Thread Talk With Marcos Kueh on Exploring Cultural Identity as A Bornean Textile Artist

"I like to think that my works will outlive me."
Photo Courtesy of ART SG. Marcos Kueh, Kenyalang Circus, 2023. Exhibited at ART SG 2024.

Thread Talk is a series venturing into a designer’s inner workings and thoughts. Today, we have Marcos Kueh, who unravels decolonisation and his cultural identity growing up as a Bornean through monumental and riveting textile pieces.

As a Chinese born and raised in the rich land of Borneo, Marcos Kueh strings and presents the world his culture and homeland through the traditional craft of weaving—some over eight metres long and some merely one-eighth of it.

For many, we pen down our thoughts; we write letters home and take photographs to capture moments. But for Kueh, he weaves. His works are the reflection of his agonies and his serenities, his confusion and his pride. At first glance, these tapestries are grandeur and breathtaking; on a closer look, one will be floored by the intricate details that make you feel, some of which you might be utterly familiar with, yet impossible to put into words.

“I process many of these emotions at my own pace in private. These ponderings find themselves in the work that I put into the world,” the artist confesses. Kueh’s are more like “woven postcards” than pieces of artwork created solely to be placed in the middle of exhibition halls, they are less distant and closer to hearts.

Ahead, we speak to the textile artist about his cultural identity and how that moulded his art-making approach. 

Of all forms of art, what about textile art draws you in?

Many of my projects deal with the topic of decolonisation. In Borneo, before the arrival of paper and pen, the ancestors of the land encapsulated their myths, dreams, and legends into textiles. From this perspective, I thought that using textiles to talk about my version of contemporary stories to document our current political climate just made a lot of sense.

If we look even deeper into the roots of the craft, weaving has been around since the beginning of civilisation—the canvas came before the paint. When you weave, you are connected with the stream of consciousness from humans way before our time—how they see the world through the loom, how they, too, tried to describe the world through stringing fibres. That for me is universally profound and humbling. I feel like I’m part of something larger, threading my thoughts and feelings into history.

You mentioned decolonisation and many of your works also centre around cultural identity. Is there a triggering incident or did it happen gradually?

As a person who grew up in middle-class Sarawak, there has always been a personal sense of inferiority, perhaps in comparison to Kuala Lumpur—the capital in West Malaysia—or the larger Western world in general.

It was not until I was 23 and studying in my first year of university in Europe that I encountered the word “decolonisation”. I remember being quite overwhelmed that day, as suddenly there was a name to all this suffering, and that it was partially systematic. It freed me from carrying this burden of thinking that everything was my fault—that I was just not smart enough or hardworking enough. It cleared my headspace of thinking that maybe my ancestors didn’t make the right choices in life for us to end up in this predicament.

Since then, the notion of being from middle-class Sarawak has felt more sophisticated and nuanced—it became layered with meanings and history which are sometimes violent, sometimes horrifying but in between it all, has a great potential to heal.

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A post shared by Marcos kueh (@marcoslah)

Given the gravitas of this topic, are there any challenges you have to overcome?

I think navigating trauma takes a bit of practice. Many hard emotions come with facing your past, from despair and hopelessness to fury and maybe even a desire for revenge. My current work is to tend to all these emotions, understand them, and find ways to deal with them kindly. Perhaps there is a need for us to create more spaces to grieve and be sad for the injustice that informs our current reality, or there is a need for us to create more opportunities to empower each other from the lack of control we feel from all the suffering we cannot escape from.

I process many of these emotions at my own pace in private. These ponderings find themselves in the work that I put into the world.

You wrote on your Instagram, “In the end, only the work remains. I am ok to go”. To many, weaving is largely considered a traditional craft. What is your thought on infusing said skill into a contemporary work and hopefully, extending the artworks’ lives?

Many of the woven works you find in Sarawak depict legends and myths of what the humans of that particular time felt were important enough to preserve as it could take several months to create a piece of textile work. Many works are about passing down inherited knowledge—of the values that help us progress as a species, the dangers of the world, and how we can coexist with the sublime.

In many ways, I see that in what I am trying to send out into the world through my works. As a contemporary artist, I try to imagine my role as a curator, and my works as a platform for moments of contemplation, and to invite the public to sit with my ponderings about the world. The visuals I create are open-ended and how you perceive them will evolve. When we still had to live in the rainforest, some woven images might be warnings of the dangers of snakes, but now that we live in the city and are aware of concepts like extinction and deforestation, we might not see the snakes as bad omens anymore.

