Dennis Lau’s exhibition ‘Borneo People’ opened this weekend at Black Kettle, on Beach Street, and is well worth visiting before it closes on the 18th of August. The photos span five decades and document the changes to society in Sarawak and Sabah over that period. Lau is a Borneo native and this exhibition looks back on what he’s seen in an era of rapid change and global development. His work is clearly a result of his appreciation for his home, and a deep awareness of documentary photography’s potential to inspire, represent and inform. Although he is well known in in his locality (he’s run a weekly column ‘Dennis Lau’s Borneo’ in the Borneo Bulletin since 1976) , international recognition came more recently. In 1998 he was appointed the Overseas Service Representative for the Royal Photographic Society (UK), which marks his status as one of the most well respected photographers in the country.
One of the stand-out elements of his photography, however, is the sense of timelessness. This is particularly visible with his portraiture. You only really begin to notice the indicators of a changing region when you look closer. This is undoubtedly partly because of using black and white film as a medium but also, it seems, because of the delicacy with which he approaches his subjects. There’s an innate calm in the pictures, and it is clear that the photographer wants the people in the frames be able to speak for themselves. Although Lau was not a professional photographer for the majority of the period in which the images were taken, you could never tell from the quality – his commitment to his personal mission of documenting life in the region is clear, and the results are undoubtedly effective.
There is an incredible range shown in the photographs, not only in the time span (the earliest being 1952, and the latest 2002) but the people and landscapes. Although only a few are on display, it is well worth flicking through the book that accompanies the exhibition. This includes the whole series, and covers 15 ethnic groups across the two Borneo states. While there are far fewer landscapes included, those that are are incredibly evocative and both compliment and contextualise the portraits . In the introduction to the exhibition’s book, Lao’s photography is differentiated from his earlier counterparts, such as K.F Wong, because it documents change rather than what life was like. While the distinction might be a little confusing, it begins to make sense when you realise that the photographs do not look like they are stuck in any time but have a sense of chameleon adaptability. These are not static images of tribesmen and women but individuals with their own agency.
This is, without question, an exhibition well worth visiting. It is held in the in the upstairs exhibition space at Black Kettle (105 Lebuh Pantai). It is open until the 18th of August every day except Mondays from 11am-6pm. Entry is free, and it is possible to buy a copy of ‘Borneo People’, a print or some postcards there. More information can be found here: https://georgetownfestival.com/programmes/borneo-people-a-photographic-journey.
By Ella Benson Easton