Sawda Chea Wants Everyone to Have Wawasan
Met in person, Sawda Chea is not what you’d expect.
The contrast between the intensely digitised experiences she stages, and the emphasis on the analog in her personal appearance, almost verges on cliché: her dress is visibly handmade from repurposed fabric; the ragged edges of her hair indicate a human hand rather than the precision of a haircut programme; the crocheted garland around her neck is brazenly frayed rather than micro-mended.
As we sit in her balcony garden, she even insists on making me a latte – emphasis on making, as in, with her own hands instead of by her coffee waiter. She admits that she is usually too lazy to do this for herself, but that it’s her way of establishing a “human connection” with someone. (Confession: The coffee was nowhere as good as a coffee waiter’s, but I do feel a flash of warmth at this gesture.)
All this seems very much at odds with her body of work thus far, which is made up of intricate experiences that exist in the metaverse. Tourist is often billed as her first major hit, its multi-sensory replication of intercontinental movement harking back to a time where travel was a common indulgence. And then, as if to critique her own vision of this halcyon past, Kuli threw the audience into a user-directed experience of pre-automation human labour – which one critic succinctly (and glowingly) described as a “horror show”.
With her latest production though – Wawasan – the 35-year-old artsmaker seems to be uniting her affinity for the human touch with her usual tech-heavy canvas. (“Wawasan” is a Malay word that means “vision” or “outlook”.) Much has been made of the fact that the show revives the ancient Southeast Asian practice of wayang kulit – an artform not without controversy for its 21st century associations with racial supremacy. Equally intriguing, she’s collaborating with an AI partner: VRN, who specialises in cultural history and artistic practice.
In execution, Wawasan is simultaneously simple and complex. The actual performance is designed to be staged open-air, with a minimal setup that mirrors the artform’s thousand-year-old roots: a stretched cloth screen, natural oil lamps, and characters embodied by shadow puppets.
How the show gets put on, though, is as much a part of the experience. After analysing centuries’ worth of material on wayang kulit, VRN has devised an intuitive digital template for the performance: one that includes everything necessary for a group of people to learn the basic art of wayang kulit, create the puppets with locally sourced materials and simple assembling technology, and then practice performing with the help of an algorithmic tutor.
In place of a traditional gamelan orchestra, which have long gone extinct, is a self-replicating algorithm. It mines historical recordings to learn each instrument’s sound, to then mimic and compose responsive pieces for the shows.
The whole programme adapts for every performer’s ability and needs, factoring in everything from local languages to optimal staging weather. It even assesses each group’s funding capabilities, and links them with potential sponsors if needed. Simply put, any small group of people anywhere in the world can sign on to perform Wawasan for their local community, trained and put together entirely by VRN’s programme.
Over the course of the next week, Wawasan is going to be staged in hundreds of community spaces across the world, and virtual feeds are already swamped with behind-the-scenes documentation of each show’s journey.
Sawda and I begin our conversation, which has been condensed and edited, by talking about our roots.
Some of my ancestors lived in Kelantan, so I have a personal fascination with wayang kulit.
Oh, I have these memories of seeing the last remaining handmade wayang puppets when I was a kid, in Nusantara Museum in Kuala Lumpur! They were from the early 23nd century. That stuck with me, a twinge of sadness that they were the last.
I know you grew up in Johor and moved to KL only as your career kicked off. How far back does your family go in Malaysia?
My family has a long history in Southeast Asia, but there are some gaps where we can’t find records. What I know for sure, is that one set of great-grandparents moved back here from India under the Balik Kampung initiative, that massive call for people with historical ties to Malaysia to come home. So our actual ancestry here goes much farther back. That’s one mother’s family. The other’s parents came here from Myanmar. And my biological father’s ancestors are from Thailand.
So, about Wawasan. I’m curious, why replicate multiple live performances in different places? Why not create a metaverse experience that people can link up to?
