Multidisciplinary artist Jailani Zai Kuning1 (b. 1964, Singapore–) is considered as one of the pioneer experimental artists in Singapore who has redefined what it means to engage in multicultural and multidisciplinary art forms. Zai experiments with different art domains in his artistic pursuits, and is recognised for his multitudinous creative roles, including painter, dancer, poet, sculptor, choreographer, actor, director, musician, playwright and film-maker. His works often push the boundaries of contemporary art and are deemed controversial at times.2
Well immersed in music and the arts since childhood, Zai honed his artistic skills by learning from his parents and fellow artists. Both of Zai’s parents are also artists – his father is a musician-cum-composer and his mother is a dancer.3
As a child, Zai often performed at weddings held at his Pasir Panjang kampong (“village” in Malay), as well as those held on the neighbouring Riau Islands in Indonesia.4 These early sojourns to the Riau Islands inspired him to make Riau (2000), a film portrayal of the Orang Laut (“sea people” in Malay) living in the Riau Archipelago. Riau chronicles the history of these people as well as Zai’s explorations of his own cultural identity.5
Pathways to art
Zai embarked on his artistic career in 1982. Three years later, he studied ceramic art at the LASALLE-SIA College of the Arts (now LASALLE College of the Arts), graduating with a diploma in fine arts.6
Upon his return to Singapore in 1990, Zai became involved with the Artists Village, a contemporary arts group formed in 1988 that includes young local artists such as Amanda Heng, Wong Shih Yaw, Lee Wen, Lim Poh Teck, Tang Mun Kit, Baet Yeok Kwan and Vincent Leow. Founded by contemporary artist Tang Da Wu, the Artists Village challenges existing art forms, and aims to promote experimental and alternative art forms in Singapore.7
In 1995, Zai obtained a bachelor’s degree conferred by the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology in Australia through study at the LASALLE-SIA College of the Arts. He has since worked his way to become an internationally recognised artist, with his works and performances staged in countries such as Australia, Bangladesh, Germany, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Japan, Malaysia, South Korea, Taiwan, Thailand and the United States.8
In 1996, Zai was appointed The Substation’s first artist-in-residence for a period of six months.9 In 2001, he was awarded a residency under TheatreWorks’ TLAB:01 programme. The eight-month residency came with a grant of S$30,000.10
Intentionally defying the boundaries of artistic classification, Zai does not restrict himself to any particular type of art form for his works. The multitalented artist is just at ease playing the guitar as he is on the dance floor. A self-professed artistic nomad who sees himself primarily as a thinker instead of an artist, Zai seeks to engage in different art forms ranging from visual art to contemporary works and performing arts.11
To explore different dance genres, Zai set up his own art and dance company, Metabolic Theatre Laboratory (1994–1999),12 during his residency with The Substation. Works staged by the company include Prodigal Songs (1997), Zai’s first choreographed drama based on poetry about urban living,13 and Circle of Rings (1998), a series of three performances on the different cycles of life.14
In 1993, Zai set up onistudio, a mobile arts studio for experimental and acoustic sound art. In 2003, onistudio was reinvented as an intimate performance space located on Loke Yew Street opposite The Substation. It was subsequently rebranded as an arts organiser in 2006.15
Zai’s artistic inclinations and endeavours may well be a reflection of his unique heritage, cultural background and life experiences. His father is Malay-Muslim and his mother is Chinese. His works provide an outlet for self-expression and portray various human emotions such as loss, betrayal, hope and courage.16
