Ahad, 13 Mac 2011

Standing Together In Defense of the Arts

Sharon Chin, 11 March 2011


I’m often asked this question: ‘what do you do, exactly?’ I answer: ‘I make art, I am a cultural producer, and I show my work to the public.’

Cultural producer – it doesn’t mean that we make culture. Culture is not something you can create, like biscuits, or cheese. Culture exists in the hearts and minds of a society of people. What artists do is express culture in a tangible form, so that it can be experienced – touched, seen and heard – by its people.

Some artists do this in isolation, for example, painters. Others do this by working together with many different people. Arts-Ed is a group of artists and cultural workers who have collaborated with members of the Balik Pulau community to produce a record of the history, heritage and culture of that area.

What we must understand is that any cultural product is a result of a process. Although the myBalikPulau newsletter is published by Arts-Ed, it has been touched by many hands in the making. Behind that printed newsletter lies hundreds of hours of negotiation and conversation – with children, parents, school teachers, fellow artists, community leaders, shopkeepers and yes, politicians.

In 2008, I had the opportunity to work with Arts-Ed conducting workshops for Balik Pulau kids. It was a defining experience in my career as an artist. I learnt what it means to create something together with others – people who are different from you, who speak another language, who have different backgrounds and values. It was challenging, uncomfortable. I realized that even though Malaysians have been told all our lives that we must live together in peace and harmony, we have not been taught HOW to do it.

The work that Arts-Ed does fills that gaping hole. The agenda is as clear as its name: education through the arts. Taking part in Arts-Ed taught me what 12 years of public schooling failed to do – that living and working as part of a mixed society is not easy, but when people come together to express their collective culture, they lose their fear of others and gain self-confidence. I use these lessons everyday. They make me a better Malaysian and a better artist.

All artists know that when their work is presented before the public, they have little or no control over how people will respond. Criticism and disagreement is inevitable. Any artist who expects universal praise is hopelessly deluded; the more so in this country where everyone is so different and there are a million sensitivities ready to be offended.

But when responses come in the form of violence, harassment and censorship (myBalikPulau now has 15 police reports lodged against it. On Feb 9, a coalition known as Gabungan Bela Hak Islam set fire to copies of the newsletter and have called for it to be banned) – we must stand together to defend our colleagues and their work. It is not only the myBalikPulau newsletter that is stake, but the entire process of its making and what that represents.

To see the work of Arts-Ed besmirched and twisted beyond all recognition for the sake of political gain is to witness a terrible injustice. The arts is a more or less silent force in this country, yet without it we would lose touch utterly with what keeps us human and connected to each other. As peace-loving Malaysians, it is our duty to condemn this attack on the arts by irresponsible individuals intent on spreading fear and misunderstanding for their own self-interest.

There is a saying: ‘Ars longa, vita brevis’. Art is long, life short. When the last corrupt politician has burned our hopes to the ground, artists will still be here – building bridges, making meaning. If that’s not worth defending, what is?
Arteri endorses the joint statement by calling for an immediate halt to the harassment of The Penang Arts and Education Society (Arts-Ed). Read a full chronology of the myBalikPulau issue here.

Sharon Chin is co-founder and managing editor of Arteri.