Because VRN and I don’t just want to put on a wayang kulit performance. We want to revive an entire ecosystem around it, as well as its history of migration and evolution. Wayang kulit traces more than a thousand years back to India, but really took form in Java before making its way here, where as far as we can tell, it evolved into at least four different strains. And the stories they presented, were like that too; similar in broad strokes, but extremely local in many ways. We wanted to recreate that, to see whether we could make a frame that would then evolve in its own way with every new performance and new location. And that’s really VRN’s thing, working out how all these societal factors come together to shape an artistic practice. And with Wawasan, they projected that analysis forward, to seed a new practice that can grow again. Plus, I just think there’s something really special about these intimate, live performances, you know? I want my performers to watch the puppets get made, hold them for the first time, sit and sweat next to each other. And then for the audience to watch something real, and tactile, and spontaneous almost – because it’s happening right there, in physical space!
And why wayang kulit?
At the peak of their popularity, wayang kulit was entertainment, but also a way to reflect on stories of the past. And then over time, the artform itself became a symbol of erosion; by the 2000s or so, it was barely surviving here in Malaysia. Practitioners didn’t make money, the art wasn’t being passed on, there was no community incentive to keep it alive. It sounds brutal from today’s perspective, but we’ve lost so many artistic practices over the centuries. And the more I researched wayang kulit, the more I realised I couldn’t separate it from the structures around it, the same structures that ultimately buried it. If nothing else, I want us to reflect on how incredibly privileged we are to be able to make art, to have it valued, in comparison to a time when artists were simply left to struggle. I want us to look back and ask why.
Is there a reason we should be asking that right now?
(laughs) I could do that artist thing and just say “Why not?”. But I won’t lah! As VRN and I started creating the work, I saw how much we take for granted – there’s almost an assumption now that most of our struggles are in the past. As an artist today, I can plan and learn and create work with the safety net of a guaranteed basic income. I can hone my craft without worrying about rent or feeding myself. Almost everyone in a developed society today works mainly out of interest or passion, not as a way to survive. Two hundred years ago, that wasn’t a given. In fact, large swathes of humanity were kais pagi makan pagi (Note: Malay idiom that means “living hand to mouth”). Let’s not even talk about artists. Think of the millions of bonded labourers we used to export, as recently as 100 years ago. It seems unthinkable now that we valued human lives so cheaply. So when we sit today comfortably in our subsidised homes, and have arguments over scaling back the universal income rate, or whether complete automation is the way to go – well, I hope works like Wawasan give us some context, some sense of our journey to this point.
Wawasan is very much tied to the 2020s. What drew you to that period in our history?
Well, the title is a giveaway, right? In the first 100 years of Malaysia being independent, 2020 always reads like a turning point. It was meant to arrive with all this promise of being a developed nation, Wawasan 2020 and all that. (Note: Wawasan 2020 or Vision 2020 was an ideal introduced by Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad in 1991, for Malaysia to become a self-sufficient and fully developed country by 2020.) But by the time 2020 arrived, we were nowhere close to that goal. Instead, we had economic crises, government corruption, constant political turmoil, pandemics. Then the decades after, we saw more and more racial politics and religious conservatism, and a string of governments that nearly decimated our natural resources. I mean, Sabah and Pahang are still in recovery! But at the same time, globally, it was the dawn of unprecedented connectivity and access to information, and this rallying cry for equality and justice. Not to mention, the beginning of automation and machine learning. Which as we now know, was really the tipping point towards equalising the labour market. I find this clash of opposing ideals fascinating, a mirror of the good vs. evil tropes that wayang kulit showed. Once that link clicked for me, I knew that was the setting of our show.
I obviously haven’t seen the show yet, but I’m curious how you’re merging the events of that particular era with the mythology in wayang kulit.
Well, I don’t want to give too much away! But I admit, I did struggle with this. My initial impulse was to get right into the details. Pick out specific figures, turn them into specific mythological characters. But I realised that for most people, the details have become distant and almost insignificant. For example, sure, we remember UMNO as starting the Malay supremacy rhetoric, but they’ve since all but faded into irrelevance. So how much more would the average person know? So I started thinking of concepts, and how I could transpose them onto the myths. So in our Hikayat Seri Rama, for example the ten-headed demon king Rawana, each of his heads represents a particular aspect of the 2020s: corruption, environmental exploitation, race politics, and so on. Seri Rama and his kingdom, meanwhile, represent progressive values and equal rights. And my favourite sequence is the war, which isn’t fought with weapons, but over podiums and votes; I’m quite proud of how we’ve visualised that without losing the drama of the original!
