Southeast Asian Art

The Making of a Legend with Yaman Ibrahim

Yaman Ibrahim is a Malaysian photographer whose works cover an impressive range of subjects, from landscape and architecture to documentary and portraits. This particular image depicts the yearly Pacu Jawi race held in West Sumatra to celebrate the end of the rice harvest. Competitors yoke themselves to two bulls with a wooden harness and careen across the muddy paddy fields, driving the animals by their tails. Winners are determined by how well the two animals cooperate, as well as the competitor’s ability to run in a straight line.

The image captures the spirit of fierce competition that drives the race, as well as the passion the competitor holds for the sport. Exertion and eagerness is painted upon his face as he opens his mouth to yell, driving the two bulls on. Though the gray dotting his hair and mustache indicate his advanced age, the spirit of vigor in his expression and the undeniable force in his pose make him appear to be a man in his prime. The splattering droplets of mud add to the dynamic element of this picture, providing tangible evidence of the bulls’ rapid plunge through the water. The vibrant golds and tans coloring the man and his bulls contrast with the dull brown of the mud, which effectively serves as a natural curtain to obscure the crowd. The blurry silhouettes of the crowd clearly show that their presence is only a backdrop to showcase the competitor’s formidable might to an audience. The precarious balance the competitor maintains, the bulls’ tails his only source of support, heightens the sense of suspense and serves as a physical reminder to the viewer of how much is at stake in this race.

The end goal, however, is not necessarily about which competitor wins, but rather how much the competitor manages to impress his viewers, as a good race performance corresponds to a higher price for a farmer looking to sell his bulls. The raw emotion on the competitor’s face can be traced to the importance of the race: his very livelihood depends upon it. Undaunted by the precariousness of his position or the filth surrounding him, he glares at his bulls as though they are the only other beings in the world at the moment, urging them relentlessly forward. His indomitable spirit in the face of danger is somehow foreign to western viewers as a tradition from a distant land, but simultaneously familiar in that it evokes heroes of legend. By displaying this commonality, Ibrahim brings two distinct cultures together in a moment of anticipation. No matter the outcome of this race, the grit this man displays in an event that is merely an exotic game to viewers, but an essential element of life to the people of West Sumatra, has already marked him as a victor.