Sea Nomads: Exhibition documents Malay’s Bajau Laut and efforts to conserve their ocean culture

The Bajau Laut, an indigenous tribe belonging to the area within and around Malaysia, are some of the last true marine nomads. For centuries they have lived out their lives almost entirely at sea – plying a tract of ocean between the Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia.

In a new exhibition, entitled Sea Nomads, photographer James Morgan documents the Bajau Laut, highlighting their efforts to conserve their culture and the spectacular underwater environments they have called home for generations. The exhibition is currently on display at the Horniman Museum, in south-east London, until 23 June.

For generations, the Bajau Laut skillfully adapted to their maritime environment. Their knowledge was revered by regional leaders who used them to establish and protect new trade routes.

Traditionally, they fish with nets and lines and are expert free divers, plunging to depths of more than 30 metres on a single breath in search of pearls and sea cucumbers or to hunt with handmade spear guns.

But these traditional techniques have been largely replaced by cyanide and dynamite fishing, practices that are being driven predominantly by the live fish trade – an industry whose global worth is estimated at US $1 billion. The trade’s epicentre is Hong Kong, while Indonesia supplies most of the fish, accounting for nearly 50% of all imports.

In the last two decades, controversial government programmes across the region have also forced most of the indigenous Bajau Laut to settle on land or in stilt villages at the water’s edge.

James Morgan said: “Traditional Bajau cosmology – a syncretism of animism and Islam – reveals a complex relationship with the ocean, which for them is a multifarious and living entity. There are spirits in currents and tides, in coral reefs and mangroves. My point of interest is the potential for dovetailing the Bajau’s uniquely intimate understanding of the ocean with wider marine conservation strategies, in order to facilitate them in conserving, rather than destroying, their culture and the spectacular marine environments they have called home for centuries.”

Images: © James Morgan

Sea Nomads is on display at the Balcony Gallery, Horniman Museum until 23 June

James Morgan

Rosa Medea is Life & Soul Magazine’s Chief @rosamedea

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