Zarina Muhammad is an artist, educator and researcher whose practice is deeply entwined with a critical re-examination of oral histories, ethnographic literature and other historiographic accounts about Southeast Asia. Working at the intersections of performance, installation, text, ritual, sound, moving image and participatory practice, she is interested in the broader contexts of myth-making, haunted historiographies and role of the artist as “cultural ventriloquist” who lends polyphonic voices to data-driven systems and shapeshifting worlds. She has been working on a long-term interdisciplinary project on Southeast Asia’s provisional relationship to the otherworldly, spectrality, ritual magic and the immaterial against the dynamics of global modernity, the social production of rationality and environmental histories. In addition to presenting recent incarnations of her projects, performances and installations at Singapore Art Museum (Singapore), ArtScience Museum (Singapore), NTU Centre of Contemporary Art (Singapore), Objectifs Centre for Photography and Film (Singapore), T-Works (Singapore), Indonesia Contemporary Art Network (Indonesia), Museum of Contemporary Art Taipei (Taiwan,) she has also presented her work and been involved in projects across Asia Pacific and Europe. She has been nominated as a finalist for several awards such as the President Young Talent, The Paulo Cunha e Silva Art Prize and most recently The Julius Baer Next Generation Art Prize.
For this residency, I wish to create a series of invitations to walk with other-than-human worlds and multispecies landscapes.
Through these invitations, we will walk, talk, think, sense, listen, smell and feel through varying modes of habitability, regeneration, feralness and moving through realms of differential knowledges. In doing so, how can we pay particular attention to wisdoms and lessons that we can humbly learn from non-human animals and the places we inhabit, pass through and take up space in?
What dispositions and modes of living are we unlearning, retracing, encountering when we allow our senses to be fully attentive to the microorganisms, the seasonal rhythms of a landscape, the changing direction of winds, to lifeforms that are ungovernable? What are the ways of being, looking and leaning in that allows us to give sight and presence to the unobservable, to our own animality, to a gentle ferocity? What might we witness and what is animated when we situate ourselves in places that asks for your whole body to listen? How do we locate the breath in the quiet pauses within the feral body and spaces of multispecies cohabitation? What lessons may be drawn by lines plotted by animal navigation, stone formations, earth mounds, trickster tides, submerged reefs, maritime arteries, lightlessness and unseen worlds that possess their own momentum and relationship with time?
In this artist-led workshop, participants are invited to navigate through different environmental knowledges, lessons and wisdoms. Through storytelling and engaging with the overarching themes of habitability, regeneration, feralness and engaging with the potency of a landscape, participants will be invited to reorient our senses to the coordinates of unruly indeterminable spaces on maps. This workshop will take you through the process of creating a memory map, a geomantic compass and a handcrafted talismanic memento.
Through this residency, where I was situated in the crossroads of multiple archipelagic waterways, I was interested in how places, communities and the non-human are linked together via kinship ties to form a region. I was keen to ask questions on ways we can, through listening with our bodies, perhaps be more attentive to the cumulative nature of stories and knowledge systems connected to place histories and the creaturely, sometimes elusive unseen beings and microfauna inhabiting these sites. I was also interested in knowledge making and artmaking as exercises in empathy, grounded in our emotional connection to land sky, sea and the interconnected ecologies we are part of. In engaging with these acts of storytelling connected to the vast webs of islands, water bodies, spiritual landscapes and shapeshifting habitations, I was interested in reorienting my understanding of Sundaland and how sea islands as we know it was formed just 7000 years ago. In seeking to map and traverse these maritime adaptations and network of interrelated territories after the sea rose 7000 years ago, I thought about the historically peripatetic Malay kingdoms being more closely oriented towards harbours, the colonial sphres of influences that weighed heavily across the land and seascapes of the region, the creation of the triangle known as SiJoRi and these pathways created by migratory flows of bodies , flows of goods and capital, flows of the immaterial, spectral and speculative.
Across the archipelago there is a belief that one must touch soil with their lips, in order for the land to recognise you; a mutual acknowledgement that land, a living shapeshifting creature of deep time is ungovernable and resists modern concepts of sovereignty. Over the course of the residency, I delved into belief systems, multi-radial tangents of local, scientific, ecological, cosmological wisdoms alongside vernacular knowledge. I was intrigued by lines plotted by animal navigation, stone formations, earth mounds, trickster tides, submerged reefs, maritime arteries, lightlessness and unseen worlds that possess their own momentum and relationship with time.
In addition, the otherworldly figure, the spirit loci, the tutelary spirit, Nenek moyang, the tuan/puan tanah (lord or lady of the land) as actuality, metaphor and archetype, as a mirror of worldly anxieties, desires, preoccupations and precariousness, and as a feared, loved and real presence has been central to a lot of my work as well. Across Southeast Asia, varying hues of animistic, folk/magico-religious beliefs and polycosmologies continue to contribute to the vastly heterogeneous forms of spiritual practices. How do we begin to address the palimpsests of contested histories that come with attempts to define these words, concepts, practices and belief systems? How can we see these myths and beliefs as discursive fields of dynamic cultural relationships? Myths as constituting a living tradition that adopts renewed cultural forms and extends itself as a legitimate part of knowledge systems. Over the course of this residency, I met with individuals from the orang suku laut community who shared stories on knowledge about navigational skills in reading the stars, the waves, the sea, fishing, maritime beliefs and rituals that have been passed down. I visited and paid respects at several royal graves and sites of spiritual sacred significance connected to the hills and water – living shrines that still beckon pilgrims and devotees. These conversations and fieldtrips allowed spaces not just in reflecting on the interdependencies between human activity, changing environments and beliefs systems but it also created space on which I could bear witness to the evident and also less perceptible lines of connection between where I’m from and this broader vast archipelago.
Zarina Muhammad, Moving Earth, Crossing Water, Eating Soil, 2022, mixed-media installation, Singapore Biennale 2022 © and courtesy the artist
not terra nullius (2018) In Latin, terra nullius means ‘land belonging to no one.’ Singapore was no terra nullius. Its history does not begin with its ‘modern founding’ in the 19th century. In this work, the artist invited audiences to participate in an old, Javanese ritual called merti (meaning “take care of” or “maintain”). She asked - what does this land mean to you? Nearby, the artist displayed hand-made spirit houses and shrines, where participants left their offerings. These served to remember the spirits of the land who previously occupied or passed through 37 Emerald Hill in the last few centuries. They also acted as bird and butterfly feeders, a small connection with other occupants of the land. Created with the support of: Tini Aliman Irfan Kasban