Feeding Art to Orphans

As many local arts practitioners know extremely well, funding for the arts is a big problem. It’s not that the (newly-formed) Ministry of Culture, Arts and Heritage (or its previous incarnations) does not freely hand out ang pows to needy (and occasionally starving) dreamy creatures who champion artistic causes. Nor the fact that big corporations are still hesitant about how effectively their financial assistance to local artists can actually help promote their company profiles. No matter the reservations, many arts establishments continue to receive the patronage of government, corporate and NGO bodies. (A bit more would be nice though.)

It’s just that, most of the time, art is treated as a charity project. And depending on who one speaks to, that may seem patronising at best. Having to confer pity on something we would like to be imbued with an independent spirit of some sort simply smacks of colonial condescension. And what is worse is when the projects funded are half-baked fantasies of self-obsessed artist(e)s such as (names withheld to protect the guilty). We need to move on, folks! A quick scan of the Kakiseni listings will reveal how provincial/parochial/pathetic our artistic ambitions have become. And yet what is even more shocking is that it’s what Malaysians seem to want.

So here’s a word to artist(e)s, sponsors and (the paying) audience (not those of you who get by on comps): it’s got to be a push-and-pull deal. Just as sponsors need to get over their unhealthy propensity to finance only the tried-and-true, not to mention the most boring and inane projects, artists and audience members really need to challenge themselves a bit more, in terms of what gets to the performance space. Just because so-and-so Tan Sri might not get it, we shouldn’t have to blind ourselves to the fact that we are not dumb.

But what if the art is a charity project? (Shock! Horror! Ohmigod, hide your children!)

Which is what DiGi Yellow Mobile is launched on June 15, 2002, DiGi has invited local and foreign artists from various disciplines to conduct one-day arts-oriented workshops for special and underprivileged children in different parts of the country.

What was that? Feeding art to handicapped and orphaned children? Wouldn’t it be better to concentrate on their more immediate needs, such as educating the largely ignorant public not to treat people in such disadvantaged situations as merely charity? (Gosh! How unorthodox.)

But going against the grain is what DiGi has done (to a certain extent anyway). In a way, this is funding to aid the arts in a different manner. Arts education for the young is a quickly dying art in our schools. Many of our public schools, especially in economically depressed (and artistically depressing) districts go without art teachers. (As though what Malaysia needs are more overseas-trained capitalists who, after realising what a corrupt hellhole this country is, migrate anyway.) It’s commendable that a corporate organisation such as DiGi Communications Sdn Bhd has been organising this arts-oriented project for an especially marginalised community.

Still, charity is the operative word here. Since we are concerned with the current state of the arts and how money is being spent in its service, I feel compelled to ask: How far can one take charity in the name of art – or is it art in the name of charity – before we lose all sense of dignity? Let’s go on a tour of the provinces.

On September 11, 2004, DiGi Yellow Mobile held its eleventh installment in Kuala Terengganu. Each Yellow Mobile initiative had its own special name, theme and programme, and this one was no exception. It was called “Dumelang”, which means ‘Hello’ in Setswana – the language of Botswana. The reason for the African connection is due to DiGi having invited six Botswana students from Limkokwing University of Creative Technology to participate in the workshop, which also included members of four local performance arts groups – Laasya Arts, Hands Percussion, Perunggu Edu.Tainment and Consultancy, and Sayang Dances. The official blurb for the event is that “it saw more than 100 underprivileged children aged between 7 to 13 years gather for a fun-filled afternoon learning to integrate African and Malaysian cultures.” Which is exactly what happened.

After a rather awkward speech from DiGi’s newly-instated CEO Morten Lundal and a hearty lunch, the children were divided into four colour-coded groups: the blue-coded children learnt Indian dance (Laasya Arts), red meant Chinese drums (Hands Percussion), yellow for Malay dance (Perunggu Edu.Tainment and Consultancy), and green is for the more ethnically lateral Contemporary dance (Sayang Dances). The children were then shepherded off to individual rooms where they were taught some tricks to perform at the end of the day. In the rooms, the children were further divided into two groups, with the secondarily-grouped children receiving instructions from the African students.

For approximately three hours, the children were taken through the paces of learning simple performance pieces. In the Indian dance room, the children were given batons and taught the hit-the-baton-to-music-and­-dance-at-the-same-time routine that can be seen perennially at Indian cultural events. In the Chinese drums room, the children were taught the rudiments of hitting the hell out of barrel-stretched hide. In the Malay room, the kids were taught how to dance ‘gayung otah’ – a dance that was introduced to Terengganu-ites by Arab traders in pre-colonial times. In the Contemporary room, the children learnt how to sing ‘Ikan Kekek’ and make accompanying interpretative actions. Meanwhile, the African students guided the children in all four rooms to: sing a folk song which went “Dumelang! Dumelang!”, dance a funky dance accompanying a rather upbeat modern Afrobeat tune, do a tribal war dance, and beat drums.

After the workshops, the children, facilitators and sponsors reconvened in the main hall to present what they’ve learnt. If I must put on my critical bib, I have to say the performances were patchy at best. Then again, these are 7 to 13-year-olds. And going by the brief contact time between the facilitators and their students, it’s a miracle that the children actually managed to pull off their show monkey presentations without too much loss of dignity.

But this was not a venue for ‘serious’ art. One wonders if it can be called ‘art’. Sometimes it felt more like ‘artless’ – even if the organiser’s mission apparent was not so much to produce ‘great art’ but rather to have fun. And true enough, albeit artlessly, like the best of much Malaysian art, seeing the kids enjoy themselves during the whole event (especially when gorging on the food; the fried chicken nuggets were especially popular) and watching how attentive and bright-eyed they were, it was obvious that that they did have ‘fun’. Considering the children’s backgrounds, it’s a pity that more couldn’t be done.

Alan Bligh, the emcee, who had been involved in several DiGi Yellow Mobile events, remarked that the Kuala Terengganu installment was definitely livelier than some of the previous ones. And even though the children were never treated as more than a mass of smiling faces, occassionally a few DiGi staffers and workshop facilitators fall victim to the children’s charms. “You can see it in their eyes,” Bligh said. “They’re just so wonderful. The way they hold on to you towards the end of every event, it just makes you want to take them home. I’ve cried a few times thinking about what these kids have gone through. Some of them have gone through really horrible things. I sometimes wish we could do more.”

But more doesn’t seem to be in the offering, which is a shame. In an interview with the press, Lundal said that DiGi has no plans at the moment to commit itself to community art projects that are more long term or more focused on individual talents. “It’s not because we don’t see the value in it. We do this purely for the community. For the moment, we would rather concentrate on doing projects that would benefit more than just a few. However, we are still thinking of how to do more.” In a few words, it’s going to take time.

Still, DiGi Yellow Mobile is a nice effort, although it’s obviously no substitute for long term arts education programs, which would be more beneficial to our youth (regardless of whether their homes are broken or otherwise), especially those interested in pursuing careers in the arts. And here’s to hoping that one brief afternoon’s romp with art could spark a lifelong interest in the arts. There’s no question that art is a great healer. Whatever it is we think we’ve lost or could hope to lose, art has always been there to show us that it’s always been there. My only fear is the day would come when the young will chastise us for not having done enough. Or worse, that they don’t even know how to. Can we stand to lose that?

First Published: 18.10.2004 on Kakiseni

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