For First Interphase, a programme staged as part of TheatreWorks’s TLAB: 01 workshop series in 2001, Zai explored the concept of cultural identity and the links between different cultures. Challenging the notion of traditional Malay performing arts, he performed the ghazal, a love poem sung in Malay but set to Japanese music. As Zai wanted to emphasise how ghazal is not strictly Malay in origin but is infused with Dutch, Arabic and Indian elements, he played the accompanying music using a Korean drum and a Western guitar.17
Another common theme that Zai explores is the role and meaning of art in today’s society. One of his earlier works, after The Space (1992), exhibited packed and sealed boxes containing materials from previous artworks. This left many guessing about the larger meaning behind the work, which itself questions the viewer’s fundamental assumptions of the artist’s role, the boundaries of art, the value of art and the lifespan of art pieces.18
Zai also deals with socio-political themes such as poverty and slavery, but with an unusual approach. For instance, to highlight the growing poverty in many parts of Asia, Zai invited the public to donate a bowl of rice for his art display A Bowl of Rice held at Sculpture Square in 2008. The art work was rearranged with fresh rice every few days. After the exhibition, the rice was donated to charity. It was sustainable artwork for a good cause.19
Selected works, exhibitions and performances
1992: Bukan Di Syurga Yang Ini (Not in this Heaven), a play written for Teater Ekamatra.20
1996: Remnant2000, first project as artist-in-residence at The Substation.21
1997: Words That Pass Through Me, a solo dance and movement performance for The Substation’s SeptFest.22
1999: No Alibi, a dance drama set in a prison and staged in Singapore, Hong Kong, Japan and South Korea.23
2000: Riau, a documentary on the Orang Laut living in the Riau Archipelago.24
2002: Orang Orang, a dance inspired by fishermen living in the Riau Islands.25
2003: Riau, screened at the Rotterdam Film Festival and Busan Film Festival.26
2004: A Tree in a Room, an art installation held at Sculpture Square in memory of Kuo Pao Kun and his plays.27 Tom Waits for Nobody, an experimental sound piece performed with Yuen Chee Wai, Leslie Low and Koichi Shimizu.28
2010: Epic Poem of Malaya, a play written for Spell#7 in collaboration with Esplanade – Theatres on the Bay as part of The Studios.29
2011: Immigrant, an exhibition with Vichukorn Tangpaiboon that documents the lives of the indigenous people living along the Mekong River and the Riau Archipelago.30
2012: From Lorong Gambas to Ninmanhaemin, which features works inspired by artist Han Sai Por’s uprooted garden, and the stateless children in Thailand’s Mae. Hong Son region.31
2013: Ombak Hitam – The Dark Wave, a collaboration with his father, Kuning Sulaiman, and Japanese musician and composer Tetsu Saitoh.32
2006: Winner of Best Sound Design for What Big Bombs You Have!!! (by The Necessary Stage) at the 6th Life! Theatre Awards.33
2007: Co-winner of Best Sound Design for Queen Ping (by Cake Theatrical Productions) at the 7th Life! Theatre Awards.34
Lee Xin Ying and Veronica Chee
1. Hong, X. (2005, August 18). The Substation powers ahead. The Straits Times, p. 5. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
2. Tan, S. E. (2001, February 24). Going beyond the race limits. The Straits Times, p. 4. Retrieved from NewspaperSG; Ong, T. (2006, May 18). A cut above: Six artists on the edge of creativity. Retrieved from Asia City Online website: http://is.asia-city.com/events/article/cut-above
3. Tan, S. E. (2001, February 24). Going beyond the race limits. The Straits Times, p. 4. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
4. Tan, S. E. (2001, February 24). Going beyond the race limits. The Straits Times, p. 4. Retrieved from NewspaperSG
5. Hammond, J., & Hammond, J. M. (2013, May 2). An art expedition to Southeast Asia. The Japan Times, Retrieved from Factiva.
