What does Five Arts Centre and Martin Scorcese have in common?

IN the late 1800s, Japan was overwhelmed by an influx of Western influence that Japanese arts and traditional crafts were in danger of disappearing. This was in the prosperous Meiji period, which came after years of famine and bad governance. Keen to address the situation, the emperor at the time established an organisation called the Ryuichi-Kai in 1879 to conduct art administration and handle the imperial household’s cultural affairs.

The Ryuichi-Kai became a vital component of Japan’s arts and culture administration and was renamed the Japan Art Association (JAA) in 1887. For JAA’s one-hundredth anniversary in 1988, it created the Praemium Imperiale in honour of the wonderful Prince Takamatsu, who served as honorary patron for 58 years. Today, Praemium Imperiale is the world’s largest art prize in five disciplines: Painting, Sculpture, Architecture, Music and Theatre/Film.

Praemium Imperiale added renowned creatives Cindy Sherman, Annette Messager, Paulo Mendes da Rocha, Gidon Kremer and Martin Scorcese to its exclusive circle on 13 September. Not only have these five been vetted on by a panel of experts to be considered in the same creed as Andrew Lloyd Webber, Zaha Hadid and Arvo Pärt, they also receive ¥15 million (RM600,000) for their contributions to art.

But JAA’s not quite done yet. For its efforts in encouraging young people to get into the arts, one special theatre company became the first Malaysian entity to reach the Praemium Imperiale.

Receiving its 2016 Grant for Young Artists worth ¥5 million (RM200,000) is none other than Malaysian theatre company Five Arts Centre (FAC)! The grant, reserved for parties who contribute to the development of young artistic talent, has in previous years gone to establishments around the world, for example the Hanoi Conservatory of Music and the European Union Youth Orchestra.

Recognised as one of the oldest theatre companies in Malaysia, FAC last year completed celebrations of its thirtieth anniversary. Many stagings and discussions took place throughout the festivities, partially made possible by Sime Darby‘s RM380,000 boost. The donation however helped them put out Staging History, an essential book which compiles 15 selected Malaysian plays from three decades of thought-provoking work.

There are also bigger tales, of privilege and power, in Kee Thuan Chye’s seminal 1984 Here and Now; of the nation’s destiny sealed in a nondescript classroom in Mark Teh’s Baling (membaling); of police brutality and public complicity in Jo Kukathas’ Operating Theatre and cultural conflict rendered large through household minutiae in Nam Ron’s Lina dan Lijah.

But a round of applause for these guys. They plan a full year (or two) in advance, document their work, and continue to ripen into one of the world’s very bests.

Founded by Marion D’CruzChin San Sooi and the late Krishen Jit, FAC has seen some of Malaysia’s most reflective stagings in the past thirty years. This includes Baling, which has been touring internationally and will make a stop at Kyoto Experiment 2016 Autumn next month.

Marion acknowledged the grant at the ceremony in Tokyo yesterday with a speech. Check it out in full below.

Marion D’Cruz’s Speech

The Honourable Mr. Yasuhiro Nakasone, International Advisor and Chairman of Asian Nominating Committee,
The Honourable Mr. Hisashi Hieda, Chairman of The Japan Art Association,
The Honourable Mr. Hiroyasu Ando, President of The Japan Foundation,

Members of the media, friends, ladies and gentlemen,

A very good morning to all of you.

It is a real pleasure for me to be back in Tokyo… I was last here in 2005, although I was in Kobe in February this year. Japan has welcomed Five Arts Centre many times over the past years, via many different projects. Through these projects, we have expanded and deepened our work, learnt and shared knowledge and made many friends… some of whom are here today.

When Five Arts Centre began in 1984, we did not envision that we would last for so long… and we did not envision that we would move into so many different directions. When we started, we only envisioned as far as the next project. The early projects were performances that told Malaysian stories. Now, 32 years later, we are still telling Malaysian stories but we have expanded in our practice – in 32 years we have done performances, training, workshops, exhibitions, forums, dialogues, programmes for young people and emerging artists, a conference and we have published a book! And in the last two years, we have done more international touring than ever before. We have worked as a collective and we have worked inter-generationally… working with young and old. Within the collective, which comprises 13 of us, there are members in their 30s, 40s, 50s and 60s.

I often wonder… ‘how did all this happen?’ We have been very lucky in many ways – we have worked with a wide range of talented and hard-working artists, producers and production personnel – people who have made us investigate and interrogate our work in deep and profound ways. And we have been supported by many individuals, private corporations, Cultural agencies and the Government.

I would like to extend our deepest thanks to The Japan Art Association for this wonderful recognition and this grant. It is both humbling and an honour to be here. It is very rare for us to receive something like this. And it indicates that the work we have done has been worthwhile. While we are still quite shocked, we are also so very thrilled and grateful that The Japan Art Association recognises and validates the work of artists like us. Funding and recognition like this, give legitimacy to the role of art. The world needs art badly… and we need ‘enablers’ like this organization, to make the art happen.

Malaysia is in a very tricky place right now. We are making world headlines for all the wrong reasons. Malaysians have a lot of work to do… really a lot of work. Five Arts Centre will continue to tell Malaysian stories… stories that entertain and provoke and empower… stories that reflect on the layered complexities of our nation and of the world.

Allow me to end, with something written by Shawn Renee Lent, a Social Practice Dance Artist. I quote:

When it comes to diplomacy, an artist needs to be at the table.
When it comes to the Board of Directors or a School Board, an artist needs to be at the table.
When it comes to sustainability policy, an artist needs to be at the table.
When it comes to facing death, an artist needs to be at the table.

Artists need to be in on…
Cancer research and treatment
Conflict prevention, mediation and resolution
Inter-religious and Inter-cultural dialogue and education
Military training and homecoming
Youth development
Addressing racism and bigotry
Community development and organizing
Divided and insular communities
Hospitals, prisons/detention facilities, corporations, public schools
City planning, housing and urban development
Policing and crime prevention
Parades and festivals
Education and professional development
Elder care, day care…
The artistic contribution to these areas can be revolutionary…….
The dream is huge.”

Thank you very, very much for this wonderful 2016 Praemium Imperiale Grant for Young Artists.

You know where to go for more information on the Praemium Imperiale and Five Arts Centre. Make sure to leave them a congratulatory note here or privately via Facebook! Featured image of Dream Country – a lost monologue at the 2012 Singapore Arts Festival.

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