Arts-ED: Getting People to Know Each Other

By Pan Yi Chieh

Published on 2021-06-27 Updated 2021-07-06

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Performing George Town's local histories through music and dance. Photo: Arts-ED

PENANG-BASED ARTS-ED works at finding creative ways to connect culturally-diverse young Malaysians. Besides making sure that the young learn art techniques, it seeks to have them understand themselves and society as well. This is done through participation in community-based art and heritage programmes curated through the years to reflect the tangible and intangible changes in Penang's physical environs.

The project "Anak-Anak Kota" (Children of the City), for example, was introduced in response to the outflow of residents from many of George Towns neighbourhoods following the repeal of the Rent Control Act in the 1990s; in emigrating, they took with them the vibrancy and spirit of "community".

Anak-Anak Kota ran from 2001-2010. Photo: Arts-ED

To fill this "hole", students between the ages of 10-18 from schools around George Towns historical enclave were invited to dialogue with residents, traders and artisans to learn about the community's history and heritage, and to partake in hands-on, cross-cultural and inter-generational learning and sharing of traditional crafts, knowledge and skills.1

From 2009 to 2013, Arts-ED also facilitated the training of tour guides. This was to accommodate the boom in Penang's tourism industry following George Towns inscription as a World Heritage Site. It was also part of a community documentation initiative that saw the publication of the pamphlet Journey of Harmony in 2015.2 The pamphlet contains within it a self-guide map for tourists of the Street of Harmony, famed for its five different religious sites: Masjid Kapitan Keling, Sri Maha Mariamman Temple, Goddess of Mercy (Kuan Yin) Temple, St. George's Church and the Lebuh Acheh Mosque.

Small, Nimble and Effective

Chen Yoke Pin.

Arts-ED comprises a lean team that at the grassroots, enables a great amount of flexibility and active collaboration with cultural workers, artists and volunteers; and opens up avenues for interested art practitioners to engage with the community. It also welcomes back former participants as volunteers.

Key partnerships with local agencies, including George Town World Heritage Incorporated and Think City, and with the Asia-Pacific Centre of Education for International Understanding have likewise encouraged Arts-EDs expansion efforts to go beyond George Town, to work with communities from Balik Pulau and Seberang Perai.

"What matters most is not the cultural documentation process itself," says senior manager Chen Yoke Pin, but rather the engagement with communities in meaningful conversations. For human experiences – however subtle or diverse – to emerge and be shared, you have to develop mutual trust and understanding between participants and the community, and among the communities themselves.

Students documenting local businesses through photography. Photo: Arts-ED

The approach must be both methodical and all-encompassing. More importantly, lines of communication between participants and the community must be open for continuous engagement, and for language preference and the participants' cultural backgrounds to be taken into account as well.

As a non-profit organisation, Arts-ED sustains itself on funds and grants. But the very nature of its (intangible) work makes the securing of these difficult, especially when KPIs are still viewed in quantifiable forms.

Sometimes too, the nature of funding dictates the type and duration of the activities. Projects in the past used to run on for years; in fact, Anak-Anak Kota enjoyed a solid stint from 2001-2010. But as Arts-ED widens its reach to schools outside George Town, the programmes have tended to be of shorter term. Again, this is part of the organisation's effort to adapt to the digital world. But its ethos remains unchanged, i.e. connect children to real communities.

Traditional trade - a secondhand book seller shares his experiences with schoolchildren. Photo: Arts-ED

With Covid-19, these interactions have been temporarily derailed. "Cultural and heritage education are deemed less essential during the pandemic," says Yoke Pin, "which has made me wonder how deep of an engagement we have actually had with the communities, diverse as they are?"

The team has begun looking into more dynamic ways to strengthen the relationship between communities, by kick-starting a series of dialogues with cultural workers and organisations as the first step forward.

Pan Yi Chieh

is a research analyst at Penang Institute who was born in Taiwan but now lives in Penang. She is proud to be nurtured by the two beautiful islands she regards as home.