Spice of life, death and healing

Published on 2 October 2018

In her performance, artist Aklili Zakaria turns the act of making sambal belacan into ritual of love, as well as mourning. (Photo credit: Ken Cheong, courtesy of the Esplanade)

By Huang Lijie

Until recently, sambal belacan was, for artist Aklili Zakaria, an essential yet mundane component of every meal at her parent’s home. That changed, however, when she started making it.

Asked by her mother to lend a hand in the kitchen, Aklili came to realise the amount of effort that goes into preparing the seemingly simple condiment. For one, her mother’s recipe calls for the paste to be made by hand with a mortar and pestle; no machines, no shortcuts.

She wasn’t expecting, either, the burn of chilli padi on the skin, or for the spicy condiment to sting her eyes. “Yet my mother does it all the time, that love and commitment,” says Aklili, 28.

Inspired, the fine arts graduate of LASALLE College of the Arts decided to turn the modest ritual of making sambal belacan into a work of performance art to express a mother’s selfless love.

Her first performance was part of a group exhibition organised last year by the Malay arts group Angkatan Pelukis Aneka Daya (Association of Artists of Various Resources). It was especially poignant because she was pregnant with her first child.

Aklili, who is also a full-time early childhood educator, performed the work, Mamma, again in July at the opening of the art exhibition, Happens When Nothing Happens. The show at the Esplanade features works by 10 emerging Singapore artists, including Aklili, that spotlight the significance in everyday objects and rituals.

At the end of that performance in July, Aklili packed the belacan to gift to visitors of the show. She likened the gesture to how, after family meals at her parent’s place, her mother would pack food for her to bring back to her marital home. The visitors to the show “were like my children”, she says.

Unbeknownst to her, she was pregnant at that time. But she later suffered a miscarriage.

The performance of her work at the closing of the exhibition on Sunday will therefore find maternal love tinged with loss and grief, and there will be no sambal belacan for the audience to take away.

She says: “I feel like I have to do something about the loss; I am after all still grieving. But the lack of traditions surrounding miscarriage give me nothing to take the edge off my grief.

“Without a prescribed course for mourning, I don’t know what else to do besides make sense of what I’m going through in my performance.”


Happens When Nothing Happens is on at the Esplanade until Sunday, 7 October. Details about the exhibition and Aklili Zakaria’s performance here.

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