I like to think that my works will outlive me, just like how we have not stopped weaving since first discovering it. You can only pass the knowledge forward, but I have no control over how the knowledge morphs and shifts with whatever serves the future best. It is more about the work and less about me.

You started most of your projects away from home. Do you feel the desire to connect with your roots is stronger when you are miles away? How does that affect your creative process?

The older I get, the more I realise that the creative process is not binary. I think in The Netherlands, I have several peers from around the world who are working on similar discourses. I can refer to how an African colleague deals with his sense of national identity in comparison with a Dutch-born African, and I can discover the opinions of my Chinese friend. The points of reference I can access here are diverse and rich.

On the flip side, the study of identities can also become overly intellectualised and become a subject to study, rather than experience—especially if I am not constantly engaged with my own culture. There are only so many things that you can verbalise about the ongoings in Borneo from Europe. As I grow in my practice, the access becomes larger and the world becomes smaller. Perhaps I am just more obsessive about figuring out my roots than others, so I will be thinking about it no matter where I am.

Photo by Patty van den Elshout. Photo Courtesy of The Back Room

Since your artworks look inwardly, do you find the need to break off from work, both physically and emotionally?

I try to keep work as separate as possible from my professional life. Most of my works are an encapsulation of the idealisation of my values, which stems from a genuine part of how I feel about my reality but I also recognise that it would be too much pressure to keep up with that all the time. I embrace the fact that I am a fallible being who also sleeps in on weekends.

What else inspires your work?

I think living a normal day-to-day can be quite inspiring because I get ideas from the most mundane aspects as a millennial living in the 21st century—from buying groceries to debating with friends. For me, a big aspect of it is also being realistically present and grounded in my reality and reflecting on what it is about situations in life that are worth bringing into the gallery space for us to ponder together.

What is a comment you received that remains very close to your heart?

“In the future, everyone will be famous for 15 minutes” — Andy Warhol

There’s a neon light sculpture of the Warhol quote outside of Witte de Withstraat that is seared into my brain. I see it whenever I’m passing by the city.

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A post shared by Marcos kueh (@marcoslah)

It reminds me of a line you wrote on your Instagram: “As the work becomes bigger and bigger, I feel smaller and smaller.” What do you like most—and least—about the role you play in society as an artist?

I think the gallery space is a very specific and special place where exploring and sharing emotions are allowed and deemed professional, and safe. There are not a lot of careers out there where these expressions are even allowed or encouraged, so I take this privilege very seriously.

With that said, I don’t think people understand how much effort it takes to produce an art show. The responsibilities can be crushing. The journey from creating the work from my laptop in my room to the museum grounds for the public is a shared effort—from my producers at the factory, the many hours of discussions and email exchanges between my gallery and collaborators, the enormous manpower of the exhibition setup teams and many hours of puzzling over complicated finances. It is my least favourite thing at the moment as I try my best to create meaningful art, but it is a very important learning curve.

So what does the process of making look like? From coming up with ideas to putting up an art show.

I think it shifts, depending on the intensity of my schedule for the season, or if I am in Europe or back home in Southeast Asia. I try my best to just try to live life and be as grounded as possible. Once in a while, ideas pop up while I am wandering in a museum, climbing a ladder installing lights, or while I am listening to a podcast on a train. I try to make mental notes and compile them over time so that when there is an opportunity to be given a task, I can pull up some ideas from the back of my head.

After I have a story down, I need space to imagine and research what the visuals can look like. This can happen during my long walks, in the shower, when I am doing chores, and so on. When I am convinced, I move to my laptop where I will spend weeks slowly working on my piece, before sending the blueprint to the factory for production.

I am a textile developer myself, so I also program my weaving files in the factory and quality-check the work on the machine. The process itself is very geeky and hard to explain but there is a lot of creative space for expression in the programming itself — you constantly get to experiment and often the project just takes on a life of its own.

Do you have any other topics or forms of art you would like to explore in the future?

As a textile developer, I think my heart stays loyal to the craft of weaving. Before the hype and attention of the art world and after it passes, I will continue to weave. Currently, I am researching the idea of wishing someone well. Coming from a Chinese background, I grew up in a culture that spends so much effort to invent elaborate rituals and ways of thinking to encapsulate the goodness of life—from imagining auspicious creatures of prosperity to stringing very specific words to bring luck. It takes a lot of creativity and wisdom to see past the gloom and doom of contemporary media. I think it is a form of resistance to find ways of feeling warm in an environment that can feel a bit cold and isolated nowadays.