6. Ong, T. (2006, May 18). A cut above: Six artists on the edge of creativity. Retrieved from Asia City Online website: http://is.asia-city.com/events/article/cut-above; Biotechnics. Zai Kuning. Retrieved from http://www.biotechnics.org/2zaikuning.html
7. Ong, T. (2006, May 18). A cut above: Six artists on the edge of creativity. Retrieved from Asia City Online website: http://is.asia-city.com/events/article/cut-above; Seng, Y. J. (2011). Re-visiting the Emergence of the Artists Village: The Artists Village and ‘Alterity’. The Artist Village20 years on, 11. Retrieved from The Artist Village website: website: http://www.tav.org.sg/files/TAV20YearsOn.pdf
8. Biotechnics. Zai Kuning. Retrieved from Biotechnics website: http://www.biotechnics.org/2zaikuning.html; The Substation. [n.d.]. Zai Kuning. Retrieved from The Substation website: http://www.substation.org/core-programmes/associate-artists/visual/zai-kuning
9. Oon, C. (2000, July 17). Shifting gears. The Straits Times, p. 4. Retrieved from NewspaperSG; Yeo, S. (1996, August 31). Homework in Zouk for theatre project. The Straits Times, p. 24. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
10. Going international with Asian flavour. (2001, February 7). The Straits Times, p. L8. Retrieved from NewspaperSG; Tan, K. (2001, February 24). Zai Kuning. Today, p. 20. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
11. Words, dance-style. (1997, September 28). The Straits Times, p. 44. Retrieved from NewspaperSG; Ong, T. (2006, May 18). A cut above: Six artists on the edge of creativity. Retrieved from Asia City Online website: http://is.asia-city.com/events/article/cut-above
12. Ong, T. (2006, May 18). A cut above: Six artists on the edge of creativity. Retrieved from Asia City Online website: http://is.asia-city.com/events/article/cut-above
13. Lum, S. (1997, December 7). Zai Kuning is all for dancing while standing still. The Straits Times, p. 5. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
14. Music on cycles of life. (1998, August 13). The Straits Times, p. 14. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
15. onistudio. (2003). About onistudio. Retrieved from onistudio website: http://www.onisstudio.blogspot.sg
16. Deng, F. (2000, May 15). Come sail the ocean with me. The Straits Times, p. 13. Retrieved from NewspaperSG; Tan, K. (2001, February 24). Zai Kuning. Today, p. 20. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
17. Tan, S. E. (2001, February 24). Going beyond the race limits. The Straits Times, p. 4. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
18. Sabapathy, T. K. (1992, September 14). After art? The Straits Times, p. 3. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
19. Tan, T. (2008, June 26). Rice to the occasion. The Straits Times, p. 58. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
20. Rashid, Y. (1992, January 3). Poet Zai turns playwright. The Straits Times, p. 8. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
21. Yeo, S. (1996, August 31). Homework in Zouk for theatre project. The Straits Times, p. 24. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
22. Words, dance-style. (1997, September 28). The Straits Times, p. 44. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
23. Cheong, S. W. (1999, August 27). Come, catch the devil in the garden. The Straits Times. p. 11. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
24. Hammond, J., & Hammond, J. M. (2013, May 2). An art expedition to Southeast Asia. The Japan Times, Retrieved from Factiva.
25. Wong, T. (2002, July 12). Orang Orang moves into silence. The Straits Times, p. 6. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
26. The Substation. [n.d.]. Zai Kuning. Retrieved from The Substation website: http://www.substation.org/core-programmes/associate-artists/visual/zai-kuning
27. Oon, C. (2004, January 20). A trunk full of memories. The Straits Times, p. 5. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
28. Tan, C. (2006, March 10). Vandalism is a sound idea. The Straits Times, p. 15. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
29. Spell#7. (1997). News: Epic Peom of Malaya. Retrieved from Spell#7 website: http://www.spell7.net/epicpoem.html
30. Things to do Nov 8. (2011, November 8). Today. Retrieved from Factiva.
31. Arts Guide: Jan 30 to Feb 5. (2012, January 30). Today. Retrieved from Factiva.
32. Ting, L. (2013, March 19). Pure sounds in the dark. The Straits Times. Retrieved from Factiva.
33. Tan, C. (2006, March 4). Sounding off. The Straits Times, p. 6. Retrieved from NewspaperSG; The winner’s circle. (2006, March 8). The Straits Times, p. 5. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
34. All the winners. (2007, March 21). The Straits Times, p. 55. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
The information in this article is valid as at 25 June 2013 and correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic.