It is 2017, and art is progressively becoming a lot more accessible in this country, especially with the rise of small festivals and fringes happening around town. These festivals typically aim to bring art closer to the people, and shed some light on independent artists including painters, graphic designers, singer-songwriters, performers, filmmakers, writers, poets and crafters among others. During these festivals, these artists would not only have the chance to showcase their work, but are also presented with the opportunity to sell their artworks or publications to support themselves and their artistic pursuits.
One great example of this would be Art for Grabs, an art bazaar that came to life in 2007 in Annexe Gallery and has been held in Jaya One, Publika and recently Urbanscapes House. Since the inception of this mini festival, which was founded and directed by activist, writer, actor Pang Khee Teik, it has teamed-up with various artists, art practitioners, as well as social movements and non-profit organisations, including Lawyers for Liberty, Projek Dialog, and Amnesty International, among others. Through these collaborations, they have also been actively holding book launches, forums and dialogues especially regarding social issues during the two-day event. Among the topics which they have covered include human rights and refugee issues as well as topics about the earth and the environment.
But of course, holding family-friendly festivals while still carrying social and sociopolitical awareness does come with a price. In June 2016, when Arts for Grabs was held together with KL Alternative Bookfest (KLAB), Pang together with three artists including Fahmi Reza were arrested after the festival and taken to the Sentul police station. The arrest was made mainly over Fahmi’s #KitaSemuaPenghasut merchandise and the four of them were investigated under the Sedition Act 1984. Luckily for our local art consumers and fans, this incident does not seem to hinder any of the organiser’s spirits at all. If anything, it only sparked more passion for them to continue creating these platforms and allowing more art and ideas to reach the people. Pang, too, took this incident in good humour as seen through his recollection of the arrest.
On top of bringing art closer to the people, Pang has also seen the need to bring art closer to the marginalized community – in this case – the LGBT community in Malaysia. This was when he co-founded Seksualiti Merdeka with Jerome Kugan in 2008, a sexuality rights festival that features art, theatre, music performances, film screenings as well as talks, forums and workshops. Their aim is to promote LGBTQ rights, celebrate people’s differences and educate the public about the community. In 2011, however, the festival was banned by the government after multiple complaints and protests by religious groups who claimed that Seksualiti Merdeka was promoting homosexuality and sexual promiscuity. Some Muslim organisations also alleged that this festival was organized solely to sully the Islamic faith. Even though they had tried to challenge the decision in 2012, the court had upheld the ban and they were later denied an appeal to pursue a judicial review over the decision.
In a nutshell, these small festivals typically attract an impressive amount of turnout despite them being considered ‘underground,’ and this begs these questions: Are they always going to remain a small festival or is there a chance for them to grow bigger, without actually getting the organisers into trouble? Will we always be able to provide an alternative space for more artists to grow and showcase their talent in this country, without having the authorities eventually silencing them? Will we be able to continuously provide more platforms for the LGBT community to grow in a safe space and feel at home with their fellow artists and performers?
Will art always be considered as a weapon to some people?
But if not much is done to show otherwise, then maybe no one will know that it is, after all, only a tool for change.