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Ronnie Bahari: Orang Asli Activist Breaking Stereotypes Through Art and Photography 

I am Ronnie Bahari, a Temuan-Semai man, father of three, and a custodian of Orang Asli culture. – Ronnie Bahari

A proud Orang Asli hailing from Kampung Sahom Valley, Perak. Ronnie Bahari is from the Semai tribe, one of the 18 sub-tribes[1] of the Orang Asli (indigenous peoples) in Peninsular Malaysia.

The Orang Asli are widely recognised as the descendants of the earliest known inhabitants of Peninsular Malaysia and currently makeup 0.6% of the Malaysian population[2].

Ronnie has always loved photography, but he noticed that the industry was saturated. To thrive (and not just survive) in the industry, he had to carve a niche for himself. 

There were many photographers back then, and it was very difficult to compete. I had to differentiate myself, and I realised that my strength has always been my people’s culture. That was the differentiating factor I needed. – Ronnie Bahari

Source: Malaysiakini

The photographer by trade is also a fierce protector of Orang Asli arts and tradition, faithfully preserving them through the organisation he founded, Persatuan Kebudayaan Kesenian Orang Asli Perak (PKKOAP). Since its establishment in 2018, PKKOAP has created much-needed visibility and appreciation around Orang Asli culture, arts and tradition.

A testament to this is their participation in prestigious art festivals such as the George Town Festival and the Ipoh International Art Fair, as well as their invitation to perform at Malaysia’s first Parliament Open Day.

Finding Pride In His Identity 

Source: Hiredly

Ronnie occasionally hears about Orang Asli youth feeling ashamed of their identity. He spoke soberly of instances in which these youths denied their Orang Asli identity. Those with dark skin would claim to be Malay, and those with light skin would claim to be Chinese. It hurts him deeply and drives him to do more work with youths to build cultural pride and confidence. 

Why blend in when you can stand out? Kids should be proud that they are Orang Asli! And that’s why we need to encourage the younger generation. – Ronnie Bahari

It was a strong sense of responsibility that had set Ronnie on the path that he is currently on and prompted him to form PKKOAP. 

I see it as my responsibility to preserve our traditions and culture. Some of these traditions are dying, and many people are willing to teach or learn them. So I started doing my own research and sought out elders that still knew these arts to teach me. This way I can ‘belajar dan ajar’ (learn and teach). – Ronnie Bahari

Among the first aspects of the Orang Asli culture that Ronnie wanted to preserve was the traditional Orang Asli wear.  

I started by organising competitions and exhibitions of traditional Orang Asli wear. I also posted these pictures on Facebook, and with Facebook being popular back then, more people learned about my work. – Ronnie Bahari

Holding The Torch For The New Generation Of Orang Asli 

A significant portion of Ronnie’s work consists of simple, clean portraits capturing the many faces of his people. He is self-taught. His portfolio is filled with pictures of Orang Asli youth, often playing traditional instruments or wearing hand-woven headbands made from Bertam leaves, dressed in intricately crafted traditional clothing.

Source: Malaysiakini

The choice to photograph youth in traditional clothing is intentional: there is a special place in Ronnie’s heart for Orang Asli youth, and he believes that it is his responsibility to build up and encourage youths to appreciate their culture and to one day, be able to pass the baton on to them as custodians of indigenous wisdom, ensuring that it doesn’t go extinct with the passing of time. 

I find my purpose in this. Early in my career I often asked myself what my purpose as a photographer is. I found it by following my heart, which tells me I have a responsibility to protect and preserve our traditions. That is my purpose. – Ronnie Bahari

Source: kintachronicles

Ronnie is always looking for new ways to reach out to youth. He recently began using TikTok, a streaming platform that is popular among both millennials and Gen-Z.

With a smile and the tiniest hint of pride, he told us that his recent TikTok video hit the 30,000 view mark in just two days of posting. His passion and efforts are paying off.

A Journey In Mastering The Crafts 

Ronnie also emphasised that this is just the start and the road ahead requires perseverance and focus.

Source: Yahoo News

As the years passed, I just went with the flow, and ‘buat je’ (just did it ). I will always come across something new and if I see the importance of it, I will learn it and pass it on.  – Ronnie Bahari

Going with the flow, Ronnie sees the importance of upholding the traditional crafts and artwork of Orang Asli, thus, expanding his repertoire.

It wasn’t easy, however, to convince the masters to teach him their craft. 

It was challenging to earn their trust. If they are not convinced that you are there for the right reasons, they will refuse to teach you. – Ronnie Bahari 

The Orang Asli also has a unique way of teaching, not ‘by explanation, but by seeing’. As Ronnie recalls, he first encountered this method of imparting knowledge some 20 years ago, while exploring the art of making nose-flutes, a traditional Semai instrument. 

Eager to learn, he finally found a master who was willing to teach him, but with one condition: the teacher will not explain how it is done, but will teach through demonstration, and will only demonstrate it once. 

The master measured out the bamboo lengths using his fingers and palm width, not with rulers or other measuring instruments. He did it only once, and I had to remember all the steps. As soon as I got home, I made one based on my memories. I did not know his palm width, and his hands were smaller than mine. So I had to adapt. – Ronnie Bahari

An Act Of Love 

Source: MalaysiaKini

Ronnie has many impressive achievements under his belt. He has showcased his work, for example, at the 59th Venice Beinnale, where his documentary Karoog Kiha Nyep – Fragile and Disappearing was made available to a global audience. 

Despite all these, Ronnie remains humble. When asked to identify a single moment in his career that he is proud of, he could not do so. 

I’ve never really spoken publicly about feeling proud of my work. I’ve often expressed to my wife that I take joy in doing what I do, and yes, I am proud of it as a whole. Ronnie Bahari

For Ronnie, it isn’t about the accolades, nor was it about fame, but about fighting to preserve a culture that he so dearly loved and wanted to protect. He is certain that his work has meaning and he is already seeing a change in the perception of Orang Asli youths, where they are beginning to include elements of their culture into milestone events such as graduations and weddings.[3]

This change in perception can also be seen through the unexpected number of Orang Asli youth participating in the annual Orang Asli traditional costume competition that PKKOAP organises, an annual event held since 2018. 

We were shocked to receive a total of 2,700 entries from 15 of the 18 Orang Asli tribes in Malaysia. Contestants come from different states within the country. Ronnie Bahari[4]

Ronnie is one of the many indigenous activists in Malaysia fighting to preserve and pass on their culture.

Explore our sources:

  1. International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs. (2023). Indigenous peoples in Malaysia. Link.
  2. Malaysiakini. (2021). The ‘first people’ of Peninsular Malaysia. Link. 
  3. Yahoo News. (2022). Fighting Orang Asli stereotypes one snapshot at a time. Link
  4. Baskl. (2021). Get set for the big day: Tanding 3.0 is here. Link.

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