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The Year The Arts Showed The Way (Part II)

  • January 18, 2008

By Veronica Shunmugam

In last week’s part of what the arts meant to 2007, I looked at what the arts community offered in terms of nation building, promoting heritage and arts-culture exchange. In the second part of this overview, I’d like to highlight arts outreach, arts for health, how options for arts training as well as funding improved, and how the arts strengthened its bond with human rights, and the legal community.

Seeking democracy through arts outreach

I may be one of those fortunate Malaysians who have been able to train in the arts in a mainly formal way but my journalism background has built my appreciation for the effectiveness of arts outreach programmes in teaching others about the arts and building audiences for a bigger arts scene. Arts outreach complements the nurturing of a democratic society in which as many people as possible are given the right to participate in decision-making processes.

In terms of democratising the arts, nothing in the performing arts quite matched Five Arts Centre’s “Bunga Manggar Bunga Raya”, which was one of the end results of Marion D’Cruz’s “Choreography for Non-Choreographers” six-week workshop held in mid-2006 (a part of the “Krishen Jit Experimental Workshop Series 2006”).

There are many people — within as well as outside the arts community — who believe that there are good reasons why one is expected to complete formal dance training and accrue performance exposure before describing oneself as a dancer or choreographer, and that the same would go for any art form. While this approach goes towards creating and maintaining standards (especially where audiences have paid good money to see a show), there seems to be a need for complementary approaches like Marion’s.

Ours is a nation facing teething problems of an evolving identity and thus how art –­ as society’s mirror — relates to us. While the arts have come up with some strong works that would be able to resonate beyond the small (and partly elitist) arts circle, there is a huge need to let Joe Public know that the arts are — more than anything else — another powerful outlet for his voice. The more we bring arts to the man on the street, the more new audiences we will attract.

Also, the arts are a part of human expression and with this basic constitutional right already facing worrying clampdowns (ahead of the country’s general elections), artists need to encourage — not discourage — Joe Public to get inside the soapbox alongside them.

Marion’s efforts to honour the everyday with space on the Malaysian dance stage seemed to symbolise one of the many ways in which the arts can lead by example when calling for the government to have a greater respect for public feedback, and for a stronger civil society.

In the visual arts, a gallery event that grabbed attention was The Annexe’s “Art for Grabs” (3rd and 4th November), a weekend exhibition where all kinds of artworks were going for under RM100 a piece. In case you were wondering, the RM100 price tag ranges far below artwork prices in other private galleries like Valentine Willie Fine Art which has been hosting a similar (though, I must stress, not the same) annual exhibition, “Art around RM1000” (17th to 24th September) since 2000.

As The Annexe programme director Pang Kee Teik told art collector-businessman Andrew Hwang in the article “Size Does Matter” (31st December): “From the response, we hope to make this a quarterly event in 2008. The public loved the event as it was extremely accessible and no one felt out of place.”

In terms of bigger-budget outreach efforts, Galeri Petronas impressed with its fortnightly public programmes that began from 3rd February until 1st December. Whether it was a workshop on “Abstract Art – Made Easy” or a daytime excursion to the Parliament House for an outdoor painting session for kids aged eight to 12, these imaginative programmes set the standard on outreach activities for other government­ funded galleries.

No gallery affair, however, came close to “Let Arts Move You” (LAMU) — a creative and relatively well-organised public arts project by an 11-member regional team headed by Rumah Air Panas. Held from 27th October to 4th November at KL Sentral, KTM Komuter train platforms and inside trains along the KTM Komuter lines, the LAMU team brought visual, performing, film and literary artworks to thousands of folk who use this mode of public transport to get about.

There were several scheduling and logistical hiccups along the way but these didn’t take away from the significance of this much needed arts outreach project. The success of such a pioneering event also showed the potential for similar events as well as the benefits of (even GLC-type) corporate support. Kakiseni, by the way, volunteered to be LAMU’s official media sponsor and yours truly excitedly documented much of the goings-on on our website.

Arts training

In a continuation of its aim to develop a strong support network and platform for Malaysian playwrights, the Instant Café Theatre pushed forward with its Firstworks playwriting programme. Having started in the first quarter of 2006, Firstworks began to really take off by mid-2007 with readings at The Annexe of three plays; “Melaka ‘07”, “Tahun Melawat Malaysia” and “Revenge” by Animah Kosai, Ridzwan Othman and Shanon Shah, respectively.

Of these works-in-progress, Shanon’s work — a story of identity power struggles within a typical Malaysian boys’ school — grew into a more complete play subsequently titled “Air Con” and performed in a full reading at The Annexe on 18th December.

The Actors Studio did their bit with their talent grooming Malaysian Playwright Series. This year’s “produce” — which kicked off their 2007 programme — was “Ah Steve” (22nd February to 11th March) by Mark Beau de Silva.

