Revealing the Spirit of Sabah

Cultural immersion, through the works of Ron Galimam, one of Sabah’s most prominent graphic artists.

The Sabah State Art Gallery will be hosting a solo exhibition of Ron Galimam’s work for a month from 7th March 2019. The artist’s roots go very deep into the history of Sabah, so we asked him to tell us a little more about his rather extraordinary family…

Ron Galimam 2-2
Ron Galimam

As told by my father, my great grandfather Kaspar Galimam was a headhunter. He was a small man with a short fuse and prone to throw his “parang” (long knife) whoever ignored his demands, but the villagers put up with his temper because he was fearless and lead into battle. When he died by natural cause his body was covered with battle scars, surrounded by trophy skulls wrapped in rattan hanging on the roof trusses.

How could you best describe your work?

My paintings are mostly about working people in their environment. I’m also drawn to the Wildlife which I have been passionate about since I was young. I like to work in Batik which is wax on cotton but unlike the traditional batik dye I prefer to apply acrylics which gives me a bit of control. I also like the soft brushes of the watercolour and dabble in oil when I slide into realism.

Ron Galimam - Red Leaf monkeys, Watercolour
Ron Galimam – Red Leaf monkeys, Watercolour

Please tell us about your work with Sabah Tourism.

In the early 90’s, when I came back to Sabah, there wasn’t much promotional literature of Sabah so I put a proposal to the Minister of Tourism who didn’t need much convincing to embrace and fund the promotion of Sabah both for domestic and international tourism. I set up a design studio in Kota Kinabalu and employed two finished artists and a secretary and the first thing I did was to illustrate a character map of Sabah as 99.99 percent of the world’s population don’t know where Sabah is. When I presented it, some of the board members was not sure with the pink pygmy elephants but nevertheless it was printed. We produced themed images for posters, billboards, buntings, paper bags using recycled paper and TV commercials. I noticed some of the promotional materials are still being used.

What do you feel are the elements of Sabah that inspire you the most in your work?

People’s resilience inspires me. When I had a studio in a town called Donggongon, I used to frequent the “Tamu”, which is a market where the vendors from the hills and coastal villages come to trade one day a week. The Tamu is not only a market for selling and buying but it’s also a place where people meet to catch up on gossips. In the hot and humid environment I was impressed by their stamina to make a living. I also had a studio in a village called Bilit on the Kinabatangan river and I stayed there for a year. Whilst there I used to accompany the local hunters into the jungle to hunt for wild boars. Whenever news of a large herd were spotted they would go very early in the morning and came back with large boars bagpacked on rattan baskets.

Ron Galimam - Mother & Child Orangutan Batik
Ron Galimam – Mother & Child Orangutan Batik

Why is Kinabatangan such a special place for you?

My grandfather and also my father was a District Officer in the Kinabatangan district stationed at a village called Bukit Garam (Salt Hill). In their day boats was the only means of transport and it would take two days to travel up river from the nearest big town called Sandakan. My father used to describe the animals along the river banks and I’m happy to say that Kinabatangan is still full of wildlife even though much of the jungle have been cleared for agriculture and that affected especially the vulnerable pygmy elephants. A year ago there was a plan to build a bridge across the river which would have been a disaster but I’m pleased the present government is listening to the people and to stop any more land being developed into palm oil plantations. The relevant authorities as well as some of the resorts who have purchased land from the oil palm planters are combining their efforts to create corridors for the animals which is great news.

What are your most vivid memories of nature in Sabah?

There were three remarkable moments of my life when I went on an adventure in Sabah.

Firstly, when I went SCUBA diving at Sipadan island, I came across a school of twisting barracudas and there were so many that they blocked the sunlight. Then dozens of huge bison-like parrot fish appeared and it was magic. Jacques Cousteau was absolutely correct when he said Sipadan is an untouched piece of paradise.

Secondly, when I went into the jungle just before sunrise with the hunters from Bilit, I was confronted by a huge angry looking Sun Bear standing on its hind legs. I just froze, but within seconds (which felt like eternity), a little cub appeared and raced through the thicket followed by its mother.

Thirdly, in the Bilit jungle, I startled an adult orangutan at a salt lick and I remember the human-like eyes staring and then it turned away to climb up the vines. These encounters took my breath away.