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Reinventing one of Asia's great arts festivals

Director of Malaysia's George Town festival reflects on long and colorful path

In "Kelantan: a Living Heritage," a young boy is seduced into learning and preserving his own culture. (Courtesy of George Town Festival)

PENANG, Malaysia -- A grand representation of traditional arts in the rural Malaysian state of Kelantan, delivered through sound, dance and shadow play. A Taiwanese theater performance using Chinese mythology to comment on the island's relationship with China. Cambodian and Australian break-dancers finding their subcultures' common traits on the dance floor. An Iranian play using food as an allegory for freedom of speech.

This smorgasbord of arts events was part of the ninth edition of the George Town Festival, which ran throughout August in the capital of Malaysia's Penang State. Since its inception in 2010, the landmark festival has helped to put Penang on Southeast Asia's art map, bringing in a total of more than 1 million international attendees. But this year's edition closed with an aura of uncertainty as Joe Sidek, director of the festival since its inception, prepared to stand down in accordance with the terms of his contract.

The Penang State Government has announced an open call for proposals for the festival's future, but Sidek seems preoccupied with other projects. "I love George Town and its people, but I am working on a new festival focused on the best of Asian arts, and I am not sure if I will have the energy to juggle two projects," Penang-based entrepreneur Sidek, 60, told the Nikkei Asian Review.

Sidek is also involved with another successful Malaysian featival, the Rainforest Fringe Festival, which kicked off in 2017 as an offshoot of the well-established Rainforest World Music Festival in Kuching, capital of the Malaysian state of Sarawak on the island of Borneo.

Born in Malaysia's Johor State and raised in Penang, the multi-talented Sidek studied town planning in the U.K., and runs a family business in industrial chemicals, having previously tried his hand at a range of jobs including running a modeling agency, opening a restaurant, landscape gardening and providing costumes for opera performances. After years of involvement in Penang's local arts scene he was appointed George Town Festival director in 2010.

Joe Sidek, director of George Town Festival, poses in his studio along George Town's iconic Armenian Street. (Photo by Kit Yeng Chan)

"Back then the Penang State Government also had a call for proposals," Sidek said. "Six weeks before the planned festival date they had only received three applications, each of them exceeding the available budget. I told Datuk Maimunah that I had an idea for a series of events, not even for a full-fledged festival, but that I would meet the budget, and that's how I got started." Maimunah Mohd Sharif, then general manager of George Town's UNESCO World Heritage site, inaugurated in July 2008, is now head of UN-Habitat, the United Nations agency for human settlements and sustainable urban development. Datuk is a Malaysian title.

The cathartic ending of "Isle of Dreams," a powerful play by Taiwanese La Cie MaxMind theater group (Courtesy of George Town Festival)

Sidek's new project, as he hints, is an as-yet untitled festival dedicated to developing an Asian focus on the arts, particularly on artistic methods and trends. He has also been offered a leading role for a new festival planned for the southwestern Chinese city of Kunming. But the pan-Asian project is scheduled to take place in October 2019 in three different locations in Kuala Lumpur.

"I want to remain in Malaysia and honor our heritage as an ancient crossroads of Asian cultures," Sidek said, adding that he chose Kuala Lumpur for the convenience of its transport logistics and the availability of accommodation. "India, China and the Middle East have met in Malaysia since AD 110 in the times of the Hindu colonization of the Bujang Valley in Kedah [a northwestern Malaysian state]. I think we must reclaim that heritage and move forward," he said.

The many years he spent raising George Town's artistic profile to world class, has taught Sidek a lot about himself, he noted. "You start by thinking big about creativity, culture and arts, but after a decade, I realized that the real reason why I did the George Town Festival is to reach ordinary people who are not involved in the arts."

The most recent George Town festival brought an international cast of dancers, performers, film-makers, photographers and artists to Penang. Several venues in the center of George Town hosted exhibits throughout the month, while events and talks peppered the weekends.

"Maybe because this could be my last year and my last chance, but for this edition I didn't invite any big, glamorous international shows. We preferred to focus on a lot of smaller acts," Sidek said. Among this year's events were shows relating to marginalized women, a project on refugee children, and a photographic exhibition representing Malaysia's indigenous people through time -- "untold stories" that Sidek believes are normally under-represented in festivals.

A scene from Australian production "Kaboom: Stories from Distant Frontlines" by artists/director Deborah Leiser-Moore (Courtesy of George Town Festival)

"After establishing a name in our first five years, I've always wanted to favor ASEAN [the Association of Southeast Asian Nations] and local acts," said Sidek. "But in truth, very few regional artists came to me with a proposal. I still believe that focusing on ASEAN is a rational choice, as the region is home to 600 million people. We ... cannot fight the art scenes of Taiwan, Hong Kong, Japan, [South] Korea or Singapore, because they have more facilities and money, but I believe that if we keep working together, perhaps as a team, we will succeed."

This year, the festival started only three months after a landmark Malaysian general election on May 9 that ended the unbroken six-decades-long rule of the Barisan Nasional (National Front) coalition and brought the country's former strongman leader, Mahathir Mohamed, back to power. "The festival was kind of put aside," said Sidek. "Major political housekeeping perhaps took precedence to the festival, so it was hard to get government agencies in response to partnership."

The new government made little difference to the conservative religious framework within which the festival has to work. During the opening weekend, Mujahid Rawa, the federal religious affairs minister, ordered the removal of two portraits from the festival's "Stripes and Strokes" exhibition because they portrayed the well-known Malaysian LGBT rights activists Nisha Ayub and Pang Khee Teik. The exhibition showcased prominent Malaysians of diverse backgrounds posing with the Malaysian flag.

"I received phone calls, threats, and members of the press asked me why I removed the frames," said Sidek. "It's not just about the two portraits: Let's think of the real politics behind the arts, the big picture. There are numerous other Malaysian issues that are equally important: think, for example, of refugee children, or Muslim women with no rights, he reasoned.

A scene from "We cannot Talk about it" by Iranian director Jaber Ramezani. His previous play "Slow Sound of Snow" was staged at George Town Festival 2015. (Courtesy of George Town Festival)

"Let's not isolate cases: the way to work with government policies, I believe, it's inch by inch, overall, by taking many layers. Because if you fight one time and you lose, you may end up losing the whole battle. If I hadn't removed those photographs I would have lost my job, and hence the chance to keep working at it."

The festival's problem, Sidek said, is not just conservative voices in government, but the fact that Malaysia is still far from having an audience that appreciates arts and culture. "Art should be affordable: if you are a low-earning Malaysian taxi driver, how can you buy tickets for your 12-year-old daughter? You can't afford more than a show a month, maybe? This happens everywhere in the world, not just in Malaysia. That's how we had shows priced at 25 ringgit ($6) which are affordable for school children and university students."

While it is unclear whether Sidek will remain director of the George Town Festival, he does not hesitate to suggest what any successor should do to improve it. "There are many aspects to doing a festival," he said. "Storytelling and finance would be forefront: festivals really need the support from government, the private sector and the public."

During Sidek's long run as festival director, the event's major sponsor has been the Penang State Government, run by the center-left Democratic Action Party, now part of the federal government coalition but previously a federal opposition party. "We had great support from the hoteliers and local businesses, but sadly not many big corporations from Kuala Lumpur, as I am sure being an opposition state did not help," Sidek noted.

Whether he continues as director of the George Town Festival or not, Sidek has vowed to continue his efforts to make art "accessible" to all. "Funding for the arts has always been a major hurdle for all festivals, but after nine years, I believe I have learned and understood funding issues better, and that's what I will continue to pursue in my new projects."

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