Music-wise, the local western classical fan base and music education scene watched with interest as those members of the Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestra (MPO) blessed also with gift for teaching presented their young charges in the inaugural concert of the Malaysian Philharmonic Youth Orchestra (MPYO). Formed in September 2006, the MPYO comprises 108 musicians selected from over 500 auditionees. Fed by an enthusiastic principal conductor Kevin Field — admired here for his efforts to promote new music and orchestral team-ups with the local music community, the MPYO played a near full house on 25th and 26th August. A national tour of Ipoh, Penang, KL, Kuantan and Johor Bahru followed between 2nd and 15th December.

Awards and funding for artists

Talk about funding and recognition in the arts to younger Malaysian artists today and the topic of scholarships are sure to come up. Of these relatively few existing awards, The Datin Seri Endon Mahmood Awards (The Endon), which are part of The Astro Scholarship Awards, are opening doors for youngsters who show promise in the arts.

Providing financial support of up to RM150,000 for undergraduate degree programmes in local and overseas universities, and postgraduate degree programmes in local universities, The Endon awards make up two of a total of 15 Astro scholarship awards given out each year. Since The Endon was introduced in 2005, its four recipients have gone on to study in the fields of classical studies, carnatic music, English and literature, and dance and journalism.

The newest arts scholarship bearing the name of the late arts patron and wife of Prime Minister Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi is the Datin Paduka Seri Endon Award for outstanding artists under the age of 35. Sponsored by YTL Corporation and managed by KLPac, the inaugural award of RM50,000 was given, on 8th September, to former Aswara (ASK) dance student and award-winning choreographer A. Aris Kadir.

Tabla player Prakash Kandasamy (of the Temple of Fine Arts) and classical singer Tan Soo Suan (who’s performed widely with Dama Orchestra) made it to the shortlist of this award that is bound to give our young artists a major boost in their training.

Aiming to provide in a similar capacity are the Krishen Jit Astro Fund grants which were introduced in April 2006 — a year after the great man’s death — to help fund arts initiatives with grants of between RM5,000 to RM20,000. Last year was thus the first time we saw the fruits of this fund ripen, most memorably in the form of installation artist Sharon Chin’s exhibition “Banned Books and Other Monsters” (The Annexe, 27th September to 7th October).

Film artist Au Sow Yee and arts academician Dr Ray Langenbach were the other two who gained from this award in 2006 while in November 2007, the fund’s grantees included filmmaker Amir Muhammad, composers Hardesh Singh and C.H. Loh, visual artist Lim Kok Yoong and theatre artist Nam Ron.

The Ministry of Culture, Arts and Heritage got into the act of rewarding young talent as well by giving out the Arts Award (Young Artist – Performance) to Zamzuriah Zahari, a new drama graduate from Universiti Malaya and a young expert on the “Tari Inai”, a ancient Kelantanese court dance.

Of these, one is inclined to view as outstanding DiGi’s (DiGi Telecommunications Berhad) continuing use of its corporate social responsibility (CSR) to better the arts. After starting out with the Yellow Mobile Culture Caravan, DiGi began the “Amazing Malaysians” project in 2005 which identified — through open nominations — five people already involved in aspects of conservation for natural, cultural, art, built and social heritage. Then, in the words of Kakiseni contributor Lainie Yeoh, who reported on the 06/07 project, “DiGi comes along and connects these Amazing Malaysians with teams of eager schoolchildren and pumps in the budget, promotions and manpower necessary”.

Having funded work of people like Janet Pillai who digs up Penang’s history with school kids, Eddin Khoo who documents Kelantanese performing arts and Rashid Esa who revives Mah Meri woodcarving, the “Amazing Malaysians” project won Digi the Government’s (through Kekkwa) first ever award for a heritage-friendly CSR initiative, the Anugerah Pendukung Seni (Sektor Korporat) 2007.

In privately-run arts spaces, corporate sponsorship was at a high, riding on a continuing increase of arts funding and the public profile that comes with this. KLPac led privately-owned theatre organisations with a total of 13 sponsors who pledged their support from 2005, when KLPac opened and started receiving sponsorship on a three-year basis. These sponsors are HSBC Bank Malaysia, Barclays Capital, CIMB Group, DaimlerChrysler, Star Publications, Sunway Group, American Express, ECM Libra Foundation, Ericsson, The MUI Group, Siemens, ASTRO, JW Marriott and Leo Burnett.

A highlight of such sponsorship for the new performing arts centre was how HSBC, in taking a step further, pumped in the moolah for the annual HSBC Classics series –­ a programme that includes a competition, masterclasses, performances, exhibitions with a three-year rotating focus on piano, winds and strings. A RM20,000 bursary award is going to be introduced in 2008, according to KLPac. Wonderful!

The year also saw leading private commercial gallery Valentine Willie Fine Art attracting a new sponsor, the Persatuan Nasional Penjanakuasa Bebas Malaysia (Association of Independent Power Producers of Malaysia) or Penjanabebas. With Penjanabebas’ generous support amounting to just over RM300,000, the gallery was able to organise two significant exhibitions, “Selamat Datang ke Malaysia” and “Between Generations”, that were each shown at two different venues, and, thereby, to two different contexts of viewers.

