A conversation (and some memes) about carrying culture across East and West Malaysia with artist Jesse Joy

Sharon Chin
Jesse Joy

Who’s the ‘They’ you’re referring to in the title?

As you know, I had the show scheduled for last year. The title was going to be Koginavaan, which means ‘my heart and soul’ in Kadazan-Dusun. Harold [Egn Eswar] was going to curate it, which he’s done with this show. So these works were not sent to the people who were supposed to receive them at the time, i.e. Sabahans.

Who’s ‘They’? It’s them, the art works! And they’ll never say enough. But the longer you leave it, the more they won’t say enough.

I’ve been thinking about the question of who we address our works to. We’re too used to thinking of our audience as a general public. It’s important to be specific.

I’m thinking of the reason I started Bundusan Books. At first I thought about selling crafts. I was obsessed with sun hats. But I felt these things should ultimately go back to the ones they belong to. If you take something from indigenous people, you should give it back to them in whatever form.

So when the opportunity came up, I thought, where better to show than in Sabah?

I’m reminded of the artist and activist Victor Chin (1949 – 2022), who passed away last year. He had this practice of giving a printed photograph back to every person he took a photo of. But what if the people we’re addressing don’t want these things anymore?

I think about whether I’m just doing it on people’s behalf. Do they actually want to hear what I have to say?

Does it matter?

Well, no. Because they’ll never say enough! [Laugh]

You’ve pinned some works to a naked mattress as a display method. It struck me because your works may look pretty, but there’s this undercurrent of punk to them. They have a spine. They can be tough.

I was looking for something to stick the cross-stitched pieces on so I could photograph them. I had this mattress lying around, so I used that because… we’re fucked by this goverment everyday.

For the exhibition, I’m going to paint the title on a single mattress and install it at the entrance, facing outwards. On the other side I’ll hang the artworks.

It will be the first thing people see, like a healthy slap in the face. It’s so good.

Can I tell you about the beads I hung on the flag works? I was invited to be in a peer-to-peer programme, where we critique each other’s works. I was surrounded by non-Borneans, and I was told: ‘Your beads are not Borneo beads’.

Were they foreigners?

They were Malaysians.

I mean, Borneo is surrounded by three seas: the Celebes Sea, Sulu Sea and South China Sea. Trade has been a part of this region since before history. Maybe people have a stereotype that ‘Sabahan’ beads can only be from Mother Nature.

It’s not enough for the beads to be crafted by Bornean hands.

Exactly. How much more Bornean can I be? [Holds up his hands]

Being indigenous and urban, it takes time to know who you are and where you stand. Then when you start to feel more certain, it’s difficult to remain open and keep space for conversation.

I’ve always known you to use stitching and textiles in your art practice. How do you relate to the craft?

I feel this responsibility to stitching, to tell stories through that. I can do other things, but I always go back to it. When I don’t, I feel this guilt, like I’ve been away too long.

Why is it the core?

I owe alot to stitching. I actually started in film, [Jesse is formally trained in Broadcasting and Film. In 2022 he released Finding Bundusan, a documentary inspired by his grandmother’s weaving of Bundusan mats.] and then worked at an art gallery in Kota Kinabalu [KK], selling totebags and t-shirts.

Women in my family did cross-stitch and other fiber hobbies. They taught and influenced me. They collected trinkets too. My early work was more just assembling stuff together. Then I started going deeper – not only in terms of needlework technique, but thinking about what I could tell with this form.

It doesn’t always have to be pretty, but the message has to arrive. If you say it, what are you contributing? I don’t want to just produce a lot of pretty things. I don’t want to waste materials.

It’s a slow way of saying it.

Like, Fahmi Reza can say it tonight, I can only say it 3 days later. [Laughs]

Tell me more about this urge to react and respond, compared to the slowness of the craft.

Not responding is also a response. I’ll always remember my Debate teacher in secondary school telling me: Choose your battles, you don’t have to debate everything under the sun.

If this is your turf and you want to say something, you have to really care. It’s not self-censorship to be quiet, it’s that words are so very important.

I’m always tussling with my ego about the need to respond, or to be seen to respond.

I ask myself: why am I doing this? Am I just band-wagoning or chasing clout? It takes up so much time and resources. You know what my Aunt said? ‘Our hobbies are expensive’.


So are you genuinely concerned? If you’re not, maybe let others say it. You can like and retweet.

Speaking of Aunties, can we talk about lineage? Is inheritance a matter of blood, or can it be other things?

Blood flows through you. Practices ground you.

Being aware and appreciating things deeply is how we preserve our lineage.