Was there concern about reviving an artform that is so closely tied to notions of ethnic identity?
I know we’ve developed a knee-jerk reaction to things that put ethnic identity at the forefront. The co-opting of local folk arts into the Malay supremacy movements of the late 21st century really was the beginning of the end for practices like wayang kulit. People started identifying them with “Malayness” instead of “Malaysianness”. So once we began moving away from race-based social systems, there was very little interest in returning to these “old” artforms. Even in Indonesia, decades of simplifying wayang kulit for the tourist trade turned it into something tacky and superficial. But what I’m trying to reclaim is wayang kulit’s more ambiguous, multicultural roots. The fact that it placed Hindu myths alongside Malay folk tales, animism alongside Islam. And I want that sort of openness, that ambiguity, that cultural transfer, to continue evolving.
And you think that can happen without physical migration?
That’s what I’m trying to find out. It’s tempting to look back with nostalgia at those days of journeying across countries with reckless abandon, and wish that our travel sanctions were less rigid, right? Are we stunting our imaginations, giving up our innate desire to explore? But if we look at the environmental costs of widescale travel, the human costs of mass tourism, it starts making less and less sense. We have telepresence that you nearly can’t tell apart from physical experiences. We have algorithms that can recreate the perfect bowl of Hakata ramen in Jakarta, Mumbai, or San Francisco. What I want to capture is what goes on in between – that intangible process of learning and exchanging and making something new out of what once was.
So, we’re just a few days out. Are you ready for the shows to open?
I don’t think I’ll ever be ready for a creation to get out there! But with Wawasan, what I almost want is to skip this first spate of shows altogether, and come back to them in five or 10 years. And hopefully, see something rather different has taken shape. A new kind of Wawasan.
About the Work
This work has two distinct inspirations: long-form artist interviews such as The New Yorker’s or Rolling Stone’s, and wayang kulit performances. I started with the vague question of, what might a wayang kulit performance based on Malaysia today look like? But as I expanded that idea into this fictional interview with a Malaysian artist 300 years in the future, I also became interested in exploring a world where automation and artificial intelligence radically alter our capitalistic structures. How would this change the way we think about race, the environment, and labour? And in turn, what stories might artists of this future tell?
Illustration by Rupa Subramaniam
About the Creative
Sharmilla Ganesan is a radio presenter, writer, and culture critic based in Kuala Lumpur. She was with The Star newspaper for over a decade; currently, she is attached to BFM 89.9, where she hosts shows on current affairs, the arts, books, and film. Her articles have appeared in The Atlantic, South China Morning Post, NewNaratif, and ArtsEquator. Her short fiction has been published on numerous platforms, including KL Noir: Yellow, Cyberpunk: Malaysia, Remang: An Anthology of Ghostly Tales, Bitter Root Sweet Fruit, The Best Asian Speculative Fiction, Endings & Beginnings, The Principal Girl, KL Noir: Magic, and KISAH Futures.
Photo by Zakaria Zainal.
HELP US ADVANCE THE CONVERSATION & GROW THIS PROJECT
Project Future Malaysia wants to create conditions to guide an expansive vision of the future for Malaysia. This perspective will include a deeper engagement with science, technology and the various arts of literature, philosophy, film and music. By re-imagining and manifesting better alternatives for Malaysia’s future, we are freed from our everyday assumptions about what is possible. We can then imagine pathways forward which enable us to embrace bolder visions and hopeful possibilities for Malaysia’s future. If you resonate with the vision of this project, we invite you to grow and support this project via collaborations and conversations.
As a not-for-profit venture, we welcome values-aligned funders, partners and collaborators including suggestions of programming, improvements or corrections on this website and project.
Copyright of artworks and text remain with their copyright owners. Please reference Project Future Malaysia and the copyright owner(s) if you are using any images or information from this website.