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A Survival Course For Creativity in a Hostile Environment

  • October 31, 2003

By Tan Sei Hon

Last September, twenty five arts students met in the woods of Taman Alam in Kuala Selangor for a five day workshop entitled “sonneratia”.

As a botanical aside, sonneratia is the scientific name for the ‘Berembang’ trees that grows in the wild in the mangrove forests of Kuala Selangor. It produces an enzyme like nectar which fireflies feed on to survive. The nectar also provides energy that lights the ‘tails’ of the fireflies. Unbeknownst to many, fireflies are an endangered species of insect that can only be found in some parts of South America and Malaysia (specifically in Kuala Selangor and Pulau Langkawi). The symbiotic relationship between fireflies and the Sonneratia trees, with its ingenious mechanism (its roots are curved upwards from the soil) for survival in hostile and oft times challenging environment (salt water, pollution etc) is an apt metaphor to describe this program. Surviving in a hostile environment is exactly what the young art participants will be busy doing upon graduation.

The sonneratia youth camp, sponsored by the National Art Gallery, was created as an attempt to develop a “platform or space where young art students from various institutions, disciplines and background can mingle and learn from each other” as pointed out by Hasnul J. Saidon. Veteran multi dimensional electronic artist Hasnul originally conceptualised and put together the project, with arts organiser and installation artist Susyilawati Sulaiman assuming the role of coordinator. The workshops are every two years (the first one was two years ago).

Indeed most of the local art colleges operate on extremely divisive lines steeped in racial sentiments coupled with narrow-minded allegiances to both institution, department and even to disciplines (“I paint, therefore I am”).

Visual arts department gingerly churn out clones who are at best technicians and style imitators, or worse, blind exploiters of cultural forms affiliated to race, religion and nationalism, and fail to prepare arts students for the challenges of a constantly changing cultural, socio-political and economical landscape. It is hardly surprising few students actually practise any arts related activities after graduation. Arts departments in government are considered as an easy way to acquire an extra degree and often attract people who have no real interest in the subject, while private institutions are often out of touch with the real world and often fail to include computer graphics, art conservation…

In order for young art students to effectively discover art’s meaningful purpose for both self and society, an avenue is needed to channel all that creative energy, unencumbered by racial sentiments, institutional parochialism and other ‘us and them’ proclivities. A liberal and non-prescriptive approach would be more suitable to the teaching of visual arts. A critical look at art is called for, challenging its concepts, exploring its possible roles and function within contexts, and cultivating a congenial attitude and acceptance towards diversity as well as other forms of artistic discipline.

The Sonneratia youth art camp sponsored by the National Art Gallery present itself as that very alternative.

The basic philosophy behind the program tries to include three models. The first believes the creation process comes from ‘jiwa’, or one’s spiritual energy. This model transcends the growing complexity of a materialistic world.

The second is a holistic model that is based on group discussions. The creation process here is based on inclusive, open ended, dialogue and is centered on the participants.

The third is a proactive model. Instead of allowing media and discipline define or rather confine oneself, a search with different materials, tools, techniques and processes is used for personal expression, inquiry and commentary. This develops a sense of autonomy and empowerment that comes from having tools to express in diverse ways their users’ reactions to life.

Hasnul believes that the multi-arts approach is perhaps most effective in delivering the combined impact the three models have to offer. The four resource persons roped in are each from diverse but always­ complementary disciplines. They are visual artists Liew Kungyew and Tan Sei Hon, film maker lmri Nasution, musician Shahrin Hamid and movement artist Junainah Lojong.

Held at Taman Alam in Kuala Selangor, the daily activities of the 5-day workshop can be broken into three segments. In the morning participants engage in ‘brain’ games, activities, discussions with Hasnul. Later in the afternoon, they participate in activities with the individual resource people. And finally at night, participants and resource people engage in light-hearted conversations, exchanging ideas and experiences. In between all these activities many games were played, educational trips were undertaken and loads of issues and themes were discussed. Most of the sessions see participants working and collaborating in presenting an idea or potential solutions to a current problem.

The program received a wide success, with more than 100 applicants from various art & design institution around the country auditioning for the 25 spaces available. Former resource persons and participants too from Sonneratia 1 were instrumental in encouraging this immense interest.

The sonneratia organisers attribute the success partly to several individuals who understood the workshop’s liberal approach, including Mrs. Raja, the director of Taman Alam and her extremely helpful staff, as well Pn. Rohana Yusuf the project director from the Education unit of Balai Seni Lukis Negara, who took a laissez-faire approach that kept the project free from the usual crippling institutional trappings and interference.

The Sonneratia team is reaching out further as it is currently organising a project with the Fukuoka Asian Art Museum entitled Upload: Download (U.D) that involves selected young artists from Kuala Lumpur and Fukuoka.

The creations that came out from the Sonneratia youth camp were scheduled to be exhibited at the National Art Gallery from September 16 until November 16, but for reasons yet unexplained to the organisers it has been taken down.

For more on sonneratia: www.sonneratia.org

The selected participants of the September 2003 workshop were Mohd. Azrin, Fariza ldora Alhabshi, Sabina Arokiam, Sharifah Amira (Cenfad), Ngiam Tiang Tze, Adrin Teo, Foong Sook Yee, Mohd. Hatta, Tan Siew Eng (M.I.A) Tan Hui Koon, Luanne Tan Wan Vie (L.U.C.C.T), Goh Chai Shaen (K.L.C.A), Raja Mohd. Zikirallah, Nuriman Amri (U.I.T.M-Manjung), Sarah Joan Mokhtar, Mohd. Yazid (U.I.T.M-Shah Alam) Roopesh all Sitharan, Tan Chee Lok, Um Kok Yong, (M.M.U), Revathy alp Chandran, Norusliana binti Baharudin, Nur Hasmizai Afzan bte Hassan, Oliver John Jukoris, Ahmad bin Hj. Abd. Samad (I.K.I.P-Kuantan) Loo Uk Wei (NeoArt lnsititue­ Johor)

Former participants also assisted the resource persons as liaison officers. They are Mohd. Azri Abdullah, Jimmy Choong, Fitriyah Yunus, Sarman B. Mohd and Goh Chiu Kuan.

First Published: 31.10.2003 on Kakiseni