You don’t have to have children. You don’t have to procreate to be grounded.

You can’t pass down blood like you can pass down your practice. Blood isn’t everything. What counts is – being the person who says yes. It’s the willingness, you know, kesanggupan. Blood has nothing at all to do with it. You live and die by your willingness to do or not do.

I think I’m going to cry.

There’s tension between openness and the need to defend one’s identity.

Craft is ever-evolving, that’s what makes it strong. The way I see it, you can either gate-keep, or you can safeguard.

Take Bundusan Books. If I was to limit who can access these materials, that would make me a gate-keeper.

Safeguarding means you have a responsibility to say it in the way it was told to you.

It involves trust.

How do you see the relations between Borneo and Semenanjung (Peninsula Malaysia)? What do you see for the future?

Semenanjung needs to listen more. Borneo needs to speak up more.

Allyship exists, but it has to actually reach here. Everything is Kuala Lumpur [KL]-centric, especially monetary support for developing art. Borneo has to stop being timid, and start asking clearly for what we want.

I don’t see secession, if that’s what you’re asking. Malaysia is Malaysia. I see that there will be a balance, and there will be no more brain drain to KL. If we know what we want, both of us can go a long way.

There needs to be decentralization out of KL.

We keep relating only to the center of power. Decentralization gives a chance for others to grow. We can’t rely on KL as the sole provider.

KL as the parent. Daddy.

We need to speak up against Daddy.

But you know, when Daddy no longer answers your calls… life gets real.

It’s so ironic. I’m based in KL now. Rita Lasimbang [CEO of Kadazan-Dusun Language Foundation] said to me: You have to be there so you can get access to KL publishers and printers.

Like being a smuggler?

The key word is access. I don’t like the idea of ‘empowerment’. My friend said to me: We have ALWAYS had power. Look at us, we climb a tree to get internet. Imagine what we can do if we had ACCESS. Smuggling books here and there is a way to provide that.

It seems important that you’re doing this in person, not just over the internet.

I go back and forth between KK and KL. I’m building community and relationships between East and West Malaysia. Telling our stories out and bringing new things in. Domestic import and export.

It’s costly, but I enjoy it. I need someone crazy enough to do it with me.

Like a partner?

Yep. It’s about distribution. Another thing, in KL there’s better printers, better paper! We don’t have nice paper in KK, you know, because of the cabotage policy*. We have the content, but the books don’t last, the pages fall out. People talk about the cost of doing business across East and West – oh we want to distribute our books in Sabah, but it’s too expensive. Hey, if I can do this, anyone can do this.

I can’t understand this obsession and urgency in me. I need to share it. I don’t want to be that old man who doesn’t know how to let go at the end.

We all know THAT old man.

That’s why we need to have other people there, right from the beginning.

*The cabotage policy was implemented in Malaysia in 1980. It stipulates that only Malaysian maritime vessels can engage in domestic shipping, in order to protect the local maritime industry. (It should be noted that most countries in the world implement cabotage of some kind, as it has implications on national security) In 1976, a bill was passed in Parliament to downgrade Sabah and Sarawak to individual states within the Malaysian Federation, in violation of the Malaysia Agreement of 1963 (MA63), which designated them as ‘equal partners’ in the formation of Malaysia. The 1980 cabotage policy thus prohibited international ships from landing directly in the ports of Sabah and Sarawak, instead off-loading their cargo at Port Klang on the west coast of Peninsula Malaysia. Local ships would then transport goods to East Malaysia, resulting in higher cost of goods. The cabotage policy was lifted in 2017, allowing international ships to dock directly at Sabah and Sarawak ports. However, it is still a contentious issue, as cost of living in East Malaysia remains higher than ever, especially in Sabah. International ships continue to prefer offloading cargo at Port Klang, due to higher trading volumes and better infrastructure. Meanwhile, local shipping companies claim that cabotage exemption has hurt the development of Malaysia’s shipping industry. There have been calls for the Federal Government to upgrade Sepanggar Bay Port in Sabah to a National Loading Center, similar to Port Klang, in order resolve long-standing inequalities between East and West Malaysia.

Jesse Joy is an artist and filmmaker based in Kota Kinabalu and Kuala Lumpur. His solo exhibition ‘They’ll Never Say Enough’ is at Kota-K Art Gallery from 17 March – 15 April 2023. Sharon Chin is an artist and writer based in Port Dickson, Negeri Sembilan.

This conversation took place on 11 March 2023 via video chat. Interview and memes by Sharon Chin.

Artworks below courtesy of Jesse Joy