Kulleh Grasi is a cultural ambassador of Borneo’s tribespeople
An Iban born and raised in the small town of Kapit in Sarawak, Kulleh Grasi has been actively championing indigenous cultures on the global stage ever since his debut book, Tell Me, Kenyalang, became an internationally acclaimed bestseller in 2019. A collection of poems that offers a glimpse into the life of an indigenous person written from the perspective of an actual indigenous person, it was shortlisted for the 2020 National Book Translation Award for Poetry, and long-listed for the Best Translated Book Award 2020.
This recognition led to an invitation from aabaakwad to be one of its featured artists at the prestigious Venice Biennale 2022 arts festival. Founded in Canada and supported by the Canada Council of Arts, the indigenous-led aabaakwad annually organises “a conversation on indigenous art by those who create, curate and write about it”. Grasi put together and led the musical ensemble, all of whom are tribespeople of Borneo, called KuKulleh Comrades to perform a repertoire of folk songs, poetry, and harmonised Nusantara ballads.
Grasi was also invited by the National Gallery of Singapore earlier this year to give an oral response to the works of Yeh Chi Wei, a Singaporean artist who was born in Sibu and whose paintings were often inspired by Sabah and Sarawak.
Grasi continues to perform with his band Nading Rhapsody that has been making the oral traditions of Borneo accessible through music. The multi-disciplinary artist is currently busy preparing for his first-ever visual art exhibition in New York City.
“I enjoy telling stories. I consider my role as an orang asal (native) narrator. It’s about time that we tell stories about the beautiful people of Borneo ourselves.”