A Malay saying goes, “harapkan pagar, pagar makan padi” – rely on the fence, the fence eats the paddy.
Metaphors are metaphors for a reason. They speak to shared truths and observations. To have something “set in stone” is to render something certain, permanent, reliable. In knowing that, you would naturally think that something that has literally been set in stone would stand the test of time.
But, in the human effort to document our stories, what seems indomitable can very easily be erased, and what seems long-forgotten has roots that run deep into the earth and our memories.
Pagar & Padi, an exhibition by Catriona Maddocks and Gindung McFeddy Simon, explores this very idea. Originally hosted at Kota-K Art Gallery (KAG) – a community-based gallery in the centre of Kota Kinabalu city in Sabah, Malaysia – the show continues its run in Kuala Lumpur later this month.
Jamin: an illusion of freedom
The exhibition features three sections, all based around a 20-foot land art piece that Catriona and Gindung collaborated on together with several community members of Kampung Kilimu, a village that sits right at the foot of Mount Kinabalu. It was there that they carried out momongot, the practice of planting paddy, spelling out the word ‘jamin’ with grains of heirloom rice. Five months later, the rice was ready to be harvested.
Jamin, a video documenting the harvest, shows the word etched into the earth, like a promise or a prayer.
The word ‘jamin’ means ‘guarantee’ in Malay, and makes reference to the Keningau Oath Stone of 1964 – a monument commemorating the terms that Sabah agreed on in the formation of Malaysia.
On this stone was a plaque that once stated, “The Malaysian Government Guarantees [Jamin]: 1. Freedom of Religion in Sabah; 2. The Government of Sabah Holds Authority over Land in Sabah; 3. Native Customs and Traditions Will Be Respected and Upheld by the Government.”
However, in recent years it was found that the first four words on the monument, “The Malaysian Government Guarantees,” were mysteriously removed. There has been no confirmation as to how or why this was done, but the conspiracy theorist in me can’t help but wonder if it was intentional – whether its erasure signifies a confession of some sort, a quiet acknowledgement of an oath broken.
Conspiracies have murmured beneath the soil of Sabah since the infancy of Malaysia’s formation, when Sabah, Sarawak, Singapore, and Malaya first came together in the Malaysia Agreement of 1963, commonly referred to as MA63. MA63 was written to spell out clear and equal terms for the formation, with Sabah and Sarawak upheld as equal partners to Malaya and Singapore. In safeguarding their rights and needs, Sabah put forth twenty points to be incorporated into the agreement, some of which inspired the inscriptions on the Keningau Oath Stone.
However, as Singapore made its swift exit from Malaysia, the foundation of MA63 began to crumble. And in 1976, the agreement was amended, reducing Sabah and Sarawak from equal partners to Malaya to states within Malaysia. This subtle change was at the time said to be necessary for equality and unity among the states, but has resulted in Sabah and Sarawak losing control over their regions, both having since seen pressure to enforce religion, abandon indigenous identity, and surrender control over land and water.
A comic published by New Naratif offers an illustration, explaining that much of why Malaysia was formed in the first place between Sabah, Sarawak, Singapore, and Malaya was due to British efforts to protect their business and strategic interests post-colonialism.
The invisible fences of post-colonialism
“The word ‘pagar’, which means ‘fence’ in English, embodies coloniality to me,” shared Kenneth Lo, an attendee of the exhibition, “When I first heard that this exhibition involved a Caucasian artist, with a name like Pagar & Padi, I was sceptical yet intrigued on whether or not this would be another white saviour perspective on local stories that do not belong to them.”
But upon visiting the exhibition and unpacking more of the process that Catriona and Gindung underwent, his understanding changed. “I realised that I was being ignorant to my own motherland’s history,” he admitted, “that these artists were actually together decolonising the systems that colonialism had bordered us with.”
Interestingly enough, the metaphor that this whole exhibition is centred around is actually a misinterpretation. According to Dewan Bahasa, the correct version is “Harapkan pegar, pegar makan padi,” with ‘pegar’ being a type of bird found locally in Malaysia. The writer of the article posits that it was an accidental misspelling that has led to the current version, but is it any wonder why ‘pagar’ has become more popularised?
The carcasses of colonialism continue to haunt cultures and communities all over the world, with much of its meat still threaded into the systems and administration of nations that have supposedly long been freed of it. In our attempts at freedom and victory, we instead see ourselves governed by invisible fences, ones that feel foreign yet all too familiar.
In that context, the sheer act of planting rice, of putting hands to ground, seed to soil, is a reclamation of that freedom once promised. It is an expression of identity, of ancestral memory, rooted deeper into the earth than any metal plaque ever could.
Rice as reclamation of power
Rice is considered sacred to the indigenous communities of Sabah, embedded in the stories and traditions that have been passed down through generations. Each phase, from planting to harvest, carries its own unique name, ritual, and practice.
The sanctity of rice can be traced back to an old local myth, in which a young girl sacrificed her life in order to save her people from starvation. It is said that her sacrifice transformed her body into food – her teeth into maize, her head into coconut, her bones into tapioca, and her flesh into rice. It was the promise she made – “our people will never go hungry again” – that is believed to have safeguarded the indigenous people of Sabah up until today.
The location of where JAMIN was created also holds much significance. Mount Kinabalu is lovingly known to locals as Akinabalu, ‘aki’ referring to the Dusun term for ‘grandfather’. It is the tallest mountain in Southeast Asia and, much like rice, is seen as sacred to the indigenous communities of North Borneo. It is believed that when a person dies, their spirit ascends up the mountain.
The impact of the work was not lost on its viewers.
Reflecting on her experience of the exhibition, one attendee Amanda Mojilip shares: “I visited Pagar & Padi with a friend. After watching the video and perusing the collection of photos, we found ourselves sitting on the floor around the tray of rice. Without realising what we were doing, we began chatting, sharing our grievances and uncertainties about life in the moment. It occurred to me later that it was as if the rice was calling out for our stories, absorbing our grievances and transforming them into hope of new life.”
“It was truly moving to see,” shared another attendee, Joan Lojingki. “The idea of retreating to the land, using the very thing that was promised as the medium of reinforcing the guarantee, of remembering.”
On the artists’ end, Catriona and Gindung are getting ready for the next round of rice planting this October. It is something that they plan to do every year, in keeping with the promise originally made – for it is not only in administration that promises are made, or that power is held.
The true power lies with the people.
PAGAR & PADI will be featured at The Backroom in The Zhongshan Building, Kuala Lumpur, from 11th to 26th November 2023.
Header image of artists Catriona Maddocks and Gindung McFeddy Simon courtesy of Kota-K Art Gallery