Gadis Ayu Terakhir (The Final Graceful Woman) is informed by absurdism, folklore, and forms of Malaysian theatre including Wayang Kulit and Mak Yong. Alisha + Alysha reveal the inspiration behind their return to the ritualistic.
We (Alysha and Alisha) are Malaysian-born artists whose work explores body politics, critical race theory and the impact of colonialism manifested through self-perception. Hence, it felt only natural to draw inspiration from the artistic practices of our ancestors to influence our devising process. The only problem with this, however, is that looking for any kind of history of theatre in Malaysia is a near-impossible task due to the country’s lack of records.
Herman Abdullah, Malaysian author and Historian describes it best:
“The invasion of the British, Dutch, French among others, had shaken up the otherwise prosperous Malay realm. It is therefore [possible] that there were parts of history or records that were purposely wiped out of the heritage stolen as a sort of trophy for their conquests”.
Herman believed that Malaysia’s colonial history is the reason why the existence of ancient Malay realms such as those in Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam are no longer discussed and increasingly forgotten. While this is true, we also wanted to explore what this act of ‘forgetting’ may look like in today's post-modern society through a term we are referring to as ‘intracultural objectification’.
Lived experiences of intra-cultural objectification
For system(s) of oppression to prevail, they cannot simply rely on dictatorship, but need also be legitimised and internalised by the oppressed themselves. This is intracultural objectification - the act of self-objectification within a specific culture or society, oftentimes taking the form of deliberate erasure of history, or the subconscious denying of one’s identity influenced by popular culture.
We both came to know each other after discovering there were two Malaysians in our Drama university course - a happy accident that surprised our internalised stereotyping of all Malaysians pressured into being investment bankers and corporate lawyers. If there was one thing that we shared in common, it was our collective unease of feeling lost, despite having grown up in Malaysia most of our lives.
For anyone raised in Malaysia, the one thing that is prevalent is how deeply foreign ideals (particularly Western) have influenced Malaysian entertainment and popular culture. Many of you out there probably know at least one person who grew up in South East Asia, Hong Kong or Dubai with a generic American accent that they’ll so often describe as “international” - the infamous “international” identity.
The ambiguity of “internationality” is how we were raised. When using the English language, we spoke American and wrote British. We consumed American TV and music but worshipped the beauty standards of Japan, China and Korea. For many Malaysians who grew up in Kuala Lumpur in particular, normalising what the West deems as attractive or the norm enforced our societal hierarchy, where pure Malaysian-ness was almost seen as embarrassing or ‘uncultured’.
It was only when we would “balik kampung”, (a popular term used to refer to going back to one’s village of origin during a festive season) that we had the opportunity to catch a glimpse of a Malaysia that once was, with its greenery, hospitality and tradition.
Combatting a ‘cultural haze’
Of course, centuries of Western-colonialism is at the root of this cultural erasure. However, factors like religion, capitalism and modern technology are also contributing to the loss of Malaysia’s rich traditions, even in remote areas. To elaborate on Herman Abdullah’s quote referenced earlier, he also mentions the inevitability of cultural loss, writing that “culture is something easily consumed by development, education and globalisation. We simply don’t have the capacity to prevent outside influences from corrupting our culture in a borderless world.”
In the past, Western forces were attracted to the resources offered by our deep jungles, the richness of our spices and the luxury of our fabrics. In today’s world, where culture can be consumed at the swipe of a screen, this may look a little different.
In the West, it’s cool to be “woke” about different cultures no matter how ill-informed. It’s cool to do Indian yoga, while drinking traditional Chinese tea. It’s cool to chant sacred Hindu texts and commit to a 27-step Korean beauty regimen for a happy and spiritual life. Adopting a sense of assumed primitivism from “third-world countries” as a hobby is cool, as long as you’re not actually from said third-world country.
But as personal growth often goes, these realisations always come later in life. And even in our adulthood, despite knowing all of these things, we still couldn’t quite shake off the feeling of not being a real enough Malaysian. What confused us the most was how many well-regarded theatre practitioners dedicated their study around Oriental arts (such as Artauld and his “discovery” of Balinese gamelan, an art form also practised in Malaysia), and yet, for many Malaysians, we were as clueless as we have ever been about the history of our own cultural practices.
What Gadis Ayu Terakhir aims to explore is exactly this feeling. Intracultural objectification is like a disease. It manifests as entire societies blaming themselves for the erasure of their culture; it allows them to believe that the features and traditions they were born into are inherently barbaric; it creates a feeling of loss and a longing for a community; it might even trap you in a cultural haze where you believe you’re superior because you’re not “Asian Asian”, you’re “Awkwafina Asian” - palatable and unoffensive.
Gadis Ayu Terakhir is inspired by the urban legend of Mahsuri and Langkawi. We are retelling this story in a fairytale-like format, through the use of traditional music, dances and folklore - intended to represent the reclaiming of lost identities. Gadis Ayu Terakhir is a symbol for relearning the history of a society rich in culture that Malaysia once thrived on - before globalisation and before “civilisation”.
Mon 13 March at 7.15pm
£8 - £12