Agus Nur Amal says he is dedicated to introducing the traditional spoken poetry form of Aceh to the younger generation.  (The Peak Photos/ Tunggul Wirajuda)

Storyteller Agus Nur Amal Explains the Essence of Life

MARCH 24, 2015

Agus Nur Amal says he is dedicated to introducing the traditional spoken poetry form of Aceh to the younger generation.  (The Peak Photos/ Tunggul Wirajuda)

Storyteller Agus Nur Amal keeps his audience’s attention with everyday household items and provides a unique spin on them, much like a celebrity chef fixates viewers by simultaneously cooking and explaining their recipe of choice.

A specialist in the traditional epic poems of his native Aceh, known as hikayat, he brings the verses to life with the use of props.

“God created the sun to light up the universe, after which he created the planets and their moons,” Agus says as he retells the hikayat of how God created the universe.

He brandishes a yellow plastic plate, a metaphor that isn’t lost on his viewers.

“Aside from the moon, God also created the stars to light up the night sky, just as the sun lights up the sky in the daytime,” he goes on, using cans of Bintang beer to illustrate his point.

Agus’s grand scheme on creation is tangible, as he used gas canisters, balls and other items hung on clothes hangers to show how they orbit the sun.

His take on the Earth is just as imaginative, as shown by his use of conical bamboo rice containers to describe volcanoes.

Delivered in an Acehnese dialect that is offbeat and humorous, his improvised take on Creation leaves a profound impression.

The performance is part of “Hidangan Dari Langit” (“Food From the Skies”), a photography and multimedia exhibition based on Agus’s hikayat tales.

Currently hosted at the Ruangrupa gallery in Tebet, South Jakarta, “Hidangan Dari Langit” marks Agus’s 25-year anniversary in the hikayat business.

But the event is only the second of its kind for Agus, who held his first visual exhibition, “Jendela P.M. Toh” (“A Window on P.M. Toh”), as a tribute to his mentor and fellow Achenese Teungku Haji Adnan P.M. Toh in 2009.

“ ‘Hidangan Dari Langit’ sees Agus carry out a visual exploration of the items he uses [in hikayat] photos themed on the universe,” says Ruangrupa’s Leonhard Bartolomeus.

“The titles and photos are his way to ‘interact’ with the items he uses as stage props. Agus and [photographer] Deny [‘Tarzan’ Arivin] arranged the items in a certain way to fit within the context of verses, or suras, in the Koran.

“The use of photography is ideal because they not only form a visual interpretation of those prayers; their stillness is also an antithesis to the more dynamic world of the stage.”

The photographs “Al Hadid” (“Iron”) and “An Nahl” (“The Ant”) epitomize this approach.

Named after suras describing the benefits of iron ore and using the stars for navigation, respectively, the former gets its message across by portraying swirls of plastic bags within a green plastic basin, as if to describe the minerals as they’re found in the Earth’s bowels.

(The Peak Photos/ Tunggul Wirajuda)

The red lights perhaps refer to the process of turning the ore into iron and steel.

The latter is simpler and more profound, with a toy catamaran perched on a blue plastic basin making its way between two Bintang beer cans.

“The items in ‘Hidangan Dari Langit’ are based on my observations or association with their themes,” Agus says.

“This has much to do with the items’ connotation and looks, as well as certain incidents or phenomenon. The term ‘Hidangan Dari Langit’ describes how God created the universe and everything in it, including minerals and other resources in the Earth, for our benefit.

“It also describes how reason and education are preeminent over morality in Islam, as they are the basis for the religion itself; after all, one of God’s first commandments is to read,” says Agus, whose use of props in his recital of hikayat was his mentor P.M. Toh’s most tangible legacy.

“The emphasis on morality instead of knowledge is due to the flawed practice and teaching [of Islam] when it was brought to Indonesia, as it emphasized spirituality and ritual, not reason or the practical side of the religion,” the artist goes on.

“This has spread to how we interact with one another and created an imbalance that led to the rise of radical groups.” 

“Hidangan Dari Langit” is part of Agus’s efforts to preserve and continue the legacy of hikayat, which he has done by extending its repertoire to contemporary topics beyond its traditional subject matters like religion or the history of Aceh’s kingdoms.

He plans to pass the narrative along to future generations during the event by teaching a workshop for children.

Whether in photos or performance, Agus’s take on Hikayat is sure to leave a lasting impression.