George Town Festival at a Crossroads

loading Peperangan Bintang is a clever fusion of Kelantanese wayang kulit and the ever-popular saga, Star Wars. The show was one of the centrepieces of Macam-Macam ASEAN.

There is much that Joe Sidek can look back at with great pride, but what lies ahead for GTF, and for him?

Joe Sidek.

George Town has become a household name in the world of South-East Asian arts, and for the best part of nearly a decade, George Town Festival (GTF) has been instrumental in cementing this reputation. This year, the six-week-long festival kicked off on July 28, and brought to Penang a cast of international shows ranging from photo exhibitions to art installations, and from music to theatre and dance.

“We worked hard to reach these results,” says festival director Joe Sidek, who is originally from Johor. Before becoming the island’s entrepreneur and patron of the arts, he was running his family’s factory, and has been a resident of Penang for 50 years.

Sidek has done a lot for the island: even the famous series of murals by Lithuanian artist Ernest Zacharevic, which kick-started Malaysia’s obsession with street art, was commissioned by him for the third edition of the GTF in 2012.

“It was a good experience and it was very helpful in attracting the world’s attention to George Town, but I wouldn’t do it again,” says Sidek. “I prefer not repeating myself, and would rather move forward, always exploring new channels of creativity.”

Besides GTF, which was partly sponsored by the Penang state government and cost about RM8mil to organise this year, Sidek also curated the South-East Asian edition of the Australian short film festival Tropfest in 2011 and 2012. And earlier this year, he started the Rainforest Fringe Festival in Kuching, a series of photo and art exhibitions that gave cultural context to the musical performances of Sarawak’s most popular event, the Rainforest World Music Festival.

“Sometimes I lose money, other times we manage to get enough sponsors and break even. That’s the risk one takes when trying to keep the majority of events free of charge,” says Sidek, whose mandate as GTF’s curator will end next year in 2018. What happens after that remains unclear, but for the moment, Sidek can rest on his laurels.

Asean Voices

GTF is increasingly important in fostering Penang’s fame reputation as a vibrant Asian arts hub, attracting proposals from prominent international artists who flock to the state year after year. “We received around 300 proposals – of which a majority was foreign, but I don’t make distinctions. I decide based on each show’s value,” says Sidek, who is now more focused on promoting the richness of Asean’s arts and crafts.

Dewan Sri Pinang all dressed up for GTF 2017.

Indeed, this year the festival had a more regional focus: it kicked off with Svara Asean, a convergence of South-East Asian musicians such as award-winning Philippine Madrigal Singers, the Penang Philharmonic Orchestra and Jazz band, Balinese flautist Gus Teja, Thai mezzo-soprano Anchee, and Malaysian actress and singer Adibah Noor.

In the same opening weekend, besides an Asean Design Forum and Macam-Macam Asean – a two-day food, arts and craft market with the famous Star Wars-inspired Kelantanese shadow puppets and Hokkien puppetry performances by Penang Ombak Potehi group – was also Amsterdam-based British photographer Jimmy Nelson. The author of the highly controversial photobook Before They Pass Away, which portrays choreographed shots of some of the world’s most exotic tribes, was in town to conduct a workshop and open his month-long exhibition.

Among the other international highlights were the Indian musical The Manganiyar Classroom by Roysten Abel; the Australian acrobatics show A Simple Space; French-Japanese choreographic dance performance Hakanai; the South-East Asian premiere of 6 & 8 by Tao Dance Theater from China; the Malaysian-Japanese existential Noh play The Italian Restaurant; plus potehi glove puppets and folk music from Taiwan and many other exhibitions and shows by Malaysian artists. Many of these were free of charge.

Mixing Penang with the World

One of the perks of this year’s GTF edition was a series of art exhibits, such as Character Types by Penang-based Goh Hun Meng and Gareth Richards, which celebrated the different languages spoken in Penang and the way they blend in the state’s multi-ethnic landscape. “GTF has grown into a vibrant and very committed art festival,” says Goh in the refurbished Lebuh Pantai shophouse that contained his works. “Sidek made a great effort in connecting arts from Penang and the world, helping locals reach out to a bigger audience and broadening their vision by working with international artists.”

Exchange was also at the base of Space in Time, an interesting collection of more than 50 women artists from Korea, Malaysia, Taiwan and the US, in its sixth run after successful shows in Gwangju, Moscow and Yokohama. It was curated by the International Women’s Arts Exchange Association.

And for the third year in a row, GTF also curated the Butterworth Fringe Festival, a street event aimed at promoting Butterworth. This year, a motley crew of Malaysian, Australian and Argentinian artists, jugglers, stuntmen and comedians celebrated the heritage of Butterworth, despite a weekend of torrential rain.

Regardless of this year's success, the next may mark the last edition of GTF with Sidek at the helm. “One of my staff told me that she wants to get rid of me to run the festival in my place,” says Sidek with a smile. “It’s exactly this kind of passion I’m looking for when scouting for collaborators and acts, and I believe that many Penang-based artists still lack this level of courage and focus.”

Even though he doesn’t know what lies ahead, Sidek is happy with what he has accomplished thus far with GTF. “We have regulars coming to attend every year from as far away as South Africa, New Zealand and the UK,” he says. “That’s what really matters, because if we have made friends all around the world, then we have made a big impact.”

Marco Ferrarese is a musician, author and travel writer. He has written about overland travel and extreme music in Asia, and blogs at He also curates the Penang Insider, the smart guide for traveling and living in Penang, at www.penang-insider. com. His latest book, The Travels of Marco Yolo, is available in bookstores. Follow him on Twitter @monkeyrockworld.

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