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Artist's report: The pleasures and dangers of tropical gardens

The lush tropical vegetation of Rimbun Dahan artists' residency in Kuala Lumpur provided the perfect backdrop for Richard Orjis to further his exploration of gardens and what they can reveal about a culture. Orjis attended the residency through the Foundation's artist-in-residence programme. 

Orjis:  "The residency allowed for me to be immerse in a tropical garden with all the pleasures and dangers that that brings."

Malaysia is a diverse mix of ethnicities and cultures – Indigenous peoples, Malay, Chinese, Indian – in one of the most biodiverse regions in the world.

This eclecticism filters through to the art, architecture and tantalising cuisine, where borrowing from one another has led to fascinating hybridisation in many creative fields.

Malaysia is a Muslim country and learning about Islamic culture, especially its art and design traditions, was one of the most fascinating aspects of my time there.

Mosques and Hijabs are a common sight in Kuala Lumpur and every morning I awoke to the sound of the call to prayer coming through the trees from the small Mosque across the road.

The residency is a fourteen-acre artist compound about 30 minutes from central Kuala Lumpur; it is also home to the founders, Australian programme director and environmentalist Angela Hijjas and her husband, prominent architect Hijjas Kasturi.

Rimbun Dahan initially looks like a resort in a jungle setting, with pools and architecturally designed buildings. Its serene appearance is deceiving as it has been a central hub for Malaysian art production, exhibitions, performance and dialogue for over 20 years. 

For me personally, the residency allowed for time and space to make, research and think, which was immensely valuable for the development of my practice.

As is often the case, it was the people I met there that became one of the most important parts of the residency. I had the chance to interact with artists, activists, curators, writers and performers from Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, Germany, Austria, Australia and Africa. This cross-cultural exchange was deepened with a variety of collaborative projects, social engagements, talks and gallery tours.

My artistic research is driven primarily by an interest in gardens and how I might understand a culture through these spaces. My time at Rimbun Dahan allowed me to immerse myself in a tropical garden with all the pleasures and dangers that that brings.

I see gardens as exciting and complex intersections of art, nature and culture and the residency offered many opportunities to explore this mode of inquiry.

Two of my main projects were a land work entitled ‘Circle. Malaysia 2017' and a photo essay on The Valley of Hope, which was the second largest leprosy colony in the commonwealth and located close to the residency. 

The artwork ‘Circle. Malaysia 2017’' is a 7-meter cleared earth circle. The space operates in a similar way to embassies, where a nation's own laws apply regardless of which country they’re situated in. The Circle is protected by United Nations International Human Rights laws in response to the violence, legal discrimination and media censorship faced by the LGBTI+ people. 

The Valley of Hope is now known for its plant nurseries, which brim with colorful and scented orchids, bougainvillea’s, tropical southeast Asian herbs, a diversity of palms and clipped topiaries. These nurseries were started by patients in this former Leprosarium.

A small building surrounded by lush tropical foliage and trees

The 1926 Leprosy Act restricted leprosy patients from associating with the rest of society before cures were discovered in the 1970’s. At the time, it was an incurable disease and thought to be highly contagious, its victims suffering cruel disfigurements.

The Valley of Hope was a pioneering project based on segregating leprosy patients in a self-supporting community following the urban planning principles of the garden city.

Walking through the Valley of Hope now, the signs of pain and suffering are no longer evident in the landscape or the people that still live there. It left me with a sense of wonder at the resilience of the human spirit to carry on and make the most out of seemingly hopeless situations. 

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7 June 2017