An explosion of art shows

We do know that Malaysians are an artistic people, but the recent – and continuing – gush of art festivals and symposiums still takes our breath away.

The whole country is in Art-stasy with all the frenzied year-round celebrations of art festivals, expos/fairs, camps, art-auctions, expeditions, workshops, demonstrations, symposiums and related activities.

The phenomenal upsurge is baffling for a relatively young country short on art tradition and lacking state-of-the-art museums and trade-and-convention centres. Even KL’s Matrade Exhibition and Convention Centre is an art-event’s nightmare in terms of security, display space, maintenance (leakage occurs), parking and general amenities, although a new one is being built nearby. (There is the Putra World Trade Centre, but there, major plans can go askew since the space can be denied the organisers at the last minute.)

Peter Liew's new ghoulish thickly impastoed portrait.

Regionally, Malaysia pales in comparison to the richer art histories and tradition of the Philippines, Indonesia and Thailand, while in terms of infrastructure, it is solar systems behind those of Hong Kong, Singapore and Japan.

The heady celebrations accelerated with this year’s 1Malaysia Contemporary Art Tourism (1MCAT) which, being part of Visit Malaysia Year, had an expanded outreach and programme. The artstravaganza kicked off from June until December, instead of only encompassing a three-month span as in the previous four years. Also, from participation by three to four states, the floodgates have opened to include all the 13 states.

Du Xi's four-panelled oil on canvas, The 18 Arhats - Impregnable (2009) at Taiwan's William Art Salon booth in Art Expo Malaysia.

Sweet September came and went. It was marked by a surfeit of big art events headed by the International Art Expo Malaysia (AEM, 25-28). Others included Art@Sepang at Gold Coast Avani Resort Villa (August 28-September 1); the Yayasan Sime Darby Arts Festival (KL Performing Arts Centre, 13-14); the Niah Artists Camp (13-18); the first Pulau Ketam International Art Festival (12-21); the first Pulau Pangkor Art Festival (13-20); the KakiSeni Arts Festival at Pavilion KL; the National Visual Arts Gallery’s International Book Fair (21-30); the fourth International Innovation Design Conference (Kuching, 21-23); and the Johor Bahru Arts Festival (September 5-October 4).

Sculptures by Spain's Jesus Curia at the expanded Spanish Art To Rent booth at Art Expo Malaysia.

August was dominated by a huge array of performances and exhibitions at George Town Festival. There was also the Art Malaysia Art Tourism at VIVA Home Mall in Cheras, KL (14-17). Earlier, Gabungan Persatuan Lukis SeMalaysia (GAPS) organised the Malacca Heritage Inspirations in conjunction with the Malacca River International Festival ( June) and reprised Sketching Perak (October 11-12).

Any unsuspecting tourist, even a local, would have been gobsmacked by this dizzying orgy of arts celebrations.

This is excluding the numerous proliferating art exhibitions at existing, new and relocated art spaces, especially in the Klang Valley, and at institutions and corporate arts spaces. The 1MCAT bandwagon rolled over all the states with grand launchings – KL (national level on June 16, KL on August 11), Terengganu (August 12), Malacca (August 28), Penang (August 10), Johor (September 6), Pahang (September 24), Kedah (September 27), Perlis (October 12), Negeri Sembilan, Kelantan and Putrajaya (all in October), Sarawak (November 28), and the finale in Sabah (December 27).

Malaysians Tony Mdy and Safirah Rashid with their Invisible Human-Alive Art performance at the Breaking Down The Wall booth in Art Expo Malaysia.

October kicked off with the modestscale Art Asia Expo (Chin Woo Stadium, KL, 2-5), a charity art auction at Galeri Petronas (2) followed by the Langkawi Biennale at the Langkawi Lagoon Resort and Laman Padi (12-21) and the Look, Port Weld: Kuala Sepetang Community Art Carnival (20-25), Persatuan Seni Rupa Malaysia’s (PeRupa) Kembara Seni Ke Pulau Pinang (from KL, 10-12), an art homestay in Kelantan, the third Langkawi International Art Colony (LiAC, 8-18), the second Lendu International Art Camp (also LIAC, Alor Gajah, 24-26) and Art In The Park (Perdana Botanical Gardens, KL, October 18-November 2). PeRupa even planned an Indonesian art trip.

November is another maddening smorgasbord of events with the International Art Camp (19-26) in Sungai Petani, the Sasaran International Art

Festival (November 27-December 9), the sixth Malacca Arts and Performance (MAP) Festival and the Choong Kam Kow Retrospective at the National Visual Arts Gallery (November 18, 2014-March 2015).

Sculptures of male and female Chinese students by Zhang Mian of China Sculpture Institute at the China Pavilion in Art Expo Malaysia.

In Penang, there will also be three back-to-back events – the George Town Literary Festival (November 28-30), the In-Between Arts Festival (December 1-3) and the Penang Island Jazz Festival (December 4-7).

