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A brush with botany

Full-time mother and artist finds solace and passion in botanical art, bridging Bruneians to indigenous plants through Instagram

Every day is a balancing act for full-time mother and artist Maisarah Abdul Halim – mornings are a routine blend of making breakfast for her five-year-old daughter, bathing her and other simple joys of parenthood like watching cartoons or playing with dolls together.

But in between play times and naps, the 34-year-old steals away to her art room, where she quietly transforms canvases with watercolour pencils. Here, she brings to life Brunei’s native edible plants in hues that echo the quiet beauty of the Sultanate’s pristine nature.

It’s a small piece of tranquillity in the midst of the daily chaos of motherhood, an understated rhythm that resulted in the establishment of her Instagram page @barunai_botanica in September, which aims to bridge the gap between Bruneians and their indigenous plants.

“I noticed that most of the younger generation, they don’t know much about the edible and medicinal plants of Brunei.

“Even when faced with these plants, they might not give them a second thought; they simply consume them.

“But do they know where it grows or how hard they are to forage.”

Maisarah poses with one of her art pieces. PHOTO: WARDI WASIL

FROM SEED TO CANVAS

Maisarah’s artistic journey began in 2016, a year marked by her decision to pursue art full-time after a brief stint in the oil and gas industry and education consultancy.

Specialising in character and creature illustration, Maisarah found success in commissions, predominantly from overseas clients.

However, her artistic trajectory took a turn toward botanical art when she observed a recurring theme in her work—floral embellishments which accompanied fantastical creatures.

She would inquire with her customers about their favourite flowers or the thematic elements they wished to convey through their commissions.

Maisarah with samples of her sketches and art pieces. PHOTO: WARDI WASIL

Subsequently, Maisarah would skilfully align these preferences with a chosen flower, creating a harmonious connection between the commissioner’s vision and the botanical subject.

“I noticed in most of my art is that every time I drew a dragon, for example, I always embellished the character with floral designs,” she explained. 

The transition from character design to botanical art unfolded organically for Maisarah, who found therapeutic solace in drawing plants compared to the potentially draining process of character illustration.

Maisarah’s artworks. PHOTO: MAISARAH ABDUL HALIM

“I liked drawing characters but drawing plants is therapeutic, I could just keep drawing them and it wouldn’t burn me out as much.”

Even when she transitioned to drawing comics, the first panel drawn was always of a plant, not only to provide ambience but also to convey the opening of the narrative.

“I started Barunai Botanica because, of course, somebody would get tired with character art after a while.

“And I’ve spent most of my time drawing for people and expressing their stories in my own way using plants, so I figured, I think it’s time to finally focus on me and what I wanted to draw.”

 

A BLEND OF ART, SCIENCE AND HERITAGE

Barunai Botanica, according to Maisarah, is more aligned with botanical art than traditional science illustration.

Despite lacking formal art training, Maisarah’s roots in science, particularly biology, have significantly influenced her art, having been a biology major at the Universiti Brunei Darussalam (UBD) with a Bachelor’s of Science in Education.

Maisarah finds therapeutic solace in drawing plants. PHOTO: MAISARAH ABDUL HALIM

Maisarah said, “I spent three years studying in the Faculty of Science. For one whole year, I studied animal and plant morphology – we dissected animals and studied their skeletal structure.

“From there, I used what I learned in class to creatively express it in my own way.”

Recognising the limited accessibility of scientific research, through her art, she strives to present this knowledge in a more engaging and relatable manner.

Maisarah’s current project involves compiling a short volume on six Bruneian plants, combining her personal experiences, family interviews, and research from UBD’s Institute for Biodiversity and Environmental Research (IBER).

Her goal is to create an accessible resource that includes labelled diagrams, plant descriptions, and information on where to find and use these plants medicinally.

Her deep connection to Brunei’s flora traces back to her childhood, where her grandmother, an avid gardener, instilled in her a love for foraging and cultivating edible plants.

“My grandmother, who is half-Kedayan and half-Dusun, liked to forage and she even grew her own turmeric.

“She also had an orchard, so early in my youth, I was exposed to these things and I specifically liked eating these plants.

“My childhood home was also fringing on a secondary forest, so when I was old enough I started foraging on my own, I would go to my own backyard, picked edible ferns and brought them home to eat.“

An artwork of turmeric by Maisarah. PHOTO: MAISARAH ABDUL HALIM

For Maisarah, her botanical art extends beyond mere education; it serves as a cathartic practice, seamlessly intertwining her fervour for art, love of science, and connection to her heritage.

“Part of why I am doing this is also because I wanted to connect with my own heritage.

“Barunai Botanica has allowed me to express my love of plants while maintaining a connection to my heritage.”

“I didn’t want to pass on without showing my daughter that it’s important to know where you come from, you’re roots.”

Looking ahead, Maisarah plans to expand and eventually publish her own fiction novels. – Wardi Wasil

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