“Selamat Datang”, as earlier mentioned, was shown in Sydney and KL. “Between Generations” — which collated works by 25 Malaysian artists from the collections of Universiti Malaya (UM), Universiti Sains Malaya (USM), and the corporate and private stashes — came to light in UM (August) and USM (3rd to 31st Dec).

While the former exhibition showed contemporary viewpoints of the country both here and in “a Malaysian satellite town” (i.e. Sydney), the latter presented arts academia — where the bulk of arts training is offered these days — a much needed curatorial, historical and educational perspective in making sense of local visual art spanning generations. Talk about how a little can go a long way and how the arts community — so used to operating on the minimum — is a worthy cause for companies trying to outdo themselves in CSR!

Arts for health

Converted long ago to the cause of “arts for health”, I did my usual of keeping an eye out for such initiatives and 2007 had a few significant ones.

Arts for health initiatives are not new to Malaysian arts; ancient examples still used today are the Mag-Igal (dancing) of a Magduwata, a healing ritual ceremony of the Bajau Kubang people in Semporna, Sabah. What’s new is the awareness among the country’s modern communities of the therapeutic power of the arts. Still, it’s good to see the whole concept gaining ground in various areas of health practice and charity. The fourth edition of real life stories for the stage, “Life Sdn Bhd” (11th – 11th October, TAS BSC) took up the cause of breast cancer awareness and fundraising with survivors sharing their experiences on the boards.

Former TV3 newscaster and disabled person Ras Adiba Radzi took to stage in “Merdeka di Mataku” (21st to 23rd November, KLPac), a combination of poetry, music and dance that allowed her to remind Malaysians that disability need not rob a person of their dignity and independence.

Dance teacher Teresa Chian, who stepped out on her own to open Living Arts Dance Studio in late 2006, managed to pull off her centre’s second charity concert under a campaign she calls “PATCH — Passion Aiding the Children”. The November 2007 Patch concert was, in fact, not just about one dance school doing their bit for a health charity but was a collaboration between several other schools including The Music Professionals Academy of Performing Arts and Celestar Studio of Performing Arts.

The concert raised RM7,400 to pay for a whole year’s expenses for Patrick Ding, 2, and Thanesvaran, 7, from Taman Megah’s Handicapped and Disabled Children’s Home. Both boys suffer from cerebral palsy and related complications, and come from low-income families.

With the increase in corporate sponsorship of the arts, art events also secured more links to health charities and awareness campaigns. One example of this was VWFA’s “Between Generations” where a portion of profits from the sale of artworks exhibited were channelled towards Cancerlink, a charity funded by one of the exhibition’s main sponsors, Penjanabebas.

The arts, the law and human rights

Old bedfellows that they are, the arts and legal communities joined hands in calling for more awareness and respect for human rights as well as improvements in the judiciary.

Among the notable events were “A Playwrights Exchange – Malaysia, Indonesia and Iran: Women, Writers and Activists” (18th to 21st October, Annexe). Organised by ICT’s Firstworks, Kualiworks and Sisters in Islam, this very rare playwrights exchange took place at a time personal liberties were being threatened, and, as a consequence, becoming the talk of the town.

Featuring playwrights like Indonesia’ Ratna Sarumpaet — who was jailed for promoting workers’ and women’s rights in her play “Marsinah Menggugat” (“Marsinah Accuses”), the exchange brought together local playwrights (who are to theatre what composers are to music) and social workers. Not only did participants speak about how local theatre has been stifled through a culture of censorship but they also asked frank questions about how far arts people were able and willing to work with the legal community in fighting for a repairing of eroded civil liberties here.

The Annexe arts centre later played host to Amnesty International Malaysia’s 24 Hour Global Letter Writing Marathon (15th to 16th December), allowing the NGO another platform to get more people to pressure world governments into respecting human rights.

But the shocker of an event — one that threw the arts up roughly against the wall together with legal eagles — was the Bar Council’s Festival of Rights 2007, “As I Believe: Freedom of Expression through Art, Music, Culture and Conscience”. Barely had it started at the Bar Council’s premises on 9th December — an otherwise sunny Sunday — when Dewan Bandaraya Kuala Lumpur enforcement officers removed the event’s posters (within the Bar Council’s grounds) and, whilst doing so, arrested the festival’s chairman Edmund Bon for obstructing their actions. Artists like Jo Kukathas who were performing inside the building, unawares to the goings-on outside, later came out to find something of a battalion of enforcement officers and vehicles surrounding the place as if a bunch of dangerous criminals would leap out.

Arts people who are used to the arts and the legal community being bandied about in the run-up to the country’s general elections are bracing themselves for more occasions this election year when they will be called upon to remind the authorities to respect constitutional rights. There will also be those in the arts community — some very successful artists and groups, at that — who will continue to see no relation between their artistic work, their patrons and how the country is run.

But luckily for these people as well as for ourselves, we in the arts know that an essential part of being an artist means recognising and encouraging a variety of views. After all, it has and always will be about challenging the status quo, never quite allowing ourselves to settle inside a comfort zone aesthetically and otherwise, and touching the lives of others through our innate ability for imagery, poetry, song, dance, and drama.


First Published: 18.01.2008 on Kakiseni