Zai Kuning was born in 1964 in Singapore to a wedding singer family. He spent his childhood in a kampung (village) by the beach, immersed in an environment of traditional and classical Malay music. When he was seven, his family moved into a high-rise apartment. Zai found himself drawn to the kampung, and kept returning to it until it was demolished for redevelopment. The displacement of the individual and the community thus resides close to his heart, and is explored in his wide-ranging art practices.
As an artist, Zai resists convenient categorisations. Considered one of the most versatile artists working in the region, Zai has pioneered a practice spanning sculpture, installation, painting and drawing, experimental sound and music, video, film, performance art, poetry, dance, and theatre. Zai also values collaboration, and has performed and created works with artists of diverse practices including Kuning Sulaiman, Kuo Pao Kun, Tang Da Wu (Singapore), and Tetsu Saitoh (Japan). Zai’s research on orang laut (sea people), the first people of the Riau Archipelago, took flight as a residency project with TheatreWorks (Singapore) in 2001. Since then, his encounters with orang laut and other islanders, including performers of Malay opera Mak Yong, have become staples in his work exploring human environments, ethics, religion, culture and history.
Dapunta Hyang: Transmission of Knowledge is a culmination of his 20-year exploration of these themes and geographies. For this edition of the work, Zai journeyed to Mantang Island (Riau Archipelago) and Phatthalung town (Thailand), as well as the once vibrant trading cities of Palembang and Jambi (Indonesia), to uncover the history, landscape, and influence of Dapunta Hyang’s Srivijaya empire.
Zai graduated from LASALLE College of the Arts–Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology with a BFA in 1996, majoring in ceramic sculpture. He has participated in notable group exhibitions including Who interprets the world? at the 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art, Kanazawa, Japan (2015); Secret Archipelago at the Palais De Tokyo, Paris, France (2015); Not Against Interpretation at the Singapore Art Museum (2013); Welcome to the Jungle: Contemporary Art in Southeast Asia from the Collection of Singapore Art Museum at the Yokohama Museum of Art, Japan (2013); Singapore Biennale 2011: Open House (2011); The 3rd Fukuoka Asian Art Triennale, Fukuoka Asian Art Museum, Japan (2005); and The 2nd Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art, The Queensland Art Gallery, Brisbane, Australia (1996). His recent solo exhibitions include Autopsy at Ota Fine Arts, Singapore (2017) Ombak Hitam at Ota Fine Arts, Tokyo (2016); Dapunta Hyang: Transmission of Knowledge at the Esplanade, Singapore (2015); and IMMIGRANT: The Question of Moral at The Substation Gallery in collaboration with Vichukorn Tangpaiboon (2011), amongst others. His artwork are in the permanent collections of the Singapore Art Museum, the Fukuoka Asian Art Museum (Japan), M+ (Hong Kong), and Kadist Art Foundation (France, USA).
Zai is currently represented by Ota Fine Arts.