An intriguing fellow I’d like to write more about is the subject of this story. His name is Kam-Ching Leung. The University of Nebraska-Lincoln educator is an astronomer by training. He’s also a serious collector of Indonesian tribal art and has embarked on many adventures in remote places to photograph and collect these treasures. The story I did about him for The Reader (www.thereader.com) was in conjunction with an exhibition of his Indonesia collection at the Loves Jazz & Arts Center, whose board Leung serves on. The unprepossessing Leung describes his passionate interests and remarkable travels in an almost off-handed manner that belies his deep feelings for them.
Adventurer/Collector Kam-Ching Leung’s Indonesian Art Reveals Spirits of the Islands
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
Astronomer Kam-Ching Leung’s interest in the stars has an earthly counterpart in his fascination with indigenous peoples and tribal cultures. Just as this University of Nebraska-Lincoln professor and Hong Kong native’s observations of celestial bodies surpass idle curiosity, his travels to remote civilizations go beyond tourist outings.
Leung, 72, is a serious collector of art and artifacts from Indonesia, China, Thailand and other distant spots. He also documents his cultural excursions via photographs that record the daily lives of natives. His extensive collections of tribal objects and of Asian ceramics and paintings, largely come from treks he made from the 1970s through the 1990s. His adventures, whether to headhunter-manned Amazon jungles or inaccessible Sumatran islands or Tibet, long ago led a graduate assistant to dub him “Indiana Kam,” a sobriquet Leung likes.
Not that he’s stopped going to the far corners in search of new finds. He recently returned from a trip to China, where exhibitions of his photos were held.
The largest exhibit to date of his tribal art can be seen March 23 through June 23 at the Loves Jazz & Arts Center. Islands of Spirits — Tribal Art of Indonesia displays some 200 objects and photos. The artifacts include wood, stone, shell and bone carvings and textiles. The LJAC may seem an unlikely venue for Indonesian materials, but its director Neville Murray is a longtime friend of Leung’s and the two share a desire to educate the public about vanishing tribal cultures. Leung said the general public should know, for instance, how “modern art stole from tribal art,” whose influences are wide-ranging.
Leung’s chronicled his travels through images taken either with a Polaroid or his pricey Hasselblat Swedish camera outfit. Besides capturing a record of his visits, picture-making gains him acceptance, overcoming suspicions and language barriers.
In exhibit text Leung writes that “indigenous folks usually do not want to have their photographs taken. Often there is a fear or superstition involved, but just as often there is curiosity and interest. I have made it a practice to move slowly, never intrude, respect local customs and generally take the time to get acquainted with people before taking photographs. Sometimes just the ‘magic’ of a Polaroid camera and the instant picture has breached the barrier…”
He’s aware his outsider’s presence may distort any true picture of a culture, as certain practices or ceremonies may be altered for his consumption.
For years, he’s felt in a race with time to document tribal societies before they are compromised by encroaching development. “I do feel time is a key factor,” he said in a recent interview. “Some of the areas I go, five years is almost a lifetime. Some things may not be there anymore. As far as commercial development is concerned, once it goes in the whole area is changed. Lots of cultures get destroyed or buried. The melting pot phenomenon is a good thing, but quite often kills minority cultures. Major cultures tend to assimilate and assimilation means you destroy.”
Leung elaborates in exhibit text: “Through the passage of time, natural disasters, diseases, wars and religious conflicts have prevented the preservation of many tribes’ way of life. There is no way to prevent the development and even exploitation of places once isolated from outside influences…At present, many indigenous cultures…are fast disappearing,” having “vanished in front of our eyes.”
Besides photos, he’s tried documenting his adventures via audio and diary entries, but, he noted, “after hours of trekking through jungles, by the time evening comes you’re in no mood to even dictate, let alone write down something.”
Leung said what separates him from many collectors is that “I violate the principle collecting should be concentrated in either this or that, and that’s all,” whereas “I have such a broad interest in art.” Befitting his penchant for roads less traveled, he eschews African tribal art in favor of less popular, harder to find tribal forms.
The pieces on view in Omaha are ornately carved yet utilitarian items and sacred objects natives believe to be imbued with spirits of ancestors or from nature. “The most culturally advanced of these civilizations,” Leung said, “would turn the every day utensil into art. Art and utility, it’s all integrated.” He admires the respect tribal peoples have for their ancestors. In a neat parallel to his own astronomical interests, he said natives retrieved the nickel deposits used to create metal objects from asteroid remnants. He said, “Anything that fell on Earth is from the heavens, so it’s sacred stuff” to them.
Making these mostly wood artifacts rare is the fact climate and insects “take a toll” on them. “They don’t last long. There’s not much left,” he said. Many animistic objects were lost in the process of missionaries converting natives to Christianity.
Getting to the most isolated Indonesina islands or coursing down an Amazonian tributary from the Ecuadorian side entails hardships for even a seasoned adventurer as himself. “Going to those places is very, very difficult,” he said. “I don’t run into many people.” Wherever he goes, he wants “to go in” — to the farthest reaches. Maps are useless. Transportation unreliable. Provisions scarce. Illness rampant. Guides extort exorbinate rates. No matter “how much you prepare,” surprises await. He once made camp on a beach that proved to be a crocodile den. Armed natives once demanded safe passage fees in the form of his team’s precious petrol.
“In some places I do feel uneasy,” he said. “I never know what will happen.”
Collecting through auction houses is one thing, but can’t compare to, as he puts it, “seeing and knowing things first hand.” The journey and the experience are what grab him. He enjoys the “challenge” of not only getting to these far flung spots, using a relay of plane, bus, auto, dugout canoe and feet, but having the discerning eye to recognize real treasures from “junk.”
“You have to know how to look at the patina,” he said. “There’s no label or date. You only rely on your eye and your experience. It’s a test.”
His critical eye is so refined he “can tell just by looking at pieces which island they come from,” he said. “Each island is very distinct.” Not all tribal art is created equal. Only a few islands are renown for their artistry/craftsmanship. Mistakes come with the territory. “The mistakes you make you pay for,” he said. “There’s a term among collectors — ‘the tuition we pay.’”
Not all trips yield museum quality treasures like blow guns or a magic staff. “You don’t really plan on acquiring things, If you’re able to get a blow gun back, you win the sweepstakes,” he said. “It’s all accidental. It’s all luck.” Perhaps, but his many adventures are not. “That’s why people say I should write a book,” he said.