In Pahang, the Rajawali Arts Groupe Internationale is setting up a fourstorey gallery which is scheduled to be completed in Kuantan end of this year. By far, the biggest art success story and the most anticipated annually is the AEM, founded by art impresarioactivist Datuk Vincent Sim, which is in its eighth year. With 400 participating artists comprising 78 exhibitors from 31 countries, this year’s event opened a new flank in the adjacent Matrade building for the dedicated China Pavilion (10 groups/associations) to mark the 40th anniversary of diplomatic relations between Beijing and KL.

The response was overwhelming in terms of visits and sales, with guests even having to park their vehicles on the main road on VIP Night despite a drizzle!

Young Malaysian artist Yau Sir Meng's model sugar-school installation, Melting, at the Breaking Down The Wall alternative-art space in Art Expo Malaysia. The work comments on the so-called magic "Memory Pills" promoted purportedly to enhance memory during examinations.

The Yayasan Sime Darby Festival had an unwieldy mix of 250 small events of films, music, dance, theatre and workshops.

Phillip Wong, Sivarajah Natarajan, Ng Foo Cheong and several other artists took part in both the Art@Sepang and Pulau Pangkor Arts Festival, both held for the first time. It was not all visual arts alone as there were multiple disciplines like music, theatre, dance and public installations. In the Sepang chaletstudios, Chia Hoy Sai, Sharifah Zuriah Al-Jeffri, Keat Leong and Nazmi Ismail joined in, while the Pangkor chapter saw a new equation of artists.

Much of the island-village arts-tivations must have been inspired by the success of the Sasaran Arts Festival, spearheaded by artist Ng Bee and which involved the whole community. Everybody from schools (students and academics) and villages (fishermen, farmers and traders) chipped in. The success formula is replicated, modified and expanded with a view to location and endemic peculiarities in Pulau Pangkor, Pulau Ketam (actually a split from the original team) and Kuala Sepetang. All are fishing villages with their own strengths and identity. Sepetang, known for its mangrove ecology, traditional kiln charcoal production and boat-building, has an over-100-year history with a small population of only 5,000.

A signpost of the "Mother of all Malaysian village arts fests", the Sasaran International Arts Festival.

Apart from creating arts awareness and fostering community development especially among rural children (termed “humanistic literacy”), the festival – in terms of shared history, purpose and direction – will also help promote the cultural and geo-historical heritage of the places to outsiders, locals and foreigners. For example, the Sepetang Festival has self-explanatory programmes such as “Know My Home Kids Holiday Camp”, “Exploring Mangroves Forest Family Camp” and “Symposium: Conservation of Historical and Natural Heritage in Taiping-Matang-Kuala Sepetang.”

rtist Ng Foo Cheong with his natural public installation at the Pulau Pangkor Arts Festival.

An installation at the Pulau Ketam International Arts Festival.

The inaugural Pulau Ketam Art Festival in an island known for its eponymous crabs, attracted 36 artists from seven countries. Most of the overseas participants were from the Sasaran stable.

This year’s Sasaran bash, scheduled from November 27 to December 8, has attracted 65 artists including seven sculptors/installation artists from a total of 24 countries, including Malaysia. Special exhibitions on watercolours and ceramics, Neoh Kim Heoh’s Portraits of Sasaran and Romanian art have also been arranged. Significantly, the Sasaran outfit in its third series since 2008 will be signing a MoU with the Romanian Inter-Art Foundation for further collaborations and exchanges.

The Sasaran Arts Association also organised the Sungai Limau Community Project in February and April, and the Malaysia-Indonesia Art Fusion exhibition in July.

Eight Horses (in bronze) after famous Chinese historical figures by China's Zhang Yu Xi in Malaysia's Blue Dots Art at Art Expo Malaysia

Way up north, the Sungai Petani art camp organised by Dai-Ichi Modern Art Gallery will doubly mark the 40th anniversary of KL-Beijing diplomatic ties and the 50th wedding anniversary of Dai-Ichi gallery founder Tai Keik Hock and Ng Geek Hiang. Highlights include the awarding of a gold, silver and bronze medal, the unveiling of the Dandelion Monument by Russian artist Gregory Pototsky and the launch of the gallery’s branch in Penang on November 24.

MAP Fest, strong on performing arts, kicks off with site-specific performances at eight historical sites in Malacca and will feature in its international menu artistes such as Yumi Umiumare, Ella Meehen, Domenico De Clario, Aria Wojak, Jessi Lewis, Nakarin, and Victoria Chiu.

Any local artist of some note who is not involved, directly or indirectly, in any one of these maelstroms of activities must be a virtual recluse in an orbit of his own. And just when you are brushing off all these art festivities as just an aberrant, remember that 2015 has been declared “The Year of Festivals!”

Ooi Kok Chuen has been writing on the art scene at home and abroad for 30 years.

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