenous people across the globe.
3. Sada Kamek: Music of Sarawak The main music component of RFF was held on 9 July in the form of an open-air concert at Kuching Ampitheatre. Under the full moon, guests were treated to an eclectic mix of Sarawak's top local talents. Actor and singer, Tony Eusoff, played host and opened the evening with a cover of Robbie Williams, 'Better Man', referencing his past years' challenges. This was followed by a performance by Mathew Ngau, the world's foremost authority on the sape and his prodigy, Alena Murang.
Bringing the pop soul influence to the evening was Pete Kallang, dubbed the vocal Prince of Borneo, and his band. For fusion traditional music at its best, it was the performances by bands Nading Rhapsody and At Adau that impressed — they are also performing during the main RWMF this weekend. The crowd favourite who closed the night? One of the reigning queens of Malaysian music, Dayang Nurfaizah, blew everyone away with her effortless vocals, hitting all the high notes even as she walked among the audience taking wefies.
Our Buro pick for favourite act was a solo performance by Noh Salleh, frontman of hit-making rock band Hujan. A performer since the age of 10, the singer bantered spontaneously on stage in between his retro-tinged songs that could have been a soundtrack to the Golden Age of Malay cinema in the 1950s. "Kuching has a lot of amazing talents, from the underground art scene, to the more mainstream international artistes but I think Sada Kamek picked a great variety of genres from various generations," shared Noh Salleh.
4. Craft shopping The Craft and Vintage Market held on the 8 and 9 July showcased an array of Sarawak's signature craft — from weaved baskets, to small batch organic coconut nectars, to paintings and rare artifacts. Several of the standout vendors were social enterprises, the busiest at the market on both days being The Penan Women Project and their range of bags and baskets. Initiated by the Miri Women Weaving Association in Sarawak, their aim is to help the Penan women out of poverty by tapping their resources and knowledge about traditional crafts like weaving. This came in the form of affordably priced tote bags and laundry baskets, which shoppers at the market bought in multiples. No longer made from rattan because of deforestation, the enterprise now uses innovative plastic strapping in a myriad of styles and colours.
Barefoot Mercy is another company working to bridge the growing rural-urban divide in Sarawak. One of the ways they raise funds is by buying produce and wares from rural communities at fair prices and selling them in city centres, with profits going back into assistance schemes. Some of these products included their specially flavoured "Bakelalan" natural iodised salts and "Kelulut" honey.
Architect and designer Edrick Ong, who participated in the 'Theatre of Clothes' show was also present, selling his own range of eco-textiles crafted from natural materials and infused with Sarawakian motifs. This ranged from tribal-inspired stone jewellery and rattan hats, to hand-painted kimono sleeved jackets and shawls.
5. The town of Kuching For many of us attending RFF, it was our first visit to Kuching, and so we took the opportunity to explore the area closest to the Sarawak Tourism Complex where the bulk of the festivities were being held. A two-minute stroll to Carpenter Street, one of Kuching main thoroughfares, held a number of the town's most popular food eateries and bars. From kolok mee, to Sarawak laksa, kuih chap to teh si ice specials and chendol, the street food could easily rival that of Penang, Malaysia's most popular proponent of street food. Just remember to arrive early, as many of the best food stalls open at 7am and finish selling by lunch time.
Most of the buildings have been standing since the late 1800s and still cater to the citizen's everyday needs — don't expect anything too hipster; only bike repair shops, clothing and sundry stores. What you will find is authentic, small town charm and the hospitality that comes with it.
Ong Shunmugam summed it up, "The Rainforest Fringe is just what Sarawak needs to jumpstart tourist interest beyond what it's typically known for. I thought it achieved a really nice balance through different channels or mediums. I definitely came away feeling like I had immersed myself in this little city, but that there is so much more to look forward to."
The Rainforest Fringe Festival (RFF) is now running until 16 July in Kuching, hosted by The Ministry of Tourism, Arts, Culture, Youth and Sport Sarawak, in collaboration with Sarawak Tourism, and the Rainforest World Music Festival.