A chance encounter in 2009 with the Penan children led the artist to delve into their living environment. The Penan are one of the last remaining hunters and gatherers and are noted for their practice of molong which means never taking more than necessary. The Penan also came to national attention when they resisted logging operations in their home territories of the Baram, Limbang, Tutoh and Lawas regions of Sarawak.
Witnessing the Penan children’s carefree innocence and light-hearted exuberance, Tan captures their ups and downs in both embracing their jungle home and being on the verge of potentially losing it to modernity. Tan’s consideration of the children having to pick up new ways to adapt to present life contrasts with his sadness at them shedding their natural impulses in their jungle surroundings. There are several touching moments which reflect the children at the core of their young nature. Tan’s paintings show them engaging in play with wild monkeys, being agile and familiar with the trees and plants as well as being comfortable and assured in their unclothed skin.
These tender instances make one realize how fleeting childhood is, especially for indigenous communities who have chosen to continue living nomadically. Vanishing Jungle Childhood highlights the loss and sacrifices children have to undergo in order to survive, in a world that may not necessarily accommodate them.
Tan Wei Kheng – Vanishing Jungle Childhood